The Femme Fatale Saga of Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek

Back in the ‘80s, Laurie Bembenek, aka Bambi, was the most infamous woman in America. Of course, transforming from a Playboy waitress into a Milwaukee police officer and eventually becoming a ruthless killer will turn people’s heads. In 1982, she was convicted for the murder of her husband’s ex-wife. Diane Sawyer called it “the most glamorous murder case of the 1980s.”

Laurie Bembenek / Laurie Bembenek / Laurie Bembenek / Laurie Bembenek.
Source: Getty Images

In fact, the case was so juicy that no one could get past the fact that Bambi was simply a knockout. Those legs, that hair, those high heels. It was so distracting that nobody even noticed all the other events that happened in her life. This is Bambi’s story.

Killer Looks and a Tabloid Life

Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek was a quiet and thoughtful woman, who just wanted love and justice. She just happened to be gorgeous, and it took her down a tabloid kind of life. She became a media sensation as soon as she was accused of killing of her then-husband’s ex-wife in 1981.

A portrait of Bambi.
Lauri Bembenek. Photo by Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The limelight followed her right up until in 2010, when she died at age 52. Despite having been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, a lot of people doubted her guilt. When she escaped eight years into her sentence, the public was cheering her on: “Run, Bambi, Run!”

Bambi on the Run

Bambi chose to run west, away from her past and into, hopefully, a new life. She stopped running in Vancouver, Washington, where she found new friends and a new job, advising other women who also came into conflict with the law. And after a few failed romances, she finally found a new lover.

A photo of Bambi in a detention center.
Lauri Bembenek. Photo by Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Bambi was also able to find a break from the spotlight out in Washington. But here’s the thing: you can take Bambi out of the media, but you can’t take the scandal out of Bambi. She was followed by bad luck, and no matter where she ran, she never found peace.

A Femme Fatale Tale

Bambi’s beauty and charisma was a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it fueled her popularity and made people want to believe her innocence. But on the other hand, it created tabloid portrayals of a femme fatale. “So much garbage has been written about me and how I look, as if that’s all there is,” she wrote in 1992 in her autobiography, Woman on Trial.

A mugshot of Bambi.
Lauri Bembenek. Source: Pinterest

For as long as she was in the headlines, she was labeled as the former Playboy Bunny. But the truth is she worked only three weeks as a waitress at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. She was never officially a Bunny.

She Never Posed Nude

She also noted in her memoir that she never, ever posed nude – for Playboy or any other magazine. Nonetheless, rumors spread as well as false memories of many people who were certain that they had seen her in a centerfold (the mind sees what it wants to see).

A video still of Bambi during an interview.
Source: YouTube

The one photoshoot she did pose for was a Schlitz beer calendar, but all her clothes were on. The problem for Bambi (well, one of them) was that three-week stint at the Playboy Club tainted the rest of her life. What people didn’t see is that she was born and raised like any other middle-class American.

Bambi’s “Happy” Childhood

Lawrencia Bembenek grew up in Milwaukee’s south side as the youngest of three daughters. Her father, Joseph, was a carpenter who worked as a cop for a while. “I had a happy childhood,” she wrote, but from an early age she wanted to establish her independence.

A portrait of Bambi.
Photo by Marty Carson

She once challenged a priest at her all-girls Catholic school who seemed a little too interested in the her body and those of her fellow 12-year-old classmates. One day, he called her a “slut,” but Bambi didn’t even know what that meant at the time. So, she told her parents.

Rebellious and Bored

She wanted her parents to do something, but they weren’t going to obey her wishes and pull her out of the school. “It would be admitting I’d done something wrong, and I hadn’t… It was my first really powerful lesson in independence.”

A photo of Bambi in court.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The rebellious teen transferred to public Bay View High School, but it bored her. They were learning things she already knew. (“We were reading books I’d read two or three years earlier.”) What she did like at school was the school band, where she played the flute, and the track field, where she shined in 110-yard hurdles. “I could run like the wind.”

