Oba Chandler was an American convicted murderer who was put to death by lethal injection for the June 1989 triple murders of Joan Rogers and her two daughters whose bodies were found in Tampa Bay, Florida. died from lethal injection he was 65.
All three were discovered floating with their hands and feet bound,
concrete blocks tied to their necks and duct tape over their mouths.
Autopsies indicated the women had been thrown into the water one by one
while still alive.
(October 11, 1946 – November 15, 2011)
The case became high-profile in 1992 when police posted billboards
with blowups of an unknown suspect’s handwriting samples found on a
pamphlet in the victims’ car, leading to the identification of the
killer when Chandler’s neighbor recognized the writing. Billboards had
not been used by police before, and became useful tools in later
searches for missing people.
Prior to his arrest, Chandler worked as an aluminum building
contractor. He testified in his own defense against the advice of his
attorneys and admitted that he had met the Ohio women, giving them
directions, but claimed he never saw them again aside from newspaper
coverage and the billboards set up by investigators. Police originally
theorized that there were two men involved in the murders of the Rogers
women; however, this was discounted once Chandler was arrested.
Following his conviction, Chandler was incarcerated at Union
Correctional Institution, and during his 17 years of incarceration up to
his execution was notable as not having had a single visitor, either
from family or friends.
On October 10, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott
signed a death warrant for Chandler. His execution was set for November
15, 2011, at 4:00 pm. Chandler was executed with a lethal injection and
pronounced dead just after 4:25 pm. Chandler left a last statement to
prison officials on a piece of paper which was read out in a news
conference after the execution which stated, “You are killing an
innocent man today”.
Chandler was born to Oba Chandler Sr. and Margaret Johnson and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, approximately 100 miles from where the Rogers family was living.
Chandler was the fourth of five children. When Chandler was only 10
years old, his father hanged himself in the basement of the family’s
His father’s death in June 1957 affected Chandler so much that he
reportedly jumped into the open grave at the funeral as the gravediggers
were covering the coffin with dirt.
Chandler fathered eight children, reportedly by 7 different women,
the youngest born in February 1989. Between May and September 1991, at
the same time that Tampa police investigated the Rogers family triple
murder, Chandler was an informant for the U.S. Customs Tampa office.
Crimes and incidents
Chandler was stealing cars by age 14 and was arrested 20 times while he was a juvenile.
As an adult he was charged with a long list of crimes, including
possession of counterfeit money, loitering and prowling, burglary,
kidnapping and armed robbery.
He was also accused of masturbating while peering inside a woman’s window, and on another occasion of receiving 21 wigs
stolen from a beauty parlor. In one incident, Chandler and an
accomplice broke into the home of a Florida couple and held them at
gunpoint while robbing them. Chandler told his accomplice to tie up the
man with speaker wire and then took the woman into the bedroom, where he
made her strip to her underwear, tied her up and rubbed the barrel of
his revolver across her stomach.
On May 26, 1989, Joan “Jo” Rogers, 36, and her daughters – Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14 – left their family dairy farm in Willshire, Ohio for a vacation in Florida. 
They had never before left their home state. On June 1, authorities
believe, the women became lost while looking for their hotel. They
encountered Chandler, who gave them directions and offered to meet them
again later to take them on a sunset cruise of Tampa Bay. It is known that the Rogers women left Orlando that morning around 9 a.m. and checked into the Days Inn on Route 60
at 12:30 p.m. Snapshots recovered from a camera left in their car
showed the last picture of Michelle while she was alive, and even the
sun setting on the same bay where their lives later ended.
They were last seen alive at the hotel restaurant around 7:30 p.m. It
is believed they boarded Chandler’s boat at the dock on the Courtney Campbell Causeway
(part of Route 60) between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m., and that they were dead
by 3 a.m. Chandler could also have used the fact that he was born in
Ohio to lure them into feeling more connected with him.
