Even in her workaday black slacks and white shirt, Jennifer Gazzana looked elegant—maybe too elegant for a waitress at the Columbia Grill & Tavern. Gliding among the orange vinyl booths at the restaurant around the corner from a Thunder Bay, Ont., police station, “She looked more like a good-looking lady, with a nice figure and all that,” regular customer Ron Mauro recalls. “I thought she could have been a model.”
So Jennifer was easy to spot on Oct. 17, when Thunder Bay Police Det. Ron Arthur came looking for a 5’10”, 135-lb., 32-year-old woman who was being sought by U.S. authorities. But after examining her birth certificate and comparing her face to a blurry, faxed “Wanted” photo, he declared that Jennifer was “not the person we want” and walked out.
“Does he think I robbed a bank or something?” an apparently mystified Jennifer asked her boss, Louis Kebezes. Then she hurriedly placed a phone call, and moments later a call came for her. “My mother has passed away,” she announced after hanging up. She tearfully hugged one of the kitchen workers, said goodbye and walked out the back door.
Kebezes never saw Jennifer Gazzana again. In fact he had never seen Jennifer Gazzana at all. For the statuesque, blue-eyed woman who had answered the help wanted sign in his window on July 21 was not Jennifer Gazzana, but Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek, a onetime Playboy Bunny and pinup model, a former Milwaukee cop, a convicted killer and—for three months—one of the most celebrated fugitives since Bonnie ran off with Clyde.
Sentenced to life in prison for the 1981 murder of Christine Schultz, her then husband’s ex-wife, Bembenek had for nine years proclaimed her innocence. The only eyewitnesses to the crime had been Christine’s two little boys, who said the intruder who shot their mother in her bed was a large, stocky man. But the fatal shot was fired by a revolver belonging to Bembenek’s husband, Milwaukee Police Det. Elfred Schultz Jr., who was on patrol in another part of town at the time. A hair found on the victim was similar to Bembenek’s own. A web of circumstantial evidence convicted Bembenek, but her trial left so many doubts that defense attorneys appealed the verdict three separate times. Wisconsin’s appellate courts declined to overturn the conviction, most recently in a decision handed down last June.
With her legal avenues exhausted and no chance of parole until at least 1993, Bembenek, as she later explained to a reporter, was “incapable of further withstanding the mental sodomy of the prison system.” On July 15 she squeezed through a basement laundry-room window at the Taycheedah Correctional Institute, crossed a seven-foot, barbed-wire-topped fence and vanished. Milwaukee factory worker Dominic Gugliatto, 35, the brother of another inmate, disappeared the same day. Gugliatto had met Bembenek at the prison last year, fallen in love with her and—despite the fact that Wisconsin does not allow conjugal visits—planned to marry her in a prison ceremony set for Aug. 5. The fugitive couple, observed Gugliatto’s father, Ed, were “on the run seeking love, justice and freedom.”
Much of Milwaukee wished them well. RUN, BAMBI, RUN T-shirts sold briskly. Three-fourths of the 15.500 people who phoned in to a WISN-TV poll after her escape said they believed in Bembenek’s innocence, and 72 percent of callers to a radio station said they wouldn’t turn her in. But after her likeness was shown on the Oct. 12 America’s Most Wanted TV program, an anonymous California man called the show and said that a woman resembling Bembenek had waited on him as he traveled through Thunder Bay.
“The game is over. We know who you are,” the police announced when they confronted Bembenek and Gugliatto hurriedly packing up their basement apartment on Oct. 17, shortly after her questioning by Detective Arthur. The detective’s avowed lack of interest in the Columbia Grill waitress had been a play for time while a check was run on “Jennifer Gazzana,” who turned out not to have legally required working papers. “It’s sort of a relief we can use our real names,” Gugliatto admitted during questioning. He and Bembenek surrendered quietly and were locked up to await extradition. “Just 10 minutes more and we could have gotten away.” Bembenek told a reporter from jail. “One of my biggest regrets is that we were never able to get legally married.”
Plans for the nuptials will probably be put on hold for a while. Bembenek’s escape won’t please her parole board and is itself a crime punishable by five years imprisonment. What’s more, Wisconsin authorities plan to send her away to a federal penitentiary since the state’s only women’s prison couldn’t hold her.
As for Gugliatto, his future appears almost as gloomy. A heretofore law-abiding citizen, he got involved with Bembenek only after spending hours poring through newspaper clippings about her case to assure himself of her innocence. Now he could face up to five years in prison for aiding her escape. He has also risked losing the affection of his three young children, for whom he had faithfully paid child support until he hit the road with Bambi. “They think he doesn’t love them,” his ex-wife, Juanita, said shortly after he disappeared. “They say, “He dumped us for her.’ ” Juanita expressed skepticism about Bembenek’s innocence: “Someone that innocent and nice doesn’t convince someone to take off when he has responsibilities.”
Bembenek’s ex-husband, Fred Schultz, concurs. Now remarried and running his own contracting business in Cape Coral, Fla., the former cop contends that Bambi’s escape attempt “was a confirmation of her guilt. It’s just that simple.”
Bembenek maintains her innocence. As Detective Arthur accompanied her to the Thunder Bay jail, she explained how she had been framed for a murder she did hot commit. The detective was not fully persuaded. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve seen lots of people I wouldn’t think were murderers. They don’t have it stamped on their foreheads,” he notes. Bembenek sounded credible enough, but, he says, “It could be that she’s told her story so often she believes it herself.”
—James S. Kunen, Beth Austin in Thunder Bay, Lynn Emmerman in Milwaukee, Marilyn Balamaci in Cape Coral