Lawrencia "Bambi" Bembenek (August 15, 1958
– November 20, 2010), known as Laurie Bembenek, was convicted
of murdering her husband's ex-wife, Christine Schultz, in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, on May 28, 1981.
Her story garnered national attention after she
escaped from Taycheedah Correctional Institution and was recaptured in
Canada, an episode which inspired books, movies and the slogan "Run,
Bambi, Run". Upon winning a new trial, she pleaded no contest to
second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served and ten years
probation. For years after, she sought to have the sentence
Bembenek was a former Milwaukee police officer who
had been fired and had gone on to sue the department, claiming that it
engaged in sexual discrimination and other illegal activities. She
worked briefly as a waitress at a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Playboy
Club. At the time of her arrest, she was working for Marquette
University's Public Safety Department in downtown Milwaukee.
On November 20, 2010, Bembenek died at a hospice
facility in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 52.
Bembenek was born on August 15, 1958. In March
1980, she joined the Milwaukee Police Department as a trainee. There
she met and became close with a fellow trainee named Judy Zess. At a
rock concert in May 1980, Zess was arrested for smoking marijuana.
Bembenek's subsequent dismissal from the police department on August
25 stemmed from her involvement in filing a false report on Zess'
Murder of Christine Schultz
On May 28, 1981, at approximately 2:15am,
30-year-old Christine Schultz was murdered by a single .38 caliber
pistol shot fired point-blank into her back and through her heart. She
had been gagged and blindfolded and her hands were tied in front of
her with rope. Her two sons, then 7 and 11 years old, found her face
down on her bed and bleeding. The older boy, Sean, had seen the
assailant and described him as a masked male figure in a green army
jacket and black shoes. He also said the man had a long (approx. 6" or
15 cm) reddish-colored ponytail.
Christine Schultz was the ex-wife of Laurie
Bembenek's then-husband, Elfred "Fred" Schultz, a Milwaukee Police
Department detective. They had been divorced six months at the time of
the murder. Fred Schultz initially stated he was on duty investigating
a burglary with his partner, Michael Durfee, at the time of the
murder, but years later he admitted they were actually drinking at a
local bar. When ballistics testing revealed it was his off-duty
revolver that had been the murder weapon, suspicion shifted to Laurie
Bembenek, as she had been alone in the apartment she shared with
Schultz and had access to both the gun and a key to Christine's house
that Fred Schultz had secretly copied from his oldest son's house key.
Fred Schultz had previously been exonerated in the
fatal shooting of a Glendale, Wisconsin, police officer on July 23,
1975. The Glendale officer, George Robert Sassan, had arrested a
subject in a bar while off-duty. Milwaukee police officers, including
Schultz, responded to the call in suburban Glendale (outside their
jurisdiction), reportedly mistook Sassan for a suspect and shot him to
death when he turned toward them, holding a gun. Schultz and his
partner were cleared by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's
Office in the shooting.
Bembenek's trial generated tremendous publicity,
and newspapers began referring to her as "Bambi" Bembenek (a nickname
she disliked). The prosecution portrayed her as a loose woman addicted
to expensive living who wanted Christine Schultz dead so that her new
husband would no longer have to pay alimony. The prosecution pointed
out that Bembenek also had financial problems. The prosecution claimed
that Bembenek was the only person with the motive, means and
opportunity to carry out the crime. The strongest evidence was two
human hairs found at the crime scene, which matched ones taken from
the hairbrush of the defendant. The gun used to kill Christine Schultz
turned out to be Bembenek's husband's off-duty revolver. The
prosecution claimed that Bembenek was the only person besides Fred
Schultz who had access to this weapon. Blood was found on the gun.
Bembenek supposedly also had access to a key to Christine Schultz's
home. There were no signs of a break-in and no valuables taken.
Schultz's eldest son, however, stated that Bembenek was not the person
who had held up their house and shot his mother.
Witnesses testified that Bembenek had spoken often
of killing Christine Schultz. The prosecution produced a witness who
said Bembenek offered to pay him to carry out the murder. According to
witnesses for the prosecution, Bembenek owned a green jogging suit
similar to the one described by Schultz's son. It was pointed out that
Bembenek owned a clothes line and a blue bandanna similar to what was
used to bind and gag the victim. A wig found in the plumbing system of
Bembenek's apartment matched fibers found at the murder scene. A
boutique employee testified that Bembenek purchased such a wig shortly
before the murder.
She was found guilty of first-degree murder in
March 1982 and sentenced to life in prison in Taycheedah Correctional
Shortly after Bembenek's conviction, Fred Schultz
filed for divorce and began saying publicly that he now believed
Bembenek was guilty. Bembenek filed three unsuccessful appeals of her
conviction, citing police errors in handling of key evidence and the
fact that one of the prosecution's witnesses, Judy Zess, had recanted
her testimony, stating it was made under duress.
Bembenek and her supporters also alleged that
Milwaukee police may have singled her out for prosecution because of
her role as a key witness in a federal investigation into police
corruption. Bembenek's supporters suggested that Fred Schultz may have
arranged to have someone else murder his ex-wife. One possible
candidate was Frederick Horenberger, a career criminal who briefly
worked with Schultz on a remodeling project and was a former boyfriend
of Judy Zess. A disguised Horenberger had robbed and beaten Judy Zess
several weeks prior to Christine Schultz's murder and would later
serve a ten-year sentence for that crime.