It is also believed that he knew that the women were not from Florida,
as he recognized the Ohio car plates since he himself was originally
The women’s bodies were found floating in Tampa Bay
on June 4, 1989, with bound hands and feet, concrete blocks tied to
their necks and duct tape over their mouths. The first body was found
floating when a sailboat, on its way home to Tampa after a trip to Key West, had just crossed under the Sunshine Skyway when several people on board saw an object in the water. This was identified as a dead female. The second body was floating to the north of where the first had been sighted. It was 2 miles off The Pier in St. Petersburg. While the Coast Guard
went to recover the second body, a call came in of yet a third female,
seen floating only a couple of hundred yards to the east. Like the first
two victims found, this body was face down, bound, with a rope around
the neck and naked below the waist.
Autopsies indicated the three women had been thrown into the water while still alive. This was bolstered by water found in their lungs
and the fact that Michelle had freed one arm from her bonds before
succumbing. Michelle was identified as the second victim found in Tampa
Bay and recovered. The partially dressed bodies of all three women
indicated that the underlying crime was sexual assault.
The blocks were tied around each of their necks to make sure they died
from either suffocation or drowning, and to make sure the bodies were
never found. However, the bodies ended up being found when they bloated
due to decomposition and floated to the surface.
The women were not positively identified until a week after their
bodies’ discovery, by which time they had been reported missing back
home in Ohio by the husband and father, Hal Rogers.
A housekeeper at the Days Inn noted on June 8 that nothing in the room
had been disturbed, and that beds had not been slept in. She contacted
the general manager, who then contacted the police. Fingerprint
matches to the bodies were made from those found in the room. Final
confirmation of their identification came from dental records sent from
the Rogers’ dentist in Ohio. Marine researchers at Florida International University
studied the currents and patterns, and confirmed that the women were
tossed from a boat and not from a bridge or dry land, and that it had
happened anywhere from two to five days before they were found. This was
confirmed when the Rogers car, a 1984 Oldsmobile Calais with Ohio license plates, was found at the boat dock on the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
Facts and arrest
The case remained unsolved and cold for over three years, partly due
to the volume of tips pouring in to the police who investigated the
crime. Chandler was not arrested for the murders until September 24, 1992. 
His handwritten directions on a brochure found in the Rogers vehicle,
along with a description of his boat written by Jo Rogers on the
brochure, were the primary clues that led to his being named a suspect.
Also, authorities had posted the handwriting from the brochure on
billboards, which was historic as it was used for the first time in an
attempt to find an unknown killer. This led to a tip from a former neighbor who was able to provide a copy of a work order that Chandler had written. A handwriting analysis conclusively matched the two. Another neighbor, as well as one of the secretaries on the investigative task force, also thought that Chandler resembled the composite sketch
of the suspect in a seemingly related rape case (see next paragraph). A
palm print from the brochure was also matched to Chandler. Moreover,
Chandler had sold his boat and left town with his family soon after the
billboards appeared all over the Tampa Bay area. In 1990, when the TV show Unsolved Mysteries
was about to report on the deaths of the Rogers family, Chandler and
his then-wife moved from their home on Dalton Avenue in Tampa to Port Orange near Daytona Beach.
This is believed to be because Chandler felt more worried about being
caught because of the upcoming television show about his crime.
Investigators originally theorized that two men were involved in the
murders of the Rogers women. This theory was reflected in a 1990 episode
of the American crime television show Unsolved Mysteries, in which a reenactment of the crime depicted two men leaving the dock with the three women on board a boat.
This theory, however, was dismissed when Chandler was arrested. Other
than a claim by a former prison cellmate that Chandler has said there
was another man involved – whom the cellmate claimed to know the
identity of but would not name – no evidence has ever surfaced regarding
the involvement of anyone other than Chandler. The second-suspect
theory is belied by Chandler’s approach of two Canadian women – that he had the willingness to approach more than one potential target by himself.