Two Friends, Drawn Together

Bambi and her childhood-turned-lifelong friend JoAnne Osuchowski (now Evica) “always got stuck together in the back of the room,” JoAnne said in an interview. They were in the band (JoAnne played the saxophone and clarinet) and on the track team together.

Bambi speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

They also joined the ski club and went out together. “I think we were just magnetically drawn together,” JoAnne later said. In high school, Bambi wanted to work as a police aide but wasn’t old enough. In their senior year, they went on a spring break trip to Daytona Beach.

Spring Break and a New Boyfriend

The “kicker” of a trip, as JoAnne put it, was when Bambi fell for a boy named Danny. That relationship lasted four years. After graduation, JoAnne and Bambi parted ways when they went to different colleges. Bambi stayed in Milwaukee.

A picture of young girls sitting on the beach.
Photo by Roberto Nickson/Pexels

They would write to each other weekly, and when JoAnne came back to visit, she told Bambi all the fanciful stories of her college life. Don’t be fooled about Bambi, though; she was an intelligent and articulate woman. It was her post-high school life, however, that sent her in all kinds of weird directions.

Modeling, Fashion, and Politics

She cared way more about her relationship with Danny than her studies and future career. She found gigs as a model, took some classes in fashion merchandising, and worked part-time at The Limited and then at Boston Store.

A photo of Bambi during the trial.
Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Bambi wrote that during those days she started becoming politically consciousness. She would support feminist groups and join protests demanding the Milwaukee PD establish a sexual assault unit. Once JoAnne finished college, she returned to Milwaukee and the pair would go out to dance clubs together… a lot.

Bambi Turns Heads

It was Bambi who kept turning heads. She was always on top of the latest fashion trends and would attract attention wherever she went. “She was always stunningly gorgeous,” JoAnne said, adding, “I didn’t look at her that way. I saw the tomboy that played kickball on the playground.”

A portrait of Bambi.
Source: Pinterest

JoAnne was used to having her friend be the first one asked to the dance floor and claims to never have resented it. “She would always make sure I was included. That’s what friends do.”

Bambi Joins the Milwaukee PD

At 21, Bambi applied to work with the Milwaukee Police Department. It took a year of tests before she was finally accepted in early 1980. According to JoAnne, Bambi thought it was an honorable job. Modeling was fun, but superficial. She wanted more for herself.

Bambi is standing in court wearing her officer uniform.
Photo by Rick Wood

It was the era of Charlie’s Angels: a sexy, crime-fighting woman “totally fit the personality,” says JoAnne. “She had that A-type personality, and she was always forthright.” Prepping for the police academy meant Bambi would run and exercise at a Vic Tanny club. She took it seriously.

The Disapproving Boyfriend

Her boyfriend Danny was still in the picture at the time, and he didn’t like his girlfriend’s career choice. He wanted to marry her and make her a stay-at-home mom. “I told him I didn’t want to marry, didn’t plan to have children, ever, and even if I did eventually marry, I’d want to be secure in a career first,” Bambi wrote.

An image of a police siren.
Photo by Gabriel Hohol/Pexels

It led to frequent fights, and on one “quiet Saturday afternoon,” Bambi picked up the phone and said goodbye. Danny was now gone, but Bambi was about to enter a world of new challenges.

Let the Abuse Begin

Bembenek entered an endless battle of abuse and harassment throughout her police training. She noticed that only white men got a pass; the Black and female recruits were always punished for any infractions. “Sexist, vulgar remarks,” Bambi wrote, were standard.

A picture of women during police training.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

After the 21-week training, Bambi was assigned to the South Side Second District – a district damaged by “brutal, lazy, apathetic and corrupt” cops, as she put it. Her time on the precinct didn’t last, though. She was fired within a month. Apparently, she was being investigated…

Bambi Gets Fired

During her training, she was investigated on an anonymous tip that she was smoking marijuana at a party. Bambi denied the allegation, and later in her book, she blamed it on the wife of a cop who approached her at a party.

