Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek, the former cop and Playboy bunny who died of liver failure on Saturday, is being remembered as a murderer by many, although there were doubts around her conviction and she was still trying to clear her name.
Bembenek, 52, died in Portland, Oregon, where she was in hospice care suffering from hepatitis C and liver and kidney failure.
Born Lawrencia Bembenek, she worked as a model and (for three weeks) as a Playboy waitress before joining the Milwaukee Police.
In 1982, she was sentenced to life in prison after her then-husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz, was shot and killed.
In 1990, she escaped from prison and supporters wore t-shirts saying "Run, Bambi, Run." She was captured three months later in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
She was released on parole in 1992 after her original conviction was set aside and she agreed to plead no contest to second-degree murder.
She continued to maintain her innocence and try to clear her name.
She said that, because she gave pictures of Milwaukee police officers cavorting naked at a park to their internal affairs department, they were upset with her and focused on her as the main suspect.
She had also filed a sex discrimination complaint against the department.
The Truth in Justice Files web site states that Chuck Kroeger, a city electrician, was working near where Schultz was killed.
He called police the next day about a man he saw in the area.
"I called right away, and they told me that they had their suspect and they didn't need any more information," he said. "They said they had their suspect, so...."
Bembenek was accused of using her husband’s gun to kill his ex-wife, but Milwaukee County medical examiner Dr. Chesley Irwin examined the weapon and said: "One always gets blowback and you sometimes get hair but you always get blood and serum, and it simply wasn't there."
Bembenek said that, if she were a killer, she would not have used that weapon.
"I was on the police department," the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel quoted her as saying just weeks after the murder. "I sure wouldn't be stupid enough to use my husband's gun. I can't believe they would think that."
Police claimed they found two of Bembenek’s hairs on the bandanna used to gag Schultz, but Dr. Elaine Saumels, who conducted the autopsy, said: "I'm suggesting that somebody in the police department framed her....by planting a blond hair that was obviously hers. But was not found on the body at the time of the autopsy.”
After she got out of prison, Bembenek appeared on talk shows, wrote a book called "Woman on Trial" and tried to sell her paintings and give speeches. Although she had a degree, she found it difficult to find work.
She won the right to have murder scene evidence tested for her DNA, and the "Dr. Phil" show was to pay for testing and reveal the results on air. The producers kept her in an apartment with a body guard, which resulted in her having a panic attack and trying to get away through a window. She fell and injured her right foot, and it later had to be amputated.
Bembenek tried to appeal her conviction based on new DNA evidence, but by pleading "no contest" she lost her right to appeal. She filed a petition for a full pardon, but that had not been heard at the time of her death.
Her family plans to continue fighting to clear her name.
Her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show can be seen on YouTube and a video about the questions around the case can be found on TMJ4.