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A parking lot of a local bar where a Catholic church Christmas party was winding down became a crime scene when two teachers were clipped by a hit-and-run driver, killing one of them.
Retired priest Paul Burak, 73, who served as Chicago’s St. Michael Parish leader for years, stands accused of being drunk when he was behind the wheel of his gold 2016 Buick on Dec. 4 and subsequently killing the church's middle school teacher Margaret “Rone” Leja, 61, and injuring her 54-year-old faculty colleague Elizabeth Kosteck.
On Tuesday, December 11, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office prosecutors charged Burak for aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of a fatal accident when he allegedly struck the women, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Each educator was rushed to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois. Leja succumbed to her injuries and Kosteck was treated and is recovering since being released, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.
“I know that this news is disturbing and will surface many emotions,” current Pastor of St. Michael Parish, Fr. Frank A. Kurucz, wrote to parishioners on the church’s website not long after Burak was formally charged in the crash.
“Grief, anger and confusion are dominating our thoughts. This is a truly difficult time for our parish community as we continue to grieve the loss of Ms. Leja and injury to Mrs. Kosteck and to make sense of what has happened," he concluded.
Burak served at St. Michael Parish, based in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, from 2009 until he retired last year.
The late teacher, Leja, worked at St. Michael School starting in March of this year as a technology coach.
"If a teacher or student needed assistance with technology, she would help," an official with the Archdiocese of Chicago stated to Oxygen.com.
Kosteck currently teaches third grade at St. Michael School and has been with the school since 2005.
At around 8 p.m. the night of the accident, Burak left the event, telling others he was OK to drive. Then, while pulling out of the parking lot, Burak allegedly steered his Buick into Leja and Kosteck as they were heading to their car in the parking lot, according to CBS 2 Chicago.
Burak allegedly then drove away from the scene, but a witness saw him and followed him, urging him to return to the victims when he caught up to him. Burak did drive back, but didn't leave his car or inform the police he was the man responsible, prosecutors say.
However, investigators pored over surveillance footage and say they matched Burak’s Buick to the deadly collision in the parking lot. They subsequently performed a search of his Palos Heights home’s garage and found his front license plate holder had been damaged, according to The Sun-Times.
Burak allegedly tried to explain away what happened by claiming the Parkinson’s medication he took caused him to blackout after downing only a Manhattan cocktail and a glass of wine at the party, according to CBS 2 Chicago.
While the former priest’s memory was allegedly joggled, he did say he recalled that the teachers were struck, but he couldn’t be sure why. He also claimed he thought he struck a curb on his drive home, the television station reported.
“He remembers that he heard a noise, like someone’s chassis out of the car, as if you went over a curb and hit the curb with the bottom of your car. He never thought it was a person. He said he did stop after he felt he hit something. He said he then gunned the car,” Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney James Murphy, said according to CBS 2 Chicago.
Responding to the accusations, Burak’s attorney emphasized that Burak is "absolutely devastated" by the tragedy. She also noted that the man, who joined the seminary at 19, hasn't been in trouble with the law before and suffers from both Parkinson's disease and glaucoma.
"Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this, including the entire St. Michael's community," the attorney wrote in a statement to Oxygen.com.
Burak was taken into custody on Dec. 6 and released from Cook County Jail the following night after posting $10,000 bond, jail records show.
He is currently mandated to wear an electronic monitoring device.
His next court date is scheduled for Jan. 2.
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