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Retired priest said he blacked out before hitting and killing teacher, thought he hit a curb and drove off

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/9/2019 By Mike Nolan and Madeline Buckley, Daily Southtown

St. Michael Parish-Orland Park, 14327 Highland Ave, Orland Park, IL 60462, United States © 2019 HERE/Microsoft St. Michael Parish-Orland Park, 14327 Highland Ave, Orland Park, IL 60462, United States St. Michael School teachers Margaret “Rone” Leja and Elizabeth Kosteck left a Christmas party at an Irish pub in Orland Park, Ill., only a few minutes before Paul Burak, a former pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church who retired last year after a long and celebrated career.

The two women walked out the door just before 8 p.m. Wednesday after celebrating the holiday season with other St. Michael parishioners and school staff at Square Celt Ale House & Grill. Burak, 73, left a few minutes later and assured two other partygoers that he was OK to drive home after they expressed concern, according to Cook County prosecutors.

The two teachers hadn’t yet made it to their cars when Burak reversed out of his parking spot in his gold Buick Regal, hit a parked car and then hit the two women as they crossed an access road, Assistant State’s Attorney James Murphy alleged in a bond hearing on Saturday.

Burak accelerated after hitting the women and drove away, Murphy said, leaving their two bodies on the ground in the street. Leja, 61, was killed, and Kosteck, 54, was injured.

Burak, of Palos Heights, is charged with aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Cook County Judge Arthur Wesley Willis set a $10,000 bond for Burak during the bond hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. The judge also approved electronic monitoring for Burak, who must come up with 10% of the bail to be released.

“This is a horrible event for everyone involved,” Willis said, declining to release Burak on his own recognizance, as requested by his defense attorneys. “I cannot give an I bond.”

Burak was released on bond on Saturday late afternoon but was not allowed to go home on his own, according to Cook County sheriff’s office spokesman Matthew Walberg. He was “being transported by our staff to his home because they have to install the court-ordered electronic monitoring equipment,” Walberg said in an emailed statement.

Burak appeared in court in a green jacket and blue button-down shirt, flanked by three private attorneys. He appeared to have difficulty seeing and hearing the judge. His attorneys said he suffers from Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma.

Murphy said investigators reviewed surveillance video that showed Burak’s car leave the parking lot and turn onto the access road just before the women were hit. A building and Burak’s car obstruct the video of the actual impact, he said. Surveillance video also captured Burak’s car drive down the access road after the crash.

A witness who was driving behind Burak followed his car down the service road, and watched as Burak’s car stopped and remained still for about 20 seconds, Murphy said. The witness then began walking toward the car.

Burak started driving again, so the witness followed on foot, Murphy said. Burak drove into a Panda Express drive-thru lane, which had a license reader that captured Burak’s plate, he said. Burak drove through without ordering anything.

The witness took a photo of Burak’s plate and then approached the car and told Burak he should go back to the Irish pub where he had hit the two women, Murphy said.

Burak drove back to the Square Celt parking lot, where police officers were on scene, but did not tell anyone he had hit the women, Murphy said. Another St. Michael priest went to talk to Burak, who remained in his car, he said.

Burak tried to make a three-point turn but hit another car, according to Murphy. The priest then told Burak he would drive him home. The priest drove Burak home in Burak’s Buick while another couple who had attended the party followed. Burak said he did not know his address, so the priest had to look it up on his insurance card, Murphy said.

The next day, while reviewing the surveillance video, an officer saw the gold Buick and remembered seeing it in the parking lot after the hit-and-run. Police searched Burak’s garage and saw damage to the license plate holder, consistent with remnants left behind at the crash scene, Murphy said.

Burak’s driver’s license was valid.

Burak told police that he takes medication for his glaucoma and Parkinson’s, and he said he had a Manhattan and a glass of wine at the party, Murphy said. He said he blacked out for much of the night and thought he might have hit a curb, not a person, according to prosecutors.

Burak was taken into custody on Thursday afternoon.

“He is devastated by what happened that day,” said Burak’s attorney, Tim Grace.

Grace asked the judge to release Burak on a personal recognizance bond, arguing that the retired priest has no criminal history and is not a danger to the public. Grace said Burak was a beloved pastor at St. Michael and won a lifetime service award during his long career in the Chicago area.

Willis, though, maintained that he must issue a monetary bond for Burak, noting that prosecutors say he drove back to the parking lot but did not report to anyone his involvement in the crash.

“I do believe he is devastated. The family is devastated as well,” Willis said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago issued a statement Saturday morning saying officials are cooperating with the Orland Park police.

“As a community we continue to grieve the loss of Ms. Leja and the injury to Mrs. Kosteck,” the statement read. “We again offer our heartfelt condolences, support and sympathy to their families and are keeping them and all affected by this tragedy in our prayers.”

Burak served as pastor at St. Michael Parish from 2009 to 2018 and helped celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017. He grew up in Chicago near 82nd Street and Damen Avenue, and in 1955 his family moved to St Linus Parish in Oak Lawn. He entered the priesthood in 1972.

A 2009 report from St. Michael School about Burak’s formal installation as pastor stated Burak came to St. Michael from Our Lady of the Ridge Parish in Chicago Ridge where he served 17 years as pastor.

In a letter to the parish, Burak wrote, “I truly believe in the depth of my heart that I am where I am meant to be, that I am where God wants me to be,” according to the report.

At St. Michael Church on Saturday afternoon, parishioner Walter Anderson said he was “having a hard time accepting” that Burak could have been responsible.

“I am sure he is suffering with what happened,” Anderson said.

The school’s principal, Paul Smith, posted a notice on the school website saying it was his “sad duty” to inform families that Burak had been charged.

“This is a truly difficult time for our community as we continue to grieve the loss of Ms. Leja and the injury to Mrs. Kosteck,” Smith wrote.

Smith said counselors would again be at school next week. All weekend activities that had been scheduled at the school were canceled.

An obituary for Leja was posted by Vandenberg Funeral Home, 17248 Harlem Ave., in Tinley Park, where a visitation will be held from 3-9 p.m. Monday. A prayer service will be held at the funeral home at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday.

A funeral Mass will be held at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday at St. Michael Church, 14327 Highland Ave., Orland Park.

Before coming to St. Michael School, she had taught at Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont, then at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights and later at Crete-Monee High School in Crete. She worked at St. Michael as a technology coach, according to the school.

Leja had a long career as a forensic analyst before making a career change and becoming a teacher, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune profile.

Kosteck was treated for her injuries and later released. The school announced Thursday she was recovering at home.

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(The Daily Southtown is a publication of the Chicago Tribune.)

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