SPECIAL REPORT

A DOWNHILL ROAD

‘SHE HAD A GREAT HOME, GREAT PARENTS’

HILARY MACKENZIE September 23 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

A DOWNHILL ROAD

‘SHE HAD A GREAT HOME, GREAT PARENTS’

HILARY MACKENZIE September 23 1991

A DOWNHILL ROAD

SPECIAL REPORT

‘SHE HAD A GREAT HOME, GREAT PARENTS’

The neatly kept white house sits on a leafy Street on Milwaukee's south side. Inside, the outstretched arms of a brightly colored statue of Jesus Christ embrace a living room decorated in gold shag carpet and flowered velvet couches. The decor reflects the blue-collar tastes and Catholic Polish-American values of the residents: Joseph and Virginia Bembenek, the one a former Milwaukee police officer who left to become a carpenter, the other a career house-wife. There, the couple raised their third daughter, Lawrencia Ann, as they had raised her two older sisters: to honor the flag, respect the law and dream the modest dreams of Middle America.

Recalls Elaine Kelly, a former neighbor of the family: “She had a great home, great parents, a stable middleclass American family: Mom, Dad, dog and apple pie.” It is a very long way indeed from the thick steel doors of the Metro Toronto West Detention Centre where Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek was confined last week while U.S. authorities tried to have her returned to Wisconsin to serve out a life sentence for a vicious 1981 murder.

Thriller: The enigma of how the wholesome girl next door from south Milwaukee became one of America’s most celebrated fugitives has seized the imagination of a continent. On the one hand, Bembenek’s story possesses all the ingredients of a tabloid thriller—qualities that have drawn reporters from half a dozen U.S. national media outlets to her Canadian hearings. But beneath the lurid outlines of Bembenek’s alleged crime, her conviction, escape and recapture, the question of her real character—let alone her guilt or innocence—is more difficult to resolve. “I saw a very, very cold person,” recalls William Vogl, the former Milwaukee homicide detective who arrested her for the first-degree murder of Christine Schultz, her husband’s ex-wife. But others see Bembenek quite differently. Said Betty Murnan-Smith, who taught the imprisoned Bembenek a college-level English course: “She is bright, articulate and has a warm sympathy for other people’s troubles.”

Bom on Aug. 15, 1958, “Laurie” Bembenek, as she is known to her family and close friends, was a gangly tomboy whose childhood held few clues to her controversial future. While attending a neighborhood Catholic grade school, she studied music—learning to play accomplished solos on a sterling silver flute. Later, at Bay View High School, she developed a runner’s lanky grace as a member of the school track team. But the climate of the early 1970s also featured heady parties and the drug-laced residue of the hippie decade. By the time she graduated from high school in 1976, the pretty brunette with the curly, shoulderlength hair had experimented with marijuana, amphetamines and hashish. Her school yearbook records that her graduating class was “zanier than ever.” And Ellie El-Shafei, a highschool friend who recalls swapping recipes and nail polish with Bembenek as a teenager, remembers her as “a little on the wild side—very outgoing and very outspoken.” But, she adds, “You couldn’t help but like her.”

Lacking the academic credits to pursue an interest in becoming a veterinarian, Bembenek took a two-year college course in fashion merchandising and earned pocket money from a variety of brief jobs, including a stint as a fitness instructor. The athletic young woman also lifted weights, ran and played tennis. Friends remember her as a striking bottle blonde with liberal feminist views who delighted in winning arm-wrestling contests with men.

Drugs: In early 1980, Bembenek’s posthigh-school drift seemed to be coming to an end. In March of that year, she won acceptance as a recruit with the Milwaukee police department and entered the force’s academy. Two months later, she graduated, sixth in her class. But Bembenek’s childhood respect for the police was soon put to the test. On the job, she spoke out against the sexual jokes with which veteran male officers harassed female rookies. Later, in sworn depositions to Wisconsin district attorney James Morrison, who at the time was conducting an investigation of the Milwaukee police, Bembenek recounted instances of her male fellow officers selling pornography from their squad cars, accepting oral sex from prostitutes while working overnight shifts on patrol, and frequenting known drug hangouts. On Aug. 25, 1980, barely a month after accepting her badge, Bembenek was fired. She promptly filed a lawsuit claiming that the force had discriminated against her.

