MILWAUKEE -- Beautiful Bambi Bembenek bewitches men. For her affections, men have lied, plundered their bank accounts, committed crimes, imperiled their lives, played the sap.

To the law, she is a convicted murderer, the remorseless killer of her husband's first wife. But to many in this city she is a wronged innocent, the victim of a diabolical frame-up engineered by persons unknown for reasons unholy.

All of which, for the moment, is moot. Bembenek's gone.

One month ago, somehow defying the geometry of the situation, the former Playboy Club bunny squirmed through an eight-inch-high opening in a prison laundry room window and took it on the lam, elevating her already formidable fame to the level of legend. She had served eight years of a life sentence.

She was thought to have been aided in her escape by one Dominic Gugliatto, 34, who is, of course, madly in love with her. Gugliatto, a divorced factory worker with three children, met Bembenek in November while visiting a relative in prison. He is missing too. His abandoned car was found in the parking lot of a local shopping center. He is presumed on the run, hunted but happy.

The irresistible melodrama of Lawrencia "Bambi" Bembenek, 32, former policewoman, former model, former inmate No. 131524-A at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, has captured the imagination of this city like few crimes in its history. According to one local television phone-in survey conducted shortly after her escape, five of every six Milwaukeeans think Bembenek got burned. Three-quarters of the callers to a local radio show said they would not turn her in if they knew where she was. All this, despite four appellate court decisions upholding her conviction.

The doubts remain because of the circumstantial nature of the case against her, and because of Bambi Bembenek's undeniable personal appeal. Even in prison drabs, she seemed stylish.

The people of Milwaukee have gotten to know her through dozens of interviews she has granted over the years, interviews that have sympathetically chronicled her adjustment to prison life. When she speaks she seems guileless, venting outrage rather than self-pity; frustration rather than rancor; vulnerability, always.

"Prison is a frightening place," she told Larry "The Legend" Johnson of radio station WZUU in 1982. "I would be frightened for anybody coming here... . You lose total control of your life."

Years later, in a newspaper interview: "You get used to it. It's amazing what you can adjust to. ... The alternative is a paper gown and psychotropic drugs."

Just 10 days later, she would find a different alternative, out a window and over a wall.

It is Friday, July 27, and a rally for Lawrencia Bembenek is underway under cerulean skies. Working the crowd with a handful of leaflets is a youngish, neatly bearded man with the earnest if slightly pitiful likability of a basset hound. This is Ira Robins, 48, a private investigator who has become so convinced of Bembenek's innocence he has made her vindication his life's mission. Originally hired by her family, he has long since stopped accepting fees from them. Robins is gathering names on a petition alleging a police conspiracy, urging yet another investigation of the case. By day's end, he will claim to have garnered a thousand new signatories. The rally abounds with talk of crime and punishment, but the air is filled with carnival. Milwaukee is a city of nonstop summer festivals, and many entrepreneurs have seized the commercial possibilities of the event. One hawker sells Bembenek photo masks -- ostensibly to help confound police searchers. A tavern advertises a Lawrencia look-alike contest. A bistro sells Bembenek Burgers. A dog carries a sandwich-board advertising bumper stickers that say, "Run, Bambi, Run."

Bumpers are bedecked. Reads one: "Bembenek on Board."

Sourly surveying the event from his office window overlooking the courtyard is Robert O. Donohoo, the deputy district attorney who helped prosecute Bembenek nine years ago, who has successfully deflected all of her appeals and who remains curtly convinced of her guilt. Donohoo simply cannot believe the crowds. The whole thing galls him, and he mostly blames the press for what he sees as pandering to the public's basest instincts. For elaboration, he defers to his colleague, Assistant District Attorney Gail Hoffman.

"There are a million other people sitting in prisons all over the world who have been convicted on circumstantial cases," she says. "The only difference between them and Lawrencia Bembenek is that Lawrencia has blond hair, is a very attractive woman and can speak to men."

