The star witness in the cramped Toronto-area immigration hearing room maintained the self-composed good looks that she once displayed as a model and Playboy Club hostess. Last week, convicted murderer Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek, 33, made her first public statement since police arrested her in Thunder Bay in October. Bembenek had fled to the Northern Ontario city last summer after escaping from a Wisconsin prison where she had served eight years of a life term for the 1981 murder of her then-husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz. Now, Wisconsin wants the fugitive back. But Bembenek, a former Milwaukee police officer, is asking to remain in Canada—as a refugee from what she insists is her fellow officers’ determination to frame her for a murder she did not commit. Asked by her lawyer last week, “Did you kill Christine Schultz?” she replied firmly: “Absolutely not. No.”
Bembenek testified before a two-member panel that will decide if her claim is credible. Earlier, her lawyers had called a series of other witnesses to give testimony that they said supported Bembenek’s claim that members of the Milwaukee police department—currently a focus of controversy over its handling of the Jeffrey Dahmer multiple-murder case— framed her in order to stop her from releasing evidence of their involvement in fraud, drug use and public debauchery. Several called into question parts of the evidence used to convict Bembenek, including hair samples found on
Schultz’s body and the gun that may have killed her. In reply, the lawyer representing the ministry of immigration in its attempt to deport Bembenek attacked the reliability of defence witnesses—and told the panel that Canada had no right to second-guess the verdict of a U.S. court. Declared Donald Macintosh: “There is a presumption that someone tried in a democratic country has been afforded a fair trial.”
But even in her native Milwaukee, Bembenek’s guilt is still hotly debated. Indeed, after she escaped from prison on July 15, 1990, Milwaukee vendors sold T-shirts and bumper stickers exhorting her to “Run, Bambi, run.” The fugitive did just that: two days after her escape, Bembenek arrived in Thunder Bay along with her lover, Dominic Gugliatto, a Milwaukee factory worker. Calling themselves Jennifer and Anthony Gazzana, the attractive, cheerful and hardworking couple easily blended into the community. But the deception began to unravel on Oct. 12, when U.S. and Canadian television stations broadcast an episode of America’s Most Wanted that featured the Bambi saga. The program recounted how Bembenek, while married to former Milwaukee police detective Elfred Schultz, had been convicted of killing his ex-wife, Christine. Several viewers recognized Bembenek as Jennifer, the new waitress at Thunder Bay’s Columbia Grill and Tavern. Five days later, police arrested her. In late October, Bembenek filed a claim to be allowed to remain in Canada as a refugee.
Among the witnesses who appeared at the
hearing to buttress that claim was James Morrison—a former U.S. assistant district attorney. In 1980 and 1981, he led an investigation into allegations that the Milwaukee police department had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. Morrison testified that Bembenek had supplied him with key evidence in that investigation. Morrison added that he dropped his inquiry after her arrest, explaining that “the heart of the investigation had been cut out.”
Another expert witness raised doubts about the validity of Bembenek’s conviction. Said Dr. John Hillsdon-Smith, Ontario’s director of forensic pathology: “It’s difficult not to conclude that this woman has been railroaded.” He said that autopsy records indicated that the impression left on the victim’s back by the rim of a gun muzzle was at least twice as large as the muzzle of the alleged murder weapon—a snub-nosed .38-calibre revolver. Macintosh countered by introducing a July 17 letter from Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a leading American authority on gunshot wounds, who said that enlarged muzzle impressions sometimes result from the stretching of the skin.
The issue of public debauchery arose with testimony from Ira Robins, a Milwaukee private investigator who has spent seven years trying to persuade Wisconsin prosecutors to reopen Bembenek’s case. Robins testified that Bembenek had acquired photographs of several of her fellow officers dancing naked at a public picnic and turned them over to senior police officials. But Macintosh noted that Robins had signed a deal with Bembenek that gave him 25 per cent of the royalties from any book or movie based on the case. Accusing Robins of dealing in “innuendoes,” Macintosh declared that the private eye was “prepared to make the most unsubstantiated, the wildest allegations” in order to promote interest in those projects.
Certainly, the statuesque Bembenek, her once-blond hair now a sedate auburn, attracted unprecedented U.S. media attention with her Canadian case. Vanity Fair magazine, the syndicated tabloid television program Inside Edition and CBS News all sent reporters to Toronto. Bembenek’s parents, Virginia and Joseph, also attended—her mother sometimes sporting a button that read “Keep Bambi Canadian.”
At the conclusion of her testimony last week, Bembenek said that she did not fully understand why members of the Milwaukee police should have conspired against her. “AU I know is that I lost 10 years of my life for something I didn’t do,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. After those remarks, the tribunal adjourned until Sept. 9, when Bembenek will be cross-examined, with a ruling expected later in the fall. In the meantime, Bembenek will remain in custody. Federal adjudicator Carmen DeCarlo last week rejected a request that she be freed on $20,000 bail—half of it posted by her former employer in Thunder Bay. DeCarlo said that, given her record, he had every reason to believe that Bambi might run once again.
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