But Bembenek’s confrontations with the Milwaukee police were not over. In October of 1980, a girlfriend gave her photographs of several Milwaukee officers dancing nude in public at an annual picnic sponsored by a city tavern. Bembenek passed the pictures on to the Milwaukee department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. In the weeks that followed, several troubling incidents suggested to Bembenek that her activism against the boorish antics of her former colleagues had made her some lasting enemies. The tires of her car were slashed. A dead rat was left on the car’s windshield. Anonymous late-night telephone callers told her— falsely—that her mother was dead. The incidents left the 22-year-old deeply shaken. “She was just beside herself,” recalls Virginia Bembenek.

Unemployed and with her police career in tatters, Bembenek found work as a waitress near Milwaukee at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club—a decision that would later undercut her wholesome image and lead to tabloid headlines that blared, with more volume than accuracy, “Playboy Bunny turns killer.”

Violence: Then, in December, 1980, a fateful encounter took place. At a friend’s home, Bembenek met a strapping, self-assured veteran Milwaukee detective, Elfred (Fred) Schultz, who was 11 years older than the impressionable policewomantumed-waitress. Among his fellow officers, Schultz had a reputation for hard partying and vulgarity. “He was obnoxious and he’d brag about it,” recalls one former Milwaukee policewoman. But Bembenek saw none of Schultz’s flaws. “Nothing anyone could say about Fred would change my mind about how I felt,” Bambi said. “I fell under his spell.” On Jan. 30,1981, the two married.

But there was more that Bembenek had yet to learn about her new husband. Just two months before marrying her, Schultz had been divorced by his previous wife, Christine, who had objected to his womanizing and had complained to friends about his violent temper. On May 5, 1981, Christine Schultz visited her lawyer to complain that her ex-husband was failing to make support payments—and had told her in the course of an argument, “I’m going to blow your fucking head off.”

Twenty-three days later, on May 28,1981, someone shot Christine Schultz once, fatally, in the back, in the home that she shared with her two children by Schultz. On June 25, Milwaukee police arrested Bembenek for the murder. On March 9, 1982, a Milwaukee court found her guilty of first-degree murder—and sentenced her to life imprisonment.

Did she do it? Elfred Schultz, who resigned from the Milwaukee police force seven months after the murder and now runs a prosperous construction business in Florida, is uncompromising in his view that his second wife killed his first. Said Schultz: “She pulled the fucking trigger.” Ex-homicide detective Vogl, chain-smoking as he spoke to Maclean’s in the seedy Five and Dime Bar on Milwaukee’s Water Street, also asserted her guilt. Bembenek, Vogl declared, “has the constitution to do a cold-blooded, deliberate murder.”

Pain: A small legion of Bembenek’s supporters dispute that conclusion with equal vigor. Most of those who have reviewed the evi¡2 dence stored in two cardée board boxes in the basement £ of the Milwaukee district attorney’s office claim instead that Bembenek was framed by former fellow police officers angry at her embarrassing disclosures about the department. “Laurie was a rebel and a feminist who turned the suits on the police department,” says Bembenek’s former English professor, Muman-Smith. Bembenek’s most loyal supporters are her parents. “Her pain is our pain,” Virginia Bembenek, now 66, said last week. “We have mortgaged our house and spent all our life savings [in attempts to reverse her conviction]. We believe in her innocence.”

Whether Canada’s courts ultimately accept the verdict of the U.S. justice system that Bembenek is guilty or decide instead that there is sufficient doubt about the matter that she should be allowed to remain in the country, the life that she once dreamed of leading has now been tragically transformed. Since her arrest in 1981, she has spent all but three months of the past ten years behind bars. Writing last year from her prison cell in Wisconsin to a friend, she reflected: “A writer asked me last summer what I would do differently. I should have told her that this time I would have pulled the trigger when I had that Smith & Wesson in my mouth nine years ago. Sometimes, I want it all to end so bad I want to die.”

Last week, Bembenek’s tangled life took two new twists—both unexpected—as Canadian officials first authorized her release on bail, then re-arrested her in response to a U.S. request for her extradition. With her guilt—or innocence—still as clouded as ever, the pain of Lawrencia Bembenek’s ordeal became ever more intense.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Milwaukee