BAMBI'S SONG— INSIDE AND OUT
CONVICTED KILLER BAMBI BEMBENEK DESCRIBES HER LIFE IN PRISON AND ON THE RUN
Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek is the former Playboy Club waitress and Milwaukee police officer who was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 death of Christine Schultz, former wife of Elfred Schultz. Bembenek had married him four months before. Prosecutors argued that Bembenek, now 33, committed the murder because she resented restrictions placed on her lifestyle by her new husband’s support payments to Christine and their two children. Bembenek, the prosecutors suggested, also wanted to move into Christine Schultz’s house, half of which Elfred Schultz owned.
Since Bembenek was sentenced to life imprisonment 10 years ago, she has claimed that other Milwaukee police officers framed her because she had launched a sexual-discrimination suit against the force—and was the star witness in a related federal investigation. In her suit, Bembenek also made public photographs of an annual police picnic sponsored by a local bar where officers posed nude and associated with drug dealers. After exhausting several avenues of appeal, Bembenek escaped from Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institution in July, 1990, and fled to Canada. The following account of her ordeal has been excerpted from Bembenek’s autobiography, Woman on Trial, published this week by HarperCollins.
When I first got to Taycheedah, I was depressed, but I was also scared, freaked out. As the years passed, I got more and more angry. Taycheedah was in many ways an archaic facility. There was no running water or plumbing in the cells. The female prison population seemed to be living under 18tl -century conditions.
I don’t believe much in hocus-pocus, but those who believe in fate will say something was “meant tc be,” that you’ll meet someone if you are meant to. I met Nick, Dominic Gugliatto, through his sister, Maribeth. She was in Taycheedah, serving a fairly short sentence. We were sitting outside, in a grassy area with picnic tables scattered about, and this guy passed by our table on his way somewhere. He had on white shorts and a white shirt, like a tennis outfit, and my testosterone radar went off right away.
Oooooh, who’s that!!!
“That’s my brother Nick,” Maribeth said.
And I said, “Well, is he gay or is he married?” Because, you know, at my age, that’s all I run into.
“Neither,” she said. “And, by the way, he noticed you, too.”
From Woman on Trial, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright ©1992 by Lawrencia Bembenek.
Maribeth called home and told Nick what I’d said, and he started to write to me, and one thing led to another, as it does in these matters. I was kind of pleased about it, to tell the truth. I was flattered. And excited, too—I was having fun. Nick asked me to call him, and I did, and we agreed he should begin visiting. I put him on my visitors list, and he started to come up. First I grew to like Nick, and then I felt myself falling in love with him. It’s a wonderful feeling, a giddy feeling, but... I was still a prisoner.
In prison, it’s a survival trick to try to eliminate from your life all the things you desire, so it doesn’t hurt that badly. You put your life on hold, you freeze-frame your feelings, you shut down your heart. I thought I had done that. But here I was—my heart hadn’t dried up and blown away as dust after all. I was shocked! And delighted. My pals noticed a change in me at once. I was a lot more open, a lot happier. People would say to me, “You must be in love or something,” and I would just smile. At the same time, I was fighting it because I knew what it would mean. I knew for a lifer, falling in love was ridiculous.
Finally, Nick told me he loved me. We talked about my future—if I would ever get paroled—and he didn’t seem to care about any of that. He asked me to marry him. He’d been hinting that if I got out of prison, he was afraid I wouldn’t need him anymore; he seemed to need the marriage to make himself feel more secure. So I wasn’t really surprised when he popped the question.
There is a rule against sexual conduct anywhere in the institution, of course. The whole issue of consent becomes difficult in prison. If you find two people in bed, well, perhaps they want to be in bed together, but one might just be stronger than the other. In order to prevent rapes that result from grotesque power imbalances, prisons try instead to prevent all sexual conduct whatever. So prisoners cannot kiss or hold hands with another prisoner or you risk being charged and thrown into the hole. Naturally, people try to get around the rules. Understand, these are people who have been deprived of sex for three, eight, 10 years; when you get a visitor and you’re in love, it is only human to want to snuggle, to hug, to touch. Always under the watchful eye of the visitors-room guard.