According to a number of affidavits which emerged
following Bembenek's conviction, Horenberger boasted of killing
Schultz to other inmates while he was in jail. Yet publicly,
Horenberger vehemently denied any involvement in the Schultz murder up
until his suicide in November 1991, following a robbery and
hostage-taking stand-off in which he had been involved.
There were questions raised as to the accuracy of
the information and the evidence used in the trial. Dr. Elaine
Samuels, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, had
originally concluded that hairs recovered from the body were
consistent with that of the victim; after Dr. Samuels had come to that
conclusion, the hair evidence was examined by Diane Hanson, a hair
analyst from a crime lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Hanson stated that two
of the hairs were consistent with samples taken from Laurie Bembenek's
hairbrush. Dr. Samuels refuted that claim, stating in a 1983 letter,
quoted in the Toronto Star in 1991, that "I recovered no blonde
or red hairs of any length or texture ... [A]ll of the hairs I
recovered from the body were brown and were grossly identical to the
hair of the victim ... [I] do not like to suggest that evidence was
altered in any way, but I can find no logical explanation for what
amounted to the mysterious appearance of blonde hair in an envelope
that contained no such hair at the time it was sealed by me."
The apartment where Laurie and Fred lived shared
drainage with another apartment. In the shared drainpipe was found a
brownish-red wig which matched some of the hairs found on the victim's
body. The woman who occupied the other apartment testified that Judy
Zess had knocked on her door and asked to use her bathroom; after Zess
used the woman's bathroom, the plumbing was mysteriously clogged.
Also, Zess had admitted to owning a brownish-red wig.
In prison, Bembenek became a model inmate who was
highly respected by her fellow prisoners. She earned a bachelor's
degree from the University of Wisconsin–Parkside and helped found a
prisoners' newspaper. She also met and became engaged to Dominic
Gugliatto, who had been visiting another inmate. On July 15, 1990, she
escaped from prison with Gugliatto's help. Her escape reignited
publicity surrounding her case, and she became something of a folk
hero. A song was written about her, and T-shirts were sold with the
slogan "Run, Bambi, Run".
She fled with Gugliatto to Thunder Bay, Ontario,
Canada, while sensational stories about their relationship swirled
through American tabloids. The couple spent three months as fugitives
before being apprehended. Gugliatto was sentenced to one year in
prison for his role in the escape. Bembenek, however, sought refugee
status in Canada, claiming that she was being persecuted by a
conspiracy between the police department and the judicial system in
Wisconsin. The Canadian government showed some sympathy for her case,
and before returning her to Wisconsin, obtained a commitment that
Milwaukee officials would conduct a judicial review of her case.
The review did not find evidence of crimes by
police or prosecutors, but detailed seven major police blunders which
had occurred during the Christine Schultz murder investigation, and
she won the right to a new trial. Rather than risk a second
conviction, however, Bembenek pleaded no contest to second-degree
murder and received a reduced sentence which was commuted to time
served. She was released from prison in November 1992, having served a
little over ten years.
Life after prison
Bembenek wrote a book about her experience, titled
Woman on Trial. After her release, she had various legal and
personal problems. She was arrested again on marijuana possession
charges and filed for bankruptcy, as well as developing hepatitis C
and other health problems. She also admitted to being an alcoholic.
She legally changed her name to Laurie Bembenek in 1994.
In 1996, she moved to Washington state to be near
her retired parents in Vancouver. There she met a local resident, U.S.
Forest Service employee Marty Carson, whom she eventually married.
Bembenek was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress
disorder, complicated by a growing addiction to alcohol. As a form of
therapy, Carson encouraged her to devote time to her passion of
painting. Bembenek had made paintings since childhood, and her early
work had been the subject of an exhibition at UW–Milwaukee in 1992.
Carson constructed a studio for her, and she eagerly returned to her
art. She had a fragile recovery, and after several years she had
amassed about thirty paintings which she put on display at a local art
gallery. This potentially transformative return to public life was
wrecked when the gallery burned down in a freak fire and all the
paintings were destroyed.
In 2002, Bembenek either fell or jumped from a
second-story window, breaking her leg so badly that it had to be
amputated below the knee. Bembenek claimed that she had been confined
in an apartment by handlers for the Dr. Phil television show
and was injured while attempting to escape.
Bembenek continued to insist she was innocent, but
the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to overturn her no contest plea,
saying such a plea cannot be withdrawn. In April 2008, Bembenek filed
a petition with the United States Supreme Court, seeking a reversal of
the second murder conviction. Bembenek's attorney pointed to evidence
not heard in the original trial, including ballistics tests matching
the murder bullets to the gun owned by Fred Schultz, male DNA found on
the victim, evidence the victim had been sexually assaulted and the
eyewitness testimony of the two young sons who said they had seen a
heavyset, masked man. Bembenek's petition argued the court needed to
clarify whether defendants who plead guilty or no contest have an
opportunity to review evidence comparable to the rights of those who
plead not guilty. Her appeal was denied in June 2008.
