Lawrencia "Bambi" Bembenek, the convicted murderer whose escape from prison in July made her a folk hero in Milwaukee and the object of a manhunt nationwide, was caught yesterday in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she was working as a waitress, police said.
They said she was turned in by customers who recognized her from the television show "America's Most Wanted," which aired a segment about her last Friday.
Bembenek was taken into custody along with a male companion identified by Thunder Bay jail officers as Dominic Gugliatto, a Milwaukee factory worker who had been her fiance. The two were being held pending a deportation hearing.
Bembenek, 32, a former model and Playboy Club cocktail hostess, was serving the eighth year of a life sentence for the murder of her then-husband's ex-wife when on July 15 she wriggled through a prison laundry-room window and escaped into the night. Gugliatto's abandoned car was found shortly afterward.
A former Milwaukee police officer who has always maintained her innocence, Bembenek remained in the news during the years of her confinement, advocating feminism and prison reform in jailhouse interviews. According to one local television phone-in survey conducted shortly after her escape, five of every six Milwaukeeans think Bembenek was unjustly convicted. Three-quarters of the callers to a local radio show said they would not turn her in if they knew where she was.
T-shirts were sold reading "Run, Bambi, Run."
Yesterday her luck ran out.
Bembenek put up no struggle at her arrest, police said.
"She admitted she was the person who was wanted in Milwaukee," said Thunder Bay police Sgt. Peter Toohey.
Told of the arrest, Bembenek's ex-husband, Elfred O. Schultz Jr., said yesterday he feels "like the Packers won the Super Bowl. It's awesome."
Schultz, originally Bembenek's supporter, says he turned against her not long after her 1982 trial, when he became convinced she was guilty despite the circumstantial nature of the case against her. Allegedly, Bembenek had bound, gagged and shot Schultz's first wife in a scheme to relieve the couple's financial situation by eliminating his alimony payment.
After Bembenek's escape, Schultz told reporters he was afraid she would seek retribution, and he beefed up the security system around his Florida home.
Bembenek's most recent attorney, Martin E. Kohler of Milwaukee, said yesterday, "I'm disappointed. I was hoping it wouldn't end like this, and definitely not this soon. I believe she should have gotten a new trial, and if she had, we would have won."
Bembenek had been working since July 23 as a waitress at the Columbia Grill and Restaurant on Main Street in the Ontario city of 115,000, according to Louis Kebezes, the restaurant's owner. Kebezes knew her as "Jennifer Gazzan" and the man she identified as her husband as "Tony."
Kebezes said police first arrived at the restaurant at midday yesterday, talked privately to "Jennifer," then left. Sometime afterward, he said, they returned and asked for her again, but she was missing.
"Tony" phoned a short time later, Kebezes said, to report that "Jennifer's mother passed away" and that she would not return to work.
Police arrested the couple at their basement apartment several hours later. They had the car loaded and were ready to leave, police said.
Kebezes said he was "very shocked and upset" to learn of Bembenek's past.
"She was an excellent employee. She was never late, and she worked anytime you asked her to work," he said. "I started her as a waitress, but after a month I let her go to the cash register, and left her alone."