Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I live in a small town.

I live in a small town. Surrounded by small farm towns. When you only have 3000 or 3500 hundred people in and out of town, everyone seems to know everyone, or you know someone who knows someone.
This is what has happened. My son is good friends with other teenagers from the next town over (six miles). One of them is the daughter of a woman who was just murdered at the local burger king.
He and a group of their friends went and hung out and tried to comfort this poor girl Saturday night. The wake is tomorrow and furneral to follow Tuesday. All leads so far have failed to produce a motive or suspect.

The thing that I find hard to grasp is how this person made his escape so quickly. The police deptarment is less than one mile from the Burger King. In fact it is on the other side of the river. You can almost see one building to the other. There is a road around the Burgerking/gas station and a wide rushing river on the other. Three directions to go. How long does it take to rush from the police department to the crime scene? he was still there while she called and fought. He had to be still close when the police arrived.

The clerk in the gas station, which is connected to the burgerking didnt hear anything.

A sad day for all.

Restaurant slayings have community on edge
Chicago Tribune

By Jeff Long

January 15, 2007

And cost the lives of two good people.
Surrounded by farmland and nestled along the banks of the Kankakee River, the tiny town of Momence began coming to grips Sunday with its first robbery-murder since 1952.
Police had not arrested anyone in Saturday's predawn double slaying of a Burger King manager and a longtime employee. An autopsy Sunday morning revealed that the two were stabbed multiple times.

Residents here say their community is on edge.

'Nobody knows what to think,' said Crystal Kirschner, 29, who grew up in the town of about 3,500. 'Everyone's baffled.'

Paul 'P.J.' Jones, 50, of Donovan, the restaurant's manager, was stabbed several times in the back, Kankakee County Coroner Robert Gessner said.

Still alive when police arrived shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday, Jones was found lying in the back doorway, Momence Police Chief Steve Cromwell said. He died before saying anything and before paramedics arrived, Cromwell added.

Pam Branka, 46, of Momence was stabbed several times in the chest, Gessner said. She died before police arrived, Cromwell said.

Although police did not have any suspects in the case, Cromwell said the crime appears to be isolated.

'A robbery attempt that went bad,' he said. 'And cost the lives of two good people.'

He said Branka, who apparently dialed 911 screaming, may have seen Jones stabbed and was attacked herself. Since no money was taken from the restaurant, Cromwell said, it's possible the killer or killers fled, knowing police had been called. No weapon has been recovered.

Such a crime is so rare for this community that it had Cromwell thinking about the robbery-murder that happened more than half a century ago in his parents' tavern.

'My mother and father were there when it happened,' he said. 'And so was I, in a way. My mother was pregnant with me at the time.'

Cromwell grew up on the family lore surrounding the murder at the TNT Restaurant and Bar, which used to stand on property next to the scene of Saturday's slayings. A police officer for 32 years in Momence and chief for the last 11, he also played a role in closing the book on it.

According to a Tribune story from Sept. 2, 1952, three armed men entered the barroom through the kitchen just after closing and announced a holdup.

'Someone said something to one of them, and he turned around with a shotgun and killed him,' Cromwell said. 'I think the customer knew him, and [the gunman] didn't want him to say his name out loud.'

According to the 1952 story, the robbers took about $400 from the cash register and robbed Cromwell's father, William, of a silver money clip and about $4.

Cromwell recalled the story of one woman who slipped a diamond ring into her mouth, and it escaped the notice of the robbers.

It wasn't until the 1980s, when Cromwell was a police officer, that he took a call from the FBI in Indianapolis saying an elderly man on his deathbed in a veterans home had confessed to the shooting. Police couldn't locate the old paperwork, though.

'It was a moot point,' Cromwell said. 'He was old and dying of cancer. He died a short time later.'

Now the head of a small force that has eight full-time and five part-time officers, Cromwell said he is getting help from Illinois State Police and investigators around the Kankakee County. He hopes to solve Saturday's slaying more quickly than the slaying at his parents' tavern.

'We're going to try and get some more men on this and just swamp it,' he said.

For some, news of an arrest can't come fast enough.

'I heard so many different stories about it,' said Geena Anselmo, 16, who spent much of Saturday night worrying about her safety as she worked at a sandwich shop in town. 'I didn't even know what was the truth. We were just paranoid.'

A sophomore at the high school in the neighboring town of Grant Park, Anselmo said the area always seemed safe. Now she knows that can change quickly.

'You can't really be too sure anymore,' Anselmo said. 'It can happen anywhere.'

In the convenience store next to the Burger King, clerk Chuck Quarles, 32, said the slaying also made him nervous.

'I moved away from the city to get away from stuff like this,' said Quarles, who lived in Chicago Heights before moving to Grant Park. 'Which just shows me that anything can happen.'

About 50 miles south of Chicago, Momence is a town where the Lions Club sign reminds residents and visitors that 'It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.' On the town's main drag, the walls of the Dixie Barbershop have pictures of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Deputy Barney Fife from 'The Andy Griffith Show.'

'We're not Mayberry,' Cromwell cautioned. 'We have burglaries. We have drugs. We have assaults.'

Momence also has a dance for teens every Friday night, at the banquet hall across the street from the barbershop.

Tony Esparza, owner of America's Family Restaurant and Banquet Hall, said he told teens when he began the weekly dances last month, 'I don't want you smoking in the place. I don't want you hanging around outside.'

'The first week we had about 10 kids,' Esparza said. 'This past week, we had 115 kids. The kids, they love to come.'

The slayings have slowed business, he said. He estimates that about half the usual crowd showed up Saturday night at a bar he owns.

'When things like this happen, it makes people afraid to come this way,' he said.

Stuffed toys, candles and posters saying 'I Love You' were outside the Burger King's front door, which was closed with police tape. A purple, floppy-eared dog was wedged in the door handles, just below the tape.

Lauren Hammann, a spokeswoman for Burger King, declined to comment specifically on the slayings.

'We take these matters very seriously,' Hammann said. 'We are working very closely with local authorities, but other than that, we can't comment further as this is an ongoing investigation.'

Cromwell said police are interviewing employees and former employees of the restaurant, where Jones was promoted to manager last month from a Burger King in Gilman.

'It's not that they're suspects at this time,' Cromwell said. 'We just want to talk to everyone.'

Esparza knew Branka and her daughter as customers of his restaurant.

'She was a really nice lady,' he said. 'People liked her a lot. People used to go to the Burger King just to see her when she was working.'

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