Her case was the inspiration for two television
movies and various books and articles portraying her as the victim of
a miscarriage of justice. In 2004, MSNBC produced and aired a
biography of Laurie Bembenek on their Headliners and Legends
television show. Bembenek did not take part in the show. She was
interviewed by WTMJ-TV anchor Mike Jacobs for a two-part sweeps
interview that aired on that station's 10pm newscast on October 28 and
On November 16, 2010, WTMJ reported that Bembenek
was slipping in and out of consciousness and was near death in a
hospice care center, suffering from liver and kidney failure. On
November 20, 2010, she died at a hospice facility in Portland, Oregon,
Television movies about Bembenek
- Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer? The Bambi Bembenek Story
(1992) starring Lindsay Frost.
- Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story (1993)
starring Tatum O'Neal.
Laurie Bembenek dead at 52, was at center of
well-known murder saga
By Amy Rabideau Silvers and Mike Johnson
The Journal Sentinel - JSOnline.com
November 21, 2010
Laurie Bembenek, the former Milwaukee police
officer known as "Bambi" who was convicted of killing her
then-husband's ex-wife, escaped prison and whose legal saga played out
in papers, books and tabloid TV shows, has died, relatives confirmed
Bembenek, 52, died early Saturday evening in
Portland, Ore., where she was in hospice care, her sister, Colette
Bembenek of South Milwaukee, said Sunday.
Bembenek continued to maintain her innocence for
the rest of her life, repeatedly trying to clear her name. In recent
developments, Bembenek applied for a pardon from the governor's
office. That application was not complete, and no immediate review was
planned, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Doyle said last week.
Sunday night, her attorney, Mary L. Woehrer, said
Bembenek's death would not stop the effort to win a pardon.
"It's her dying wish that she be pardoned. Based
upon the evidence we gathered, it's clearly a case of wrongful
conviction," Woehrer said, adding that she has been advised by the
pardon board that death does not preclude the granting of a pardon.
Bembenek, who later changed her first name to
Laurie from Lawrencia, had been admitted to a hospital and then was
transferred to a hospice, her sister said. Her health problems
included hepatitis C and liver and kidney failure, Colette Bembenek
"It went real fast. I'm glad she didn't linger,"
Colette Bembenek said. "I knew it was inevitable that she probably
would be expiring early in life."
Colette Bembenek said she did not have a chance to
speak with her sister before she died. She said she was told of her
sister's death by Martin Carson, Laurie Bembenek's ex-husband.
According to Martin, Laurie Bembenek was in and out of consciousness,
said Colette Bembenek, adding that she last saw and spoke to her
sister when their father died in 2003.
Laurie Bembenek was the former Milwaukee police
officer charged with killing her then-husband's ex-wife, Christine
Schultz. She was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison,
but that was far, far from the end of the story.
In 1990, with the help of fiancé Dominic Gugliatto,
the brother of another inmate, she escaped from Taycheedah
Correctional Institution. They were captured three months later in
Thunder Bay, Ontario. More legal proceedings resulted in her pleading
guilty to second-degree murder and being released on parole for time
'Run, Bambi, Run'
After Bembenek's 1990 escape, supporters held a
rally, many of them wearing Bembenek masks so that "she'll be able to
walk around more freely." T-shirts declared, "Run, Bambi, Run." One
club held a Lawrencia Bembenek look-alike contest.
Events were enough to inspire books and two
television movies and to make international news.
Villain or victim? Nearly 30 years after the
murder, the jury of public opinion remained out.
Bembenek grew up on a comfortable block on the
south side, the daughter of Joe and Virginia Bembenek. She was the
child that the family prayed for after a brother was born prematurely
and died. Many years later, during a family feud over their father's
estate, her sisters spoke about those early years and more.
They did not think that she killed Christine
Schultz but felt all the drama had transformed a troubled woman into a
"We were just raised differently," Colette Bembenek
said in 2003. "When Laurie was born, we all danced around and
accommodated the baby that lived and survived. She was raised with
indulgence. It became an emotional problem.
"Laurie has this bizarre charisma. . . . But
. . . she needs help," Colette then said.
Over the years, stories would detail every aspect
of Bembenek's life. She played "very fine flute" at Bay View High
School. She was a good student, though not scholastically driven.
Depending on who was talking, she was intelligent but aloof, or quiet
and shy, or cool and manipulative.
She grew to be a strikingly beautiful young woman,
finding work as a model by her senior year in high school. She later
worked at a Playboy Club, a detail included in countless stories.
"It's always a negative - if not a sexual - image
they paint," she said in 1994. "I was a waitress at the Playboy Club
for three weeks, but I'll always be known as the Playboy bunny."
In March 1980, she joined the Milwaukee police
force. Months later, she was fired during her probationary period,
subsequently filing a sex discrimination complaint against the
department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
After she lost her job with the department, she
became involved with police officer Elfred Schultz. They married in
Illinois on Jan. 29, 1981, less than three months after Schultz
divorced his wife, Christine.
His ex-wife was found murdered May 28, 1981. She
had been tied and gagged in her home, fatally shot with Elfred
Schultz's service revolver, according to court testimony. One of their
children originally described the suspect as a man.
It was just the beginning of conspiracy theories
about the murder and the legal case. Early on, Bembenek said she was
framed for the death, saying she was threatened and harassed after
filing the discrimination complaint.
"I was on the police department," Bembenek said
just weeks after the murder. "I sure wouldn't be stupid enough to use
my husband's gun. I can't believe they would think that."
