I’m not really here,” Lawrencia Bembenek told herself when she was first locked up in Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institution back in March 1982. “The Governor’s going to call any day now. This is all a big mistake, and I’ll be home by Christmas.” But the Governor did not call, and Bembenek was not home by that Christmas, or the next, or the next. Now, as her sixth holiday season behind bars approaches, Bembenek, 29, has long since faced up to the fact that she is serving a life sentence for murder.
She stands convicted of the May 1981 killing of Christine Schultz, the ex-wife of Milwaukee police detective Elfred Schultz Jr., whom Bembenek had married earlier that year. But Bembenek still insists she is innocent, and her determined supporters are convinced she is telling the truth.
Among those who believe her are Ira Robins, a coldly factual private investigator who, without pay, has worked on Bembenek’s case for the last 2½ years, and Martin Kohler, one of Milwaukee’s leading criminal-defense attorneys. The two insist that sloppy police work and an inept defense led to the conviction of an innocent woman. This week, with their help, Bembenek plans to file a motion for a new trial.
Bembenek was a confused and unhappy 22-year-old when she met Elfred Schultz in the fall of 1980. “I was having a very bad year,” she says. “I was very vulnerable.” She had briefly been a Milwaukee police officer, but she was dismissed from the department in August 1980, suspected of smoking marijuana. She was working as an aerobics instructor and a Playboy Bunny to pay off substantial debts. “I felt shattered over the loss of my career,” she says. “I was looking for something, and I didn’t know what I was looking for.”
What she found was Schultz, a handsome, divorced police detective 10 years her senior. Striking up a conversation with her in a bar, he asked her to be his jogging partner. Two months later he asked her to be his wife. “He was a very overpowering personality,” she says. “He really swept me off my feet”—and into the middle of his rancorous relationship with his ex-wife, Christine.
Christine, with her two sons by Fred, was still living in a house that Fred had built with his own hands and that he was still, resentfully, paying for. The $363.50 monthly mortgage, plus $330 in child support, amounted to nearly half of his detective’s pay, a fact he complained about often and bitterly. Fred was so strapped for cash that spring that he and Lawrencia were planning to move into a cheaper apartment. If only Christine would move out of the house, Fred could sell it, get out of the mortgage and keep half the equity. But Christine never did move—not in the rest of her life.
On the evening of May 27, 1981, Christine Schultz, 30, kissed her sons, Sean, 11, and Shannon, 7, good night and left their bedroom. Except for the jets roaring overhead into Mitchell Field and the murmur of M*A*S*H on Christine’s bedroom TV, all was quiet in their neat two-story Tudor house on Milwaukee’s South Side.
At about 2:20 a.m. Sean awakened in terror. Someone was pressing a leather-gloved hand down on his face and pulling a cord tight around his neck. He screamed, and the intruder ran out of the room. The boys heard what they thought was a firecracker going off in their mother’s bedroom across the hall. As they ran to their mother, they saw a husky figure dash past them toward the front door. They found Christine face down on the bed, a clothesline tied around one hand, a blue bandanna gagging her mouth and blood spreading from a wound in her right shoulder. Sean tried to stop the bleeding, then telephoned Christine’s boyfriend, police officer Stu Honeck, who lived around the corner. Honeck, who that very evening had made wedding plans with Christine, called the police and rushed to the Schultz home. He and other arriving officers found Christine dead, shot in the back with a single .38-cal. slug that had glanced off her shoulder blade and gone through her heart. There were no signs of forced entry into the house.
Fred Schultz, who had been complaining about his alimony that night to his partner, Det. Michael Durfee, was filing a burglary report when he was instructed to call a supervisor. Durfee watched as Fred’s face went white, “his eyes started to tear up, and then he dropped the telephone.” At about 2:45 a.m., Fred would testify, he called to tell the awful news to Lawrencia, who was at their apartment, less than two miles from Christine’s house. “Laurie, wake up! Chris has been shot. She’s dead,” he said. “I’ll call you back later.” Then he rang off. “I hung up the phone,” Lawrencia testified later, “and I thought maybe I just dreamt that.”
Sean and Shannon, meanwhile, were being interviewed by other detectives. Neither had seen the intruder’s face, but Sean, the older boy, described a large, broad-shouldered man with a reddish-brown pony tail, clad in a baggy, green army jacket and wearing black police-type shoes. (Lawrencia was 5’10”, weighed 140 lbs. and had bleached-blond hair.) Shannon said the attacker was wearing a green jogging suit and carrying a silver pearl-handled gun.
Detective Durfee was asked by a lieutenant to go to the apartment his partner shared with Bembenek and to inspect Schultz’s off-duty revolver. Lawrencia did not appear nervous to Durfee when Fred retrieved a gun from the bedroom. Examining the fully loaded, five-shot Smith & Wesson snub-nosed revolver, Durfee concluded that the gun had not been recently fired. He found dust on the hammer and cylinder and smelled no gunpowder odor. He handed the gun back to Fred without writing down its serial number. “That’s like taking a stolen car report and not writing the license number down,” marvels Lawrencia.
