Killer of two Pinoy teens gets life in prison

PINOY Newsmagazine/Philippine News
August 2007

By Ted Regencia

Chicago, IL – Fourteen years after the grisly Brown’s Chicken massacre, which claimed the lives of two Filipino teenagers and five other victims, justice was served on Juan Luna.

Cook County Criminal Court Judge Vincent Gaughan on August 8, sentenced Luna, 33, to life in prison without parole.

Earlier, one of the jurors voted against the imposition of capital punishment against the convict. A unanimous vote is required to impose death penalty. That decision by the jury automatically requires the judge to impose the lesser sentence of life in prison.

Retiring Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine, the lead prosecutor, said he is gratified to hear that Luna “will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“But we have to remember that there are victims who aren’t with us anymore,” Devine was quoted by Chicago Sun-Times as saying.

Luna’s lawyers are expected to file an appeal. But one of his defense attorneys, Clarence Burch said his client is “pretty settled in with the idea that he will be serving the rest of his life in jail, unless we prevail in the appeal.”

Luna sealed his fate on January 8, 1993, when he and an accomplice James Degorski robbed a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in the northwestern Chicago suburb of Palatine. Both were then high school students at the nearby Fremd High School.

What followed was a killing spree, one of the grisliest in Cook County history.

Luna and Degorski killed the two owners and five employees execution style. Aside from shooting the victims, they also reportedly used a knife from the restaurant to slice the owner’s throats and stab the victims. They also used a mop to clean up the crime scene and poke the victims to make sure they were really dead.

The killers then split $1,900 taken from the restaurant. Later they reportedly got high on drugs and even bragged to their girlfriends that the killed seven people.

Police later recovered five bodies stuffed in a walk-in cooler and two more bodies in a freezer.

Two of the victims were Filipino teenagers Michael Castro, 16 and Rico Solis, 17, part-time cashiers and schoolmates of the killers. According to investigators both were singled out for particularly brutal treatment. Castro, a sprightly young guy and an honor student was shot seven times in the head, face and chest and stabbed in the abdomen. Solis, who was born in the Philippines, was also shot a number of times.

It took nine years, a tip from a friend of one of the suspects’ girlfriend, and a DNA match from partially-eaten chicken dinner at the crime scene, for police to get a big break from the cold case.

Luna, who was described to have violent streaks early on, had been questioned by police years earlier, but it did not lead to an arrest.

Finally, in 2002 the tipster came forward with the lead, and the arrests were made bolstered by the DNA match. Luna also made a taped confession following the arrest. He later recanted his statement claiming that it was coerced.

It took another five years to hold the trial in downtown Chicago with no less than the top Cook County prosecutor leading the case.

Last May, Luna, now married with one son, was found guilty of seven counts of first-degree murder. At the sentencing phase of the trial, however, one member of the jury voted against death penalty.

Notably, a few of the victims’ family members, including that of Castro sided with that juror.

“A kill for a kill, blood for blood, is not the right answer,” Mary Jane Crow, sister of Michael Castro told reporters. “A crime, yes, has been committed. But revenge and justice are two different things.”

A family member of another victim differed. “I do believe in the death penalty,” said Diane Clayton, the mother of victim Marcus Nellsen. “I think that’s what he [Luna] deserves.”

For now, the families of the victims only have partial closure. Degorski, the co-accused, is still in prison awaiting a separate trial. Hearing will start in early 2008.

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