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The lesser-known story of a Playboy bunny who escaped prison and fled the country to clear her name of murder is getting the true-crime podcast treatment.
“Run, Bambi, Run” is the name of the new Apple Original podcast by Campside Media, chronicling the nationwide movement set forth by Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek’s daring escape from a Wisconsin prison in 1990. Bembenek, who was serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of her husband’s former wife, would go on to become the beautiful face of the femme fatale stereotype.
The tabloid fixation once even garnered the attention of Diane Sawyer, who called the story “the most glamorous murder case” of the 1980s, according to the podcast’s website.
Journalist and author Vanessa Grigoriadis spoke with Oxygen.com about the eight-part series, which airs Monday nights on Apple Podcasts.
“Part of why she was convicted was because of her femme fatale image, which didn’t really fit who she was,” said Grigoriadis. “Her looks certainly played into the narrative about her. A lot.”
Bembenek was a one-time Playboy bunny — in that she worked as a waitress at one of the company's clubs — who joined the Milwaukee Police Department in 1980, as featured in a 2020 episode of Oxygen’s “Snapped." If the decision to go from sex symbol to cop wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, her termination was. Friends said Benbenek was fired for not reporting an incident where she allegedly witnessed a friend smoking marijuana at a concert.
Bembenek toyed with the idea of filing a discrimination suit against the department, claiming women and minorities were subjected to harsher penalties than their white, male counterparts.
“A lot of the ‘Run, Bambi, Run' podcast is about how unique Laurie was and how the world’s reaction towards her was kind of warped by her beauty because she was a stunning woman,” Grigoriadis told Oxygen.com. “She put herself in this male environment [with the] police, and she was treated very strangely because of her looks, at that time.”
During her brief time on the force, then-21-year-old Bembenek met 13-year police veteran Fred Schultz, who’d recently separated from his wife, Christine. Fred — who was nicknamed “Disco” — was painted as a philanderer with whom Christine had grown sick and tired.
Bembenek and Schultz married shortly after they began dating, in what friends described as a “very whirlwind” romance.
Then, in the early morning hours of May 28, 1981, the Schultzes’ 11-year-old son — living at his mother's home — woke to a masked intruder trying to place a rope around his neck. After the boy screamed, the intruder went into Christine’s bedroom, after which the child and his brother heard a loud bang.
The son found Christine shot to death in her room, her hands tied with a clothesline, and gagged by a bandana.
Fred came under suspicion first, after his son claimed the masked intruder was a man. Fred, it seemed, had lied about working a case when he was actually drinking on the job at a local pub.
Bembenek, for her part, said she was asleep at home alone.
Later ballistic tests revealed that one of Fred’s police-issued firearms matched the gun used to kill Christine — a gun to which Bembenek allegedly had access.
Authorities soon focused in on Bembenek after a neighbor of hers complained of a clogged pipe. It turned out that the pipe was obstructed by a wig that matched hairs found on Christine’s body.
That wig would be a focal point at Bembenek’s subsequent trial.
“Her trial was incredibly unfair,” said Grigoriadis. “There was this idea that the killer was wearing a wig, and the main witness against Laurie actually took the wig and stuffed it down the toilet so it could be found. It was that level of absurd. She really got a raw deal in the trial.”
Many believed in Bembenek’s innocence.
“There was a big outcry among people who thought she was innocent at that time,” said Grigariadis. “That she had been so screwed.”
Bembenek was found guilty in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison. Fred Schultz remarried and moved to Florida, where he eventually announced his belief that Bembenek was, in fact, responsible for killing the mother of his children.
For eight years, Bembenek’s appeals were rejected.
Then, on July 15, 1990, she escaped the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, by sneaking out the window of a laundry room. She scaled the barbed-wire fence and was picked up by her new fiancé, Dominic Guglietti. She said later that she intended to clear her name.
“She believed she had been wronged,” Grigoriadis told Oxygen.com. “She was going to stop at nothing to right her name.”
Bembenek’s mad dash prompted supporters nationwide to begin a movement to decry Bembenek’s conviction.
“There was a ‘Run, Bambi, Run’ movement by people who printed up bumper stickers, a picture with Bambi the deer running away with a ball and chain on Bambi’s ankle, and there were rallies,” said Grigoriadis. “There was a lot of feeling at that time that she had been railroaded.”
Bembenek and Guglietti were eventually captured in Ontario, Canada, after being featured on “America’s Most Wanted.” She was extradited and placed in solitary confinement.
Bembenek, who had claimed before her extradition that the Milwaukee police had framed her for murder, was subjected to a new "John Doe" investigation that found significant legal issues with her trial, albeit no conspiracy, according to Milwaukee Magazine. After her lawyers filed a new appeal based on the report, the district attorney offered a new deal: She would plead no contest to second degree murder in exchange for the courts vacating her initial conviction and releasing her on time served.
Having spent seven months in solitary at that point, she accepted the deal, according to the magazine. And because her plea prohibited her from appealing, she was never able to clear her name
In 2006, despite evidence that showed Bambenek had left no DNA at the scene, the ballistics from her ex-husband's gun to which she had access didn't match the bullets that killed Christine and the crime lab had initially classified the murder as a possible sexual assault case because of the DNA that was there, the state appeals court ruled that her plea agreement prohibited the courts from reconsidering her conviction, Milwaukee Magazine reported.
She passed away in 2010 of liver and kidney failure at age 52.
The “Run, Bambi, Run” podcast hopes to dispel the wrongdoings in Bembenek’s conviction while separating the real woman from the image that painted Bembenek in an inaccurate light.
“She was a feminist, and she was a partier. She was beautiful, and she was a cop. She was a Playboy bunny, but she was very self-serious,” said Grigoriadis. “There were just a lot of different aspects of her that are complicated.”
Today, the question remains: was Bambi a cold-blooded killer or an American folk hero?
Catch up on the “Run, Bambi, Run” podcast before the final episode airs Monday, May 23.
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