Cook County prosecutors have dropped a DUI charge against a retired priest accused of running over two Catholic school teachers — killing one of them — while leaving a staff Christmas party in Orland Park last month.
Court records show that the aggravated DUI charge against Rev. Paul Burak was dropped on Jan. 7.
Burak, 73, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to the remaining charges of causing and leaving the scene of a deadly accident in the Dec. 4 hit-and-run that claimed the life of Margaret “Rone” Leja, according to court records.
The most serious charge Burak was indicted on — leaving the scene of a fatal accident — carries a stiffer penalty and is a higher class felony than the DUI count that was dropped, according to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
The felony count for leaving the scene of a fatal accident carries a sentence of between four to 15 years in prison, if convicted. The aggravated DUI charge that was dropped carries a sentence of three to 14 years.
In an emailed statement, Burak’s attorney Sarah Toney said, “The prosecutors have discretion to present any evidence they have to the grand jury. In this case, it resulted in an indictment for leaving the scene of an accident.”
Orland Park police Chief Timothy McCarthy agreed with the state’s attorney’s office decision to drop the DUI charge.
“The state’s attorney didn’t feel there was enough evidence there, and that’s probably the case,” McCarthy told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday. “He went into custody more than 24 hours later, so field sobriety tests weren’t valid.”
At the initial bail hearing in December, prosecutors said Burak told police that he took medication for his Parkinson’s disease and blacked out after having a Manhattan and a glass of wine at the holiday party.
He allegedly told police he didn’t see the women and thought he hit a curb as he was pulling out from the Square Celt Ale House & Grill’s parking lot onto an access road, where the two women were walking to their parked cars. Burak continued driving without stopping, prosecutors said.
The women, both teachers at St. Michael School in Orland Park, were taken to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, where Leja, 61, was pronounced dead. Elizabeth Kosteck, 54, was seriously injured and released from the hospital the next morning.
Prosecutors said a man driving behind Burak saw the crash and followed him into a nearby parking lot 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 investigating, prosecutors said. Officers stopped him, but Burak never got out of his car and did not report his alleged role in the crash.
Another priest then saw Burak hit another car’s bumper while making a three-point turn in the lot and offered to drive him home, prosecutors said. That priest drove Burak’s car while another couple from the party followed behind.
The next day, officers identified the gold Buick as Burak’s and found the car in his garage with a damaged front license plate holder, which matched remnants of a plate holder found at the crash scene, prosecutors said.
Burak, of Palos Heights, was arrested two days after the crash and ordered held on a $10,000 bail. He was released on bond that day, and was ordered to stay at home on electronic monitoring.
Burak retired as a priest at St. Michael Parish in 2018.
In December, Leja’s brother and executor of her estate sued Burak for negligence.
Through a family lawyer, Leja’s family released a statement saying they filed the lawsuit “in an attempt to get truthful, forthcoming and honest answers to the many unanswered questions they have regarding their beloved sisters senseless death.”
Burak is due in court again March 18.
Contributing: Andy Grimm