The Slaying and the Suspect

"I found her to be a real fine person." -- Ira Robins, private investigator

"She'd do anything. She'd kill again. I have no doubt in my mind. If she wants something, she will kill." -- Elfred O. Schultz Jr., Bembenek's former husband, now remarried

"There are so many facets to this woman. Her beauty, her intelligence, her humor. Every time I see her I learn something new." -- Dominic Gugliatto, in an interview four months before his disappearance

The saga of Lawrencia Bembenek begins in the early hours of the morning of May 28, 1981, with a hysterical phone call to a family friend by 11-year-old Sean Schultz. Sean said a ski-masked intruder had attempted to strangle him and then shot his mother to death.

Police found the body of Christine Schultz, 31, bound and gagged, killed by a single bullet that entered her back at point-blank range, caromed off her shoulder blade and pierced her heart.

Among the police officers summoned to the scene was Elfred O. Schultz Jr., Christine's ex-husband, who had been on patrol that night with his partner, Michael Durfee. Schultz comforted Sean and his younger son, Shannon, and took the two boys to a neighbor.

Then he called his bride of four months, Lawrencia Bembenek. The phone, he says, was busy.

Normally, at that time of night Bembenek would have been in bed, asleep. Was the phone off the hook? Had Schultz mis-dialed? He would never find out for sure. Minutes later, he tried again; his wife answered, and said she had been asleep. Schultz broke the grim news.

By the time Schultz arrived home at 6:30, other police officers were already there, questioning his wife, who was in a fluffy bathrobe. Whether they already had suspicions about Bembenek or were just hassling her is not clear. The fact is, the police knew her, and there was bad blood. Bembenek had once been a Milwaukee police officer but was cashiered for denying in an official report that she knew people were smoking marijuana at a concert she attended. Her superiors said she was lying. She had responded with a sex discrimination suit against the force. The suit was eventually dismissed; at the time of the murder, she was working at a new job as a private security guard.

The interrogation and investigation of Lawrencia Bembenek that night was superficial at best, inept at worst. Detectives asked about her whereabouts at the time of the murder (she said she was home, asleep) but they did not order a paraffin test on her hand to detect gunpowder residue, nor did they ask to examine Detective Schultz's off-duty revolver, which had been in the apartment. Schultz and his partner inspected the weapon themselves. Both men agreed the gun did not appear to have been recently fired, nor recently cleaned.

For three weeks and one day, the case remained open. Finally, when other evidence began to point to Bembenek, police seized the gun and sent it to ballistics. The report was definitive: Detective Schultz's off-duty revolver was the weapon that killed Christine Schultz.

The only people known to have had access to that gun that night were Schultz and his wife. And Schultz had a solid alibi: From the moment he went on duty to the moment he was notified of his ex-wife's death, he was never out of sight of his partner or other police officers.

And so Bambi Bembenek was charged with murder.

Did She or Didn't She?

Predictably, the trial was a sensation. Not only had Bembenek been a policewoman, but she also briefly had held a job as a waitress in a Lake Geneva Playboy Club -- inevitably exaggerated in some news stories to "former centerfold." She had posed seductively, though fully clothed, as Miss March for a Schlitz beer promotional calendar. She liked to party. And she was, by most anyone's estimation, a knockout.

The centerpiece of the state's case was the gun to which Lawrencia, and apparently only Lawrencia, had access on the night of the murder. Atop the bricks of this troubling truth, prosecutors troweled on layers of circumstantially suspicious facts.

The murderer had not forced entry into Christine Schultz's home; Bembenek had had access to her husband's spare key.

Although the Schultz children's recollections of the intruder's appearance differed in significant details, both agreed that he, or she, had long reddish-brown hair arranged in a ponytail. Lawrencia Bembenek was a bottle blonde, but police produced a wig with long, reddish-brown hair that had been recovered a week after the murder from a clogged drain under the Bembenek apartment and the apartment next door. Its location suggested it had been flushed down a toilet.