The largely circumstantial case was enough to
convince a jury. Testimony included details of a hairlike fiber near
the body. That fiber was considered a match with a reddish-brown wig
found in plumbing in the apartment building where Bembenek and Elfred
Schultz had been living.
Appeal efforts were not successful, including a
request in 1990 before Bembenek escaped through a tiny laundry room
window at Taycheedah. The Wisconsin Supreme Court soon rejected a
request to consider her appeal, citing her fugitive status.
'Tired of being Laurie Bembenek'
After her capture, a secret John Doe investigation
in 1992 found that there were mistakes in the police investigation but
that there was no evidence of a conspiracy or wrongdoing.
Bembenek was released on parole late in 1992 after
her original conviction was set aside. In a complicated deal, she
agreed to plead no contest to second-degree murder.
Suddenly out of prison, she rode a new wave of
celebrity. There were offers of limos and an expensive makeover. Her
life became the stuff of movies and tabloid TV. She appeared on talk
shows, including a visit with Oprah Winfrey. Bembenek wrote a book -
"Woman on Trial" published by HarperCollins - and tried to sell her
paintings and give speeches.
Despite having a college degree, it was hard to
find work or make a living.
"I'm tired of being Laurie Bembenek," she said in
1996. "Any face would do."
She talked about her situation as she sought
permission to live in Washington state with her parents.
"Being recognized doesn't make me any money," she
Months later, a one-way ticket in hand, she boarded
a plane with her mother. Still on parole, she had received the
necessary permission only hours earlier.
"This is it," a tearful Bembenek said. "I'm leaving
a lot of friends behind, but I've got to go."
Her legal battle continued, with questions
regarding ballistics and DNA, withheld evidence and who else might
have killed Christine Schultz. She won the right to have murder scene
evidence tested for her DNA, but even that testing took a bizarre and
unexpected twist in 2002. The "Dr. Phil" show agreed to conduct the
expensive testing, with the results to be revealed on air.
The show's producers kept Bembenek in an apartment
- with a body guard and videotaping - apparently to shield her from
media reports about her case, said Woehrer. Bembenek suffered a panic
attack and flashback to prison confinement, and she tried to climb out
of a window, Woehrer said.
She fell and badly injured her right foot, which
later had to be amputated.
Her appeal efforts were not successful. Ira B.
Robins, who worked as an investigator on her case and remained her
friend, pursued the case for more than 20 years.
"We promised her dad on his deathbed that the
family name would be cleared," Robins said in 2008. "We've got to do
by Katherine Ramsland
The Crime Scene
28, 1981, at approximately 2:00 a.m, someone entered the Milwaukee,
Wisconsin home of Christine Schultz, age 30, where she lived with her
two sons, Sean, 10, and Shannon, 7. The intruder entered Christine’s
bedroom with a gun and tied her hands together. Then, inexplicably, he
went across the hall and put a gloved hand over Sean’s mouth and nose,
and slipped some wire around his neck. Sean awoke in terror to see a
tall man standing over him. His brother also woke up and jumped out of
bed to kick the man. They remembered him as having reddish-brown hair
tied into a ponytail. The intruder rushed back over to Christine’s
room, where she cried out. He shot her in the back, and then fled past
the two startled boys down the steps and out the door.
Sean who phoned for help, calling Christine’s current boyfriend,
Stewart Honeck, a police officer. He put in a call to the department
for backup. Four police officers arrived at the scene and were let in
by the frightened boys. Honeck went up the steps and was the first to
see Christine. He moved her and saw that she was not breathing.
lying on her right side, facing west. She wore a yellow Adidas T-shirt
and white panties. A clothesline-type cord was tied around her hands,
binding them in front of her, and a blue bandanna-type scarf was
wrapped around her head, gagging her mouth. The T-shirt was torn near
the wound, a large bullet hole in her right shoulder. There was no
sign of a struggle.
cut the cord around victim’s hands and wrapped her body in plastic.
They removed a brown hair from the calf of her leg.
hours after the initial report, the medical examiner arrived. An hour
later, an ambulance came to transport the victim to the police morgue.
was no evidence of a break-in, and the doors had heavy-duty locks,
including a dead bolt. The crime was puzzling in many respects.
Normally the prime suspect would have been Christine’s ex-husband,
Elfred ("Fred") O. Schultz, Jr., but he had an alibi: He, too, was a
cop, and had been on duty that night. At the time of the shooting, he
claimed, he and his partner were investigating a break-in.
Christine Schultz had divorced him the previous year, in November of
1980, after eleven years of marriage, keeping custody with visitation
rights of their sons, and living in the family home. She worked
part-time. The marriage had been rocky and she had complained to her
attorney after the divorce that she was afraid of Schultz, who had
threatened her life. When he continued hanging around the house after
she asked him to leave, she had the locks changed. She also felt she
was being followed, and wondered if it had something to do with
Honeck, known to have a drinking problem and to bear some animosity
toward Fred, with whom he had once shared an apartment.
intertwined nature of all the relationships in this unfolding drama
was as complex as any soap opera. It turned out to be a much more
complicated case than anyone had anticipated.
evening in question, Christine had made dinner for Stewart Honeck.
Thereafter, the boys went to bed while Christine and Honeck watched
television for a while, whereupon she drove him home. When she
returned, he called her and they talked on the phone until about
11:30. Then she went upstairs to her room on the second floor to watch
television. Not long afterward, she was murdered.