One day in the spring, the guard saw Nick with his hand on my hip. We must have been goofing around or something, because I don’t even remember the incident. But I got a conduct report on it. They denied me the use of the library; they forbade me to use the telephone; they prevented me from playing tennis on the beaten-up old tennis court.
Complaining about sexual conduct was even more than usually useless. The guards tolerated lesbian behavior. I don’t know why exactly— perhaps because lesbians don’t get pregnant—but the institution consis-
tently discriminated against heterosexuals. You think I’m making this up? Not at all. I watched it closely for nine years, and I know. I wrote to the superintendent: “Why is it that you have lesbian couples visiting, and they’re all over each other, kissing and doing this and that, but you don’t enforce the rules? Why?”
Then my appeal was denied. That was it. The last hope. The tunnel had caved in completely. We came to understand that the only way I would ever live again was to go over the wall. It was a mutual decision. It’s important that you understand. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to take off, decide that I really wanted to get it off with Nick and hit the road. I’d been desperate for so many years, but there had always been one last chance, one last, slim hope that the system of justice would come to its senses, would understand that a travesty had been perpetrated in the name of the law. Instead, like a strangler in the night, they kept hauling the garrote tighter and tighter until... until it was breathe, or die.
When you’re in the same place for nine years, you get to know everything, every inch of every room, everybody’s routines. Human beings are creatures of habit, and one of a prisoner’s habits is watching the watchers. You get to know which guards head for the kitchen for coffee as soon as they come on duty, which ones bury their noses in newspapers or gab on the phone for hours. When you’re planning an escape, you have to know who is going to be on shift. It would be riskier with some people than others.
Ironically, two things helped my escape. The security director insisted that when a prisoner was doing laundry, she had to stay in the laundry room until she was done. It worked to my advantage, because it allowed me to be absent from my floor. And to help me further, the captain was conducting a white-glove building inspection that evening. All the guards were preoccupied with dust-ball reports.
There was a window in the laundry that was not secured. Who knows why? Maybe they’d painted it and forgotten to put the stays back on. But there it was, calling out to me like one of the sirens.
It was about two feet by two feet. It was high off the ground, but I was in wonderful shape because I’d been running five miles every day and doing aerobics four nights a week, not to mention my tennis matches. So there I was, pushing myself through the window, on my way Out. I can honestly say I’ve never been so scared in my entire life. My heart was pounding so hard it was like drums beating in my ears.
In the first few seconds after I got out, I paused in the woods behind to
catch my breath. I wore a leather jacket to protect me from branches in the woods, so I got through the woods without a scratch. Woods at night are always creepy, and when you’re in a hurry, even more so.
I reached the perimeter fence. It was tall, maybe nine or 10 feet, with barbed wire at the top. I became hooked on the barbed wire. It snagged my pants, and I felt it tear into my leg. I yanked at it, and barbs raked my leg, but I freed myself. Later, I saw three or four big gashes in my leg. It looked as though I’d been attacked by a mountain lion—four big claw marks in the flesh. I worried about infection, but it healed eventually.
I was out!
Nick showed up right on time. He pulled up in his truck, I jumped in, and we sped off. To freedom!
It was midmorning by the time we got to Canada. What if news of the escape had been sent by fax to the border? There were some
things in our favor. I was in good shape and I was suntanned, so I didn’t look like the stereotypical jailbird. We were sitting there holding hands like an ordinary couple.
“What’s your business in Canada?” the border officer asked.
Refuge, I wanted to say. “We’re on honeymoon,” I said.
“OK then, have a nice time,” she said, smiling and waving us off.
