From the witness stand Thursday, Michael Pelko described a slightly imperfect suburban life he led in the summer of 2017: long hours as a trader on the Chicago Board of Trade; a long commute to his Willow Springs home on an acre lot; two kids; a chicken coop in the back yard; a Vicodin addiction; and a strained marriage.
Pelko’s troubles had only gotten worse in the years since. His best friend, 37-year-old Izat Morrar, was found dead in a South Side alley that year, and Pelko is on trial for his murder.
Pelko admitted that he had “squabbled” with Morrar over money in the weeks before Morrar was killed. But during more than three hours of questioning Thursday — and in multiple videotaped police interrogations played for jurors — the 39-year-old trader insisted he didn’t kill his friend.
“Did you want him dead?” Pelko’s lawyer, Michael Ettinger, asked.
“No,” Pelko replied.
“Was he your best friend?” Ettinger asked.
“He was,” Pelko said.
Pelko’s account of the events of July 20, 2017, the last day Morrar was seen alive: He left work at the Board of Trade around 1:30 p.m. and picked up Morrar and another friend and drove to his house. Morrar, who worked for a trading software firm a few minutes from Pelko’s office, also sold marijuana and was carrying a backpack full of weed he intended to sell to another mutual friend from their shared boyhood in Chicago’s Midway neighborhood— friends Pelko considered more sketchy than Morrar.
Morrar and the friend drove off in Pelko’s Hyundai Santa Fe, and the car was back in Pelko’s driveway in time for him to drive to work in the morning. Two days later, Morrar’s brother told Pelko that Morrar had been murdered.
But Pelko never mentioned picking Morrar up the day he died — or the third passenger in the car, or the drug deal — to Morrar’s brother, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Clarke noted on cross-examination. Nor did Pelko tell Chicago Police detectives when he was questioned three days after the killing, nor again when he was arrested and held for 48 hours and detectives told them they had video of his Hyundai in the alley where Morrar’s body was dumped.
“That’s my car,” Pelko said when confronted with the photos during the interrogation, though he still insisted it had been parked in his driveway. “Well, it was in Willow Springs. That’s the tough thing to figure out.”
Pelko was released then rearrested in January 2018. Police by then had video of Pelko getting into his car in a downtown parking ramp and picking up Morrar near the Board of Trade, and Morrar’s blood had been found under the passenger seat upholstery.
“(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 … that’s your story that you’re sticking with?” a detective asked.
“Well, it’s good enough,” Pelko said.
Pelko was not released that time. Thursday, he said he lied to police because he was concerned that if he told police the names of the real killers, he would meet the same fate as Morrar.
“You were willing to be charged with a murder that you claim you have nothing to do with because you don’t want to give them the name of the real killer?” Clarke asked.
“I was satisfied that I would not be charged with murder because I didn’t commit murder,” Pelko said.
“They told you that you were going to be charged with first-degree murder,” Clarke said.
“They told me that the first time (he was questioned), too.”