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Orland Park Police have charged a retired St. Michael priest in an alleged hit-and-run that claimed the life of one of the parish school’s teachers and injured another following a parish Christmas party at Square Celt.
Paul C. Burak, 73, of 82 Canterbury Court in Palos Heights, was charged with aggravated DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, both felonies, according to Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy, who spoke Saturday, Dec. 7, during a press conference at the station.
Burak attended the parish Christmas party the evening of Dec. 4 at Square Celt, 39 Orland Square Drive, according to McCarthy, when the retired priest 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 then left the scene and did not contact police, McCarthy said.
Both women were transported to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Kosteck was treated and released the next day for what the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office identified Saturday, Dec. 7, 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.
A statement released by St. Michael School Principal Paul Smith originally identified the women and their status as teachers at the school. But Maureen Morrissey, St. Michael School’s assistant principal, declined further comment regarding Leja, stating an effort to respect the family’s privacy.
McCarthy said the area around Square Celt the evening of Dec. 4 was a “chaotic scene,” with “Good Samaritans” trying to help and others trying to leave the area — some unaware of what happened. He said police started an investigation at 8 p.m. that evening that included locating and interviewing witnesses, as well as canvassing the area for video footage.
Police ultimately located the vehicle suspected to be involved in the hit-and-run, a 2016 Buick Regal, around 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in a garage on Canterbury Court in Palos Heights, McCarthy said. Police reportedly seized the vehicle and detained its owner, Burak, for interviewing. McCarthy declined to comment on how police located the vehicle.
By the evening of Dec. 5, police contacted felony review with the Cook County State’s Attorney for review of the case. Police announced to press the evening of Friday, Dec. 6, they had the driver in custody.
McCarthy declined to comment on certain circumstances surrounding how police determined Burak was under the influence at the time of the crash, but acknowledged blood alcohol content was not a factor.
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 he 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.
McCarthy said he did not know whether or not any health issues could have contributed to the crash. But 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.
The official charges filed were aggravated DUI causing death, a Class 2 felony; aggravated DUI causing bodily harm, Class 4: failure to report an accident involving death, Class 1; and failure to report an accident involving injury, Class 2. Cook County Judge Arthur Wesley Willis set bond at $10,000 during a bond hearing that day at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
The Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement around 10:30 a.m. Dec. 7, noting it is aware of the investigation and arrest of Burak.
“We are cooperating with the Orland Park Police and have no further information at this time,” the statement reads.