Suitcase bodies suspect dodged discipline as cop
WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) – The suspect in the deaths of two women whose bodies were found in suitcases dumped along a rural Wisconsin highway resigned his job as a police officer to avoid discipline amid allegations of stalking, lying and abuse of power, according to personnel records released Wednesday.
Multiple women told investigators with the West Allis Police Department that Steven Zelich showed up at their work while on duty, pestered them for dates and used his position to get personal information, including home phone numbers. Several women told investigators they feared for their safety or that of their children.
“Over the last few months, a very distinct pattern has developed,” then-Chief Dean Puschnig said in a draft of charges dated Aug. 8, 2001. “Every complaint is very similar in nature and involves young women. He has engaged in inappropriate actions with a known prostitute. While he has been on duty in his police uniform, Officer Zelich has asked numerous young women to go on dates with him. All of these women have felt intimidated and pressured into giving out their phone numbers and other personal information because he is a police officer in uniform.”
Zelich resigned less than two weeks later to avoid charges being filed with the city’s Police and Fire Commission. The move allowed him to later pass criminal background checks and obtain a private security license from the state.
Zelich was working a security officer when he was arrested June 25, weeks after the bodies of Jenny Gamez, a 19-year-old college student from Cottage Grove, Oregon, and Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota, were found in the discarded suitcases.
A detective testified last week that Zelich said he killed the women accidentally during rough sex and stored their bodies for months in his home and car before dumping them. He has been charged with two counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County, where the suitcases were found. Authorities have said they expect homicide charges to come in the counties where the women died.
Zelich, 52, worked for the West Allis Police Department for about 12 years. He had reprimands and short suspensions for accidents, neglect of duty and other issues. Then in May 2001, a prostitute complained that Zelich had knocked her to the ground during a struggle in his apartment when he was off duty. Zelich claimed the woman had tried to steal from him and he was trying to get his money back.
He received a 20-day suspension, and police launched an internal investigation after receiving reports from other women Zelich had tried to date.
A 22-year-old hair stylist complained in June 2001 that Zelich had been stopping by her salon almost every day to ask her out, parking his squad car behind her vehicle so that she couldn’t leave. Weeks later, a 19-year-old student told police that Zelich stopped her when she came out of school, warned her about parking in a private lot and then asked her for a date. Four days later, a strip club owner told police that Zelich had been coming to the bar while on duty and asking out dancers.
A dancer at a different club told police that she had moved three times in eight years, in part to avoid Zelich.
“Each time this would happen Officer Zelich would have her new unlisted telephone number and address,” Lt. Thomas Baker wrote in a memo. “He would call her at home and would send her birthday cards, greeting cards, and Christmas cards.”
Police later determined that Zelich had run the woman’s license plate at least 10 times between 1999 and 2000.
Puschnig, who is now the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee, declined to comment on why Zelich was allowed to resign rather than face charges.
“It would be up to the new police chief to comment,” he said.
West Allis Police Chief Charles Padgett and current and past presidents of the West Allis Police and Fire Commission did not immediately respond to phone messages.
Zelich’s public defender, Travis Schwantes, said he also had asked for his client’s personnel records but hadn’t yet received copies and therefore couldn’t comment on the contents.