Bambi's Run Is Done
There's a reason "CSI" and "Law And Order" draw big crowds.
We love a mystery.
Make it a real-life drama with an attractive suspect, a botched investigation, more questions than answers and you'll understand why we remained fascinated with Laurie (don't call me "Lawrencia") Bembenek.
She died Sunday at the age of 52 minus the pardon she and her supporters were hoping Governor Doyle would grant her before he left office.
I was news director at WQFM when Christine Schultz was murdered (isn't amazing that, after all this time, THIS is seemingly the only picture we have of this woman?).
The station was walking distance from the Courthouse, so I dipped in during the trial. I remember thinking that her attorney, Donald Eisenberg, wasn't doing a very good job of making a case for his client's innocence and was struck at how poorly Bembenek did on the witness stand, especially when it came time to explain where she was when Schultz was being shot in the back. Some never heard a word she said on the stand, taken aback instead by Bembenek's wardrobe choice that day.
The jury would find her guilty, and Bembenek would go to Taycheedah. The hubub, wouldn't die.
Husband Fred would promptly roll over on his wife, saying that he thought Bembenek did indeed kill his ex-wife. Schultz would leave the area, moving south and granting the occasional interview whenever Bemebenek's name popped back into the news.
With Bembenek came an entire cast of characters--Laurie's friend, Judy Zess, and the bodybuilder boyfriend, Fred Horenberger who would make jailhouse confessions to the Schultz slaying before dying in a police standoff.
Then there was the list of men who seemingly would do ANYTHING for Bembenek--Schultz, who was her most ardent advocate before the trial, became Larry "The Legend" Johnson's virtual on-air sidekick at the old WZUU, telling anyone who'd listen of his wife's innocence. Next came Dominic Gugliatto who would go from mild-mannered husband and regular guy to Bembenek's accomplice in her 1990 jail break. How about private investigator Ira Robbins who made exonerating Bembenek his life's work, right up until the day she died? What did Bembenek have? "Laurie has this bizarre charisma. . . . But . . . she needs help," her sister, Collette,once told the Journal/Sentinel.
Bembenek celebrated the spotlight, when it could be used to her advantage. Being "Bambi" became her defacto career after she pled no contest and got sprung from prison at her second trial, her run in the sun ending with a bizarre fall while awaiting an appearance on "Dr. Phil". It cost her a leg, and forced her into virtual seclusion until Mike Jacobs won a spot on her couch and a chance at what turned out to be her last interview a few weeks ago.
She again professed her innocence but wouldn't/couldn't say who pulled the trigger, which struck me as strange, given all the time that passed. After all, in the course of proving your own non-involvement, don't you then have to come up with someone else with better motive and opportunity?
Bembenek never did.
Those who argue "conspiracy" can certainly weave together a compelling string of police mistakes, botched evidence, and likely suspects. Frame-ups take a lot of work, though, and require a ton of people. Folks seldom keep secrets. The more widespread the operation, the more likely there is to be a leak. Setting Bembenek up would've involved police, the DA, the medical examiner's office and others, not to mention the actual trigger-person. That's a lot of lips to remain zipped over the course of nearly 30 years. It's not impossible, but the odds are pretty damn slight.
Bembenek's life was at some points an open book and at others a mystery of her own creation. A panel of her peers found her guilty in 1982, but the jury that is the rest of the world can judge her based on her choices--the circles she travelled in, the people she kept close, the reasons she allowed some into her world and those she excluded.
"We were just raised differently," said sister Colette in 2003. "When Laurie was born, we all danced around and accommodated the baby that lived and survived. She was raised with indulgence. It became an emotional problem."
And, for some in Milwaukee, she became an obsession, one that may not end even with her death.