An image of a police officer with children.
Photo by D Logan/Classicstock/Getty Images

The wife didn’t like how Bambi was dressed and insinuated that she was trying to lead her husband on. In the end, the charge was never confirmed. Later, a fellow cop and friend of Bambi’s, Judy Zess, was arrested at a concert for smoking marijuana. She was fired. Zess then accused Bambi of doing the same.

Time to Fight the System

Because of this, Bambi lost her job at the police department. So, she chose to fight the injustice, as she was accustomed to doing. She got her hands on some photos of police officers, both men and women, dancing naked and half-naked in public. Such blatant hypocrisy.

A photo of the legs of police officers.
Photo by Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images

Bambi brought the photos to the Milwaukee office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She argued that her alleged infraction was minor and wasn’t even proven, yet these proven violations were more serious and obvious violations of department rules. And they were going unpunished.

Jobless and Depressed

The EEOC told her she might have a discrimination case on her hands. She then had to turn copies of the photos over to internal affairs. She was on a mission of justice, but Bambi was also spiraling into depression.

An image of Bambi in court.
Photo by Christine Schultz

Working as a babysitter, she wasn’t able to find work at other police departments, not even as a security guard. “My life seemed to be falling apart. I tried to pick up the pieces, to stabilize, but I couldn’t.” Then a man entered her life. His name was Elfred “Fred” Schultz.

Elfred Schultz Enters the Picture

Schultz was a Milwaukee Police detective, and he knew the woman whose kids Bambi was babysitting. He was also one of the cops in the incriminating photos that Bambi had turned in. The recently divorced Schultz took Bambi to the Municipal Court Christmas party that year, in 1980.

A photo of a police badge.
Photo by Thinkstock/Getty Images

“I was drawn in by his overwhelming personality,” Bambi later wrote. “He was manipulative and consuming, but he was also the life of any party he went to.” She said he allowed her to forget her depression, “for a while.”

The New, Loud Boyfriend

Bambi and Schultz visited JoAnne, who was living with her boyfriend and future husband, Doug Evica. Although Bambi was “an attention-getter,” JoAnne said, Fred was “over the top. He was the spotlight when he walked in the room.”

A photo of Bambi outside the courtroom.
Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Everything about him was “loud,” she explained. The way he acted, dressed, fixed his hair. Within minutes of meeting him, JoAnne pulled Bambi into the bathroom. “Where the hell did you get this squirrel?” She didn’t approve of Bambi’s new beau. Seeing it upset her friend, she told Bambi, “Whatever makes you happy. I’m not here to judge.”

A Hasty Wedding, a Speedy Downfall

Only two months after they began dating, Schultz and Bambi married in early 1981 in a swift civil ceremony. As fast as it started, it just as quickly went south. At the time, they were sharing an apartment with Judy Zess (the one who got Bambi fired).

An image of a wedding cake.
Photo by Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

Bambi was working part time as a health club trainer. As soon as Zess moved out, the money got tight. Schultz also had to pay the monthly mortgage ($383) for the house his ex-wife, Christine, was still living in. That and the $365 a month in child support.

Bambi Gets Charged With Murder

Then, on May 28, 1981, just after 2 a.m., everything changed. Someone entered Christine Schultz’s home, bound and gagged her, shot her in the back once, and then fled. Less than a month later, on June 24, Bambi was charged with the murder.

A photo of Bambi testifying in court.
Source: State Journal Archives

But Bambi insisted she was innocent. Nonetheless, after jurors spent four days deliberating, they found Bambi guilty of first-degree murder. The DA alleged that she killed Christine in order to end the financial strain it put on her and Schultz. What about Schultz, though, you ask?

Guilty as Charged, Your Honor?

Well, Schultz had an alibi: he was on duty that night and a partner vouched for him. At the trial, testimony linked the murder to Schultz’s off-duty gun, which Bambi was said to have had access to on the night of the killing.

