Editor’s note: Milwaukee private investigator Ira Robins, best known as a pivotal figure in the the sensational, decades-long saga of Laurie Bembenek, died this week at the age of 77. Milwaukee Magazine asked contributing writer Erik Gunn to reflect on the subject of the profile he wrote for the magazine in 2003 [pdf].
I first talked to Ira Robins back in 2002, when I was investigating for this magazine complaints about prominent lawyer Gerald Boyle and his conflicts with a series of clients. Robins was involved in helping one of those estranged clients, but I already knew his name well for his own zealous campaign to clear Laurie Bembenek of her murder conviction in the death two decades earlier of Christine Schultz – the ex-wife of the Milwaukee police detective, Elfred Schultz, to whom Bembenek had been briefly married.
The Boyle story ended up concluding with a pointed quote from Robins that summed up the criticisms of many Boyle critics I had encountered during my reporting.
But in our conversation, it was inevitable that he would bring up the Bembenek case. It struck me then as at least a little quixotic. After all, Bembenek by then had been freed from a life prison sentence in the aftermath of a plea agreement struck after her notorious 1990 prison escape and a subsequent court investigation that had raised grave questions about her initial conviction back in the early 1980s.
Yet here, all those years later, Robins remained steadfastly, passionately convinced that Bembenek, a figure by turns glamorous, enigmatic, strikingly intelligent and ultimately tragic, was not merely innocent but railroaded by the criminal justice system. What drove this plainspoken, brash private investigator with an undeniably short fuse to stick with such determination to a case that many might expect to have finally let lie like the proverbial sleeping dog?
I went to my then editor and professional mentor John Fennell with a proposal that we profile Robins. John was understandably wary at first – what new would there be to report about that old case? His was, I convinced John, a story of such a compelling character that readers couldn’t help but find it gripping just because of his larger-than-life persona. It didn’t matter so much whether he was right, I said – it was his drive and passion that made the story.
As it happened, a new effort to use DNA tests that might cement Bembenek’s innocence was just getting underway, and the result sparked a new round of drama in the case that made the story especially timely. John greenlighted the project, and in the months that followed I interviewed Ira, hung out with him, talked to his prominent client, and made the acquaintance with a couple of lawyers with whom Robins had worked to pursue his clear-Laurie crusade. I also talked to plenty of Robins skeptics and critics.
I went into the project figuring that there would be little reason or benefit to trying to re-litigate the twists and turns of Bembenek’s own legal journey. I could simply tell the story of this compelling, unrelenting crusader while still acknowledging just how much the facts seemed to be stacked against him.
Yet the more I got to know not just Ira but the details of the case that he had painstakingly pulled together – documented instances of lost evidence, mischaracterized ballistics reports that had been key to Bembenek’s original conviction and independently verifiable facts that had not previously been aired in the case – the more I realized that Robins was not merely spinning conspiracy theories out of speculation. I felt compelled – and thankfully, John agreed – to include a section in the piece that laid out the many questions that remain unsatisfactorily answered to this day about Laurie Bembenek’s conviction.
Ira Robins could be hyperbolic and even outrageous in some of the assertions he drew from the facts that he uncovered, but the facts themselves were stubborn things to ignore – as stubborn in their own way as Robins was.
Driven equally by the fire of his convictions and by the irrefutable gaps in the case evidence that he helped uncover, he kept carrying Laurie Bembenek’s banner long after my 2003 story, which had ended on a melancholy note of uncertainty, was published. He carried it up to Bembenek’s death in late 2010 and vowed to continue for as long as he lived.
As I wrote in 2011, Bembenek died having fallen short of winning the vindication she had sought. Many times over the years, Robins told me that he remained determined to continue her struggle until he could definitively demonstrate her innocence – or die trying.
Mary Woehrer, a lawyer who worked with him for decades on Bembenek’s case, last saw Robins just hours before his death, when they discussed his continuing campaign to exonerate Bembenek through a series of podcasts.
“Justice to him was pretty well black and white,” Woehrer said Thursday. Many turned to him when they felt ignored or abused by the legal system but couldn’t afford to pay, she observed. “He gave a lot of his time on a pro-bono basis.”
Robins was notorious among friends and acquaintances for corny jokes and a goofy side, but when it came to his work, he was intensely serious. “He had become pretty irate about the things he saw,” she said. “He wanted the legal system to change how it operated – to admit when they made a mistake. But we’re not geared in the legal system to recognize we’ve made an error and then correct it.”