John Rogers, Hal Rogers’ brother, was also seriously considered a
suspect even though he was in state prison at the time. John Rogers, was
in fact, serving a prison term for the rape of Hal’s daughter Michelle.
Soon investigators established that John did not have the connections
in prison to have done the murders via a hitman or friend. John Rogers
was released from prison in 2004 and has had no further contact with his
brother Hal since.
While living in a trailer in Willshire,
John had allegedly lured two teenage girls there and sexually abused
them. Subsequent police investigation turned up evidence indicating that
he had also done the same to Michelle. This caused a major rift in the
family and may have played an indirect part in the eventual murders. The
idea that he may have planned the crime was bolstered by the fact that
his and Hal’s parents had property near Tampa, and that he had visited
the area a month before the murders. However, he was a general loner
with little close ties to even his own family, let alone friends, so
such a plan, if there were one, would have been beyond character for
him. For this, and the simple reason that he did not know when his sister-in-law and nieces would be there, he was dismissed as a suspect.
Hal Rogers was also considered a suspect because he had posted bail for his brother after he knew of his abuse of Michelle.
Hal Rogers said later that he had promised the family to make bail and
would not go back on his promise. Investigators from Florida and Ohio
also found out that Hal Rogers had withdrawn $7,000 from his bank at the
time of the disappearance.
When questioned about it, he showed investigators a satchel with most
of the money in it. He planned on using it to go and search for his wife
and daughters himself before he was notified of their deaths. Also,
subsequent investigation conclusively proved he had never left Ohio
during that time period.
The rape and the hype around Michelle Rogers by people in the
neighborhood and media was one of the reasons why the Florida trip was
taken, so Michelle, her sister and her mother could get some distance
from the incident.
At his trial in a Clearwater, Florida
courtroom, Chandler admitted meeting the Rogers women and giving them
directions, but claimed he never saw them again except in the newspaper
and on billboards. Yet he never came forward to tell authorities that he had seen the women.
He acknowledged he was on Tampa Bay that night – a fact he could not
deny since the police had evidence of three ship-to-shore phone calls
made from his boat to his home during the time frame of the murders –
but claimed he was fishing alone. He explained that he returned home
late because his engine would not start, which he attributed to a gas
line leak he claimed to have found near dawn. He claimed he had called the Coast Guard and Florida Marine Patrol, but they were busy elsewhere.
Finally, he claimed he flagged down a Coast Guard patrol boat, but they
were busy and promised to send help. Then he claimed to have fixed the
line with duct tape, which allowed him to make it back safely to shore. His testimony was quickly refuted by the Pinellas County Prosecutor, Douglas Crow, who verbally sparred with Chandler to demonstrate that he had lied about everything. All Chandler could muster in response to the prosecutor’s repeated questions was, “I don’t remember.”
This defense won him few sympathizers on a jury that quickly saw
through his façade and the inconsistencies in his statements. Moreover,
there were no records of distress calls from Chandler that night to
either the Coast Guard or the Marine Patrol, nor were there any Coast
Guard boats on the bay the following morning to help him.
A boat mechanic testified for the prosecution that Chandler’s
explanation for repairing the boat’s alleged gas leak could not have
happened as he had portrayed it. Chandler’s boat, a Bayliner, had a distinctive engine in which the fuel lines were directed upward.
A leak would have sprayed fuel into the air, not into the boat, and the
corrosive gasoline would have eaten away the adhesive properties of the
duct tape Chandler claimed to use to repair the purported leak.
Another lead was that on May 15, 1989—two weeks prior to the Rogers murders—Chandler lured Canadian tourist Judy Blair onto his boat in nearby Madeira Beach,
raped her, then dropped her off back on land. Blair made her way back
to her hotel room where her friend Barbara Mottram was waiting. He was not charged or tried for this crime.
