Michael Pelko was a suburban dad who coached his son’s Little League team to a championship and built a backyard chicken coop to indulge his daughter’s love for animals.
But he also shot his best friend in the back of the head and dumped the body in a Chicago alley, and for that, he will spend the next 55 years in prison, a Cook County judge said Friday.
Pelko’s eyes welled with tears as a string of family members testified to his good works and their faith that he could not have killed childhood friend Izat Morrar, in spite of the jury’s verdict in August. Pelko’s lawyer, Michael Ettinger, said his client still asserts his innocence, and will appeal his conviction.
His voice choked with emotion, the 38-year-old Pelko read a brief statement from a scrap of paper.
“To Izat’s family ... I’m very sorry for their loss. My deepest condolences to everyone affected,” he said, casting a look at Morrar’s family in the courtroom gallery. “Secondly, I’d like to say sorry to my family for having to go through this.”
Judge Thomas Byrne acknowledged both Morrar and his killer were beloved by their families, but cast the blame for their pain squarely on Pelko.
“Tragedy doesn’t describe what happened,” Byrne said. “A tragedy is an act of God. This was a choice ... that same person had it in them to shoot [Morrar] in the head and dump him in that filthy alley.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Clark said Pelko had crafted an elaborate scheme to kill Morrar and create an alibi. Pelko knocked off work early the afternoon of July 20, 2017, announcing to co-workers that he was headed home to attend a party for his his son’s baseball team near his home in Willow Springs.
Surveillance video showed Morrar getting into Pelko’s Hyundai Santa Fe near his office by the Board of Trade, and the same SUV a few hours later pulling into an alley in Washington Park on the South Side where Morrar’s body — with two .22-caliber slugs in the back of his head — was dumped.
Pelko then returned home, went to the Little League banquet, then ducked out for nearly an hour, prosecutors said, likely to clean out his SUV. After Pelko’s arrest nearly six months after Morrar’s body was found, police found Morrar’s blood soaked into the cushions of the front passenger seat.
Text messages showed the two men had quarreled over a debt in the weeks before the killing. Pelko testified that Morrar sold drugs, and that Morrar and a mutual friend had borrowed Pelko’s SUV to deliver a backpack full of marijuana to a buyer— an alibi Pelko never volunteered to police during multiple interrogations.
Pelko’s mother, Shelby Pelko, sobbed as she read a letter of support for her son from the witness stand, and insisted he was incapable of murder.
“I can’t wrap my head around what he is accused of and I am shocked and broken,” she said, as her son sat across the courtroom and buried his face in his hands.
Morrar’s mother, Denise Kale, who said her family, particularly Morrar’s 7-year-old son, is tormented by thoughts of her son’s death at the hands of a family friend.
“How can you do this to someone that you called your friend?” she said, looking down at her typewritten notes. “I hope that my son haunts you for the rest of your life. You have destroyed so many lives by this action that you took on yourself.”