Then they all went to identify the body at the morgue, where Fred beckoned Lawrencia over to see his ex-wife’s fatal wound. “I was real surprised that he was so calm,” Lawrencia remembers.
From the beginning Det. Elfred Schultz took an active role in the investigation of his own ex-wife’s murder, even though he was an obvious suspect. Lawrencia was at another disadvantage: She had filed a sex discrimination complaint against the police department after her dismissal, and many officers were said to resent her. On June 18—a full three weeks after the murder—Fred, accompanied by Det. James Gauger, picked up his off-duty revolver for test-firing at the state crime lab. Lawrencia, according to Gauger, again showed not the slightest concern. But this time the crime lab found to a certainty that the gun Fred turned over on June 18 was the gun that had killed Christine. But was it the same dusty weapon that Durfee had examined in Lawrencia and Fred’s apartment just four hours after the killing? Her fate would rest on the answer to that question. For on June 24 Lawrencia Bembenek was arrested and charged with murder.
She was charged, Assistant District Attorney Robert Kraemer told the jury at her February 1982 trial, “not because she’s beautiful…not because she likes to compete with men…not because she prefers a career over having children…but because she needlessly and brutally murdered Christine Schultz.” Bembenek’s intention, the district attorney argued, was to frighten Christine into moving out of the house, thereby ending Fred’s money problems. Bembenek had probably not planned to kill anyone, according to Kraemer, but had pulled the trigger when Christine recognized her.
The state had no witnesses who could place Bembenek outside her apartment that night, but argued that a web of circumstantial evidence proved she was the murderer. She had had access both to Fred’s off-duty revolver and to his keys to Christine’s house. Several witnesses claimed to have seen her wearing a green jogging suit at one time or another (though in one case the sighting was made two years before the murder). A brown synthetic hair recovered from Christine Schultz’s leg was similar to the fibers of a wig recovered from a toilet in Lawrencia and Fred’s apartment building. And a hair recovered from the gag in Christine’s mouth was not unlike Lawrencia’s. Judy Zess, a onetime friend and former roommate of Lawrencia and Fred’s, testified that Lawrencia, at a Valentine’s Day dinner party in honor of her marriage, had volunteered, “It would pay to have Christine blown away.”
But there were problems with the state’s case. Judy Zess, herself a fired police officer and the girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer, admitted that she had used her key to go into Lawrencia’s apartment in the days immediately before and after the killing—theoretically giving her the opportunity to plant the murder weapon and the wig, had she been so inclined.
Moreover no one could swear that the gun Detective Durfee had inspected at the couple’s apartment within hours of the murder was the same gun taken by Fred to the state crime lab—not even Fred himself, who, after pleading the Fifth Amendment, was given immunity from prosecution to testify as a government witness. The victim’s elder son, Sean, testified that the attacker could not have been Lawrencia because to appear that “wide” she would have had to wear shoulder pads, and “then it wouldn’t even be right because the farther down it went, the skinnier it would be.” No one could explain why Lawrencia, whom Christine and the children knew, would attempt to disguise herself with a wig but not a mask, much less why she would foolishly attempt to get rid of the wig by flushing it down a toilet.
The trial was a sensation in Milwaukee, with a noisy crowd of spectators and reporters cramming the 144-seat courtroom each day, and the whole state, it seemed, avidly following the testimony via TV and the front pages. When the prosecution rested its case, Lawrencia Bembenek’s fate seemed to lie in her own hands. Then she took the stand, and sank like a rock.
She denied virtually every detail of the state’s case. She denied owning a brown wig, denied ever wearing a green jogging suit, denied any hostility toward Christine. She may have denied too much—maintaining, for instance, that she had never discussed money with her husband. To some she seemed even to be denying her self; an intensely physical young woman who showed off her beauty at bars and parties, she testified in a too-chaste, too-frilly blouse: ” The Little House on the Prairie blouse,” one reporter called it, and Milwaukeeans can still describe it five years later. Worse, asked to describe her demeanor at the morgue, she replied, “I was indifferent.” Asked about her testimony now, she sighs, “Maybe I should have made it sound better and more compassionate.”
But she also testified that she had made a date to go drinking with a girlfriend on the night of May 27, and that the date had fallen through when the friend had to work. So she had spent until 11:15 p.m. packing, with her mother’s help, for the impending move to their new apartment. It seems a strange agenda for an evening—pack with Mom, terrorize Christine.
After 3½ days of deliberation, the jury found Bembenek guilty. It was, said Circuit Court Judge Michael Skwierawski, “the most circumstantial case I have ever seen.” Assistant District Attorney Robert Donohoo, who made the original decision to charge Bembenek, has no misgivings about the conviction. “The evidence shows she’s guilty,” he says. “I firmly believe that.” To any questions about the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case, he replies simply, “Twelve jurors heard all the evidence.” But there was a great deal of evidence the jurors never did hear, because Lawrencia’s attorney, Donald Eisenberg, did not present it. In those critical omissions lies her slim hope of receiving a new trial.