A picture of Bambi.
Source: YouTube

The judge noted the evidence was mainly circumstantial. It was the ballistics evidence, however, that sealed the verdict. Back in 1982, the evidence was clear, and the verdict was obvious: Bambi was guilty. But time has passed, and all of that has been called into question. But it’s too late now…

Bambi Escapes From Prison

Bambi was sentenced to life at the Taycheedah women’s prison, but she made use of her time. She started an inmate newspaper and even earned a bachelor’s degree. She also divorced Schultz. Meanwhile, she tried appeal after appeal – all of them were denied.

Officers escort Bambi.
Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Eight years, four months, and five days into her life sentence, aware that she had nothing left to lose, Bambi made a bold move. On July 15, 1990, she escaped by sneaking out of a laundry room window, climbing the barbed wire fence, and making a run for it.

Run, Bambi, Run

Bambi had some help in her escape. Dominic Gugliatto, a factory worker whose sister was a fellow inmate at the prison, had fallen in love with Bambi. Once out, she met up with Gugliatto and the pair fled to Thunder Bay, Canada.

A photo of Bambi leaving a detention center.
Photo by Moira Welsh/Toronto Star/Getty Images

They lived on the downlow there for three months. Thanks to the media, Bambi received lots of public sympathy. But the media also helped capture the fugitive. Someone in Thunder Bay called the police after seeing Bambi’s face on the TV series, America’s Most Wanted.

Straight to Solitary

Bambi got the help of some Canadian lawyers who argued to an immigration judge that corrupt cops in Milwaukee framed her for murder. At first, the Canadian judge released her on bail, that is until the resolution of her immigration petition.

An image of a prison cell.
Photo by RODNAE Productions/Pexels

A day later, she was back in jail as the extradition process began. After nearly two years, in the spring of 1992, she was sent back to Taycheedah prison and placed in solitary confinement. That’s also where her autobiography ended. That summer, a Milwaukee judge denied Bambi’s claim of a conspiracy to frame her.

Bambi Takes the Plea Deal

A secret John Doe investigation was conducted, exposing holes in Bambi’s case. With that, her lawyer petitioned for a new trial. So, the DA made an offer: Bambi could be released on parole if she plead no-contest to a lesser charge of second-degree murder.

A picture of a gavel.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

After seven months in solitary, she took the deal. Now released on parole, Bambi and her lawyer were hoping to prove her innocence once and for all. Bambi tried her best to assert her innocence, but the public wasn’t buying it.

No Luck Finding a Job

In 1993, Tatum O’Neal starred in a miniseries based on Bambi’s memoir. In 1996, Bambi was arrested in Milwaukee on minor drug charges, after which she asked for her parole to be transferred to Washington state, as her parents had retired in Vancouver. The request was approved.

A woman fills in a form before an interview.
Photo by cottonbro/Pexels

In 1997, her parole officer referred her to Jackie Parker, a counselor with the state’s corrections division. Finding Bambi, a job was difficult; every employer saw her record. If an employer missed it, and hired her, it was only a matter of time until they fired her.

Bambi Gets the Help She Needs

“She was not my typical woman offender,” Parker said. “She was just very, very determined that she was going to have a life. She was very insightful and smart and would put herself out there.” Parker helped Bambi learn computer skills and passed her resume to a non-profit group for impoverished job seekers.

A photo of a working desk.
Photo by Marina Agrelo/Pexels

Barbara Gerrior, the woman who ran the organization, an ex-offender herself, recognized Bambi’s name and sympathized with her. “She was very self-conscious about talking to people. I told her, ‘Laurie, I know you’ve been in prison a long time. But you’ve got to look people in the eye.’”

Not the Typical Ex-Con

The two became friends, and with Gerrior’s support, Bambi started blossoming. She got a job at YW Housing, an agency that assisted poor women to find housing, where she ran a mentoring program. Her boss, Julie DeSmith, vividly remembers Bambi during her most sensational years.