A saleswoman testified that she remembered selling Bembenek a similar wig a year earlier.

Chemical analysis showed that hairs on the bandanna used to gag Christine Schultz were "consistent with" hair samples taken from Lawrencia Bembenek's hairbrush.

Eight-year-old Shannon Schultz testified that the intruder had worn a green jogging suit with a yellow stripe. Although Bembenek denied owning such a suit, several witnesses said they had seen her in one.

The mother of a former roommate of Bembenek's testified that once, during a conversation about her family's money troubles, Bembenek remarked, "It would pay to have Chris blown away."

And that, prosecutors charged, was the elusive motive in the case: Bembenek's new husband had been doling out about $700 per month -- nearly half his paycheck -- in mortgage payments and child support to Christine Schultz. That, said the prosecution, was cramping the young couple's lifestyle. The state suggested that the shooting was unplanned, that Bembenek had intended not to kill Christine, but merely to frighten her into selling her house and moving. With her husband receiving half the proceeds from the sale (roughly $26,000 after the mortgage was paid off, according to one source), Bembenek would have the money she needed to live the fast life she allegedly craved.

Taken together, the facts and theories made for a relatively convincing case. Bembenek's lawyer, Donald Eisenberg, tried to dismantle it.

Bembenek didn't help. On the stand she seemed peculiarly unemotional, speaking in a monotone, answering questions in monosyllables. But she dressed demurely, and never wavered in her denial of guilt.

Under cross-examination, Sean Schultz testified that he did not believe the husky-looking intruder was Bembenek, "even if she was wearing football shoulder pads."

In summation, Eisenberg argued that the state's most devastating piece of evidence, the gun, was meaningless. He pointed out that there was no proof that the gun Durfee and Schultz looked at on May 28 was the same weapon later tested and identified as the murder weapon. They had apparently not recorded its serial number, and, curiously, Durfee's police notebook for the night of the murder was never found. He testified he had either lost it or accidentally thrown it away.

Guns could easily have been switched, Eisenberg said, hinting darkly at conspiracy.

Moreover, he said that as a police officer trained in ballistics, Lawrencia Bembenek would have understood the potentially damning significance of the gun and would never have used a weapon that could have been so easily traced to her. And even if the killing had indeed been unplanned, he said, she would have had the presence of mind to dispose of the gun on her way home, or during the three weeks before it was finally seized.

The gun. It was the be~te noire of the defense, and try as he might, Eisenberg could not shake its inescapable implication.

To believe Lawrencia Bembenek innocent, you had to believe that she was the victim of an elaborate frame-up: Somebody had to switch guns; somebody had to flush a wig down her toilet; somebody had to transport strands of incriminating hair to the murder scene. But beyond some broad hints about other unnamed conspirators, and weak suggestions about the allegedly nefarious motives of Christine Schultz's current boyfriend, Eisenberg was unable, or unwilling, to offer up a credible candidate for the "somebody," the unseen evildoer.

Which left only one other plausible scenario: that Lawrencia Bembenek was guilty as charged.

The jury was out four days. When the verdict was read, Schultz wept, head in hands. There were gasps and outcries from the audience. Only Bembenek remained composed.

"We wanted to find any way possible to get the lady out of it," sighed juror Elmer Falk, with unusual candor, afterward.

But, he said, they kept coming back to that gun.

Divorced, Defended, Denied

Even before her escape, the case of Lawrencia Bembenek continued to make news over the years. First, there was the disclosure that most of her early appellate costs -- $28,000, to be precise -- had been underwritten by a lovesick Milwaukee man named Jacob Wissler Jr., who fell for Bembenek after seeing her pictures in the newspapers.

Then, the divorce. Elfred O. Schultz, who stood by her throughout the trial, says he gradually, reluctantly, came to believe his wife guilty. Just months after she went to prison, he divorced her. His farewell note to her in prison, duly reported in People magazine: "Dear Lawrencia: Goodbye. Good luck. Fred."