It is thought he did not murder her because Barbara refused his offer
to join them on the boat, a decision which more than likely saved both
their lives. As a result, Judy Blair testified during his trial for the
murders to establish his pattern of attack and the similarities between
the two crimes. Blair testified that on May 14, Chandler gave his name
as Dave Posner or Posno when the three first met at a convenience store
Presumably he gave the same alias to the Rogers’. He told Blair and
Mottram he was in the aluminum contracting business, which helped lead
investigators to him, as well as the naming of the investigation to
capture him: Operation Tin Man. The description that Judy gave was also posted on the billboards along with the handwriting samples.
Additionally, a former employee of Chandler’s testified that Chandler
bragged of dating three women that night on the bay, and that the next
morning he arrived and delivered materials for a job by boat and
immediately set out again – presumably to make sure his victims were
dead and remained submerged. In an attempt to establish Chandler’s
whereabouts on the night of the murders, investigators found phone
records of several radio marine telephone calls made from his boat to his home between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. These likely were an attempt to explain to his wife his absence
as well as to provide himself with an alibi for his whereabouts at the
time of the murders. Also, Chandler’s own daughter Kristal May Sue
testified against her father, saying that he talked about killing the
three women and that he was afraid of going back to Tampa.
A maid who worked at the motel where the Rogers women stayed testified
that she walked past Oba Chandler as she was going to the Rogers’ room
for room service on June 1, implying that it seemed as if Chandler had
just left the women’s hotel room at around 12:30 that afternoon. The
maid said she didn’t realize the importance of this sighting until
Chandler’s arrest in 1992, although the sighting has never been
Hal Rogers and Michelle’s boyfriend also took the stand during trial. Hal identified the women and talked about his emotions on June 1. The boyfriend told about a phone conversation with Michelle.
Sentence and aftermath
Jo, Michelle and Christe Rogers were buried in their hometown on June
13, 1989, after a funeral service at the Zion Lutheran Church. About
300 people among them family and friends of the victims attended the
Because of the huge media interest for the case at the time, numerous
police officers were present to keep all news media and crews out of the
church during the funeral service.
Chandler was tried and found guilty of the murders, and was sentenced to death on November 4, 1994.
After sentencing, the jury foreperson commented regarding the death
sentence that, “They need to do this swiftly. The man is a mutation of a
human being and he needs to be destroyed.”
Chandler remained on Florida’s Death Row, maintained his innocence, and continued to pursue legal appeals.
He admitted the Madeira Beach incident but claims the sex was
consensual, and that the victim had changed her mind during the act –
which, in his words, was not possible for him to do. Chandler was never
prosecuted in the rape of Judy Blair, since he had already been
sentenced to death for the Rogers family murders, and prosecutors did
not want to subject Blair to the emotional trauma of a rape trial. He continued to claim that he never met the Rogers women after that morning when he gave them directions.
Chandler served his sentence at Union Correctional Institution.
Shortly after the trial and conviction, his wife Debra Chandler filed
for divorce, and the marriage was formally dissolved a year later.
Chandler was no longer allowed to see his daughter Whitney, and in
accordance with his ex-wife’s wishes, he was not allowed to see current
photos of Whitney.
In July 2008, it was revealed that Chandler was on Florida’s short list of executions.
Profiling experts believe that Chandler may have killed previously,
based on the speculation that a first-time killer would not be
experienced or bold enough to abduct and kill three women at once.
Chandler remained a suspect in the 1982 murder of a woman found floating
off Anna Maria Island,
this until 2011 when the body was identified as 29 year-old Amy Hurst,
and her husband was arrested and charged with her murder.
And Chandler was never charged with other murders than those of the
Rogers women. Chandler received an Institutional Adjustment disciplinary
report on December 15, 2001, for disobeying orders in prison. All of Chandler’s appeals since his 1994 conviction were denied, the last one in May 2007. After his conviction, Chandler was named by media as one of Florida’s most notorious criminals. Chandler said that his last words before his execution would be “Kiss my rosy red ass”.