A portrait of Bambi.
Photo by Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star/Getty Images

DeSmith was one of her supports. “When she escaped, we wore our T-shirts that said, ‘Run, Bambi, Run!’” Bambi wasn’t like most ex-cons; she was educated and articulate. She felt fulfilled with her new work. “She was a natural at it,” noted Gerrior, who believed her friend’s innocence from the beginning.

A New Man Enters Her Life

In 1997, a man named Marty Carson (who also lived in Vancouver) took his mother’s dog for a walk. An attractive woman stopped him; she was enamored by the little terrier. Carson asked the dog-lover out, and, amazingly, she accepted.

A man takes a dog for a walk.
Photo by Kane Skennar/Getty Images

“I could tell from her accent she wasn’t from around here,” Carson later recalled. After making a joke about “something to do with law and order,” Carson remembers Bambi telling him her history. “She flat out told me.” Carson worked for the US Forest Service in Oregon.

Her Story Didn’t Deter Him

He was “in the middle of nowhere,” he described, explaining why he was not aware of who she was. He only vaguely recalled the case, but “really didn’t know the whole story.” Regardless, he wasn’t deterred. On their first date, Bambi brought the movie made about her for them to watch together.

A mugshot of Bambi.
Source: Pinterest

From the beginning, Carson was convinced of her innocence, and it was “because she was so open and honest.” He just didn’t see her as a murderer. The two became a couple, and in 1999, Carson bought a home with a studio space.

Paintings, Antidepressants, and a Freak Fire

It would be perfect for Bambi to continue making art (she loved to paint ever since she was young). In fact, her work was the subject of an exhibition at UW-Milwaukee in 1992. Art was her refuge, but the time she spent in solitary left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A picture of medication pills.
Photo by Anna Shvets/Pexels

She was prescribed antidepressants, but she self-medicated, too, by sometimes drinking too much. In 2001, an art gallery exhibited about 30 of her paintings. Then, a freak fire broke out and the building burned to the ground. “She lost everything,” Carson stated.

Getting Dr. Phil’s Help

In 2003, Bambi’s Milwaukee lawyer and a private investigator got an order for DNA testing of materials from the murder scene. But Bambi (or her supporters) would have to front the cost of testing, which at the time was around $20,000 to $30,000.

A video still of Bambi in an episode of Dr.Phil.
Source: YouTube

So, what did they do? They got the help of TV’s favorite “doctor,” Dr. Phil. They managed to convince Dr. Phil to pay for the DNA test in return for an exclusive appearance on his show. What it meant was Bambi was to learn of the test results on camera, for millions to witness. But things didn’t go as planned…

A Panick Attack and an Amputated Foot

Bambi was flown to LA for the taping and was given an apartment to stay in. Alone and reliving her time in solitary, she had a panic attack. It was rather dramatic, leading her to jump from the second-story window.

A dated picture of Bambi.
Source: Pinterest

She ended up breaking her foot, but the injury was so bad that she needed to have it amputated. According to Carson, she never fully adjusted to the injury. “The woman was so darn stubborn. I tried to get her to use crutches, but she would crawl all the time. Her knees were bruised all the time.”

A String of Bad Luck

“She didn’t want to be pushed around in a wheelchair,” Carson said. Things only got worse. Around the same time, Bambi was diagnosed with diabetes. Then, her mother died, and 18 months later, do did her father. Her father, who had always believed in his daughter’s innocence, died without seeing his daughter’s vindication.

A still of Bambi during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Carson and Bambi, after an on-again-off-again period, finally tied the knot in 2005. Bambi asked JoAnne to be her maid of honor. Whereas JoAnne disapproved of Bambi’s first husband, Carson was different. He was “awesome,” she said, “a down-to-earth guy.”

