She lived a tabloid life as a convicted murderer and femme fatale. But the real Laurie Bembenek was a quiet, thoughtful woman who yearned for love – and for justice.
This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The oil on canvas is a study in deep purple. On a nightmarish night, we see a harrowing, half-shaded face with a smooth wave of flowing hair and a crown of thorns. Lightning bolts streak the background. A single tear, barely glistening, flows from the deep purple emptiness where an eye should be.
The Christ-like picture tells a thousand-word tale of torture, loss and isolation.
It was painted by Laurie Bembenek.
Surely the woman who made it was pouring out her anguish over her tragic life. Surely this somber painting shows the tears of one who spent a decade in prison, who fought in vain to clear her name, who through that battle lost a foot, lost her parents, and ultimately lost even the fragile grip she held on her life.
But the curious thing is that Laurie Bembenek created this vision of suffering long before her murder conviction, long before she went to prison, long before her many years spent trying to prove her innocence. She painted it in high school.
Maybe it was a prophecy.
Her three-month escape set in motion a remarkable series of events that would free her for good. Four books and two TV movies about her story, along with at least three TV documentaries and countless other media reports, further stoked the flames of fame.Bembenek was a media sensation from the moment she was accused in the 1981 killing of her then-husband’s ex-wife until her death at age 52 in November of 2010. Her beauty and the sensational nature of the crime fueled her celebrity. Though convicted and sentenced to life, many came to doubt her guilt, and eight years later, after an audacious jailbreak, there were public rallies cheering her on with cries of “Run, Bambi, Run!”
But it’s one thing to release the person, another to liberate the soul. Weighed down by notoriety in her hometown, an ex-con dogged by her past, Bembenek went west, hoping to build a new life.
In Vancouver, Wash., Bembenek found new friends and a new job, counseling other women who’d run afoul of the law. And after a pair of notoriously failed romances, she found new love.
She gained a measure of respite from the spotlight as well. Yet she continued to be dogged by bad luck and never won the official stamp of innocence she so desperately sought. She never found peace in her lifetime.
For Bembenek, peace came with death. Absolution may take much longer – if it ever comes at all.
Lawrencia Bembenek’s beauty was always a conundrum. It sometimes opened doors for her and – along with her charismatic personality – helped fuel her popularity with the many supporters who came to believe her innocence. But it was also made to order for tabloid portrayals of a femme fatale. “So much garbage has been written about me and how I look, as if that’s all there is,” she would write in Woman on Trial, her 1992 autobiography.
When Bembenek died, news headlines and lead paragraphs cast in concrete a lifelong lie: “Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Playboy bunny,” as The New York Times described her.
Except that Bembenek, who worked a mere three weeks as a waitress at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club, was never officially a bunny. Nor, as she wrote in her autobiography, did she ever pose nude – despite the false memories of many who were sure they’d seen her in a centerfold. She did once pose for a Schlitz beer calendar, but with clothes definitely on.
She grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee, the youngest of three daughters to Joseph Bembenek – a carpenter who, for a time, had worked as a cop – and his wife, Virginia.
“I had a happy childhood,” she wrote. But early on, she showed an independent streak – challenging a priest at her Catholic grade school who appeared to take an unseemly interest in the bodies of her and her 12-year-old female classmates. One day, he lost his temper, swearing and calling her a “slut” when she didn’t even know what the word meant. She hoped her parents would challenge the school authorities, but resisted their inclination to pull her out of the school. “It would be admitting I’d done something wrong, and I hadn’t,” she wrote. “It was my first really powerful lesson in independence.”
A rebellious teen, she transferred from the Catholic all-girls school, St. Mary’s Academy, to public Bay View High School, but quickly grew bored. “We were reading books I’d read two or three years earlier. I lost interest in my studies.” But she joined the school band to play the flute and ran track, excelling in the 110-yard hurdles. “I could run like the wind.”
She also made a lifelong friend in JoAnne Osuchowski. Both had attended St. Augustine’s grade school. Both were tall. “We always got stuck together in the back of the room,” says JoAnne – now JoAnne Evica – in an interview at her Stevens Point home.
They were in band together – JoAnne played sax and clarinet – and on the track team. They both joined the ski club and went on outings to Alpine Valley and upper Michigan. “I think we were just magnetically drawn together,” Evica says now.
In their senior year, they joined a UW-Milwaukee spring break trip to Daytona Beach. “That was a kicker,” Evica says with a chuckle. “Definitely a rite of passage.” It was on that trip, Bembenek wrote in her autobiography, that she fell for a boyfriend named Danny, a relationship that would last four years.
After graduation, JoAnne went to college in Denver while Bembenek stayed in Milwaukee. The two wrote to each other at least weekly, and when JoAnne would come back to visit, she entranced Bembenek with stories of college life.
Bembenek’s memoir and interviews with her over the years reveal a fiercely intelligent and articulate woman. Yet her life immediately after high school was one of restless indirection – more consumed with her relationship with her boyfriend than setting long-range goals for study and a career.
She had wanted a job as a police aide in high school but wasn’t the right age.
She found work as a model, took classes in fashion merchandising from a trade school and had part-time jobs at The Limited and then Boston Store. Yet her book also mentions a nascent political consciousness – supporting feminist groups and joining a protest demanding the Milwaukee police establish a sexual assault unit.
JoAnne, meanwhile, returned to Wisconsin, finishing college at UW-Stevens Point. When she visited Milwaukee, she and Bembenek would frequent dance clubs together.
Laurie was on top of the latest fashion trends and would turn heads when the two went out. “She was always stunningly gorgeous,” Evica says. But she adds: “I didn’t look at her that way. I saw the tomboy that played kickball on the playground at St. Augustine.”
She was accustomed to her glamorous friend being the first one asked to dance but never resented it. “She would always make sure I was included. That’s what friends do.”
Too young to get into Boston Store’s management training program (the minimum age was 24), Lawrencia Bembenek felt antsy. When she turned 21, she applied for a job with the Milwaukee Police Department and, over the course of a year, went through a series of tests before she was accepted in March 1980.
“She thought about [joining] long and hard,” Evica says. “I think she really found it to be something honorable.”
Modeling, Evica explains, had been fun for Bembenek: “She always was a person that demanded attention. But it was superficial. She knew that deep down.”
The TV show “Charlie’s Angels” was bringing a trio of hot, crime-fighting women into living rooms each week. “She totally fit the personality,” says Evica with a laugh. “She had that A-type personality and she was always forthright.” In preparation for the police academy, Bembenek ran and exercised at a Vic Tanny club to get in shape. “She took it very seriously.”
Boyfriend Danny didn’t like Bembenek’s choice. He wanted to get married, with her as a stay-at-home mom. “I told him I didn’t want to marry, didn’t plan to have children, ever, and even if I did eventually marry, I’d want to be secure in a career first,” Bembenek wrote. Their constant fights brought to the surface long-standing differences between them. “And so, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, I picked up the phone and we said goodbye.”’
Bembenek suffered a seemingly endless campaign of abuse and harassment during her police training, she writes. Infractions for which white men got a pass, black and female recruits were punished severely. “Sexist, vulgar remarks” were standard.
Graduating from the 21-week police academy training in the summer of 1980, Bembenek was assigned to the South Side Second District – riddled, she wrote, with “brutal, lazy, apathetic and corrupt” cops. But in a month, she was fired.
While still in training, Bembenek had been investigated on an anonymous charge that she was seen smoking marijuana at a party. She denied the allegation. In her book, Bembenek blamed the charge on the wife of a police officer who had accosted her at a party with complaints about how she was dressed and insinuated she might be trying to lead her husband on.
The charge against Bembenek was never substantiated. Later, however, a fellow officer and friend, Judy Zess, was arrested at a concert for smoking marijuana and was fired. Zess accused Bembenek of doing so as well – a charge she denied – and Bembenek lost her job, too. As in grade school, Bembenek decided to fight the injustice.
Some pictures of a party sponsored by The Tracks Tavern on Locust Street fell into Bembenek’s hands: They showed police officers, both men and women, dancing naked and seminaked in public. Bembenek brought the pictures to the Milwaukee office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She argued that while her alleged infraction was minor and not even proven, the pictures showed much more serious and documentable violations of department rules that went unpunished. EEOC investigators told her she had a likely discrimination case. At the federal agency’s behest, she turned copies of the pictures over to the police department’s internal affairs division.
But she also spiraled into a depression: jobless except for a baby-sitting job, unable to find work at other area police departments or even as a security guard. “My life seemed to be falling apart,” she wrote. “I tried to pick up the pieces, to stabilize, but I couldn’t.”
Enter Elfred Schultz. Schultz, a Milwaukee Police detective, knew the woman for whom Bembenek was baby-sitting. He was also one of the people in The Tracks pictures – preening naked before drunken partygoers.
Schultz, who had just divorced from his wife, Christine, in November 1980, took Bembenek to the Municipal Court Christmas party that year. “I was drawn in by his overwhelming personality,” Bembenek wrote. “He was manipulative and consuming, but he was also the life of any party he went to. … He allowed me to forget my depression, for a while.”
Bembenek and Schultz went to Stevens Point and visited with her friend JoAnne, who was finishing college and living with her boyfriend and future husband, Doug Evica.
“I thought Laurie was an attention-getter,” JoAnne Evica says, “but Fred was over the top. He was the spotlight when he walked in the room.”
One word sums him up for her: “Loud. The way he acted, the way he dressed, the way he fixed his hair. Everything.” He was quite “a jokester,” she adds.
Within minutes, JoAnne pulled Laurie into the bathroom. “Where the hell did you get this squirrel?” she asked. She didn’t approve of Schultz.
She knew this upset Bembenek, so she sought to temper that, saying something along the lines of, “Whatever makes you happy. I’m not here to judge.”
Barely two months after they began dating, Schultz and Bembenek married on Jan. 30, 1981. The marriage was a quick civil ceremony over the state line in Waukegan, Ill. – more than three months earlier than would have been permitted under Wisconsin law, which requires a divorced person to wait six months before remarrying.
But the marriage quickly soured. Bembenek was working part time as a health club trainer, and she and Schultz shared an apartment with Judy Zess – the woman whose testimony about drug use had gotten Bembenek fired. When Zess, who had helped offset the rent costs, moved out, money got tight. Schultz was also paying the monthly mortgage of $383 for the house in which ex-wife Christine still lived, along with $365 a month in child support.
On May 28, 1981, shortly after 2 a.m., an intruder at Christine Schultz’s house on West Ramsey Avenue bound her, gagged her, shot her once in the back, then fled. Not quite a month later, on June 24, Bembenek was charged with killing her.
Despite Bembenek’s steadfast claims of innocence, she was convicted on March 9, 1982, after jurors deliberated for four days. The Milwaukee County district attorney’s office alleged she’d killed Christine in order to end the financial strain that paying for her home mortgage and child support had placed on Bembenek and Fred Schultz. Testimony at the trial linked the murder to Fred Schultz’s off-duty gun, to which Bembenek would have had access the night of the killing. (Fred Schultz had an alibi: He was on duty that night and had a partner who vouched for him.)
At her sentencing, Judge Michael Skierawski noted the evidence was almost entirely circumstantial. For him, however, the ballistics evidence clinched the verdict.
Since then, virtually all that evidence has been called into question or even contradicted. But in 1982, the verdict against Bembenek was simple: Guilty.
Sentenced to life at the Taycheedah women’s prison, Bembenek helped start an inmate newspaper and earned a bachelor’s degree. She also divorced Fred Schultz. But appeals of her murder conviction were repeatedly denied. Bembenek decided she had nothing to lose. So on July 15, 1990, eight years, four months and five days into her life sentence, she escaped, sneaking out a laundry room window and clambering over a fence topped with barbed wire.
She was aided by Dominic Gugliatto, a Milwaukee factory worker whose sister was an inmate at the prison. He had fallen in love with Bembenek. The two fled to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they hid out for three months. The media helped galvanize huge public sympathy for her, but also aided in her capture: Someone in Thunder Bay called police after recognizing her face on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”
Bembenek and her Canadian attorneys argued to a Canadian immigration judge that corrupt police in Milwaukee had framed her for murder. The judge released her on bail pending the resolution of her immigration petition, but a day later, she was sent back to jail there as formal extradition proceedings began. After 21 months, she was returned to prison at Taycheedah in April 1992 and placed in solitary confinement – where her autobiography ends.
In August, after a secret John Doe investigation, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Haese issued a report denying Bembenek’s claim of a conspiracy to frame her. Notwithstanding that setback, her new attorney, Sheldon Zenner of Chicago, petitioned for a new trial for Bembenek on the grounds of holes in the case exposed by the John Doe investigation.
The Milwaukee County DA’s office made an offer: In return for a no-contest plea to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, Bembenek would be released on parole. Bembenek, who had spent seven months in solitary after her return to Taycheedah, took the deal.
When Bembenek accepted the no-contest plea, notes her current lawyer, Mary Woehrer, she and her legal counsel believed there was still a ballistics test that tied the murder bullet to Elfred Schultz’s off-duty gun – the one she had access to. Overcoming that evidence seemed an insurmountable challenge.
She also hoped that, once free, she could prove her innocence once and for all. This, it turned out, was a monumental miscalculation.
Free at last, Bembenek continued to assert her innocence. In 1993, Tatum O’Neal starred in an NBC TV miniseries based on her memoir. In 1994, she had her first name legally changed from “Lawrencia” to “Laurie.” Two years later, after her arrest in Milwaukee on minor drug charges, she asked the state to transfer her parole to Washington state, where her parents had retired to Vancouver. The request was approved.
Vancouver is just over the state line from Portland, Ore. In 1997, Bembenek’s Washington state parole officer referred her to Jackie Parker, a counselor with the Clark County, Wash., District Court’s corrections division.
Finding work had been a struggle for Bembenek. Job applications went nowhere when employers learned of her record. “She actually got hired for one, and as soon as they found out who she was, they fired her,” Parker says.
Parker worked with countless ex-offenders for 30 years before retiring a few years ago.
“She was not my typical woman offender,” Parker says. “She was just very, very determined that she was going to have a life. She was very insightful and smart, and would put herself out there.”
Parker helped Bembenek get computer skills training – because of her time in prison, “she had missed that whole age” – and aided her search for work. She passed a copy of Bembenek’s resume to Barbara Gerrior, who worked for a local nonprofit group organizing mentoring programs for impoverished job seekers. Gerrior was about to take a new position and was looking for a successor.
Gerrior recognized Bembenek’s name. When they spoke, she says, “I was very impressed.” But Gerrior – herself an ex-offender – saw in Bembenek’s downcast eyes the scars of prison life. “She was very self-conscious about talking to people. I told her, ‘Laurie, I know you’ve been in prison a long time. But you’ve got to look people in the eye.’ ”
The two became friends, and Gerrior saw Bembenek transform. “It did not take her long,” she says. “Once people started talking to her and having a real appreciation for her intelligence, she started just blossoming.”
When the grant supporting Bembenek’s job ended, she was hired at YW Housing, an agency that helped poor women – often with children and often with criminal records – find housing and get off the streets. Bembenek ran a mentoring program and helped educate tenants. Her boss, Julie DeSmith, had lived in Milwaukee from 1979 to 1995 and vividly remembered Bembenek. “When she escaped, we wore our T-shirts that said, ‘Run, Bambi, Run,’ ” she says.
Unlike many ex-cons, Bembenek had an education, DeSmith notes. “She was bright. There was a piece of her that saw herself as a victim. But it wasn’t that sort of passive victimization. She was articulate and could move in articulate circles.”
With her history in the criminal justice system, says Parker, Bembenek “saw clearly the oppression within that system. That is a true thing – not just from Laurie’s eyes, but from everything I know as well.”
Bembenek found her new work fulfilling, Gerrior says. “She was a natural at it. It was very important to her to stand up for women’s rights, to encourage women to bring themselves up and accomplish things.”
And Gerrior never doubted her friend. “I think from the moment I met Laurie, I knew she was innocent.”
Marty Carson gives credit to the dog.
It was 1997. Carson’s six brothers and sisters had gathered at his mother’s house in Vancouver for a family reunion. Carson decided to take his mother’s terrier for a walk.
On the sidewalk, an attractive woman stopped him, entranced by the dog. “She asked if she could pet it. So we started talking, and I asked her out. I was amazed – she accepted! That dog was a babe magnet!” An easy laugh rolls from his chest.
“I could tell from her accent she wasn’t from around here,” continues Carson, who is 53. He asked her where she was from.
Years later, he no longer recalls the details of their conversation. He does remember this much: “I made a crack about something to do with law and order.” To his astonishment, Bembenek revealed her history. “She flat out told me.”
Carson had been working for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon, “out in the middle of nowhere,” he says, during Bembenek’s time in prison and her escape. While he vaguely recalled the case, “I really didn’t know the whole story.”