In May 2011, comparison was drawn between the murder case and upcoming trial of Casey Anthony
and Chandler’s case and trial in 1994, as in both cases the heightened
media attention forced the jurors to be selected from outside the county
of the committed crime.
One of the jurors in Chandler’s 1994 trial identified as Roseann Welton
also commented in an interview that, “The people that he murdered did
not have a choice of when they were going to die. He (Chandler) should
have had the death penalty by now. He scared some of the jurors when he
would sit there and stare at you and have that stupid grin on his face.
He would make your skin crawl.”
On October 10, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Chandler. His execution was set for November 15, 2011, at 4:00 pm.
The death warrant was signed the day before Chandler’s 65th birthday.
Chandler’s lawyer, Baya Harrison, said that Chandler asked him not to
file any frivolous appeals to keep him alive. “He is not putting a lot
of pressure on me to go running around at the end to find some magic way
out,” said Harrison. “He is not going to make a scene. He’s not going
to bemoan the legal system. What he has told me is this: if there is
some legal way that I can find to try to prevent him from being
executed, he would like me to do what I reasonably can.”
Harrison also said that Chandler suffered from high-blood pressure and
coronary artery disease and had problems with his kidneys and with
On October 12, 2011, Harrison said that although he was preparing to file a motion regarding the violation of his client’s Fifth and 14th Amendment
rights in the case, he was unsure that Chandler was willing to make the
trip to Clearwater for the court hearing or would even agree to the
filing of the motion. “He hates coming down to Clearwater. He doesn’t
like the ride and he’s not well,” Harrison said. “He doesn’t like to
come out of his cell,” added the attorney. “He doesn’t like to be
On October 18, 2011, Harrison filed a motion against the execution on
the grounds that the way Florida imposes the death penalty is
unconstitutional. According to the filed motion, a jury makes a recommendation on life or death, but Florida law gives the judge the final say. A hearing on Chandler’s motion was set for October 21 at 1:00 PM; Chandler did not attend the hearing in Clearwater, Florida. On October 24 Chandler’s appeal was rejected because he had already filed an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court prior to the decision. This appeal was heard in a court in Tallahassee
at 9:00 AM on November 9, 2011. The Florida Supreme Court had already
upheld Oba Chandler’s death sentence twice, once in 1997 and again in
On November 15, Chandler had chosen a last meal consisting of two
salami sandwiches on white bread, one peanut butter sandwich on white
bread and iced tea.
The execution process started at 4:08 p.m and at approximately 4:25
pm Chandler was pronounced dead after receiving a lethal injection at
the Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida. Chandler declined to make a last statement before being executed. Hal Rogers, the husband and father of the victims, attended the execution.
Former St. Petersburg homicide detective Cindra Leedy who investigated
the case said in a press conference that “I’m glad there’s finally an
end to this. He doesn’t deserve to live, he needs to die”.
Chandler did however leave a last statement to prison officials on a
piece of paper which was read out in a news conference after the
execution which stated, “You are killing an innocent man today”.
Shortly after signing Chandler’s death warrant Governor Rick Scott
commented on his decision. “He (Chandler) killed three women, so I
looked through different cases, and it made sense to do that one.
There’s never one thing. It was the right case.”
Valerie Troxell, one of Oba Chandler’s daughters, stated in an
interview after the execution that, “I believe they did execute an
innocent man. I don’t think one person could have pulled off such a
heinous crime. It would have to have been more than one person”, Troxell
“I believe the killers are still out there. The forensic evidence was
not there. The palm print would prove he did meet them and gave them
directions, but it didn’t mean he killed them. I think the prosecution
had a very weak case”.
Troxell also revealed that she had sent a letter to Florida Governor
Rick Scott asking him to commute Chandler’s sentence to life in prison.
