The recent shockwave some of us felt after an Italian appeals court upheld Amanda Knox’s 2009 conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher has stirred the same kind of emotions many experienced over the case of Lawrencia ‘Bambi’ Bembenek many moons ago, when she was wrongfully convicted in 1982, for the murder of her husband’s former wife, Christine Schultz. After being convicted and serving 10 years of a life sentence, Bambi escaped in 1990 from the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Wisconsin and fled to Canada with her then fiancé Dominic Gugliatto, who was the brother of an inmate.
After hearing of her escape, many Americans began wearing T-shirts saying ‘Run Bambi Run’. And now, we are seeing the same phenomenon with ‘Run Amanda Run’ T-shirts popping up in the US.
If her final appeal should fail, and should the U.S. fail to protect Knox in extradition proceedings with Italy, the growing public sentiment is that she should definitely run before doing time for a crime she did not commit. The last person to have been the object of that kind of strong public support was Bambi Bembenek – at least, to the point of encouraging her to flee from ‘justice’.
We usually feel terrible when a person gets wrongfully convicted, but only a few cases have rattled us to the point of saying: ‘Run!’ Before the wrongly convicted individual goes AWOL, we want justice to take its course and for the accused to go through the numerous appeals and processes necessary to redress the injustice.
But in the cases of Knox and Bembenek, running becomes an option because of the outrage felt over the unfair treatment bordering on conspiracy that they received from the powers that be.
Bembenek was a stunningly beautiful woman who had worked briefly as a waitress at a Playboy Club before becoming a Milwaukee police officer. For her part, Knox possesses a ‘girl next door’ beauty with the vibe and look of a creative student. It is interesting that these two women, both attractive in very different ways, have encountered the same type of prejudice.
It seems that every time young appealing women get in trouble with the law, they become polarizing figures and are not given the benefit of the doubt by many, yet automatically receive strong support from others. They are the kind of defendants the public loves to hate and often become obsessed with and this can easily become a double-edged sword. Their cases gather a great deal of attention which can mean support against adversity, but also signify that they might not have been charged in the first place had they not been so attractive. They can too easily represent media bait for ambitious prosecutors wanting to make a name for themselves.
In the case of Amanda Knox, Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, who spearheaded the investigation into the Meredith Kercher murder, focused on her and Raffaele Sollecito immediately. Mignini stated in an interview that his instinct kicked in the instant he saw Knox. He knew she was involved. Wow! What a great way to start an investigation — using the sniff test to judge people who could easily be innocent bystanders.
You would think that Mignini, based on the horrible errors in judgement he had made in the past, would have known better than to trust his ‘radar’ and jump to conclusions based on a young couple’s demeanor. But he could not pass up this opportunity to be a hero by bringing down the attractive duo that would enchant the media with their good looks, mystery and murderous souls – at least in his fantasy world. He needed Ken and Barbie to grab the attention of a public thirsty for a good story about the battle between Good and Evil.
The murder of Meredith Kercher was a tragic event but by no means a difficult case to solve. She was killed by Rudy Guede who had left his DNA, hand print and even his own excrement in the toilet. What else did they need? A video? He had a history of involvement with knives and burglary and of leaving scented gifts in toilets. And he was free falling after a series of bad decisions and losing the support of his adoptive parents. His crimes were escalating, which is a very typical criminal pattern which culminated in him murdering poor Meredith and leaving town in a hurry.
But it was not good enough for Mignini. He had to involve the two love birds who had been briefly dating and insert them in this orgy-filled scenario to glorify his image in the media. Settling the case with Rudy would not have brought him much glory because it was too simple and ordinary. This prosecutor needed the Big Bang and an American girl to boost the case and restore his badly tarnished reputation stemming from the huge blunders he made while heading a branch of the Monster of Florence investigation. The hell with Sollecito, he was only collateral damage after all. That poor sap Rudy Guede became the luckiest SOB on the planet when they basically handed him the possibility of unloading his crime on the couple.
The investigators rattled Knox during interrogation and made her spit crazy stories to make sure she would somehow look and sound involved in the crime. The hell with DNA, they used an old bra clasp that had been stepped on, forgotten on the floor and carelessly manipulated, plus they took a knife and lowered the standards of DNA testing to make it the murder weapon. And they were in business!
That is all it took in Italy to bring down two perfectly normal citizens. After several years in jail, the couple was released because they were found innocent on appeal.
Did this stop the Italian court? Of course not, they tried Knox and Sollecito again, and this time the original murder conviction was upheld and is now headed for another appeal. It is a maddening situation, and while Sollecito is stuck in Italy with his passport having been confiscated, Knox is in the US, pondering the enormity of the hell her life has become. So it is not surprising that many would cheer her on if she was to run after all her appeals have been exhausted, or if the government decides to extradite her to Italy or just because at this point!
None of us can imagine living through that kind of horror or the toll it would take on our lives. In the case of Bambi Bembenek, this heavy load ended her life in 2010 at age 52. I could only feel sadness when I heard she passed away of liver cancer after spending twenty years trying to clear her name to no avail.
Larencia, who had officially changed her name to Laurie Bembenek after her release, struggled needlessly because of this conviction. She could never restore her reputation or fulfill her dream of enrolling in law school because she had not been cleared and vindicated. She developed Hepatitis C and even had her right leg amputated after jumping from a window after having been invited to be a guest on the Dr. Phil show.
Her version of the Dr. Phil events is that his handlers would not allow her to leave the apartment where they kept her and she resorted to jumping out the window to escape. Laurie’ mangled leg had to be amputated below the knee. She sued Dr. Phil and declared that he had destroyed her life. Ironically, she had jumped out of a window to escape prison with no injury.
