Friday, November 19, 2010

Lawrencia Bembenek: Innocent?

Editor's Note: Laurie Bembenek is dying of liver cancer. Thirty years ago, she was framed for the murder of her husband's ex-wife. A former Milwaukee police officer, Laurie was passing information about official corruption on the force to the FBI, which made her a perfect target. Two years ago, Laurie filed a pardon application with the Wisconsin governor. Gov. Jim Doyle leaves office at the end of 2010. He has been hiding behind his pardon advisory board and a string of excuses as to why he can't grant Laurie's pardon before she dies. Read Mike Jacobs' article. Then help Gov. Doyle grow a spine before he leaves office. Tell him to PARDON LAURIE BEMBENEK NOW.

By Regular Mail:

Gov. Jim Doyle
State of Wisconsin
P.O. Box 7863
Madison, WI 53707

Or send him a message via his website. Use the form at

by Mike Jacobs, WTMJ-TV, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Could Lawrencia Bembenek be innocent? As she clings to life outside of Portland, Oregon, we explore the evidence.

Bembenek was convicted of killing her husband's ex-wife. She later escaped from prison, was captured in Canada and was brought back to Wisconsin. She pleaded "no contest" to second degree murder, was sentenced to time served and released.

But before she dies, she wants to clear her name.

Back in the late 70's, Lawrencia Bembenek gave pictures of Milwaukee police officers cavorting naked at a local park to Internal Affairs at the MPD. That made her enemy number one with the police department, where she was an officer. She says that prompted detectives to focus on her as the primary suspect, when Christine Schultz was killed in 1981.

But we have learned another man came forth. Chuck Kroeger vividly remembers the night Schultz was killed. Kroeger was a city electrician working near the crime scene. He saw a man jogging late that night. Kroeger reported it to the police the next day, and was shocked by the response he says he got.

"I called right away, and they told me that they had their suspect and they didn't need any more information," he recalled. "They said, they had their suspect, so...."

Kroeger's recollection adds credence to Bembenek's claim that police and prosecutors ignored leads and withheld evidence, unless they pointed to her.

"Oh they ignored anything exculpatory," Bembenek told Mike Jacobs. "And we didn't get access to anything that was in my behalf."

What's more, Bembenek says police tampered with evidence.

An off-duty gun was found in Bembenek's apartment. Bembenek's husband, Detective Elfred Schultz, retrieved the gun. He testified that it could not have been the murder weapon.

"After examining other things on the gun, it was my opinion it was not fired," Schultz testified.

Bembenek says, as a former police officer, she would not have been so stupid as to leave a murder weapon in her own closet. But prosecutors were able to convince a jury the off-duty gun was used to kill Christine Schultz.

Ten years later, in 1991, a forensics expert compared the muzzle of the gun to the contact wound on the victim's back. He found they did not match.

"The alleged murder weapon can be eliminated," he said.

The Milwaukee County medical examiner at the time, Dr. Chesley Irwin, had another reason to rule out the off-duty gun: There was no blood on it.

"One always gets blowback and you sometimes get hair but you always get blood and serum, and it simply wasn't there," Dr. Irwin said.

Then, there was the bullet removed from the victim. Prosecutors said the bullet matched the off-duty gun, but Bembenek maintains someone switched the murder bullet with another bullet that had been test-fired from the off-duty gun.

Police also say they found two of Bembenek's blond hairs on the bandana used to gag the victim. But Dr. Elaine Saumels, the deputy medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Christine Schultz, said someone must have planted those hairs in an evidence bag, after the autopsy was done.

"I'm suggesting that somebody in the police department framed planting a blond hair that was obviously hers. But was not found on the body at the time of the autopsy," Samuels said.

Then there was the red wig. Hairs from the wig were found on the victim's body. The wig was found in the plumbing of Bembenek's duplex. Bembenek says she would not have been dumb enough to try to flush an entire wig down a toilet without cutting it into little pieces. Her duplex shared a sewer pipe with the adjacent apartment. Bembenek believes a former roommate, turned adversary, flushed the wig down the neighbors' toilet.

"She asked them if she could change her clothes in the bathroom. And right after she got out of the bathroom, the toilet got plugged up. And that's all we know," Bembenek told us.

The controversy over Bembenek's conviction flared up after she was captured in Canada. Her lawyers there made a strong case that Bembenek was framed.

So in 1992, Milwaukee County launched a John Doe investigation. Among the findings, Judge William Haese said, "Significant mistakes were made in the investigation of the murder of Christine Schultz."

However, Judge Haese and Campion Kerston, a special prosecutor, found no evidence that Bembenek was framed.

"There simply is no evidence of criminal misconduct," Kerston said. "There were mistakes, but they didn't rise to the level of criminal wrong doing."

The John Doe did not try to determine if Bembenek was guilty or innocent. But the deputy medical examiner had her own theory on that.

"I think all the evidence points to her innocence, rather than her guilt," Samuels said.

Despite the circumstantial case, a jury convicted Bembenek of first degree murder.

Since then, Bembenek's defense team has learned more about the gun, the bullet, the gag, and the wig, but her attempts to appeal her conviction have all been denied.

A few months after the John Doe, Bbembenek pled "no contest" to second degree murder, was found guilty by a judge, and was released from custody. She has since appealed that conviction, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Each time, the appeal has been denied, not on the merits of the case, but on a legal technicality. When Bembenek pled "no contest", she gave up her right to appeal her conviction.

Unless she gets a pardon from Governor Doyle, she will forever remain convicted of second degree murder in the death of Christine Schultz.

No comments: