A jury Friday found suburban stock trader Michael Pelko guilty of the 2017 murder of his best friend.
Pelko sat, upright and impassive, as the clerk read the verdict. He will face a prison sentence of 45 years to life.
Over five days of trial, prosecutors had laid out a highly circumstantial case and an exceedingly narrow timeline from when Pelko picked up his close friend, Izat Morrar, near the Chicago Board of Trade on the afternoon of July 20, 2017.
As outlined by prosecutors, in a roughly two-hour span, Pelko:
• Shot Morrar twice in the back of the head with an antique .22-caliber pistol;
• Drove to his home in Willow Springs, — dropping off his cellphone to disguise his location;
• Dumped Morrar’s body in an alley in the 5300 block of South Calumet Avenue;
• Returned home in time to go to a pizzeria to celebrate his son’s Little League championship.
Pelko had counted on the cellphone ruse to back his alibi that he had been home, but hadn’t counted on police locating surveillance cameras that showed Pelko’s SUV picking Morrar up in the Financial District, then pulling into the alley where the body was found.
“Michael Pelko didn’t bury (Morrar) in the woods. He wanted him found... when he could say ‘I was at home! I was at Papa Passero’s (pizzeria)!” Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Clark told jurors in his closing argument. “He wanted him found when his alibi was already in place.”
Pelko’s lawyers had argued it was impossible for Pelko to have covered the route in the time allotted; they put Pelko’s wife — who filed for divorce after his arrest — and his 12-year-old son on the witness stand to back up Pelko’s claim that he was home in Willow Springs during the time Morrar was killed.
Prosecutors had alluded to text messages that seemed to show a dispute between the two childhood friends several weeks before Morrar was killed, but they never made clear why the pudgy, balding stock trader would want to kill his close friend, attorney Michael Ettinger said in his closing argument.
“He didn’t kill his best friend. There’s no motive and there’s no opportunity and it’s impossible,” Ettinger said.
Pelko himself took the witness stand, and said he and Morrar and a third, more menacing friend, whom he let borrow the car, had gone to sell drugs. During a withering, two-hour cross-examination, prosecutors pointed out that during the three times he was questioned by police after Morrar’s body was discovered— including one marathon interrogation that ended with Pelko charged with Morrar’s murder— Pelko had insisted that his car had been in the driveway of his Willow Springs home the entire time.
Pelko was charged with Morrar’s murder nearly six months later. Then, even when detectives confronted Pelko with pictures of Morrar getting into his Hyundai Santa Fe, and of Morrar’s body being pulled out of the passenger seat in the South Side alley, Pelko did not mention the drug deal or that Morrar had borrowed the car.
“(You) went straight home and then somebody took your car without you knowing it, put Izat in the car, dead or alive, dumped his body 53rd and Calumet and drove it back,” Det. Roger Murphy asked a sullen Michael Pelko. “That’s your story that you’re sticking with?” a detective asked.
“Well, it’s good enough,” Pelko replied.