Her Second Marriage Comes to an End

For a while there, things were good. Bambi bought a couple of miniature horses, which she kept on a farm and would visit them, sometimes taking Gerrior with her. But two years into the marriage, Carson and Bambi split. He was “married to his work” and she couldn’t stand being alone.

A portrait of Bambi.
Source: YouTube

They divorced in 2007, but Carson still loved her. “I guess I never really stopped caring for her.” It probably didn’t help that she moved into a house across the street from him. She joked, saying it was only “to torture” him. But it was the cats – they shared custody.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Despite the divorce, the two found themselves in an agreeable relationship. “It was one of these deals where we were better friends afterward,” Carson asserted. All the while, Bambi’s lawyer’s efforts to get the courts to re-examine the case was making some headway.

An image of a couple looking upset.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

But with every step forward, they went two steps back. The 2003 tests – the ones Dr. Phil paid for – showed no evidence of Bambi’s DNA at the crime scene. It was also revealed that, early in the investigation, the state crime lab classified the murder as a potential sexual assault case.

The Evidence Was Destroyed in a Flood

Testimony at the 1982 trial matched a test bullet with the murder bullet, and prosecutors argued this was evidence of Bambi’s guilt. Now, though, the test bullet was revealed to have been destroyed in a 1986 flood at the crime lab.

A photo of Bambi during the trial.
Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Her lawyers got a new ballistics test in 2006, and the new test bullet from the off-duty gun didn’t end up matching the bullet that killed Christine Schultz. The case in which the judge said, “was undoubtedly the most circumstantial case that I have seen,” now had even more holes in it.

Schultz Conveniently Relocated

Despite the new revelations, the court refused to reopen the case. Because of her 1992 no-contest agreement, Bambi had given up her appeal rights. “That 1992 no-contest plea was a farce,” her lawyer stated. “They already knew in 1992 that the bullets that purportedly made this ballistics match were missing. But they didn’t tell her that.”

A picture of Bambi sitting in the courtroom.
Source: YouTube

Bambi’s supporters have always pointed the finger at Schultz as the most probable culprit and have questioned his alibi. Schultz, who relocated to Florida in the ‘80s and owns a construction business, has denied involvement in interviews. He says Bambi is guilty.

The Golden Answer

A man named Fred Horenberger, a convicted armed robber, had confessed to eight different people that he was Christine’s killer. But he died in 1991. But that secret John Doe report reported that some of those witnesses were “not particularly credible.”

A still of Bambi during a televised interview.
Source: YouTube

Bambi wrote in her book that it was Schultz who had both motive and opportunity to murder his ex-wife. Still, she was careful not to accuse him directly. Gerrior once asked Bambi if she knew who really committed the crime. “Her answer was like gold to me: ‘I have an idea, but I would never say it out loud, because I would never want anybody to go through what I went through.’”

Bambi’s Last Days

Bambi’s dying wish was for her name to be cleared, and her lawyers fought hard. But she never got to see that happen. About a year before her death, she moved back in with Carson, and by March of 2010, she was already frail and thin. “She wasn’t eating. She couldn’t keep food down,” Carson revealed.

A dated video of Bambi during an interview.
Source: YouTube

She was hospitalized for 10 days, and then stayed with Carson’s mother to recover. She had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C for a while by then, and later, Carson learned that one of Bambi’s doctors inferred that she might be bipolar.

RIP, Bambi

“She would be painting like mad and producing things, then when she was down, it was crash and burn. They were trying to level her out.” During her last-ever interview in 2010, she was asked to rate her life on a scale of 1 to 10. Her response: “Two.” She spiraled further downward, and by October she was barely eating.

A dated portrait of Bambi.
Source: Amazon

She was a far cry from the glamorous Bambi everyone had once seen in the media. Bambi died on November 20, 2010, of liver failure. According to Carson, Bambi didn’t want a funeral. There was a memorial service, however, in which about 100 people showed up. Schultz wasn’t one of them. Neither was Dominic Gugliatto, with whom she escaped prison.