Judge Finds No Evidence of Official Wrongdoing in ‘Bambi’ Bembenek Case
MILWAUKEE (AP) _ No conspiracy existed to frame former police officer Lawrencia ″Bambi″ Bembenek, but the investigation that led to her murder conviction was marred by ″serious blunders,″ a judge said Thursday.
William J. Haese, a Milwaukee County circuit judge, spent 10 months determining whether evidence-tampering or perjury led to Ms. Bembenek’s 1982 conviction in the slaying of her then-husband’s ex-wife.
″The conspiracy would have had to have been so vast ... it could not have been successfully orchestrated,″ Haese said. ″No fair-minded person could conclude that Lawrencia Bembenek was framed.″
Ms. Bembenek, 34, gained folk-hero status in the city with her claim that police set her up because of her complaints about sexual discrimination and allegations of departmental corruption. Her case generated three made-for- television movies.
Prosecutors said Ms. Bembenek shot Christine Schultz in the back in 1981 so her then-husband, police Detective Elfred Schultz, would no longer have to pay alimony.
Ms. Bembenek, a former Playboy club waitress who was thrown off the police force in 1980 for lying about a friend’s marijuana use, was sentenced to life in prison. She and Schultz were divorced after her conviction.
She escaped in 1990 from a prison near Fond du Lac, about 60 miles from Milwaukee and fled to Canada with her boyfriend at the time, Dominic Gugliatto. Ms. Bembenek’s supporters sold ″Run Bambi Run″ bumper stickers and cardboard cutouts of her face after the escape. She was captured three months later and was returned to Wisconsin in April. Gugliatto was sentenced to a year in prison for helping her escape.
Haese said police mishandled evidence and failed to quickly examine and seize Schultz’s off-duty revolver, which is the gun they say Ms. Bembenek used in the 1981 slaying. He said authorities also failed to properly document the gunshot wound and bullet.
Two pathologists provided statements to Ms. Bembenek’s legal team saying the gunshot wound was made by a gun with a larger barrel than the off-duty revolver.
″These mistakes appear to be the result of inadequate procedures and bad judgment instead of intentional wrongdoing,″ Haese said.
Haese’s responsibility was to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing in the investigation. He said he wasn’t authorized to determine Ms. Bembenek’s guilt or innocence or rule on her request for a new trial.
The independent probe was requested by private investigator Ira Robins, who worked for Ms. Bembenek, and former Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Chelsey Erwin, who has said the gun provided by police at Ms. Bembenek’s trial was not the murder weapon.
Ms. Bembenek’s attorney, Sheldon Zenner of Chicago, said Haese’s probe could help in an appeal for a new trial, which will be filed with a different judge.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Donohoo, whose office prosecuted Ms. Bembenek, said he felt ″somewhat vindicated″ by the findings.