Playboy bunny who was jailed for killing her husband's ex-wife -- a crime she always maintained she didn't commit
Published 28/11/2010 | 05:00
Laurie Bembenek, who died on November 20 aged 52, was the former Playboy bunny and police officer convicted in 1982 of murdering her husband's ex-wife, in a case that became an American cause celebre.
Beautiful and delicately featured -- her friends called her "Bambi" -- Laurie Bembenek always maintained her innocence and, eight years into her sentence she escaped and fled to Canada.
As a fugitive she became a folk hero to her supporters, who sold T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan: "Run Bambi Run".
Three months later she was recaptured, and in a complex plea bargain prosecutors agreed to release her, taking into account the time she had already served. By pleading "no contest" to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, Laurie Bembenek gave up her right to appeal and was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
The murder victim, Christine Schultz, had been shot dead after being bound and gagged at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 28, 1981.
Laurie Bembenek, then married to Elfred 'Fred' Schultz, was charged with the murder a few weeks later. She had recently been sacked from the police; her husband, a detective, resigned from the force in December 1981.
At Laurie Bembenek's trial, witnesses said she had talked about having Christine killed because of the crippling alimony payments Fred was forced to make. Evidence suggested that the murder weapon was a service revolver belonging to Fred Schultz.
While the assistant Attorney General, Robert Kraemer, portrayed Laurie Bembenek as a woman addicted to "the fast life", her own attorney, Donald Eisenberg, argued that his client had been framed, and in the course of a four-hour closing argument quoted the Bible and Pope Paul VI. But at the end of her 15-day trial Laurie Bembenek was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Lawrencia Bembenek was born in Milwaukee on August 15, 1958, the youngest daughter of a doting middle-class family. After Bay View High School, where she had been an accomplished flautist, she worked as a model, and for three weeks was employed as a waitress at the Playboy Club in the ski resort of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
In 1980 she joined the Milwaukee police force, but was sacked during her probationary period and brought a sexual discrimination complaint against the department. She married Detective Fred Schultz, who had recently divorced his wife Christine, early in 1981.
Laurie Bembenek escaped from prison in 1990 by squeezing through a tiny laundry-room window. She was recaptured at Thunder Bay, Ontario, after being featured on the television show America's Most Wanted.
After her release on probation she was arrested for possession of marijuana, filed for bankruptcy, and admitted to a drink problem. Her case became the subject of a book and a 1993 television special, Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story, starring Tatum O'Neal in the title role.
In 2002, after completing her parole, Laurie Bembenek sought to clear her name by having evidence from the murder scene subjected to DNA tests. A television show called Dr Phil agreed to conduct the expensive testing, with the results to be revealed on air.
According to her lawyer, Laurie Bembenek was sequestered in an apartment in Los Angeles by the programme's producers -- apparently to shield her from media reports about her case.
But the confinement reminded her of prison and triggered a panic attack. As she tried to escape from a second-floor window by sliding down a bed sheet, she fell and her right foot had later to be amputated.
She then tried repeatedly to clear her name, and a petition for a full pardon remains before the Wisconsin state governor, Jim Doyle. In a recent television interview, shortly before being treated for the liver failure that killed her, she was asked to rate her life on a scale of one to 10.
"Two," she replied.
"It's been that bad?" asked the reporter.
Laurie Bembenek is survived by a former husband, Martin Carson. Her family intend to continue seeking a pardon on her behalf.