Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek (August 15, 1958 – November 20, 2010), known as Laurie Bembenek, was an American convicted of murdering her husband’s ex-wife. 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 overturned.
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’ arrest.
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 Institution.
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 was hardly a model inmate, constantly bragging about how she was a celebrity inmate who deserved special treatment, while thinking about escape. 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 29, 2010.
On November 20, 2010, she died at a hospice facility in Portland, Oregon from liver and kidney failure.