JUSTICE

Run, Bambi, run

A pretty murderer is arrested in Thunder Bay

RAE CORELLI October 29 1990
JUSTICE

Run, Bambi, run

A pretty murderer is arrested in Thunder Bay

RAE CORELLI October 29 1990

Run, Bambi, run

JUSTICE

A pretty murderer is arrested in Thunder Bay

Almost everybody they met in the Northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay appeared to like Jennifer and Anthony Gazzana. In the weeks following their arrival on July 17, ostensibly from Chicago, the attractive, cheerful and hardworking couple easily made friends. Residents said that Anthony was generally considered pleasant, but it was the pretty Jennifer who captivated people, including the policemen who frequented the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. Then, on Oct. 12, several viewers of the television program America’s Most Wanted reported spotting a familiar face, and the producers notified police. Last week, the people of Thunder Bay learned the truth about the personable newcomers.

Jennifer and Anthony were not, as they had said, fleeing the violence of American urban society. They were not from Chicago. Nor were they even Jennifer and Anthony. She was Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek, a 32-year-old onetime model, Milwaukee police officer and Playboy Club hostess. Bembenek had crawled through a window and escaped on July 15 from the Wisconsin prison for women in Fond du Lac County, where she was serving a life sentence for murdering her husband’s ex-wife. And Anthony was her lover, Dominic Gugliatto of Milwaukee. Said Louis Kebezes, the owner of Thunder Bay’s Columbia Grill and Tavern and Jennifer’s boss for nearly three months: “She

was an excellent worker, and I’ve got nothing bad to say about her.”

The masquerade began to come apart when U.S. and Canadian television stations broadcast an episode of America’s Most Wanted, a syndicated program about fugitive criminals, that featured the Bambi saga. The program showed photographs of Bembenek, who, while married to Milwaukee police Det. Elfred Schultz, had shot and killed his ex-wife, Christine, in 1981. The motive cited by prosecutors at her trial: Bembenek objected to Christine’s collecting $800 a month in alimony from Schultz. Last week, Det. John Dobyns of the Fond du Lac County sheriffs department said that the program’s producers passed on a tip from a viewer that Bembenek was in Thunder Bay. Another viewer called the RCMP detachment in Thunder Bay.

Five days after the TV program, a Thunder Bay detective arrived at the Columbia Grill shortly before noon, talked with Bembenek for about 15 minutes and examined her identification documents. Kebezes said that, when the detective had gone, Bembenek phoned Gugliatto. Moments later, said the restaurant owner, he found her in a back room crying, and she told him that her mother had died. He assured her that she could have time off, and she left. Three hours later, police—having established that Bembenek’s papers were false—arrested her and her boyfriend at their basement apart-

ment in the city’s north end. Said Thun? der Bay police Sgt. Peter Toohey: “They had packed their car and they were ready to roll.” They were charged with violating immigration law by overstaying visitation privileges and by working in Canada illegally. Last Friday, a Canadian immigration officer ordered the pair held in custody pending another hearing this week.

Reports of the capture received wide attention in newspapers, on television and radio newscasts and on radio talk shows in Milwaukee, where many citizens claim that Bembenek is inno-

Ícent of Schultz’s murder and should be given a new trial. After she escaped, some Milwaukee stores began selling T-shirts, bumper stickers and cardx board cutouts bearing the words “Run, z Bambi, run.” Scores of people attended ^ rallies organized by supporters to wish o her well. A restaurant named a ham° burger after her, and a nightclub held a Bambi look-alike contest. Paul Bargren, an editor at The Milwaukee Journal, described Bembenek as “sexy—something about her fascinates people.” Said Milwaukee truck driver Gary Lengling, 32: “Maybe now, her case can be retried.” Bembenek has insisted all along that she did not shoot Schultz.

In Thunder Bay, many people have also expressed support. “She was so polite, never lost her temper,” said Kebezes, adding: “She would work for other people when they wanted time off. She had blond hair and blue eyes. Tall, slim and beautiful. I still don’t believe she was guilty.” Jenny Beck, her Thunder Bay landlord, said Bembenek was “a lovely woman—kind, warm and outgoing.” Said university student Kim Olson, who lived in the same building: “I still want to be her friend.” Added Toohey: “People who knew her seemed to think a lot of her.”

One of Bambi’s most devoted supporters is Ira Robins, a former suburban Milwaukee policeman and now a private investigator, who for she years has been trying to persuade the county prosecutors to undertake an independent investigation of fie trial and the Schultz killing. Robins said that he has long believed that Bembenek was framed because she had threatened to expose evidence of corruption among members of the Milwaukee police department. “The woman is innocent, and I won’t stop until I prove that,” Robins said. His campaign, he added, “represents the wishes of the people of Milwaukee”—many of whom, he claimed, stop him on the street or in shopping centres to shake his hand or ask for his autograph.

James Gilmore, the Fond du Lac County sheriff, said that he is not among Bambi’s supporters. As soon as she is returned, said Gilmore, she will be prosecuted for escaping custody, which could add five years to her sentence. However, it seemed unlikely that further punishment would cool the ardor of the Lawrencia Bembenek fan club.

RAE CORELLI with correspondents’ reports