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Laurie Bembenek became infamous after she was accused of killing her husband's first wife. But in a case that included multiple trials and a prison break, Bembenek always maintained her innocence. Is Bembenek a cold-hearted killer, or the victim of a set-up?
Born in 1958, Lawrencia Ann Bembenek grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a carpenter who briefly worked as a cop.
“Laurie,” as she was known to friends, was intelligent with a fierce independent streak. A tomboy in her youth, she became a stunningly beautiful woman, tall and slender with striking bleach blonde hair.
Wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps, Bembenek enrolled in the Milwaukee Police Academy, but Bembenek hadn’t been on the force for more than a month when she was fired in the fall of 1980.
“There was an incident with marijuana at a concert at the Milwaukee arena,” longtime friend JoAnne Shields told Oxygen's "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen. “She had to file a report as an off-duty police officer and from what I know what she told me is that she was let go and fired for filing a false report. I guess, in my mind, she tried to not incriminate certain friends and wanted to be a friend in return but it kind of backfired.”
Afterward, Bembenek worked as a security guard at Marquette University and as a physical trainer, but she wasn't able to move past her brief time with the Milwaukee PD yet.
Following her dismissal from the Milwaukee PD, Bembenek discussed filing a discrimination complaint against the department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to a 2011 article in the periodical Milwaukee Magazine. She claimed women and minority recruits were disciplined for minor infractions while their white male counterparts flouted department rules with impunity.
Bembenek then provided the EEOC with photographs of Milwaukee PD officers cavorting in the nude at a wild drunken party. One of the officers in the pictures was Detective Elfred "Fred" Schultz, the Associated Press reported in 1991.
Fred was a 13-year veteran of the Milwaukee Police Department with a wife, Christine, and two sons. He also had a reputation as a hard-partying ladies man. “His nickname was ‘Disco.’ He was a clubber, he liked to dance. That kind of thing,” Shields told producers.
Schultz's wife, Christine, was a stay-at-home mom, but by 1980 she was done with his philandering ways. The couple would divorce in November 1980.
The following month, Bembenek, who had been in a depression since she was fired, started dating Fred, who was roughly 10 years her senior. Despite the fact he was in one of the incriminating photos she provided to the EEOC, the couple fell passionately in love. A month after that, in January 1981, they were married.
“It was very whirlwind. She was swept off her feet,” Shields told producers.
But then, tragedy struck.
At 2:15 in the morning on May 28, 1981, Fred and Christine Schultz’ 11-year-old son, Sean, was awoken when a masked intruder tried to place a rope around his neck. He screamed and woke up his 8-year-old brother, Shannon.
The attacker next ran into Christine's bedroom and Sean heard a loud bang, according to court records. As the intruder ran out the door, Sean ran to his mother and found her bound and gagged. She wasn’t moving.
“She had a bullet hole in her back that was fired so close that she had burns around the wound,” former Milwaukee Police Department Detective Lieutenant Bill Vogl told producers.
One of Christine’s wrists was bound with a clothesline and she had been gagged with a bandanna tied around her face. A single strand of red hair-like material was found on her leg and other hairs were recovered from her gag, according to court documents.
Downstairs, Sean gave detectives a description of his mother’s killer. He said it was a man with broad shoulders and a red ponytail, wearing a green top, possibly a jogging suit, and low-cut black shoes, similar to those worn by police officers.
Suspicion immediately fell upon Fred. In his initial statement to police, Fred lied about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. Fred claimed he had been working a case but it turned out he was drinking on the job at a local bar.
“When I start doing a background on where he was during the course of the night, it started getting holes in it,” Vogl told producers.
Bembenek, meanwhile, claimed she was home alone sleeping at the time of the murder, and said she had been packing earlier that night, as she and Fred were moving to a new apartment the following month.
But then a break came in the case. On June 10, 1981, Fred and Bembenek’s former neighbor at their old place called a plumber to complain about a clogged pipe. The plumber found a wig caught in a drainage pipe, fibers from which were consistent with the hairs found on Christine's leg.
The following week, Fred Schultz submitted his off-duty firearm, a .38 caliber pistol he kept at home to be examined. He said the only other person who had access to it was his wife, Bembenek. Initial ballistics tests matched it to the bullet that killed Christine Schultz.
Detectives zeroed in on Bembenek as Fred did indeed have an alibi for the night of the murder, even if it was shaky and he had initially lied. They arrested Bembenek at her job at Marquette University on June 24, 1981, and charged her with the murder of Christine Schultz, according to Milwaukee Magazine. Police searched her work locker and found a hairbrush which contained hairs that were consistent to those found on the bandana used to gag the victim.
In March 1982, Bembenek went on trial for the murder of Christine Schultz. Prosecutors alleged she killed Christine because she was angry about the alimony payments Fred was forced to pay his ex-wife. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Following Bembenek’s conviction, Fred divorced her and moved to Florida, where he remarried and started a carpentry business. He later said he absolutely believed his second wife was guilty of murdering his first, telling the Chicago Tribune in 1990, ''I think she did it for both of us.''
Bembenek, however, maintained her innocence throughout her incarceration, saying she had been targeted by the Milwaukee Police Department for speaking out against its discriminatory practices. And while suspicion persisted that Fred was somehow involved, he could never be connected to the murder of his first wife.
After eight years in prison and numerous appeals being rejected, Bembenek broke out of Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institution on July 15, 1990. She snuck out a laundry room window, scaled a barbed wire fence, and ran to a waiting car driven by her fiancé Dominic Guglietti.
The nickname “Bambi,” which the press had given Bembenek during her trial and which she personally despised, now became a rallying cry, as supporters flooded a Milwaukee park to show their support a week after her escape. Over 200 attended the rally, many of them wearing shirts that read, “Run Bambi Run,” the Associated Press reported at the time.
But Bembenek's freedom was short-lived. After hiding out for three months, Bembenek and Guglietti were apprehended in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The television show “America’s Most Wanted” had done a segment on the couple and they were spotted by an American tourist who notified police.
“When they did get her back, she was in solitary for a year, but then, through that year, these attorneys worked on her case,” Shields told producers.
Bembenek eventually agreed to drop her appeal in exchange for her case being reexamined, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time. Bembenek’s attorneys found numerous irregularities in the original murder investigation, including the handling of the murder weapon. While a judge ultimately found no evidence of “intentional wrongdoing,” he agreed the case was rife with “inadequate procedures and bad judgment,” the Associated Press reported then.
In December 1992, Laurie Bembenek agreed to plead no contest to second-degree murder, according to The New York Times. In exchange, her life sentence was reduced to 20 years and she was released from prison for time served.
Bembenek wasn't satisfied with that, though. She and her legal team worked tirelessly over the ensuing years to clear her name, and she did find compelling evidence to support her case. In reexamining the evidence, male DNA was found at the crime, raising the possibility of a sexual assault, and new ballistics tests revealed the gun Bembenek supposedly used was not the murder weapon, according to Milwaukee Magazine.
However, Bembenek would not live to be acquitted. She died from liver and kidney failure on Nov. 20, 2010, at the age of 52. Her attorney, Mary Woehrer, continues to seek a posthumous pardon for her to this day.
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