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Man pleads not guilty in bodies-in-suitcases case

Created: 07/17/2014 2:52 PM KSTP.com
By: M.L. JOHNSON

ELKHORN, Wis. (AP) — A former police officer suspected in the deaths of two women pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he tried to hide their bodies in suitcases dumped along a rural Wisconsin road.

The plea was entered for Steven Zelich, 52, during a brief hearing in Walworth County, where highway workers cutting grass found the suitcases on June 5. He appeared by video from the Walworth County Jail.

Zelich's attorney, Travis Schwantes, has said the charges might not hold up because prosecutors need to show the former West Allis officer tried to conceal a crime, and Zelich claims he killed the two women accidentally during sexual encounters.

Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci questioned that interpretation of the law on Thursday but did not go into details, saying "that's an argument we can have down the road."

Schwantes said Thursday that Zelich had other bondage sessions with other women that did not end in death.

"I think it will become clear, without a doubt, that he interacted, dated, had relationships with more than just the two women in this case," he said. Schwantes declined to go into detail but said Zelich had multiple relationships in person and online, some of which involved bondage and some of which didn't.

Zelich told investigators he met the two women online, set up dates at hotels in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and killed them during bondage sex, a detective testified last month. Zelich packed the bodies in suitcases that he hid for months in his home and car until they began to smell, Walworth County Sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Recknagel said.

Both attorneys have said they expect additional charges to be filed in the counties where Jenny Gamez, a 19-year-old college student from Cottage Grove, Oregon, and 37-year-old Laura Simonson, of Farmington, Minnesota, died.

Schwantes said he expects charges to come first in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, where Zelich told investigators he killed Gamez in 2012. A prosecutor in that county did not respond Thursday to an inquiry from The Associated Press on the status of the case.

Zelich also has a public defender in Olmsted County, Minnesota, where Simonson died in November.

Chief Deputy Olmsted County Attorney Jim Martinson said no charges were imminent as he was still waiting for police reports and would need time to examine the case file once he received it. Schwantes said Zelich has asked for and been assigned a public defender there.

Zelich had resigned from the West Allis Police Department in August 2001 after an internal investigation determined he stalked women while on duty and had used his position to get personal information, including their home phone numbers. Records released by the department showed several women told investigators they feared for their safety or that of their children.

The resignation allowed Zelich to avoid charges being filed with the city's Police and Fire Commission and later pass criminal background checks and obtain a private security license from the state. He was working as a security officer when he was arrested June 25.

Schwantes said Thursday he had just received those records along with others piled 3 feet high. He noted that the investigation was 13 years ago and no criminal charges, civil lawsuit or restraining orders were filed as a result.

"I don't mean to minimize anything in those records," he added, "other than to say there were glimpses of Mr. Zelich's view in those records."

___

Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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