Sean Schultz claimed
that he heard a noise and woke up to the feeling of something like a
covered wire tightening around his throat. As he recalled, a large
gloved hand moved over his face, covering his mouth, eyes, and nose.
He struggled and screamed, hearing his attacker utter a deep growling
sound. The intruder ran out and across the hall. He followed Shannon,
his 8-year-old brother, into the hallway and saw a man in his mother’s
room. When the man ran out past them, Sean saw him taking the steps
three and four at a time, his green army jacket flapping. At the
bottom, Sean noticed that he wore low-cut black shoes, like police
shoes. He thought the man also wore a ski mask. Sean then went to his
mother, who was still alive, and ripped open her shirt to fix the hole
in her back. It was his impression that the man had exploded a
firecracker in it. He wrapped gauze around his hand and used it to put
pressure on the wound. At 2:30 a.m., he called Stewart Honeck to ask
Shannon says he jumped
out of bed when Sean screamed, saw a man, and kicked at the intruder.
He described a large white male with reddish hair tied into a long
ponytail, wearing a green jogging suit with yellow stripes running
down the sleeve. The man then ran from the room and crossed the hall,
entering their mother’s bedroom. He heard a woman’s voice say, “God,
please don’t do that.” Then came a loud noise. He raced to his
mother’s room and saw a man standing over her bed. The man then ran
past him and down the steps.
Twelve area residents
(including two police officers) had seen a man matching the boys’
description jogging in the neighborhood a few weeks before the murder.
He had reddish-brown hair in a ponytail and was wearing a green
jogging suit. He was seen carrying a blue bandanna, similar to the one
used to gag the victim.
Two nurses at a
nursing home one mile from the scene had observed something strange in
the early morning hours of May 28. They had seen someone lying in the
parking lot, had called the police, and had come back outside around
2:50 a.m. and observed a man with reddish-brown hair and a green
jogging suit standing in the bushes.
Fred Schultz, on duty
that night, went to the scene of the crime. He called his new wife,
Lawrencia ("Laurie") Bembenek, at 2:40 a.m., but the line was busy.
She had been packing to move to a smaller apartment that evening and
had planned to go out with her friend, Judy Zess, but the date had
been canceled. Schultz then called her again. She picked up the phone
and it sounded to him as if she had just awoken. He took his partner,
Detective Michael Durfee, to his apartment, sixteen blocks away, and
felt the hood of her car in the presence of the other officer, and
then examined his off-duty .38 pistol. Durfee smelled it and looked it
over, determining that it had not been fired that night, nor recently
cleaned. There was dust on the weapon. That eliminated it as a murder
Schultz asked Bembenek
to accompany him to identify Christina and took the off-duty pistol
with him in a briefcase. Durfee left him as Schultz went into a
private meeting with his superiors and left to write his report, but
not before mentioning that the gun was in the briefcase. No one there
recorded the serial number, nor recorded the fact or content of the
meeting, so in retrospect, it could never be proven that such a
meeting took place.
At 4:00 a.m. two
detectives came to Bembenek’s apartment to ask if she owned a gun or a
green jogging suit. They also asked about Honeck and Schultz. She told
them she had no such jogging suit and never had owned one of that
Kris Radish in Run
Bambi Run described the situation with Lawrencia Bembenek: " She
was one of those radical women's libbers. The kind of women who
thought females deserved an equal chance. She was also one of the most
beautiful cops the department had ever seen. She was tall, with a
great set of legs, sky-blue eyes, long, slender finger, and a head of
thick blond hair. She was gone but not forgotten. She had been booted
out of the department because of some minor problem, and Chief Breier
smiled when he learned of her connection with the Schultz murder. The
police department was no place for women. Let them stay home. These
women needed to be taught a lesson."
report indicated radial expansion, in which the muzzle of the gun left
a circular imprint on the victim’s skin. That is, the gun had been
held against her back, touching the skin, when fired. The bullet
entered the back through the shoulder and made a direct path to the
heart. Hairs were found in the bandanna wrapped around her mouth and
were consistent with hers.
It turned out later
that there were other discoveries, but they were not initially noted.
1) Lawrencia Bembenek,
21, second wife of Fred Schultz, Jr., who married him within three
months of his divorce. A former roommate, Judy Zess, who had shared an
apartment with her and Fred, told police that Bembenek once had made a
statement about hiring someone to kill Christine because she resented
how much money her husband was giving to her in alimony and child
support payments. Zess also claimed that Bembenek had approached her
boyfriend, Tom Gaertner, about taking out a contract on Christine
Schultz. Several people came forward to say she owned a green jogging
suit, although none was ever found, and one witness, Kathryn Morgan,
said she saw Bembenek’s mother, Virginia, rummaging through a dumpster
on June 18 near Bembenek’s apartment. Bembenek was tall and strong,
and thus could have seemed to the boys like a man. She would also know
what to do at a crime scene to cover her tracks, having once been a
police officer. A babysitter at the victim’s home said Bembenek had
been shown the layout of the house, and Durfee claimed that Bembenek
and Schultz had a private talk before he and Schultz checked the off
duty revolver on the night of the murder.
