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Suspect in Suitcase Deaths Appears in Walworth County Court

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email

ELKHORN (AP) — A former police officer charged with dumping two bodies hidden in suitcases along a rural Wisconsin highway said he killed the women during separate meetings at hotels to have sex, a detective testified Thursday.

Steven Zelich, a 52-year-old security officer, has been charged with two counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County, where the suitcases were found June 5 by highway workers cutting grass. Authorities there have said they expect homicide charges to be filed in the counties where the women died, but Zelich’s public defender Travis Schwantes said Thursday in court that the deaths were accidents that may not merit additional charges.

Judge Phillip Koss disagreed, saying hiding the bodies, first in Zelich’s home and car and then in tall grass along the road, indicated Zelich knew a crime had occurred.

“If there’s purely no crime, I’m not sure why one doesn’t call 911 immediately, but beyond that, if there’s no crime, it’s not clear why these need to be hid at all,” Koss said as he ordered Zelich held for trial on the hiding a corpse charges.

Walworth County Sheriff’s Detective Jeffrey Recknagel testified that Zelich told him that he met both women in online chat rooms, set up dates for sex at hotels and killed the women after bondage sessions.

Jenny Gamez, a 19-year-old college student from Cottage Grove, Oregon, spent several days with Zelich at a hotel in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, before he killed her in 2012, Recknagel said. Gamez had never been officially reported missing in part because she had recently moved, and family and friends thought she had just fallen out of touch.

Zelich had long been a suspect in the disappearance of Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota, because police knew they had checked into a hotel together on Nov. 2 and Zelich left alone the next day. But when police searched Zelich’s apartment in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis in January, they turned up no sign of Simonson.

By then, according to a criminal complaint, both bodies may have been in Zelich’s car.

“He told me that he had been storing these bodies in the trunk of his vehicle and the smell was so strong that he decided he had to get rid of them,” Recknagel said.

Zelich made his first appearance in court Thursday, in an orange jail jumpsuit and pink T-shirt. He was clean-shaven, but his hair was slightly unkempt. His wrists and ankles were cuffed. He did not speak. He participated in a hearing last week via video.

Schwantes said after the hearing that Zelich’s defense would be that the deaths were accidental. He asked Recknagel in court whether Zelich told him the sex was consensual.

“They agreed to meet together, and unfortunately, I have not been able to ask anyone other than Mr. Zelich if it was consensual,” the detective said.

Then Schwantes asked if Zelich told investigators the deaths were accidents.

“He said that it was an accident,” Recknagel said.

Zelich worked for the West Allis Police Department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001, a few months after a prostitute told police the two had struggled when she tried to flee Zelich’s home. Zelich told investigators the woman tried to steal from him and their struggle was his attempt to get the money back. No charges were filed in that case.

Zelich had been working as a licensed private security officer when he was arrested June 25, the same day detectives wearing hazmat suits removed a refrigerator and large brown bags of evidence from his apartment. His employer, Securitas Security Services USA said Zelich had passed criminal background checks done by the state every two years to renew his license.


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