A WOMAN OF MYSTERY FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM AGAINST A U.S. MURDER CHARGE
A WOMAN OF MYSTERY FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM AGAINST A U.S. MURDER CHARGE
It happened on May 28, 1981, just as spring was dissolving into summer in the city of Milwaukee. Asleep in their bunk beds were Sean Schultz, 11, and his seven-year-old brother, Shannon. In the bedroom next door, their 30-year-old mother, Christine, wearing a yellow T-shirt and beige panties, also slept soundly. But at about 2 a.m., an intruder awakened the two boys, putting one gloved hand over Sean’s mouth and looping a cord around his neck. The youngster struggled to break the smothering hold. Then, suddenly, the stranger set Sean free and ran to the other bedroom. There, the intruder pressed a .38-calibre revolver into Christine’s right shoulder blade, pulled the trigger and fired a 200-grain, policeissue Speer bullet through the lower lobe of her right lung—and into her heart. The killer fled. Sean first retrieved a cloth in an attempt to stop his dead mother from bleeding, then phoned a family friend and cried pathetically, “Someone hurt Mommy and put a firecracker on her back.”
The woman convicted of that monstrous crime in an 11-day trial in 1982 hardly projected a ruthless figure. At the time of the shooting, Lawrencia Bembenek was a blond, 23-year-old security guard who had once posed as a pin-up girl for the Schlitz Brewing Co., worked as a waitress in a Playboy Club and acquired the nickname Bambi during a brief career with the Milwaukee police department. Since the trial, while Bembenek served a life sentence for the crime, she claimed tirelessly that she was the victim of a frame-up engineered by her own former fellow police officers. Then, last summer, after three unsuccessful appeals of her conviction, she made a dramatic prison break, fleeing to Canada. Last October, authorities apprehended her in Thunder Bay, Ont. Since then, she has made her claim to innocence the basis for an application to remain in Canada as a refugee—at the same time as the tabloid sex appeal of the case has elevated her to the status of international celebrity. And last week, her saga took yet another dramatic turn: released one day, she was re-arrested the next and faced an extradition hearing that could return her to Wisconsin.
Bail: For the past 11 months, Canadian immigration authorities kept Bembenek, now 33, in detention pending the outcome of hearings into her refugee claim. But on Sept. 12, an immigration official reviewing her detention at a Toronto correctional facility ordered her release on $10,000 bail. Previously, the official presiding over her case—immigration adjudicator Carmen DeCarlo—had denied Bembenek bail because, he said, her previous prison break indicated that she would likely attempt to elude authorities again. But last week, DeCarlo, a member of the striking Public Service Alliance of Canada, was walking a picket line—and the review of Bembenek’s detention fell to another adjudicator.
But other officials in the immigration department clearly shared DeCarlo’s concerns. They delayed Bembenek’s release for nearly 24 hours while justice department lawyers hurriedly sought a Federal Court order to extend her detention—and Bembenek’s half-dozen lawyers just as urgently strove to have her released. Finally, Bembenek walked free—under a promise to appear for a refugee hearing next month.
Her taste of liberty was sweet, but short. Bembenek spent her first night of comparative freedom in a downtown Toronto halfway house that has an early-evening curfew. But even as she slept, Canadian officials were processing an application from the Wisconsin justice department for her immediate extradition. The next day, in a hastily arranged and extraordinary Saturday morning hearing in an Ontario court, a federal prosecutor acting on Wisconsin’s behalf successfully sought a new warrant for Bembenek’s arrest—and she was taken into custody by the RCMP.
The sudden reversal prompted one senior immigration officer familiar with Bembenek’s case, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to suggest that senior Canadian officials may have urged U.S. authorities to initiate Bembenek’s extradition last week in order to thwart her refugee application. Bembenek has argued that she should not be returned to the United States, where she may face up to eight more years in jail, because she was wrongfully convicted—and her lawyers have submitted boxes of new evidence to bolster that claim. But the official noted that her refugee application has, in effect, invited officials to retry her murder conviction—a matter that is beyond the expertise and authority of refugee panels. Even if Bembenek had been wrongfully convicted by a Milwaukee jury, the official added, it would not constitute persecution by the U.S. government—and would not entitle her to refugee status. “That happens all the time in a democracy, and even in our own legal system,” said the official. “Her claim should have been nipped in the bud.”
Still, Bembenek’s appeal for asylum may be her last hope for justice. According to testimony during her trial, Bembenek, the daughter of a Polish-American carpenter, was drawn into an eerie world of hookers, drug dealers and illicit police conduct when she married Milwaukee police Det. Elfred Schultz in January, 1981—two months after Christine Schultz had divorced him. The prosecution at Bembenek’s original trial won her conviction by arguing that she killed her husband’s ex-wife because the $800 in monthly child-support and alimony payments that Elfred was required to pay Christine hampered their lifestyle. But after four days of deliberation, a jury found Bembenek guilty on the basis of evidence that presiding Judge Michael Skwierawski called “the most circumstantial. .. I’ve ever seen.”
For their part, Bembenek’s supporters and lawyers have put forward evidence suggesting several other suspects in the murder—among them, Elfred Schultz. The former cop quit the Milwaukee force six months after Bembenek’s arrest, and was called as a prosecution witness in her 1982 trial. After his wife’s conviction, Schultz tearfully swore his continued loyalty to her. But new evidence has cast doubt on his sincerity. According to his Milwaukee police department personnel record, which Bembenek’s attorneys obtained using a court order earlier this year, Schultz was the subject of an internal department investigation for perjury in a separate trial at the time of his resignation. Even more significant, he was granted immunity from possible charges in exchange for testifying against Bembenek.
Whether Bembenek is guilty or innocent, she clearly was a source of trouble for the Milwaukee police department—which is embroiled in several other controversies, including one that surrounds its failure to quickly apprehend confessed youth-killer Jeffrey Dahmer (page 28). After Bembenek had been on the force for five months, the department fired her for allegedly lying in a police report. Bembenek denies that charge. She counters that the department hired women and visible minorities—and then arbitrarily fired them—only to satisfy federal quotas and to take advantage of employmentequity grants. At a hearing into Bembenek’s refugee claim last month, former U.S. district attorney James Morrison, now a lawyer in private practice, testified that Bembenek was his star witness in an investigation into the force’s employment practices at the time of Christine Schultz’s murder. Morrison added that he dropped his inquiry after Bembenek’s arrest. “The heart of the investigation had been cut out,” he said.
Now, Bembenek must wage legal battles on two fronts. In one arena, she is scheduled to pursue her refugee claim during seven days of hearings beginning on Oct. 17; a decision is not expected until next year. At the same time, she must fight the efforts of U.S. authorities to extradite her in a separate series of hearings this month in Ontario Court. Ten years and five months after Christine Schultz’s murder, Bambi Bembenek’s fight to go free may finally be decided by Canadian justice.
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