Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Playboy bunny and Milwaukee, Wis., police officer whose conviction for the murder of her husband's ex-wife...
Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Playboy bunny and Milwaukee, Wis., police officer whose conviction for the murder of her husband’s ex-wife and audacious escape from prison became tabloid and TV-movie fodder and a cause célèbre for supporters who insisted on her innocence — as she always did — died Saturday in a hospice in Portland. She was 52.
Her lawyer, Mary Woehrer, said liver failure caused the death of Ms. Bembenek, who most recently was a resident of Vancouver, Wash.
Known as Bambi, Ms. Bembenek joined the Milwaukee Police Department in March 1980 after a stint as a waitress at a Playboy Club. Within a year she was married to Elfred Schultz, a Milwaukee police detective.
Then, on May 28, 1981, Schultz’s former wife, Christine, was found dead in her bedroom, bound, gagged and shot in the back at point-blank range. Three months later Ms. Bembenek was arrested, and the case became a media sensation.
Ms. Bembenek contended that vindictive colleagues had framed her because she was assisting a federal investigation into corruption and sex discrimination in the Police Department. She also had caused a storm by giving supervisors photographs of off-duty officers (including her future husband) posing naked at a party.
During her two-week trial, some of the most damaging testimony showed that Ms. Bembenek, who married Schultz four months before the killing (they later divorced), had bitterly complained about the $700-a-month alimony he was paying his former wife. Ms. Bembenek was sentenced to life in prison, and her appeals were rejected.
Eight years later, Ms. Bembenek squeezed through a laundry-room window, climbed a 7-foot barbed-wire fence and fled from the Taycheedah Correctional Institution. Aiding her escape was her fiancé, Dominic Gugliatto, whom she had met while he was visiting his sister, an inmate at the prison.
Again Milwaukee was electrified. A rally celebrating her escape attracted 300 people. Bars and restaurants named menu items after her, including a Bembenek Burger. T-shirts reading “Run, Bambi, Run” proliferated. Television stations conducted call-in polls asking if viewers believed she was innocent.
On Oct. 17, 1990, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Ms. Bembenek and Gugliatto in Ontario after she was recognized by a restaurant patron who had seen her on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.”
Within a year, supporters produced a low-budget documentary, “Used Innocence.” And in a television movie, “Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story,” Tatum O’Neal played the title role.
Another television movie, starring Lindsay Frost, was called “Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer?” And a 1992 book by Kris Radish titled “Run, Bambi, Run” was subtitled “The Beautiful Ex-Cop and Convicted Murderer Who Escaped to Freedom and Won America’s Heart.”
A new investigation followed, and in December 1992 a judge reduced Ms. Bembenek’s life sentence to 20 years after she struck a deal with prosecutors in which she pleaded no contest to second-degree murder. She was immediately released for time served.
Ms. Bembenek was born in Milwaukee on Aug. 15, 1958. She is survived by two sisters, Melanie and Colette.
On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Pardon Advisory Board declined to consider her petition for a pardon. It remained unclear whether the board, which meets twice in December, will reconsider her petition before Gov. James Doyle leaves office. The final decision is up to the governor.
Woehrer, her lawyer, said that she would continue to seek a pardon, and that she believed newly uncovered ballistic and DNA evidence would exonerate Ms. Bembenek.
Last month Mike Jacobs, a news anchor at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, interviewed Ms. Bembenek in Vancouver.
In a telephone interview, Jacobs said: “I asked, ‘If you are innocent, why did you plead no contest to second-degree murder in 1992?’ And her response was that her parents were in failing health and the only way that she could be guaranteed that she would be able to spend time with them was to plead no contest. Her father’s dying wish was that she get the family name cleared.”
In the interview, Jacobs asked Ms. Bembenek if her attractiveness had hurt her credibility during her trial. “All they did was talk about what kind of blouse I wore,” she said, referring to the news media. “I would do it a lot differently now.”