SPECIAL REPORT

INFAMOUS IN MILWAUKEE

CITY POLICE CONFRONTA BREWING STORM

HILARY MACKENZIE September 23 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

INFAMOUS IN MILWAUKEE

CITY POLICE CONFRONTA BREWING STORM

HILARY MACKENZIE September 23 1991

INFAMOUS IN MILWAUKEE

SPECIAL REPORT

CITY POLICE CONFRONTA BREWING STORM

Beer made Milwaukee famous—at least according to the slogan popularized by the city’s now-closed Schlitz Brewing Co. But the Wisconsin metropolis of 1.4 million people, 130 km north of Chicago on Lake Michigan’s western shore, is equally proud of its reputation as an industrial and shopping centre. Civic leaders are less proud of the city’s deep racial divisions—and its controversial 2,000-member police department, which failed to stop a 13-year rampage of murder, dismemberment and cannibalism confessed to recently by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. But the accusations of racism, homophobia and negligence that have been levelled at the Milwaukee police in that case bear an eerie echo of the charges of sexism and corruption that some former and current women members—Lawrencia Bembenek among them—have directed at the force. “Milwaukee is a sick town,” said one outspoken critic of the city’s police, black Baptist minister Gene Champion, after Dahmer’s belated arrest, adding: “And it’s been swept under the carpet for years.”

Among Bembenek’s supporters, there is wide agreement with that assessment. For her part, Dr. Elaine Samuels, the former associate medical examiner who did the autopsy on Bembenek’s alleged victim, now says that the Milwaukee police “deliberately fouled up” their investigation into Christine Schultz’s murder. And indeed, the decade since Bembenek’s conviction has produced a catalogue of challenges to the evidence introduced at her trial.

Gun: One contradiction surrounds the murder weapon. Prosecutors at Bembenek’s trial introduced as evidence a revolver that, Samuels asserts, could not have caused Schultz’s fatal wound. The .38-calibre gun introduced as the murder weapon at the trial, with a sighting rod above the barrel and a cartridge extractor rod below, should have produced matching marks on Schultz's body—not the circular bruising that Samuels actually found. Said the former medical examiner: “The gun produced as evidence could not have produced the imprint on the body.” Other doubts focus on samples of blond and red hair, which prosecutors at Bembenek’s trial claimed were found on Schultz’s body. According to the prosecutors, the hairs matched Bembenek’s own blond hair and the red wig that they alleged she had worn to commit the murder. In fact, Samuels says, “All of the hairs that I recovered from Christine Schultz’s body were brown and were grossly identical to the hair of the victim.”

For at least one other Milwaukee policewoman, the litany of complaints against the force that have surfaced in the Bembenek case rings true. The policewoman, now a sergeant, graduated from the Milwaukee Police Academy in 1979 and served briefly with Bembenek the following year, when their similar physiques and blond hair caused them to be frequently mistaken for each other. She now expresses little respect for her former superiors. According to that officer, male colleagues regularly indulged in sexual harassment of female colleagues. When she complained about their harassment, she says, other officers followed her during her off-hours; her car tires were slashed; her supervisors demoted her for statements that she claimed she had not made. “They made my life miserable,” she told Maclean ’s last week, tears welling in her eyes. “It was bad, bad stuff. They drove me crazy.” In 1986, the officer sued the department for discrimination, and last April won an $83,000 settlement.

Fired: The latest Milwaukee police controversy is by far the most horrifying. Critics say that the force was grossly negligent in not acting sooner on neighbors’ complaints about foul smells emanating from Dahmer’s apartment. In one instance, three officers who encountered a wounded Asian boy wandering naked near Dahmer’s apartment ignored his plight and actually returned him to Dahmer’s custody. Dahmer has confessed to later killing the youth.

Two of the officers involved in that incident have since been fired, but are appealing their dismissal; the third was placed on a year’s probation. And in the wake of the Dahmer affair, critics have urged that a grand jury examine the city’s police department. “This has lifted up the carpet,” says Champion, “and the whole world can see the dirt.” For Lawrencia Bembenek, however, any housecleaning in the months ahead will be too late.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Milwaukee