He wasn’t deterred. On their first date, “she brought over her movie. We watched the movie and she asked me if I had any questions.”
From the beginning, he was convinced of Bembenek’s innocence, “because she was so open and honest with me,” Carson says. “I also knew the person that she was: That’s not a murderer.”
The two dated steadily. Carson’s mother hired Bembenek’s father to do carpentry around her home. In 1999, Carson bought a home with an outbuilding that he wanted to turn into a studio where Bembenek, whose work had been the subject of an exhibition at UW-Milwaukee back in 1992, could paint. Art, says, Barbara Gerrior, was a refuge for her – a place where she could get away from the struggle to clear her name. Joe Bembenek and Carson fixed up the outbuilding. “It was a labor of love,” he says.
The couple had a shared fondness for goofy, sometimes sardonic humor. Carson admired her artwork, and he loved the artist. But imprisonment, especially her time in solitary, had left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, Carson says. Doctors prescribed antidepressants, but sometimes Bembenek treated her condition by drinking too much.
In 2001 or 2002, a local art gallery did an exhibition of about 30 Bembenek paintings. In a freak fire, the building burned to the ground. “She lost everything,” says Carson. “All she was reimbursed for was her materials. That was a bad time.”
Carson commuted daily to his job as a computer systems engineer 20 miles away in Oregon, typically working 8 to 5 and sometimes into the evening. “We were off and on during that time,” he says. “She needed somebody to be around all the time, and I had to go to work. She was always saying I was married to my job.”
In 2003, Bembenek’s Milwaukee lawyer, Mary Woehrer, and private investigator Ira Robins, who had championed her case since the 1980s, obtained an order for DNA testing of materials from the Christine Schultz murder scene. The catch: Bembenek or her supporters would have to pay the cost of testing, which Robins estimated at the time at $20,000 to $30,000.
They persuaded “Dr. Phil” McGraw to pay for the test in return for an exclusive appearance on his TV show. The arrangement called for Bembenek to learn the test results on camera. The day before taping, Bembenek was flown to Los Angeles and confined to an apartment rented for her by the show. Suddenly, she was reliving her seven months in solitary a decade before. Gripped by a panic attack, Bembenek jumped from the apartment’s second-story window and broke her foot. The injury required amputation.
Bembenek never fully adjusted to the injury, going through “three or four” prostheses, Carson says. “The woman was so darn stubborn. I tried to get her to use crutches, but she would crawl all the time. Her knees were bruised all the time.”
Bembenek had enjoyed long walks in her neighborhood or on the beach; those were now history. “She didn’t want to be pushed around in a wheelchair,” Carson says. Around this same time, Bembenek was diagnosed with diabetes.
There were other losses. Her mother passed away. About 18 months later, her father, who had always believed in her innocence, died without seeing his daughter exonerated.
Before Joe Bembenek’s death, Laurie’s sister went to court to have her removed as their father’s legally authorized caregiver because of the felony conviction. “That was not a pretty scene,” says Carson.
In time, Carson and Bembenek reconciled and married. JoAnne Evica was in Vancouver on one of her occasional visits not long after Carson had proposed. The two women had gone browsing in gift shops, where Bembenek bought Evica a little pillow stitched with the words “Friends forever.”
“She mentioned she was getting married and asked me to be her maid of honor,” Evica says. “I said, ‘Whoa – that’s quite an honor, but are you sure there isn’t a closer friend?’ She said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ ”
Evica agreed. Twenty-five years earlier, she’d made it clear how strongly she disliked Elfred Schultz, loud and preening and always fussing with his hair. Carson – a self-effacing guy next door with a slight paunch and the cheery look of John Goodman – was completely different.
“Marty is awesome,” she says. “He’s a down-to-earth guy.” And he was madly in love with her, “head over heels,” she adds.
They married in June 2005, and for a time, things were good. Bembenek bought a pair of miniature horses, keeping them out on a farm where she would visit them (they were too small to ride), sometimes taking her friend Barbara Gerrior.
But after two years, she and Carson drifted apart again as Carson’s work schedule and Bembenek’s emotional neediness clashed. They divorced in 2007.
Still, Carson couldn’t shut her out of his life. “I guess I never really stopped caring for her. She had that kind of personality, you could be mad at her, but you couldn’t stay mad for long.”
Bembenek moved into a home across the street from Carson’s house. She joked that she did it “to torture me,” he says, chuckling. “We kind of shared custody of the cats. They would go back and forth between houses, and so would she and I.”
And so they settled into an amiable, continuing relationship. “It was one of these deals where we were better friends afterward” than during the marriage, Carson says.
Back in Wisconsin, the effort to persuade the courts to re-examine Bembenek’s conviction continually seemed to take a step forward – only to slide two steps back.
The 2003 tests showed no evidence of Bembenek’s DNA at the Christine Schultz crime scene. The tests also uncovered evidence that Schultz had sex with a man before her death. Bembenek’s legal team turned up previously unrevealed information that, early in its investigation, the state crime lab had classified the murder as a possible sexual assault case.
The judge hearing Bembenek’s DNA petition in 2003 also ordered that prosecutors produce the test bullet fired from Elfred Schultz’s off-duty gun. Testimony at her trial had claimed ballistics markings on the test bullet matched the murder bullet. Since Bembenek had access to the off-duty gun at the apartment she and Schultz shared, prosecutors had argued this was evidence of her guilt.
Now, though, prosecutors claimed the test bullet had been destroyed in a 1986 flood at the crime lab. That was six years before Bembenek’s no-contest plea in the deal that released her from prison – a plea she had entered under the belief the ballistics evidence still existed.
Bembenek’s lawyers got a new ballistics test in 2006. A new test bullet fired from the off-duty gun didn’t match the bullet that killed Christine Schultz.
Bembenek’s team argued that cleared her. When he sentenced her in 1982, Judge Skierawski had underlined the importance of the ballistics evidence: “This case was undoubtedly the most circumstantial case that I have seen,” he said. But adding together the individual pieces of evidence, “principally the gun, the murder weapon in this case, wove an inescapable net of only one conclusion.”
Now, with no DNA at the scene and no gun evidence, it was a circumstantial case with two huge holes. Yet the state appeals court refused to reopen the case, with a ruling that suggested something out of Catch-22: Because of her 1992 no-contest agreement, the court concluded, Bembenek had given up her appeal rights. But she’d done so based on ballistics evidence that no longer existed.
“That 1992 no-contest plea was a farce,” says Woehrer, Bembenek’s Milwaukee lawyer. “They already knew in 1992 that the bullets that purportedly made this [ballistics] match were missing. But they didn’t tell her that.”
Yet the Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts declined to hear appeals as well. That hasn’t stopped Ira Robins, who launched a blog (lauriebembenek.blogspot.com) with documents in support of Bembenek’s innocence and his own theories about the case. His petition for a secret John Doe investigation of the state crime lab and the state attorney general’s office, citing the Bembenek case and other claims of wrongful convictions, was denied in early April; now, that ruling is under appeal.
Bembenek’s supporters have generally pointed the finger at Elfred Schultz as the likely culprit in the death of Christine and have questioned his alibi. Fred Schultz, who owns a construction business in Cape Coral, Fla., where he relocated in the mid-’80s, has denied involvement in several media interviews. He has said he now believes Bembenek was guilty.
There have been claims as well that Fred Horenberger, a convicted armed robber who died in 1991, had confessed to as many as eight people that he was Christine’s killer. But as the 1992 John Doe report observed, some of those witnesses “are not particularly credible,” and Horenberger recanted his confession before his death.
Although Bembenek in her book strongly suggested Schultz had both motive and opportunity to kill his ex-wife, she was cautious about accusing him, or anyone, directly. “I asked Laurie once straightforward if she knew who committed that crime,” says Gerrior. “Her answer was like gold to me: ‘I have an idea, but I would never say it out loud, because I would never want anybody to go through what I went through.’ ”
Despite the repeated setbacks they have faced, neither Robins nor Woehrer show any signs of giving up Bembenek’s fight. “Her last wish is that the name be cleared,” Woehrer says. “We’re going to do that one way or another.”
About a year before her death, Bembenek moved back in with Marty Carson. By March of last year, she had grown frail and thin. “She wasn’t eating. She couldn’t keep food down.” He’s not sure if Bembenek was still taking the antidepressants she had been prescribed for her PTSD or the insulin for her diabetes. Carson took her to the emergency room, and Bembenek remained hospitalized for 10 days. Upon her release, she stayed with his mother as her recovery progressed, then came back to live with him.
Bembenek had long been diagnosed with hepatitis C, incurred during her mother’s pregnancy. Later, Carson would also learn that one of Bembenek’s doctors thought she might be bipolar, although there was never a formal diagnosis. “She would be painting like mad and producing things, then when she was down, it was crash and burn. They were trying to level her out.”
In September, she and Carson traveled to New York for an interview with Paula Zahn’s show on the Investigation Discovery cable channel, one more attempt to keep alive her campaign to prove her innocence.
“Normally, she was very picky about doing her own hair and makeup,” Carson says. “For this particular show, she did neither. I thought something was up. We got back from that, and she was just drained.”
She continued to spiral downward into October, sleeping constantly, eating almost nothing. WTMJ-TV’s Mike Jacobs traveled to her home in Vancouver for what would be her last media interview. Her hair cropped short, her speech stilted by medication, she was light years away from that once-glamorous and articulate media star.
Days later, Carson took her to an urgent care clinic, which sent her to the emergency room. Hospitalized for two weeks, she lapsed in and out of consciousness. Nothing the doctors tried seemed to help.
Carson took her to the Ray Hickey Hospice House in Vancouver. It was the third week of November. “I’d come home after work and spend the nights with her,” he says.
Evica got word and flew out to be with her. “I got out there on a Tuesday afternoon,” she says. When she visited, Evica reached into their shared memory for a wisecrack nickname from high school: “I said, ‘Hey, Cheap Woman!’ ” Bembenek curled her lip in mock derision. “At that point, I knew she knew who I was, and she smiled.”
There was little conversation in the days that followed; Bembenek was too sedated. “I would talk to her, and she would acknowledge things with her head, her eyes,” Evica says.
She’d been there about a week when medical personnel told Carson the end was near. It was a Friday night.
“I spent all night staying up with her. I got a lot off my chest. I don’t know if she heard it all or not,” he says. “I told her I loved her. I told her we were going to do everything in our power to prove her innocence once and for all.”
Saturday morning, Carson’s sister-in-law came to take his place. He stepped out for a break. While he was out, Bembenek died.
The exact cause of death was liver failure.
“I kind of wished I would have been there,” he says. “Maybe she didn’t want to burden me.”
Carson says Bembenek wanted no funeral. Evica, Carson and Carson’s family held a brief private service for her in Vancouver.
Now back home in Stevens Point, JoAnne Evica treasures a souvenir friendship pillow and a large, purple painting of Christ that an old, old friend made in high school.
“She’s a guiding light,” Evica says. “I think she sits on my shoulder even now.”
In Milwaukee, Ira Robins helped organize a memorial service on Nov. 28 at Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church. About a hundred people attended in the 900-seat sanctuary, recalls the Rev. Bob Marsicek. “It was a very respectful and moving experience.”
Elfred Schultz was not there. Nor was the man who helped her escape prison, Dominic Gugliatto. Gugliatto has turned up from time to time in the media. Unlike Schultz, he told WTMJ-TV in February he still believes Bembenek was innocent.
Marty Carson couldn’t be there in person, but he spoke to the mourners on a speakerphone.
In her interview with Mike Jacobs, he had asked Bembenek to rate her life on a scale of 1 to 10. “Two,” she said.
Yet as cursed as her life seemed, she never lost that stubborn sense of justice she displayed since grade school. At the Milwaukee memorial service, Carson told the story of a mundane visit to a convenience store he and Laurie made one evening years ago.
“As we walked along the sidewalk to enter the store, Laurie noticed something on top of a pay phone at the corner of the walkway,” Carson recounted.
It was a wallet. Inside were two credit cards and $800 in cash.
They took the wallet home, and Bembenek searched it for an ID. There was nothing with a phone number. Then she found a business card for a bank. She called the bank and managed to reach an employee, who turned her over to a supervisor. “Please,” Bembenek told the bank employees, “if this person is a customer of yours, can you contact him?” She gave a phone number for the wallet owner to call.
“About 25 minutes later, the phone rang,” Carson says. “It was the man who lost his wallet. Laurie gave him directions to our house, and he arrived half an hour later. He was so happy to get his wallet back, he said he just cashed his monthly pension check. He thanked us both and offered a reward to Laurie of some cash.
“She refused to take it.”
The man never knew who she was.
Erik Gunn is a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.