Among Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek’s friends and family, critics and supporters, few know her better than Wisconsin writer Kris Radish. Radish, a freelance writer, first met the convicted murderer in early 1989, while Bembenek was serving a life term in a Wisconsin prison. Since then, the two women have spoken frequently by telephone and correspond regularly as Radish completes her research for a book about Bembenek’s life. The conversations continued last week, on the day that Canadian officials approved Bembenek’s release from custody. The following day, however, Bembenek was returned to custody following a request from American authorities for her extradition. Radish ’s account:
It is 8:45 a.m. in Toronto. Despite the date—Friday the 13th—it might just be the luckiest day of Lawrencia Bembenek's year. Canadian immigration officials have told Bembenek’s lawyers that she will be allowed to leave the detention centre where she has been held since last April and move to the more relaxed surroundings of a halfway house. But Laurie—the nickname she prefers to the one often used by the media, “Bambi”— is not thinking about luck. Instead, she is thinking about the dozens of times in the past year that she has been close to freedom—close to breathing air that has not been pumped through the dirty vents of a prison. “This is mental torture,” she confides to a journalist she has come to regard as a friend. “If I get my hopes up, if I think I might actually get out of here, and it doesn’t happen, it might be just too much to deal with one more time.”
Fugitive: Several hours later, Laurie Bembenek was released—only, as she had feared, to return to custody within a day. But her few hours of freedom began with an embarrassing moment, as the detention-centre guards instructed her to pack her belongings and prepare to leave. Racing to her cell, Bembenek hastily gathered her collection of notes, her few books and her precious letters into a small pile, then awaited the female guards’ next instructions. When they came, they were unexpected. “You have to change your clothes,” a guard told her. “I don’t have any clothes,” Bembenek replied. “Can’t I wear this?” she asked, pointing to her white tennis shoes without laces, her standard prison-issue blue jeans and her oncewhite T-shirt. But one guard insisted. “Wear your dress,” she said. “Don’t you have a dress that you wore to your hearing?”
Obediently, Bembenek returned to her cell and struggled into one of the two dresses she saves for court appearances—the only articles of clothing in the prison that she actually owned. One of them is a blue dress that she wore at her trial, in 1982, for the murder of her then-husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz.
The guard’s casual reprimand reflected how Bembenek’s life has unravelled since June 25, 1981—the day that Milwaukee police arrested her as the prime suspect in Schultz’s murder. Apart from the three months in 1990 during which she was a fugitive, Bembenek’s life since has been spent under someone else’s control. She remembers little about the early months of her incarceration—except the conviction that at any moment she would awaken from what felt like a bad dream. “My problem is that I trusted everyone,” she says now. “I trusted Fred Schultz [her former husband] and I trusted my attorney. I just knew I would not be convicted of murder or sent to prison, because I did not kill Christine Schultz.”
In March, 1982, however, a Milwaukee jury did convict her, and a Wisconsin circuit court judge handed down a life sentence with no eligibility for parole until 1993. Bembenek was sent to the Taycheedah Correctional Institution at Fond du Lac, Wise. For months, she remained convinced that some terrible error would be discovered in her conviction and she would be released. But as one appeal after another was rejected, hope faded. “After a while, you just can’t get your hopes up,” she recalls. “There would be one appeal and one motion for a new trial after another. And then at the very end, when I would be thinking, ‘Maybe, just maybe,’ everything would fall apart.”
Taste: Finally, after the courts rejected yet another appeal for a new trial in early 1990, she managed to escape from prison that July with the help of Dominic Gugliatto, a Milwaukee factory worker she had met the year before through his sister, a fellow prisoner. They crossed the border into Canada, and in Thunder Bay, Ont., they found an apartment and, soon, work. Using the alias Jennifer Gazzana, Laurie Bembenek waited on tables in a Greek restaurant.
Her brief taste of freedom in 1990 ended last October when Thunder Bay police, acting on a tip inspired by the popular U.S. television crime show America’s Most Wanted, arrested her. Soon after, Bembenek filed an application to remain in Canada as a refugee—a claim she has pressed for the past 11 months. Then, last week, Wisconsin authorities asked Canadian officials to extradite her. Despite the evidence that one of her own customers turned her in to authorities, Bembenek says that she has no grudge against Canada. “Things are different up here,” she says. “The system does not consider you guilty before you are even brought to trial. People here have not prejudged me. They have listened to my story and they have looked at the evidence and the facts.”
That evidence has multiplied since her original trial—and her supporters say that much of it now points away from Lawrencia Bembenek. Dr. John Hillsdon Smith, a top forensic pathologist with the Ontario ministry of the solicitor general, testified before the refugee hearing that the alleged murder weapon, which was in Bembenek’s possession, could not have created the fatal wound. As well, a Milwaukee police report that was not introduced as evidence in Bembenek’s trial shows that Eugene Kershek, Christine Schultz’s divorce lawyer, told the police after her murder that Bembenek’s husband had uttered death threats against Schultz. And Dr. Elaine Samuels, Milwaukee’s associate medical examiner at the time, said after Bembenek’s conviction that she was “disturbed by certain irregularities” in the death investigation and trial.
Other new evidence has buttressed Bembenek’s claims, which were discounted after her conviction, that many of her fellow officers on the Milwaukee police force at the time of Christine Schultz’s murder were breaking the law both on the job and off.
As well, Bembenek draws support from Ira Robins, a blunt, fast-talking ex-cop turned private investigator, who has pursued the new leads on Bembenek’s behalf. He now says that there were two, if not three, unidentified people in Christine Schultz’s home on the night that she was murdered. Robins adds that there are two other prime suspects who had the opportunity and motive to kill Schultz—and that if either possible alternative suspect had been introduced at Bembenek’s 1982 trial, the Milwaukee jury might well have concluded that there was sufficient doubt about the prosecution’s case against her to find Bembenek not guilty. Before her arrest on the weekend in Toronto, Bembenek said that she hoped that the refusal of American authorities to consider the new evidence would convince Canadian officials to let her remain in the country. “I could never get a fair trial in Wisconsin or anywhere in the United States,” she said. “After the way I have been treated all these years, there is absolutely no reason for me to trust anything the authorities there tell me.”
Recreations: Bembenek added that she does not understand why Canadian immigration officials had denied for so long her weekly applications for bail because of the possibility that she might make a second break for freedom as a fugitive. “Why would I want to leave a country that has given me more hope than anything or anybody in the past 10 years?” she asked. “I want to stay in Canada.”
Before her release last week, Laurie Bembenek was working in a hobby class—one of the few recreations available in the crowded detention centre—when she was summoned to another weekly bail review. She expected the review to proceed as all the earlier ones had: her lawyer would ask for bail; bail would be denied. She would remain in prison, fighting back her dreams of playing tennis, sleeping in an unlocked room, doing anything at all without looking over her shoulder.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the immigration official presiding over the hearing recommended her release. “I sat there with tears running down my face,” she confided in a telephone conversation. Prophetically, Laurie Bembenek allowed that her latest taste of liberty might still be withdrawn with as little warning as it was granted. □
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