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Bembenek seeks DNA testing

Convict wants to clear her name in 1981 killing

By GINA BARTON
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Aug. 25, 2002
For 20 years, Laurie Bembenek has insisted she's not a killer.




16014Motion Filed in Court


Photo/File
Lawrencia Bembenek is shown in this 1992 photo.


Photo/File
Christine Schultz was murdered in 1981.

Although she's served her sentence, Bembenek remains desperate to prove her innocence and hopes technology not available at the time of the crime can help.

In a motion filed Friday in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Bembenek asked for DNA testing of several pieces of evidence in her case. The results may implicate another suspect in the death of Christine Schultz, her ex-husband's first wife.

"I need to clear my name for my sake and that of my family who have suffered with me during the past 21 years," Bembenek, 44, said in an affidavit filed with her motion.

The body of Christine Schultz was found at her south side home on the morning of May 28, 1981. She had been tied up with clothesline, gagged with a blue bandanna and shot once in the back at close range.

At the trial in 1982, prosecutors said she'd been shot with the off-duty gun belonging to her ex-husband, Elfred Schultz, who was a Milwaukee police officer. They said his wife at the time, Bembenek, was the only person with access to the weapon.

She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Bembenek, also a former Milwaukee police officer, hopes the DNA testing will bolster arguments she has made in earlier appeals, according to her attorney, Mary L. Woehrer. One is that Elfred Schultz's off-duty gun was not the murder weapon. Several experts have said the gun could not have made the bruise on the victim's body.

Elfred Schultz's police-issue gun, however, could have, the experts said in the court documents filed Friday. In addition, it had blood on its barrel, which Bembenek wants tested.

She also wants testing on a bullet identified as taken from the body of Christine Schultz at autopsy. A 1992 John Doe hearing convened to investigate whether there had been police wrongdoing in the investigation determined there might have been two similarly labeled bullets sent to the State Crime Laboratory for analysis. Christine Schultz was shot only once.

Other DNA evidence, such as blood and semen, found on the clothing or bedding of Christine Schultz may point to two other suspects, Fred Horenberger and Robert Jeffrey Trease; the two men participated in armed robberies together around the time of the murder, according to the court documents filed Friday.

"During these robberies, Horenberger and Trease typically wore disguises consisting of a green army coat, jogging suit, wig and bandanna. Trease openly bragged about his ability to jog away from crime scenes without getting caught," the document states.

The Schultzes' two sons, then ages 8 and 11, both described their mother's assailant as a man - one said he wore a green jogging suit, the other said he wore a green Army coat. Both boys said the man had a long, red ponytail. A red wig was found in the toilet of an apartment next to the one Elfred Schultz and Bembenek shared.

Horenberger allegedly confessed to eight people that he was involved in the murder of Christine Schultz - telling two that Elfred Schultz paid him to do it, according to court documents filed earlier. Body tissue from Horenberger was preserved by the Milwaukee County medical examiner after Horenberger's suicide in 1991. Trease is on death row in Florida for murder, and his DNA is on file at the national database.

Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann said he would agree to the DNA testing. "Not because we doubt what happened, but because it's a standing policy in this office that if a defendant asks for it, we'll do it," he said.

Any DNA found will have to be evaluated in light of the other evidence and the trial testimony, McCann said. He still believes Bembenek is guilty.

Others are not convinced.

Kris Radish, author of a book about Bembenek's case called "Run, Bambi, Run," said doubt, questions and controversy have surrounded the case from the beginning.

"Who killed Christine Schultz is a question in a lot of people's minds. That question hasn't been answered," she said. "There are a lot of innocent people in jail, and if there's a chance that evidence can come forward and clear somebody, we have to do it."

Across the nation, DNA evidence has exonerated at least 110 people, said John Pray of the University of Wisconsin Law School's Innocence Project.

"A lot of people believe the evidence in this case was very slim. A lot of people believe she did not do this," said Pray, who along with colleague Keith Findley has acted as a consultant on the case.

The high-profile case captured the nation's attention both at the time of the trial and after Bembenek escaped from prison in 1990. She sought refugee status in Canada, and in 1992 reached a deal with prosecutors in which she pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in return for a 20-year sentence. She was given credit for the 10 years she'd spent in prison and was allowed to serve the remaining 10 years on parole, which she completed in April. Bembenek, formerly known as Lawrencia, legally changed her name to Laurie in 1994.

In addition to the book, the former Playboy bunny's case was made into a movie starring Tatum O'Neal. While on parole, Bembenek said, she worked as a consultant for John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," and developed a cable TV talk show about women and the criminal justice system.

Over the past several years, however, her life has been anything but glamorous, according to her affidavit. It states that seven months in solitary confinement left Bembenek with panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She's an admitted alcoholic and suffers from hepatitis C.

Elfred Schultz, who now runs a construction company in Florida, had little sympathy for his ex-wife.

"It should be difficult for a convicted murderer," he said.

Bembenek has moved to Washington state, where she cares for her terminally ill father. Her mother died Nov. 6, 2000. Bembenek said it is nearly impossible to keep a job because most potential employers reject her after learning of her conviction. She was abruptly fired from one job when someone discovered her past on the Internet.

"I have been desperately attempting to go on with my life; but it never goes away, not even after 20 years," she said in the affidavit.

Jessica McBride of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 24, 2002.


 
 
 
 
 
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