The jury did not hear, for instance, about Fred Schultz’s ties to Frederick Horenberger, who had done some remodeling work with Fred for the owner of the Pub and Grub Bar. On the night of the killing Schultz had gone with Durfee to the bar, ostensibly to collect for some moonlighting carpentry he had done. They did not hear that Horenberger was later convicted of participating, one month after Christine’s killing, in a robbery of Judy Zess—a robbery in which one of the perpetrators wore a wig.
Neither did the jurors hear that two nurses had told police that about 20 minutes after Christine’s murder, they had seen a man who fit Sean’s description of the attacker walking near Christine’s home, glancing furtively over his shoulder. The jurors did not hear that Christine had told her divorce lawyer on May 5 that Fred Schultz had threatened to “blow her———-head off”—a statement Fred denies ever having made. And they did not hear the theory now advanced by Lawrencia’s current attorney, Martin Kohler, that Fred could have left another gun at home and passed his off-duty revolver to Christine’s killer.
In fact the verdict hinged on Lawrencia’s access to that off-duty revolver, says juror Edward Butkowski. “It would have been impossible for a visitor to walk into the apartment and find the gun and switch it—twice,” he insists. But couldn’t Fred have done it himself? “That was never brought up at the trial,” says Butkowski.
Lawrencia’s lawyer, Kohler, is basing his motion for a new trial on the argument that her old lawyer, Eisenberg, may have had an unethical conflict of interest; Fred had said he would pay Eisenberg, and whether for monetary or other reasons Eisenberg may have been protecting Fred Schultz at the expense of Lawrencia. In fact Eisenberg, a flamboyant attorney well-known for his successful defenses of alleged drug dealers, was suspended from the Wisconsin bar in 1984 for unethically representing two defendants with conflicting interests in criminal cases. While his application for reinstatement to the bar is pending, he is working as the executive vice-president of a Florida-based air cargo company serving South America and the Caribbean.
Of the conflict-of-interest claim, Eisenberg says simply, “That’s bullshit. I cannot envision anybody trying a better case than I tried. I think it was perfect.” As for Bembenek’s contention that he kept her in the dark about evidence implicating Fred, Eisenberg says, “She is absolutely lying. She refused to do anything that would point a finger at Fred. She was adamant, 100 percent, all the time: ‘You cannot go after Fred.’ ”
Lawrencia, whose protestations of innocence have been bolstered by a lie-detector test, insists she never told Eisenberg to lay off Fred. “Fred was at all of our meetings,” she says. “Any lawyer in his right mind would have sat me down and said, ‘Look, Fred is a strong suspect, we’ve got to get you the hell away from him.’ I wasn’t thinking. I was just trying to keep from crying.”
At this point Lawrencia suspects that Fred Schultz was responsible for Christine’s death. “I think in my heart that Fred hired somebody to do it,” she says, “but I really feel bad even making that statement because I can’t prove it.” She does not think that Fred plotted to frame her from the beginning, but thinks he was happy to let her be the fall guy as the investigation closed in. “I think it got to be his ass or mine, and he wasn’t about to let it be his.”
Fred, who was made to feel unwelcome in the police department after the murder, quit the force and moved to South Florida about three months after Lawrencia’s conviction. He divorced her, penning a brief letter by way of goodbye: “Dear Lawrencia, Goodbye. Good luck—Fred.” He has remarried and is working as a construction contractor. (Though custody of Fred’s sons was awarded to Christine’s sister, Sean last year chose to live with his father.) “I said then and I’ll say again I had nothing to do with [the murder], directly or indirectly,” says Fred. Lawrencia, he adds, “is where she belongs. She knows how she did it, and she knows why she did it: She loved me, and she knew very well the house would revert to me if Christine abandoned it.” Fred, who has also passed a lie-detector test, says it took him a while to realize the truth. “I didn’t want to believe it. I loved [Lawrencia].” But, he says, “she’s a consummate liar, and she’s mentally not right. Justice was done.”
Attorney Kohler disagrees, but he knows that the odds now against getting a new trial for Lawrencia are long. “You have to move the earth to overturn a conviction,” he says. And Lawrencia’s prospects are particularly grim at this time because she previously moved for a new trial based on a convicted hit man’s “confession” that proved to be false.
Bembenek, meanwhile, tries to live the kind of life prison allows. She makes license plates for 80 cents an hour. She is 45 credits away from earning a correspondence-course bachelor’s degree, has started a prison newsletter, writes poetry and is pressing a federal court suit to bring women’s prison conditions up to the level of men’s. But she can’t help thinking, over and over, about that long-ago night in May. “I kick myself forever for not going out that night,” she says, then adds with a rueful laugh, “It’s the one night I should have gone to a bar.”