Why, I was asked later, Thunder Bay? We just landed there. I barely knew how we got there. I just let Nick drive. Thunder Bay was a good choice, I think. In prison, you’re so starved for beauty. I could see Mount Mackay every morning, and in the
other direction, in Lake Superior, there is a huge mound called the Sleeping Giant. If we’d gone directly to Toronto, I would have been lost, unable to cope. We heard about Toronto in Thunder Bay, and all the stories were negative: its cost of living was outrageous, its people harsh and unpleasant. People in Thunder Bay certainly implied that no one in their right mind would want to live there.
That night, we stayed in a hotel.
Fortunately, they never asked for ID.
We paid cash. Hotels made me nervous. Nick said I was paranoid. Prison does that to a person. So we bought some beer and a pizza and looked for news of my escape on TV. Nothing was reported.
One of the things the cruder reporters always seem to want to ask me is,
“Did you make love all night?” And you know what they’re thinking: “Did you have good sex? Did you screw like minks? You’d been without for nine
years—what was it likel” Once, years before, I’d made a facetious remark to a reporter. She’d asked me about the first thing I’d do after I was released, and I said, “Have sex.” I was joking, for God’s sake! But the quote made its squalid way into People magazine and, taken out of context, it winds up making me sound like a nympho. So we were in love, and we went to bed, and in the morning we went and found ourselves an apartment. It was a basement apartment, small and somewhat dark. I picked up the first job I could get—as a cook in a Greek restaurant.
I don’t want to say anything bad about Nick. We were in love, and he was there when I needed him. He helped me get out, and I’m grateful for it. But Nick was like most people—immersed, saturated, in the material world. He was unhappy without a phone, without a VCR, without a stereo, a television, expensive fishing, golfing and hunting gear.
He’s gotta have his White Russians. Being penniless, as we were, depressed him. And we had lots of fights, I’m sorry to say. One night, a Sunday night, I was standing at the bus stop in the rain, weary and footsore. Nick was off fishing, I didn’t know where, and it slowly dawned on me: “What is wrong with this picture? Is this why I escaped from prison? Oh, I’m having so much fun.”
Bembenek and her 34-year-old lover lived under aliases in Thunder Bay, Ont., for three months. Then, in October, 1990, the television show
'I BENT OVER THE BODY...’
Hours after 30-year-old Christine Schultz was murdered on May 28, 1981, Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek accompanied her husband, police officer Elfred Schultz, then 32, to the morgue in the Milwaukee police headquarters to identify the body of his first wife. One month later, police charged Bembenek, then 22, with Christine’s murder. Although Schultz stuck by his wife in the months leading up to and during her trial, he sent a note to Bembenek in Taycheedah Correctional Institution five months after her March, 1982, conviction, which read simply-. “Good luck. Goodbye. ” Schultz has since remarried and now runs a construction company in Cape Coral, Fla.
When we arrived at the morgue, Fred and I were alone with the body. He approached the cold, stainless-steel table. It was dreadful.
Chris was dressed in a pair of panties and a Tshirt with an Adidas logo. Her lifeless hands had been tied at one time, but someone had untied them and long strands of rope hung loosely at her wrists.
A blue scarf was around her neck, and Fred explained that it had been used as a gag. She was about five feet, eight inches and 145 lb.
Fred rolled her body over to look at the bullet wound in her back. It was huge. I wondered if she had been sexually assaulted, since her legs weren’t bound together, but I said nothing.
Fred motioned for me to come closer.
‘Look at this. This is called radial expansion. See how the muzzle of the gun left its imprint in the skin? That gun was right up to her skin.’
I bent over the body to see what Fred was referring to. Various scientific terms I’d learned at the academy came to mind. I remembered being taught that all body fluids settle into the lowest parts of the body after death, giving the skin a bruised appearance in those places.
My mind was numb. I was exhausted. That was Christine in there! That had been Christine!
America’s Most Wanted aired an episode featuring Bembenek ’s trial and prison escape. A customer at the restaurant where Bembenek worked recognized her, and notified police.
