clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ex-priest assured church members he was OK to drive before hit-and-run that killed schoolteacher: prosecutors

Bail was set at $10,000 for the Rev. Paul Burak following the Wednesday crash that left Margaret “Rone” Leja dead.

The Rev. Paul Burak
The Rev. Paul Burak
Orland Park police

A retired priest accused of a drunkenly running over a pair of parish teachers and driving off without providing help was asked if he was OK to drive shortly before leaving a staff holiday party earlier this week in Orland Park, Cook County prosecutors said at the Rev. Paul Burak’s bail hearing Saturday.

Burak, 73, who assured them he was fine to drive, now faces charges of aggravated driving under the influence and leaving the scene of the fatal crash.

St. Michael teachers Margaret “Rone” Leja and Elizabeth Kosteck were struck as they walked to their cars just before 8 p.m. Wednesday after leaving the party at the Square Celt Ale House & Grill near the Orland Square Mall, prosecutors said.

Margaret “Rone” Leja (left) and Elizabeth Kosteck
Margaret “Rone” Leja (left) and Elizabeth Kosteck
Archdiocese of Chicago

After leaving the party, prosecutors said Burak got into his gold 2016 Buick Regal, hit a parked car while backing out of his spot and then struck the two women as they walked on an access road.

Both women were taken to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, where Leja, 61, was pronounced dead, according to Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy. Kosteck, 54, was seriously injured and released from the hospital the next morning.

Burak, of Palos Heights, appeared at the hearing Saturday, where Judge Arthur Wesley Willis set his bail at $10,000, coupled with electronic home monitoring as the case continues.

Willis cited Burak’s lifetime of service in his decision to set the low bail amount.

Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy announced charges Saturday against retired St. Michael priest Paul Burak in connection with Wednesday’s fatal hit-and-run crash in Orland Park.
Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy announced charges Saturday against retired St. Michael priest Paul Burak in connection with Wednesday’s fatal hit-and-run crash in Orland Park.
Jake Wittich / Sun-Times

Joined by three private attorneys, Burak nodded, but seemed to have trouble seeing the judge and didn’t look directly at him. One of his attorneys said Burak has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma.

“I do believe he is devastated. The family is devastated as well,” Willis said. “But I cannot release you without conditions or monetary bail.”

Prosecutors said surveillance video showed Burak’s car leaving the parking lot and driving down the access road just before and after the women were hit, but the crash itself was obstructed from view.

A man driving behind Burak saw the crash and followed him to the access road’s dead end, where Burak stopped for about 20 seconds, prosecutors said. The other driver got out of his car and walked toward Burak, but Burak drove into a nearby Panda Express parking lot.

The man followed, took a picture of Burak’s license plate and told him to go back to where the women were hit, prosecutors said.

Burak drove back to the Square Celt parking lot, where police were already investigating, prosecutors said. Officers stopped him, but Burak never got out of his car and did not report his in role the crash.

A St. Michael’s priest then saw Burak hit another car’s bumper while trying to make a three-point turn in the lot and offered to drive him home, prosecutors said. The priest drove Burak’s car while another couple from the party followed behind. At one point, the priest had to pull over and find Burak’s address on his insurance card because Burak said he couldn’t remember it, prosecutors said.

The next day, officers recognized Burak’s gold Buick in surveillance videos and ran its plates, prosecutors said. They searched his garage and found the car’s front license plate holder had been damaged, which matched remnants of a plate holder found at the crash scene.

Burak told police that he takes medication for his Parkinson’s and blacked out after having a Manhattan and a glass of wine at the party, prosecutors said. Burak allegedly said he knew the women were hit, but didn’t know how and thought he had hit a curb the night before.

He was arrested Friday afternoon, McCarthy said.

The Rev. Paul Burak.
The Rev. Paul Burak.
Archdiocese of Chicago

“We extend our sincerest condolences to the victims and those close to them,” Burak’s defense attorney Cambry McNabb said after the hearing. “This is a tragedy that has a lot of layers of grief, and we acknowledge that and wish everyone peace that’s been affected by this.”

Burak’s attorneys said he had no criminal history, 49 years of service as a Catholic priest and had received a lifetime of service award from Cardinal Francis George in 2014.

He was the pastor at St. Michael from 2009 until his retirement last year, according to church’s website. He also previously served as pastor at St. Catherine of Genoa and Our Lady of the Ridge parishes.

Leja started working as a technology coach at St. Michael in March, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago. She previously taught at Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont.

Kosteck teaches 3rd grade and has been at St. Michael since 2005.

“As a community we continue to grieve the loss of Ms. Leja and the injury to Mrs. Kosteck,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “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.”

St. Michael Principal Paul Smith posted on the school’s website that its officials were cooperating with Orland Park police and would have counselors available for students and staff next week.

A visitation for Leja will be held from 3–9 p.m. Monday at Vandenberg Funeral Home, 17248 Harlem Ave., in Tinley Park.

The funeral home will host a prayer service at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, followed by a 12:15 p.m. mass at St. Michael Church, 14327 Highland Ave.