Lawrencia "Bambi" Bembenek, 52; fugitive captured public sympathy

Lawrencia Bembenek, 23, takes the stand in her trial in 1982.
Lawrencia Bembenek, 23, takes the stand in her trial in 1982.
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:15 PM

Lawrencia "Bambi'' Bembenek, a onetime Playboy Club waitress who inspired national headlines and a television miniseries when she escaped from a prison where she was serving a life sentence for murder, died Nov. 20 of liver failure at a hospice care center in Portland, Ore. She was 52.

Ms. Bembenek, a 5-foot-10 blonde who had once posed (fully clothed) as Miss March for a Schlitz beer promotional calendar, maintained her innocence in the killing for decades in a saga that never stopped being sensational.

Less than four months after she married Milwaukee detective Elfred O. "Fred" Schultz in 1981, his ex-wife Christine was fatally shot at her home. Ms. Bembenek, then 22 and allegedly bothered by her husband's $700-a-month alimony payments, was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder.

Despite the grisly accusations against her, the stunning and seemingly vulnerable Ms. Bembenek captured public sympathy. Her husband, who had stood by her throughout the trial, had now abandoned her and moved to Florida, where he remarried.

"Prison is a frightening place," she said in a 1982 radio interview. "You lose total control of your life."

Claiming innocence, she mounted appeal after unsuccessful appeal, mostly paid for by a stranger who donated $28,000 to defray her legal bills after seeing her picture in the newspaper.

Though she was perhaps best known for her brief stint at a Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., Ms. Bembenek had also been a police officer until she was fired for filing a false report. She shot back with a gender discrimination lawsuit and accusations of police corruption.

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed but officers who held a grudge, Ms. Bembenek protested, had conspired to frame her for the killing of Christine Schultz.

Public interest in the case had begun to wane by 1990, when Ms. Bembenek escaped from prison by wriggling out of a laundry room window. Many Wisconsinites openly rooted for Ms. Bembenek and her fiance, Dominic Gugliatto, who had helped her flee.

In Milwaukee, T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Run, Bambi, Run" became hot sellers. A local bar held a Bembenek look-alike contest; a bistro sold Bembenek Burgers. According to a survey conducted by a television station, five out of every six Milwaukee residents thought Ms. Bembenek was the victim of injustice, not a criminal.

Three months after they disappeared, Ms. Bembenek and Gugliatto were arrested in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Ms. Bembenek was working as a waitress under an assumed name. The couple had been spotted when their story appeared on the television show "America's Most Wanted."

After seeking political asylum in Canada, Ms. Bembenek agreed to return to Wisconsin, where a team of high-powered lawyers worked pro bono on her behalf. A judge ruled in 1992 that "serious blunders" had been made during the original investigation into Christine Schultz's death. He said there was no evidence, however, of a police conspiracy to frame Ms. Bembenek.

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