Schultz has since remarried and is living in Florida, where he runs a construction business.

Next came the countercharges. One appeal alleged that Bembenek had been misrepresented by counsel. Attorney Eisenberg, she said, had had a conflict of interest: Because he was being paid by Elfred Schultz, Eisenberg never pursued the most logical candidate for the evil "somebody": Elfred Schultz himself. Bembenek's husband could have had an accomplice who did the killing. Schultz could have switched the guns. He could have flushed the wig. He had a financial motive as strong as Bembenek's. To suggest Schultz had the capacity for violence, defense investigators produced affidavits alleging that he had been physically abusive to Christine Schultz, and had once threatened her life.

Schultz denied everything. He hadn't beaten his wife, he said, had never threatened her, and hadn't been party to her murder. Intriguingly, attorney Eisenberg responded to the appeal by saying he had wanted to cast some suspicion at Schultz, but that Bembenek had flatly refused to let him do it.

The appeal was denied, the court noting that Bembenek had been "an active participant" in her defense.

Next came the time that ... the real killer confessed!

We told you this was a melodrama.

In 1986, Joseph Hecht, a convicted Wisconsin hit man serving a life sentence, wrote to Bembenek saying he had been hired to kill Christine Schultz. He would not name his client, but he said he had received instructions to pick up a gun, and $9,000, from a trash bin behind the Schultz house. A private detective hired by Bembenek questioned Hecht, who revealed detailed knowledge about the layout of the Schultz house, information that had not appeared in any news accounts. His employment records showed he had been absent from work on the day of the murder.

The investigator gave what he had to police, but Hecht refused to testify without immunity, and prosecutors wouldn't give it to him.

The press descended. Would Bembenek remain in prison because the state was afraid to be embarrassed?

It was a fascinating stalemate, broken when Jacob Wissler -- the infatuated admirer who had paid Bembenek's legal fees -- admitted he had also paid Hecht to admit the crime. Wissler had learned about the interior of the Schultz house through a subterfuge: He had obtained a telephone interview with Schultz's father by posing as a reporter for the New York Times.

Wissler, alas, never succeeded in winning the heart of Lawrencia Bembenek. In a newspaper interview, she dismissed him as "my John Hinckley Junior."

Wissler, it should be noted, was later convicted, and served a jail term, for threatening to bomb a prison guard whom he suspected of having designs on Bembenek.

Among the most intriguing appeals was one filed in 1987, naming still another "somebody": a Milwaukee man named Frederick Horenberger, a onetime business associate of Elfred Schultz. A few weeks after the murder, Horenberger was arrested and convicted of having burgled the house of Bembenek's former roommate. The MO was similar to that in the Christine Schultz case; Horenberger had worn a ski mask, and he had tied up the victim. He had been known to wear his hair in a ponytail, and to have a green jogging suit. The contention, on appeal, was that Horenberger had been the killer, in cahoots with Schultz. But Horenberger has never confessed to the crime, and the appeals court ruled that it was insufficient evidence to order a new trial.

As her appeals sputtered, Bembenek's appellate lawyers took what help they could get, compiling mounds of letters of support from around the city, the country and the world. After a four-year correspondence with Bembenek, a Milwaukee man named Richard Kolas wrote a 17-page letter supporting her request for a new trial. Saying he was "neither enamored nor infatuated with Lawrencia," he wrote:

"In my logical mind, it was incomprehensible that a person with this grace, intelligence and beauty could place in jeopardy her life, her future and the respect of her family."

Meanwhile, Bembenek was surviving in prison, earning credits toward a college degree, still making occasional headlines. Wisconsin Woman magazine reported that she had undergone gynecological surgery, and had lost a tooth or two. Truth be told, she began looking just a little haggard in photographs.

Up for parole in 1993, but wasn't counting on it. She expected no breaks, she said.

