You are here

Bill Jones, Editor
4:05 pm CST January 14, 2020

The aggravated DUI charge has been dropped in a case against a retired St. Michael priest allegedly responsible for a hit-and-run that killed one of the parish’s teachers and injured another.

Paul Burak 73, of 82 Canterbury Court in Palos Heights, was charged in early December with aggravated DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, both felonies, but the former charge was dropped, while the latter stands, as of Jan. 14.

Officially, Burak was indicted on charges of leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving death, leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving injury and two counts of accident involving injury or death, according to a spokesperson for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Burak on Jan. 14 pleaded not guilty to those charges.

“After a thorough review of the case, we did not seek an indictment for the offense of aggravated DUI, as the evidence and facts were insufficient to support that charge,” the State’s Attorney’s Office said in a statement. “The defendant was indicted with the most serious offenses, including leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving death, based on the law and supported by the evidence.”

When asked for comment on the change, Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy said it was the State’s Attorney’s call, and “likely they didn’t feel they had enough evidence to convict” on the DUI charge. He noted the four other charges are all felonies.

Burak is next to appear March 8 for status before Judge Kerry Kennedy, Room 110, at the Cook County Courthouse for the Fifth Municipal District in Bridgeview.

Burak attended St. Michael’s parish Christmas party the evening of Dec. 4 at Square Celt, after which he allegedly struck both Margaret “Rone” Leja, a 61-year-old technology teacher at the Catholic school from Tinley Park, and Elizabeth Kosteck, a 54-year-old third-grade teacher at the school, around 8 p.m., as they were crossing a service road north of the restaurant. Burak reportedly then left the scene and did not contact police.

Both women were transported to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Kosteck was treated and released the next day for what the State’s Attorney’s Office identified as a broken wrist, soreness and bruising to her shoulder. Leja was pronounced deceased at 8:33 p.m., according to the Will County Coroner’s Office.

According to a bond court proffer filed Dec. 7 by the State’s Attorney, Burak acknowledged to police he had a cocktail and a glass of wine, and felt “light-headed” after he drank them. He said he thinks he may have “blacked out” from drinking too much, because he does that sometimes, per the court document. He claimed he does not remember the incident and thought he hit a curb, the State’s Attorney said.

A witness reportedly asked Burak if he was OK to drive before he left the party. Burak allegedly got into his car anyway, struck another vehicle while backing out of a parking spot and then hit the women while he turned left out of the parking lot onto the service drive, while the women had their backs turned to his vehicle. He accelerated after impact, prosecutors said.

Another witness reportedly followed Burak’s vehicle westbound to a dead end on the access road and watched him stay there for 20 seconds, but when the witness tried to approach Burak allegedly began to drive again, passing through a drive-thru lane. That witness approached the vehicle on foot, took a picture of the license plate and suggested Burak return to the scene of the crash, according to the document.

Burak reportedly returned to the Square Celt parking lot but did not exit his vehicle or make any effort to speak with police. Another priest then witnessed Burak try to make a three-point turn and strike another vehicle, per the document. That priest reportedly drove Burak home in Burak’s vehicle.

The Cook County State’s Attorney noted Burak’s vehicle had damage to the front license plate holder consistent with remnants of one left at the scene, where the women were hit. Witnesses identified Burak as the driver, prosecutors said.

Sarah Toney, a representative of the Toney Law Firm representing Burak, said Burak has Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma. Burak had a valid license, per the court document.