Bembenek, who became
known in the press as “Bambi,” had entered the police academy in
March, 1980, graduating sixth in her class, and was stunned by the
amount of graft going on in the department: officers selling
pornography from their cars, accepting oral sex from hookers,
frequenting drug hangouts, harassing minorities. When she was fired
for supposedly knowing the Judy Zess had marijuana at a rock concert,
she filed a lawsuit, charging discrimination. In October, she came
into possession of nude photos of male police officers dancing in a
public park. She gave them to internal affairs.
Then a U. S. Federal
attorney, James Morrison, began investigating allegations that the
Milwaukee force was misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars of
affirmative action funds and firing minorities on flimsy grounds.
Bembenek came forward to say that women were being hired and quickly
fired to satisfy federal quotas and take advantage of employment
equity grants. She was the heart of the investigation, so it was clear
that if she became a serious suspect, the case against the department
would fall apart.
Bembenek had once
posed in a slinky dress for a beer calendar and had worked for a few
weeks as a waitress at a Playboy Club. Because of this, the crime
became a media sensation.
2) Elfred Schultz,
Jr,, 33, the former husband of the victim, and father of her two
children. He divorced Christine in November, 1980 and met Bembenek in
December. Although he was ten years older than her, he pursued her
aggressively. When he quickly proposed, Bembenek accepted. They
married on January 30, 1981. Fred was quite upset about a recent court
decision regarding the amount of alimony he would have to pay,
including the mortgage to the house that he himself had built.
Eugene Kershek, the
victim’s divorce attorney, said that Schultz had threatened the victim
just weeks before the murder, telling her that he was going to “blow
her fucking head off.” They had had an acrimonious divorce over Fred’s
alleged brutality and infidelity.
He was on duty the
night of the shooting, but he had two keys to the house, which he had
made from one that his son carried. He had one on him and one back at
his apartment. Schultz passed two lie detector tests, but was proven
nevertheless to have lied about his whereabouts on the night of the
murder, because he had been drinking at several bars, which he had
initially denied. There was also a report from a convict that surfaced
later to the effect that Schultz had hired someone to kill his
ex-wife, and it was proven that he knew the man who allegedly had
confessed in private that he’d been hired to do the job. He failed to
have his off-duty revolver--later determined to be the murder
weapon--properly registered with the crime lab. It was in his
possession for two weeks before being turned in for examination. He
also had married Bembenek illegally, instead of waiting one more month
as Wisconsin law dictated, but never told her. His partner, Michael
Durfee, could not locate his log book from that night, and although
they said they had investigated a burglary, in fact, two uniformed
police officers had done that investigation. There was some suggestion
that he had set Bembenek up for turning in to his superiors nude
photos of him dancing at a public function: He could use the woman who
was out to get him (before she knew him) as the fall guy for getting
rid of his ex-wife—two birds with one stone.
3) Stewart Honek, who
was with the victim that evening and who seemed to have had some
interest in her plants, which might have been a hiding place for
drugs. He had mentioned to Bembenek’s parents that $300,000 worth of
drugs had disappeared from the victims apartment the night she was
murdered. He thought Schultz had taken them. Honeck admitted having a
key to the victim’s home. He also admitted to a drinking problem and
to the fact that he had abused his two former wives. He claimed that
he and Christine had discussed getting married that night, but those
who knew her well believed she was hesitant about marrying another
4) Judy Zess, a former
roommate whom Bembenek suspected of having a crush on her, and who
used the bathroom in the apartment across from the one in which
Bembenek and Schultz lived—which shortly thereafter proved to be
clogged with a wig of reddish-brown hair, a damning piece of evidence.
She also recanted her testimony that Bembenek owned clothesline, a
green jogging suit, and had made a remark about hiring someone to kill
the victim. She admitted that she owned a brownish, shoulder-length
wig. She had been asked to leave the apartment she shared with
Bembenek and Schultz, and a week later, her boyfriend, Tom Gaertner
(who hated Schultz for shooting his best friend) was arrested for
possession of cocaine. Zess had not turned in her key to the apartment
until June 24, which meant she had access to the alleged murder
weapon. She admitted having entered the apartment at least two times
when Bembenek and Schultz were not home.
Horenburger, whose MO was to wear a wig, as he had done when he had
robbed Judy Zess. Horenburger also gagged his victim, and held a .38
caliber gun against her body. He allegedly confessed to six (or eight)
different people, who came forward after his death, that he had been
hired to kill Christine Schultz. He had been arrested with Danny L.
Gilbert for robbing Judy Zess, and a Danny L. Gilbert was stopped on
the highway just above the murder scene on the night of the murder.
Also, George Marks, owner of George’s Pub and Grill where Schultz was
drinking the night of the murder, had introduced Schultz to
Horenberger. They were together, drinking, the night of the murder.
Eight people offered
sworn statements that Horenberger told them he was the killer. He told
inmates during various times in jail that he had “killed the bitch.”
One said he had admitted to taking $10,000 for it, paid by Elfred
The Regional Crime
Laboratory ballistics analysis indicated that while Fred Schultz’s
service revolver, a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver with a
four-inch barrel, showed traces of blood, type A, which was consistent
with the victim (and him), the 200 grain bullet, fired from his
off-duty .38 Smith & Wesson snub-nose revolver with a two-inch barrel,
proved that the killer had access to that gun. The markings on the
slug matched markings in the gun barrel.
