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CHICAGO (CBS) — Rev. Paul Burak, the retired priest charged with killing St. Michael School teacher Rone Leja and injuring teacher Elizabeth Kosteck in a hit-and-run crash in December 2019, has died at age 74.
Burak, the former pastor at St. Michael Parish in Orland Park, died Sunday, according to the church.
On Dec. 4, 2019, Burak was leaving a Christmas party at Square Celt Ale House & Grill at Orland Square Mall, when he struck two teachers from his former parish. St. Michael School teachers Margaret “Rone” Leja and Elizabeth Kosteck had just left the same parish Christmas party.
Leja was killed and Kosteck was seriously injured. Burak was charged with aggravated DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, but Cook County prosecutors later dropped the DUI charge, saying “the evidence and facts were insufficient to support that charge.” Burak still faced the more serious charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
When Burak left the Christmas party shortly after the teachers, he said he was okay to drive, according to Cook County prosecutors.
Surveillance video shows Burak backing up and hitting a car parked next to his, then driving down a service road. Prosecutors said, at some point, Burak thought he’d hit a curb when he heard a noise.
“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 at the time Burak was charged.
The noise he heard was the impact of his 2016 Buick Regal hitting Leja and Kosteck as they were walking to their cars. Leja was killed, and Kosteck was seriously injured, but was released from the hospital within the month.
Prosecutors said Burak continued to drive home after hitting the two teachers.
Another witness reported seeing Burak hit the victims and followed him in a car, according to prosecutors. The witness approached Burak’s car, but Burak drove away.
Burak then drove by a Panda Express and hit a curb. Prosecutors said after Burak stopped in the Panda Express parking lot, the witness confronted Burak, took a picture of his license plate, and told him to “go back over” to the victims.
Burak then drove back to the scene of the crash, but he didn’t get out of his car, and didn’t tell police he was responsible for the crash, according to prosecutors.
Another priest saw Burak in his car at the scene, and went to talk to him. After Burak hit another car while trying to make a three-point turn, the other priest drove Burak home in Burak’s car while another couple who had been at the party followed them.
Prosecutors said the other priest had to look up Burak’s address on his insurance card, because Burak said he didn’t remember where he lived.
The next day, police recognized Burak’s car in surveillance video. After checking his plates, they searched his garage, and noticed his license plate holder had been damaged, and matched pieces of a plate holder found at the scene.
Burak told police he takes medication for Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma, and blacked out after having a glass of wine and a Manhattan at the party, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorneys said Burak was a Catholic priest for 49 years before he retired in 2018, and had received a lifetime of service award in 2014. He has no prior criminal record.
Burak was ordained in 1972, and served as an associate pastor at St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Killian Parishes. He also served as pastor of St. Catherine of Genoa, Our Lady of the Ridge, and most recently at St. Michael until he retired in 2018.
Funeral services will be private, but St. Michael Parish said notes of condolence may be sent to: Family of Father Paul Burak, c/o Priests’ Health and Retirement, 1400 South Wolf Road, Bldg 3, Floor 2, Hillside, IL 60162.
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