I heard a little tap tap tap on the back door. I assumed it was Nick, though I was puzzled. I peeked around, and saw nothing. I came out of the apartment and peered up at the outside door. If the door had been closed, I’d never have answered. Nick had left the door open, and an RCMP cop was standing there. All of a sudden, everybody was there— the RCMP, the local cops, the immigration officers, three jurisdictions. The Thunder Bay cop asked me, “Could I please see your ID?” I dug into my purse. Now, I could have had a gun in there. I didn’t, of course, but he didn’t know that. I also dug into a couple of drawers to pull out some clothing. I mean, I could have had an arsenal in there! If I’d been the desperate criminal everyone thought I was, they’d all have been dead. I was shocked by how casual they were.
One of the cops looked at me and said, “You used to be a cop, didn’t you?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
“Run, Bambi, Run!” he said, and started to laugh.
I watched all this in wonder. These guys were really nice! In the States, we would have been in shackles, in separate cars, on our way to jail in minutes.
That night the news went over the wire, and the next morning I woke up and the tiny Thunder Bay jail was surrounded. Every tripod and satellite dish in the world was there. People magazine was there, all three American networks, Time, Life,
20/20, 60 Minutes, Hard Copy, A Current Affair and Inside Edition. It was a mess. The poor jail didn’t know what was going on.
They were shocked.
A month after her capture,
Bembenek applied to become a refugee in Canada, claiming that she was a victim of persecution under Wisconsin’s justice system. In March, 1991, immigration authorities transferred her to Toronto for the first phase of her refugee hearings. Gugliatto, meanwhile, was quickly deported to the United States, and in September,
1991, found guilty of aiding and abetting escape from lawful custody in Bembenek’s prison break. He stopped writing to Bembenek two months later.
I was transferred to this grim place, Toronto’s Metro West Detention Centre. Population: over 600. One morning, I went out for
“Yard” (a kind of outdoor “airing” given prisoners in this otherwise recreation-free environment). The woman closest to me was covered with home-made tattoos and pus-filled needle track-marks. I found out who she was later—a hard-bitten old con who had spent time in the Prison for Women. Most people knew her as an old lesbian junkie prostitute from the Parkdale area of Toronto. She was a truly repulsive person. I heard her bragging about stealing from her dealer and then stabbing him 15 times. “Yeah, well, I stole 12 grams of heroin from the f—ing goof. ...” A true gem, a charmer.
She’d read about me, and for some reason something clicked in the mush the heroin had made of her brains. She started in—“You f—ing copper ... ”—and she began to spit at me. Her three friends joined in. The last thing I needed just before one of my hearings was to get into a physical altercation in Yard. What if I accidentally hurt this woman? I could already see the headline: “Bembenek kills Canadian inmate.”
A few days later the guards intercepted kites (unauthorized letters)
these people were writing to each other. They were full of death threats. You should have seen them: “We’ll kill her, we’ll stab her in the shower, I’d be proud to go to Segregation for killing a
cop____” Metro West was a
very punitive environment, really tough. The year I had so far spent there was harder than nine years at Taycheedah. Metro West was just a holding tank, a detention centre, never meant for long stays. It’s not equipped to hold inmates for years like prisons are. It has no humanity. Three or four times a week, they line everyone up and you think you’re at Dachau or something. You get strip-searched—the most pointless and dehumanizing of all prison procedures. Cell search in the morning: strip search. After work in the laundry or kitchen: strip
search. After a lawyer’s visit: strip search.
Last week, Bembenek’s stay at that institution neared an end. Federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell signed an extradition order for Bembenek, and U.S. marshals were expected to arrive this week to escort the prisoner back to Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County officials reopened the investigation into Christine Schultz’s murder—and Bembenek ’s conviction.
I Well, now you know me a little better. I’m no Joan of z Arc, no cringing virgin, no ^ saint. I was something of a I wild child, and I made lots of o mistakes. But I’m just a person who would like her life back. Is that so much to ask? □