And Jeff Chandler one of Oba Chandler’s sons stated that, “I truly
believe he was tried and convicted by the media long before he went to
trial,The media can pretty much convict you. I don’t think he got a fair
Chandler was described as the “loneliest man in the loneliest place
on earth, death row” after his execution, this as he had not had a
single visitor during his years on Floridas death row unit.
Media on the subject
The Discovery Channel devoted a one-hour episode concerning the murder of the Rogers family, “The Tin Man”, on their series Scene of the Crime. The case was also one of three in an episode of the Discovery series Forensic Detectives.
The former focused on the underlying events of the crimes, while the
latter focused on forensic evidence. In 1997, a series of articles
entitled “Angels & Demons” written by Thomas French was published in the St. Petersburg Times newspaper.
The series told the story of the murders, the capture and conviction of
Chandler and the impact of the crimes on the Rogers’ family and
community in Ohio, most notably their husband and father, Hal Rogers.
The articles won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Death Cruise, by author Don Davis, also covered the case. The Rogers murders were featured in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1990, where it was speculated that there were two attackers. The book Bodies in the Bay, by Mason Ramsey, is a fictionalized adaptation (copyrighted in 1997, published in 2000). The case was also featured in a 1999 episode of Cold Case Files on A&E entitled Bodies in the Bay, which also focused on the evidence, but did not delve too deeply into the background of the murders. In 1995 Oba Chandler, some members of his family and also Hal Rogers appeared in a special episode of the Maury Povich Show featuring on the case. Chandler commented on the case via satellite link. Chandler’s case was also brought up in a full-hour episode of “Crime Stories”. The case was also shown on an episode of Forensic Files entitled “Water Logged” in December 2010. In 2012 Investigation Discovery show On the Case with Paula Zahn starring Paula Zahn aired two episodes called Murder at Sunset covering the case.
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Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek , known as Laurie Bembenek, was convicted of murdering her husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 28, 1981. Her story garnered national attention after she escaped from Taycheedah Correctional Institution and was recaptured in Canada, an episode which inspired a TV movie and the slogan “Run, Bambi, Run”. Upon winning a new trial, she pled no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served and ten years probation. Since then, she had sought to have the sentence overturned.
Bembenek was a former Milwaukee police officer who had been fired and had gone on to sue the department, claiming that it engaged in sexual discrimination and other illegal activities. She worked briefly as a waitress at a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Playboy Club. At the time of her arrest, she was working for Marquette University‘s Public Safety Department, in downtown Milwaukee.
On November 20, 2010, Bembenek died at a hospice facility in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 52.
|(August 15, 1958 — November 20, 2010)|
Bembenek was born on August 15, 1958. In March 1980, she had joined the Milwaukee Police Department as a trainee. There she met and became close with a fellow trainee named Judy Zess. At a rock concert in May 1980, Zess was arrested for smoking marijuana. Bembenek’s subsequent dismissal from the Police Department on August 25 stemmed from her involvement in filing a false report on Zess’ arrest.
Murder of Christine Schultz
On May 28, 1981, at approximately 2:15am, 30-year-old Christine Schultz was murdered by a single .38 caliber pistol shot fired pointblank into her back and through her heart. She’d been gagged and blindfolded and her hands were tied in front of her with rope. Her two sons, then 7 and 11 years old, found her face down on her bed and bleeding. The older boy, Sean, had seen the assailant and described him as a masked male figure in a green army jacket and black shoes. He also said the man had a long (approx. 6″) reddish-colored ponytail.
Christine Schultz was the ex-wife of Laurie Bembenek’s then-husband, Elfred “Fred” Schultz, a Milwaukee Police Department detective. They’d been divorced six months at the time of the murder. Fred Schultz initially stated he was on duty investigating a burglary with his partner, Michael Durfee, at the time of the murder, but years later he admitted they were actually drinking at a local pub. When ballistics testing revealed it was his off-duty revolver that had been the murder weapon, suspicion shifted to Laurie Bembenek, as she had been alone in the apartment she shared with Schultz and had access to both the gun and a key to Christine’s house that Fred Schultz had secretly copied from his oldest son’s house key.
Fred Schultz had previously been exonerated in the fatal shooting of a Glendale, Wisconsin, police officer on July 23, 1975. The Glendale officer, George Robert Sassan, had arrested a subject in a bar while off-duty. Milwaukee Police officers, including Schultz, responded to the call in suburban Glendale (outside their jurisdiction), reportedly mistook Sassan as a suspect and shot him to death when he turned toward them, holding a gun. Schultz and his partner were cleared by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office in the shooting of Officer Sassan.
Bembenek’s trial generated tremendous publicity, and newspapers began referring to her as “Bambi” Bembenek (a nickname she disliked). The prosecution portrayed her as a loose woman addicted to expensive living who wanted Christine Schultz dead so that her new husband would no longer have to pay alimony to his ex-wife. The prosecution pointed out that Bembenek also had financial problems. The prosecution claimed that Bembenek was the only person with the motive, means and opportunity to carry out the crime. The strongest evidence was two human hairs, found at the crime scene, which matched ones taken from the hairbrush of the defendant. The gun used to kill Christine Schultz turned out to be Bembenek’s husband’s off-duty revolver. The prosecution claimed that Bembenek was the only person besides Fred Schultz who had access to this weapon. Blood was found on the gun. Bembenek supposedly also had access to a key to Christine Schultz’s home. There were no signs of a break-in and no valuables taken. Schultz’s eldest son stated that Bembenek was not the person who had held up their house and shot his mother.
Witnesses testified that Bembenek had spoken often of killing Christine Schultz. The prosecution produced a witness who said Bembenek offered to pay him to carry out the murder. According to witnesses for the prosecution, Bembenek owned a green jogging suit similar to the one described by Schultz’s son. It was pointed out that Bembenek owned a clothes line and a blue bandanna similar to what was used to bind and gag the victim. A wig found in the plumbing system of Bembenek’s apartment matched fibers found at the murder scene. A boutique employee testified that Bembenek purchased such a wig shortly before the murder.
Shortly after Bembenek’s conviction, Fred Schultz filed for divorce and began saying publicly that he now believed Bembenek was guilty. Bembenek filed three unsuccessful appeals of her conviction, citing police errors in handling of key evidence and the fact that one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Judy Zess, had recanted her testimony, stating it was made under duress. Bembenek and her supporters also alleged that Milwaukee police may have singled her out for prosecution because of her role as a key witness in a federal investigation into police corruption. Bembenek’s supporters suggested that Fred Schultz may have arranged to have someone else murder his ex-wife. One possible candidate was Frederick Horenberger, a career criminal who briefly worked with Schultz on a remodeling project and was a former boyfriend of Judy Zess. A disguised Horenberger had robbed and beaten Judy Zess several weeks prior to Christine Schultz’s murder and would later serve a ten-year sentence for that crime.
According to a number of affidavits which emerged following Bembenek’s conviction, Horenberger boasted of killing Schultz to other inmates while he was in jail. Yet publicly, Horenberger vehemently denied any involvement in the Schultz murder up until his suicide in November 1991, following a robbery and hostage-taking stand-off in which he had been involved.
There were questions raised as to the accuracy of the information and the evidence used in the trial. Dr. Elaine Samuels, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, had originally concluded that hairs recovered from the body were consistent with that of the victim; after Dr. Samuels had come to that conclusion, the hair evidence was examined by Diane Hanson, a hair analyst from a crime lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Hanson stated that two of the hairs were consistent with samples taken from Laurie Bembenek’s hairbrush. Dr. Samuels refuted that claim, stating in a 1983 letter, quoted in the Toronto Star in 1991, that “I recovered no blonde or red hairs of any length or texture … [A]ll of the hairs I recovered from the body were brown and were grossly identical to the hair of the victim … [I] do not like to suggest that evidence was altered in any way, but I can find no logical explanation for what amounted to the mysterious appearance of blonde hair in an envelope that contained no such hair at the time it was sealed by me.”