She was clearly getting impatient, and frustrated. In March, she grumped to a Wisconsin magazine reporter: "If I ever get to make love again, I'll probably call out my own name."

When she and Gugliatto announced plans to wed in a prison ceremony, the government dourly informed Bembenek the marriage would never be consummated in jail. Wisconsin has no provisions for conjugal visits. That made news.

Sympathetic well-wishers bought Bembenek a $500 wedding dress.

She left it behind when she split.

On the Trail of Bambi

So where are they?

Conventional wisdom in this city's bars and barbershops is that Bembenek and her man are headed for the forests of Canada. Gugliatto is known to be an accomplished hunter and fisherman, and he and Bembenek are believed to have only about $6,000 between them, most of it money he borrowed from his credit union five days before the escape.

Deputy District Attorney Donohoo says he isn't so sure they're as poor as all that. "She's had numerous male visitors over the years," he said. "Maybe she got one of them to give her some money. Who knows?"

Elfred Schultz says Bambi is capable of anything, and he has installed an elaborate surveillance system around his home in Florida, just to be sure. He says he's afraid of Bambi, not her lover. Gugliatto, he says, is a victim, a stooge.

"She's basically just a consummate liar who uses a lot of people," he said. "She is using Ira {Robins, the private investigator} like she's using Dominic right now, just like she used me, and Jacob Wissler, and Hecht.

"She hates guys, she hates men," he said. "And that's why she's always using them."

Schultz says talk of him as the killer is nothing but a smokescreen wafted in desperation by a woman down to her last appeals. Bembenek, he said, had a dark side that was never exposed at trial. He has told a TV talk show here that she was a user of drugs, and now says she was even popping pills during her trial. "A lot of Darvon, a lot of painkillers, lots of white crosses, mini-whites, lots of speeders. I found 'em in her drawer and dumped 'em in the toilet. Boy, was she pissed."

"It's true to some degree," responds Robins, "that at 21 or 22 she was in with a fast crowd. But that doesn't make her a murderer. That doesn't throw away all her constitutional rights."

In fact, Wisconsin is trying to do just that. The state has filed to quash all of Bembenek's remaining appeals, contending that an escaped felon has abandoned all constitutional rights.

Lovers on the Run

Dominic Gugliatto's family is pulling for him.

His sister, Christine Gugliatto Lohmiller, remains convinced of Bembenek's innocence, and the purity of her brother's love.

"In my heart, I believe they are happy, and both scared. Of course, we'd like him to come home. Can you imagine what this is doing to our parents? And to his children? When the girls asked me about it, I said, 'Your daddy just wants to lead a normal life with the woman he loves,' and I think they understood.

"He is the gentlest person," she said. "I don't think that if he is with her, and if they are caught, that Nickie -- that's what we all call him -- would offer any resistance. We only pray no one shoots them first."

Ira Robins thinks Bembenek is limber enough to keep running, and smart enough to keep hiding. He's sorry she bolted, though, because he is convinced her vindication was just a matter of time. Finally, he questions just how much she's gained:

"She's in her own prison now," he says, sadly.

It's Her!

And the hunt goes on.

On July 29, in faraway Bunkie, La., a young couple checked into a local motel. The woman, a leggy blonde, went to a drugstore to fill a prescription for her husband. A painkiller. She told the druggist, unnecessarily, that her husband had broken his foot falling off a horse. A stranger, with an offbeat story, seeking drugs. The druggist was on alert.

Then he saw the woman's driver's license.

Wisconsin.

Something clicked. News story. Runaway bombshell.

When she left the store, the druggist sprinted for the phone.

Minutes later, guns drawn, police (sans search warrant) broke down the motel room door, giving Chari and Jesse Madrigal of Oregon, Wis., the fright of their lives.

Chari, 24, told reporters she may sue. And -- we hope you're not reading this, Bambi -- she added this unkindest of cuts:

"I don't even look like this lady. She's a heck of a lot older than me."