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Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010

The Trial of Lawrencia Bembenek

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The hoopla surrounding the Tiger Woods Indiscretions Tour has really showcased our culture’s infatuation with scandal. Milwaukee has had its share of nation-gripping news stories, many of which have seen further lives as movies, books and television shows. In the early 1980s, Milwaukee played host to a high-profile murder case that captured the nation’s attention. At the center of the story is Lawrencia Bembenek, a young, attractive Playboy Club cocktail waitress and ex-Milwaukee cop who was convicted of murdering her husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz, in Milwaukee on May 28, 1981. What has kept the saga alive is Bembenek’s relentless quest to clear her name.

Bembenek entered the Milwaukee police academy in March 1980 when she was 21 years old, and graduated sixth in her class. She was fired by the department later that August after she allegedly filed a false report about an incident in which a friend was arrested in connection with possession of marijuana at a concert. She sued the department, claiming that it engaged in sexual discrimination and other illegal activities. In January 1981, Bembenek married 33-year-old Milwaukee police detective Elfred Schultz Jr.

In the early hours of May 28, 1981, 30-year-old Christine Schultz was bound, gagged, and shot once in the back by a single .38-caliber pistol at point-blank range in her home. State Crime Laboratory ballistics testing revealed that the weapon used was Schultz Jr.’s off-duty revolver. Because he was on duty at the time of her death, suspicion shifted to Bembenek, who had been alone in the apartment she shared with Schultz, and had access to both the gun and a key to Christine's home. Bembenek was arrested and the district attorney’s office charged her with first-degree murder.

Bembenek’s trial generated enormous publicity and the press began referring to her as “Bambi.” After nearly two weeks of testimony, and four days of deliberation, a jury found her guilty of murder in March 1982, and she was sentenced to life in prison at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac. Bembenek later divorced her husband, and filed three unsuccessful appeals of her conviction at all three levels of the state courts, citing police errors in handling of key evidence and alleging that the Milwaukee police may have singled her out because of her role as a key witness in a federal investigation into police corruption.

In July 1990, Bembenek broke out of prison by crawling through a laundry room window, and fled to Canada. Three months after her escape, Bembenek was arrested in Ontario, but stayed in the country for another year and a half before she was extradited to Wisconsin and returned to Taycheedah in the spring of 1992. In August, a John Doe investigation found that while there were mistakes in the police investigation, there was no evidence of a conspiracy or wrongdoing. In December, after 10 years in prison, Bembenek won her freedom under a complex court deal in which her earlier first-degree murder jury verdict was set aside, and she pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. In exchange for the no-contest plea, prosecutors agreed to a new sentence equal to the time she had already served.

Bembenek wrote a book about her experience called Woman on Trial, which was later adapted into an NBC television movie starring Tatum O’Neal called “Woman on the Run.” A year later, she legally changed her name to Laurie Bembenek. In 2002, she claimed handlers for the “Dr. Phil” television show had confined her in an apartment, and when she attempted to escape from a second-story window, she shattered her leg so badly it had to be amputated below the knee.

In April 2008, Bembenek petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse her second murder conviction based on new evidence not heard in the original trial: lab results proving not only that the 15 pieces of evidence tested did not include Bembenek’s DNA, but also found male DNA on the victim; evidence the victim was sexually assaulted; and the eyewitness testimony of Schultz’s two young sons who said the killer was a heavyset, masked man. Bembenek's petition argued that the court did not make it clear whether defendants who plead guilty or no contest have an opportunity to review evidence comparable to the rights of those who plead innocent. Bembenek’s appeal was denied in June 2008, but if her actions over the last 29 years are any indication of her future, she won’t rest until she proves her innocence.

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