The apartment where Laurie and Fred lived shared drainage with another apartment. In the shared drainpipe was found a brownish-red wig which matched some of the hairs found on the victim’s body. The woman who occupied the other apartment testified that Judy Zess had knocked on her door and asked to use her bathroom; after Zess used the woman’s bathroom, the plumbing was mysteriously clogged. And Zess had admitted to owning a brownish-red wig.
In prison, Bembenek became a model inmate who was highly respected by her fellow prisoners. She became one of the few convicted killers to ever earn a college degree, graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Parkside. She also met and became engaged to Nick Gugliatto, the brother of another prisoner. On July 15, 1990, she escaped from prison with Gugliatto’s help. Her escape reignited publicity surrounding her case, and she became something of a folk hero. A song was written about her, and automobile bumper stickers were sold with the slogan “Run, Bambi, Run”.
She fled with Gugliatto to Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, where the couple spent three months as fugitives before being apprehended. Bembenek pleaded for refugee status in Canada, claiming that she was being persecuted by a conspiracy between the police department and the judicial system in Wisconsin. The Canadian government showed some sympathy for her case, and before returning her to Wisconsin, obtained a commitment that Milwaukee officials would conduct a judicial review of her case. The review did not find evidence of crimes by police or prosecutors, but detailed seven major police blunders which had occurred during the Christine Schultz murder investigation, and she won the right to a new trial. Rather than risk a second conviction, however, Bembenek pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and received a reduced sentence which was commuted to time served. She was released from prison in November 1992, having served a little over ten years.
Life after prison
Bembenek had written a book about her experience, titled Woman on Trial (ISBN 0-00-215746-2). Since her release, she had various legal and personal problems. She was arrested again on marijuana possession charges, filed for bankruptcy, developed hepatitis C and other health problems. She also admitted to being an alcoholic. She legally changed her name to Laurie Bembenek in 1994.
In 1996, she moved to Washington.
In 2002, Bembenek either fell or jumped from a second-story window, breaking her leg so badly that it had to be amputated below the knee. Bembenek claimed that she had been confined in an apartment by handlers for the Dr. Phil television show and was injured while attempting to escape.
Bembenek continued to insist she was innocent, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to overturn her no contest plea, saying such a plea cannot be withdrawn. In April 2008, Bembenek filed a petition with the United States Supreme Court seeking a reversal of the second murder conviction. Bembenek’s attorney points to evidence not heard in the original trial, including ballistics tests matching the murder bullets to the gun owned by Fred Schultz, male DNA found on the victim, evidence the victim was sexually assaulted, and the eyewitness testimony of the two young sons who said they saw a heavyset, masked man. Bembenek’s petition argued the court needed to clarify whether defendants who plead guilty or no contest have an opportunity to review evidence comparable to the rights of those who plead not guilty. Her appeal was denied in June 2008.
Her case was the inspiration for two television movies and various books and articles portraying her as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. However, she was unsuccessful in her efforts to have her conviction overturned.
In 2004, MSNBC produced and aired a biography of Laurie Bembenek on their Headliners and Legends television show. Bembenek did not take part in the show.
She was interviewed by Mike Jacobs of WTMJ in Milwaukee for an interview which aired on October 28 and 29, 2010.
On November 16, 2010, WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee reported that Bembenek was slipping in and out of consciousness and near death in a hospice care center, suffering from liver and kidney failure. On November 20, 2010, she died at a hospice facility in Portland, Oregon, aged 52.
Television movies about Bembenek
- Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer? The Bambi Bembenek Story (1992) IMDb link
Lindsay Frost starred as Lawrencia ‘Bambi’ Bembenek
- Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story (1993) IMDb link
Tatum O’Neal starred as Lawrencia Bembenek
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