She was an admitted alcoholic and this once gorgeous girl deteriorated before our very eyes. At the end, she looked like a shadow of herself — an old woman beaten down by the system.
I could not help noticing during her last interview, that a physical and psychological toll is also taking place with Amanda Knox. How long can anyone resist this kind of pressure cooker?
Bembenek, after having worked briefly at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, became a police officer in Milwaukee and married detective Elfred Schultz. He had divorced his wife Christine previously and was often heard complaining about paying alimony. In 1982, when Christine was fatally shot in her own home by a person described by her 2 sons — who had briefly struggled with the attacker — as male, 6 feet tall with pale hair tied in a ponytail and wearing a scarf around his face and nose, the authorities descended on Bembenek and arrested her for the murder and later sentenced her to life in prison.
And even if 11-year old Sean Schultz had described the man as wearing black police shoes and a jacket or a jogging suit, the prosecutors asserted that a green jogging suit owned by Bambi was seen on a jogger running near Christine’s house. Bambi had worked briefly at the Playboy Club as a waitress while spending most of her time and effort becoming a police officer, but the whole trial became about the ‘Playboy Bunny.’
The same thing happened to Knox who was called ‘Foxy Knoxy’ by the media to make her sound like a slick seductress, when in fact, it was a nickname given to her as a young girl when she played soccer.
Bambi’s story inspired a few books and a TV movie, and when she escaped from prison with her fiancé Dominic Gugliatto, America’s Most Wanted dedicated a show to the case which led to them being captured in Thunder Bay, Ontario, three months after their escape.
After her arrest, Bambi fought extradition for a while but ended up willingly returning to Wisconsin in 1992. The Canadian government had convinced Milwaukee officials to conduct a judicial review of the case, and even though it turned up no evidence of crimes or blatant misconduct committed by the police or prosecutors, some blunders were found during the investigation and Bambi was granted another trial.
To avoid a second murder conviction, she pleaded no contest to second-degree-murder and was given a reduced sentence commuted to time served. It’s not a rare occurrence for a defendant to accept such a deal to make sure the same error is not repeated twice. Bambi was released from prison in 1992 after having served 10 years and went to live with her parents in Washington State.
Bambi had always claimed she was innocent and many suspect that her husband Fred Schultz had murdered his former wife to eliminate the financial burden that she represented, and that he might even have framed Bambi for the murder. After all, Christine’s son, who knew Bambi well, had testified in no uncertain terms that it was not her.
In 2001, a new state law allowing criminal defendants to seek DNA evidence that could exonerate them was passed and Bembenek eventually had some of the DNA present at the crime tested. It revealed no trace of her presence whatsoever. But in 2006, the Wisconsin appeals court refused to let her appeal her murder conviction. She even tried to petition the office of Gov. Jim Doyle to get a pardon but her application was judged ‘incomplete.’
Not unlike in the case of Amanda Knox, the evidence that was presented at Bembenek’s trial was flimsy at best. And yet, the powers that be seemed intent on finding her guilty.
There was a dark cloud over her trial because among other factors, Bambi had been fired from the police force one month after graduating from the Milwaukee Police Academy when a female police officer she went to a concert with was arrested for possession of marijuana and accused her of having smoked some.
She retaliated by turning copies of picnic pictures over to the police department Internal Affairs division in which naked women and men – some of whom were police officers – danced and preened for the camera. She wanted to prove a point; why dismiss her for such a ridiculous allegation when the Milwaukee cops were having those kind of parties regularly and were not reprimanded for it?
She was dating Fred Schultz at that time and he was in some of the pictures. We can only imagine that did not go over very well.
Ballistic reports from the murder of Christine Schultz had been linked to Fred Schultz’s off-duty gun, and blonde and red hairs and a wig collected in the toilet plumbing of their old apartment were tied to Bambi. It turned out the wig they had found was not even a real wig but a hair piece that would not have even covered someone’s head. And the blonde hairs could have been transferred or planted. After all, Bambi lived with Schultz and he is the one who could not meet his child support payments and his ex-wife’s mortgage. He was financially burdened, not the other way around. Plus Bambi Bembenek would have never wanted full custody of Schultz’s children.
The off-duty weapon could have easily been switched. It was revealed much later that blood stains on Fred Schultz’s on-duty gun were never investigated even though they were of the same blood type as Christine. Blood stains in the hallway where the victim resided were also never tested. There was no serial number listed for Schultz’s off-duty gun either. Schultz’s partner on the day of the murder had thrown away all of his notes which is a clear breach of procedure. There were countless red flags indicating a cover-up.
Amanda and Bambi were basically both prisoners of a system that would not let go – that wanted to save face, to cover up some shady investigation, and to basically nail them in order to appear competent and efficient. After all, the public tends to be naive and likes to know that bad evil women like Bambi Bembenek and Amanda Knox are behind bars. Never mind the truth if their demeanor is not judged to be appealing. Both women have been described as manipulative, weird, controlling and evil.
All of these claims, of course, are completely false if you ask their families, friends or the people who knew them best.
There is nothing to be done for Bambi anymore, except that her family is continuing to fight to seek a pardon for her. But hopefully, the nightmare will end for Amanda Knox and she and Sollecito will be found innocent at their next appeal. Otherwise, I cringe at the thought of what will become of her life. If the series of tragedies that followed Bambi Bembenek are any indication of things to come for Knox, I am tempted to say ‘Run Amanda Run!
The ordeal is finally over for Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. On Friday March 27, 2015, Italy’s highest court annulled their murder convictions.