Fred Schultz, Judy
Zess, Thomas Gaertner, the landlord, and Lawrencia Bembenek all had
keys to the apartment and thus had access to the murder weapon,
although Bembenek was there alone allegedly sleeping when the murder
Not long after the
murder, a reddish-brown wig was found clogging the plumbing of the
apartment across from that in which Bembenek and Schultz resided. The
wig hair was consistent with a hair found on the victim’s body. The
apartment shared a y-shaped drainage line leading away from two
apartments, the one occupied by Schultz and Bembenek and the one
across from them.
A hairbrush owned by
Bembenek was sent to the crime lab and they noted that at least one
hair from the brush was consistent with a strand of hair found in the
gag over the victim’s mouth.
In the end, Bembenek
was charged with the crime, since she had access to the weapon
determined to be the gun that killed the victim. She was arrested on
June 24, 1981. At first she was stunned, claiming she was innocent,
and then she insisted she was being framed by the police department to
stop her from releasing evidence she had of their fraudulent use of
government funds. She was sure her arrest would come to nothing and
she would soon be proven innocent.
Lawrencia was held for
trial, which lasted three weeks. Her lawyer, Donald S. Eisenberger,
called thirteen witnesses to the prosecution’s thirty-six.
Kramer pieced together a story that Bembenek had intended to frighten
Christine into moving out of the house so she could move in. She
hadn’t planned to kill anyone, but when Christine had recognized her,
she had pulled the trigger.
Against Bembenek were
the following witnesses:
Frances Zess, mother
of Judy Zess, claims she heard statements at a dinner party a few
months before the murder, made by Lawrencia Bembenek, to the effect of
having the victim “blown away.”
Judy Zess, a former
roommate of Bembenek and Schultz, confirmed what her mother said and
added that she had seen a green jogging suit in the apartment she
shared with Schultz and Bembenek, and that she knew that Bembenek had
owned clothesline similar to that found bound around the victim’s
hands. Also that Bembenek owned a blue bandanna.
Kathryn Morgan saw a
woman resembling Virginia Bembenek, Laurie's mother, rummaging through
a dumpster on June 18 near Bembenek’s apartment.
Gary Shaw said he had
seen Bembenek in a green jogging suit.
Marilyn Gehrt, who
owned The Olde Wig World Shoppe, remembered Bembenek purchasing a wig.
John Schultz, Fred’s
brother, testified that Sean had told him he hadn’t seen anything the
night of his mother’s murder and that the killer had covered his face
relied on a switched gun theory: Before the crime, someone replaced
Schultz’s off-duty gun with one that looked like it. Then that person
killed the victim, and when the gun at the apartment was examined, it
had not been used. Then during the next 22 days, the same person
switched the guns again, and the tests showed that Schultz’s off-duty
gun killed the victim. (What saves this person is the incredible luck
that no one thought to record the serial numbers—unless the police
department was in on it.)
Trying to cast some
doubt, the defense used the following people:
Sharon Niswonger, who
lived in the apartment across from Schultz and Bembenek, says that
Judy Zess visited her, asked to use the restroom, and left. The next
person to use it found it clogged, and a plumber pulled out a
Bembenek’s mother, who
seemed not to have been the person seen at the dumpster.
Bembenek herself, who
made the mistake of wearing a Victorian blouse when she testified,
making the jury members feel manipulated.
Bembenek was found
guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in
Taycheedah Correctional Institute in Fond du Lac County.
What jurors did not
hear at the trial: Schultz’s ties to Horenberger or that Horenberger
was later convicted of robbing Judy Zess, and that one of the
perpetrators in that robbery wore a wig. They did not hear the
testimony of the two nurses, what Christine had told her divorce
attorney, or the idea that Fred could have left another revolver at
home and given his off-duty weapon to the killer, then replaced it.
They also did not hear
that Judy Zess’s boyfriend blamed Fred Schultz for the death of his
best friend and claimed he would get even, according to Bembenek.
conviction, Fred moved to Florida and they divorced. He later said he
believed she had killed Christine.
There were three
separate appeals, all of which Bembenek lost.
Run, Bambi, Run
Fed up with the system
and fearing she might spend most of the rest of her life behind bars,
Bembenek escaped from prison on July 15, 1990. She had served almost
ten years already, and then had met and become engaged to Nick
Gugliatto, the brother of another prisoner. With his help, she ran
north to Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Many people in
Milwaukee sided with her and supported her escape. Most said that,
should they see her, they would not turn her in. They thought she’d
gotten a bad rap. People protested openly in the streets on her behalf
and even came up with a song, “Run. Bambi, Run.” They made masks of
her face and put bumper stickers on their cars. They wanted her to get
Bembenek and Gugliatto
took new names from tombstones to obtain birth certificates and social
security numbers. They remained free for three months, working at
menial jobs, before a tourist who had seen Bembenek’s picture on
“American’s Most Wanted” turned her in.
The Canadian police
picked her up just minutes before she was set to flee again.
She pleaded for
refugee status, claiming that she was being persecuted by a conspiracy
between the police department and the judicial system in Wisconsin.
The Canadian government looked into her case and pointed out the many
legal errors in her trial.
Finally, Bembenek was
sent back to the states.
A judicial inquiry was
undertaken that excluded the district attorney (due to charges of
cover-up and conspiracy). These officials decided that no crimes had
been committed leading up to the murder charge, but they detailed
seven major police blunders during the investigation.
Bembenek’s lawyer (a
new one, since her first lawyer had turned on her) cut a deal that she
would agree to “no contest” to a second degree murder charge in return
for a reduced sentence, limited to time already served plus parole.
Although her innocence
had not been established, she was finally free.
During the years that
Bembenek was in prison, numerous people had instigated investigations
on her behalf, and a number of factors came out that put into doubt
much of what had been said at her trial:
The off duty revolver
owned by Schultz was examined the night of the murder and determined
that it had not been shot recently. A team of officers also examined
it the morning after the murder and they came to the same conclusion
(although they did not admit to this meeting for many years). Yet the
ballistics report indicated that this gun, not fired, was the murder
weapon. Schultz had it in his possession for several weeks following
the murder and before it was tested in the crime lab, and a neighbor
of the victim’s claimed someone had stolen his .38 the night of the
murder. Could Schultz have switched guns? No serial number was
recorded for his off duty weapon on the night of the murder. It could
have been switched and no one would know.
Attorney Mary Woehrer
contacted Chesley Erwin, medical examiner at the time of the murder,
and he agreed that the bullet taken from the victim might have been
switched. Woehrer discovered that when Elaine Samuels, associate
medical examiner, removed the bullet, she had written three initials,
CJS, on it. The bullet presented at the trial had six initials, three
of which were in different handwriting from the original three.
Two sets of
unidentified fingerprints were found at the murder site, but no match
Bembenek dreaded the
idea of taking care of Fred’s children, so why would she get rid of
Christine and make certain that happened by having them go straight
into Fred’s custody?
Judy Zess was not
questioned about her whereabouts on the night of the murder, although
she had canceled a date to go out with Bembenek.
On October 27, 1981, a
convicted felon named Frederick Horenberger sent Bembenek’s lawyer a
six-page note detailing how Judy Zess had committed perjury in her
testimony against Bembenek. He had overheard a conversation from her
to her boyfriend in jail about the murder and said that she then told
him that she was working out a deal with the police, with them
exchanging favors for her testimony. She was having sex with one of
the officers assigned to the case, and he was setting up the deals.
She later told Bembenek that her statements had been twisted and taken
out of context, but when her boyfriend was paroled, it was clear the
deal had worked for her.
The investigator hired
by Bembenek’s lawyer reported that he had spoken to a man who claimed
that Schultz had hired a hit man out of Chicago to kill the victim,
and that there were two men in the home that night. They had awakened
the boys with the specific intent of making them bear witness to the
fact that it was not their father who was killing their mother.
The blood found on the
walls in the victim’s house was never examined to determine its
The blood found under
victim’s fingernails was never examined, and no one checked to see if
Bembenek had been scratched.
police shoes were not confiscated or examined.
Marilyn Gehrt, the wig
shop owner who came forward at the last minute, did not have a sales
slip for the wig that Bembenek supposedly had purchased, and could not
remember the date, but was sure that Bembenek produced ID to write a
check. However, Bembenek did not actually have a checking account.
examiner Elaine Samuels, who had testified about hair samples that she
had removed from the victim’s body, said she never found a blond hair
or red hair consistent either with the suspect or with a wig, and felt
that evidence may have been tampered with. In fact, the gag on which
the hair was allegedly found had been removed from the crime lab
inventory to show to Judy Zess.
The state did not call
Tom Gaertner to the stand to support the statements made by Judy Zess,
a serious oversight not caught by the defense.
Hair analyst Diane
Hansen was shown to have little experience or training in this field.
She’d had less than six weeks of training in various law seminars, so
her expertise on crucial evidence interpretation was questionable..
James Benning made a
film in 1989 of the Bembenek case, “Used Innocence,” distributed by
First Run features.
Ira Robbins, a private
detective, worked tirelessly on the case for over seven years. He
assisted the Canadian officials to evaluate whether Bembenek had
gotten a fair trial when she filed for refugee status.
Bembenek was paroled
Dec. 9, 1992 and credited with time already served. Then she graduated
with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the first
female “lifer” admitted to an extension program. She took a degree in
A movie about her
life, “Woman on the Run,” was developed into a two-part miniseries
starring Tatum O’Neal, from Bembenek’s book, Woman on Trial.
She rode around in a limo, bought a Jaguar, went on a book tour, gave
speeches, showed her paintings, and appeared on Oprah.
Eventually she tired
of all the attention and legally changed her name to Laurie. Then she
got involved with a drug-dealer who gave her some marijuana and
cocaine, which violated the terms of her parole. She spent two weeks
in jail and then had to live with an electronic monitor.
When she contracted
Hepatitis C, she moved to Washington State, nearly penniless and
wishing that the public, who had called her “Bambi” would forget about
Run, Bambi, Run: The
Beautiful Ex-cop and Convicted Murderer who Escaped to Freedom and
Won America’s Heart,
by Kris Radish. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.
Juror: At the Lawrencia Bembenek Murder Trial: Questions Left
by Bill Roddick. Milwaukee, WI: Tech/Data Publications, 1982.
“Robins Goes to
Court Over Bembenek Profits,” by Jim Stingl. Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel. Sept. 11, 1996.
Goodbye,” by Alan J. Borsuk. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July
Chronicles,” by Mark Jannot. Playboy, July, 1993, v40, p116.
“Woman on the Run,”
American Justice, A&E, April 7, 1999.