WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) — A former police officer suspected in the deaths of two women whose bodies were stuffed into suitcases and discarded on a rural Wisconsin highway met his victims online, in one case possibly through a bondage website, according to police and a criminal complaint.
Steven Zelich, a 52-year-old security officer, was charged Thursday with two counts of hiding a corpse. He was arrested the day before, when detectives wearing hazmat suits removed large, brown bags of evidence and a refrigerator from his apartment in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb.
Highway workers discovered two suitcases containing female remains June 5 in the Town of Geneva, some 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Police identified one woman as Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota. Authorities have not released the identity of the second woman but describe her as a white female with long, dark hair, a pronounced overbite and a small heart tattoo on her lower left abdomen.
Simonson was found naked with a rope around her neck and a ball gag strapped in her mouth with a collar, according to the criminal complaint filed in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The other woman's hands were bound behind her back.
Both bodies were decomposed, and Zelich told investigators he hid one for about a year and a half, moving it between his home and vehicle, the complaint says.
Zelich said he met both women online, and police said in Simonson's case it may have been through a bondage website.
Zelich told investigators he killed the unidentified woman in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, in late 2012 or early 2013 and Simonson in Rochester, Minnesota, in November, the complaint says.
Police believe Simonson died at the Microtel Inn and Suites because she checked in with Zelich on Nov. 2, and Zelich left alone the next day, Rochester police Capt. John Sherwin said.
Investigators have collected evidence from the hotel and interviewed people who stayed there on those days. A woman who answered the phone at the hotel said employees had been told not to talk to the media. Rochester is more than 300 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
Farmington police detective Sgt. Lee Hollatz told The Associated Press that Zelich has long been his "No. 1 person, by far, of interest" in Simonson's disappearance.
He discovered Simonson went to the hotel with Zelich soon after her family reported her missing on Nov. 22, but he said all he had was a missing person's case until the bodies were discovered. Hollatz said Simonson was identified within a day by her tattoos.
"I saw Laura as a vulnerable adult because of things in her life that she was dealing with," Hollatz said.
Simonson's father, Richard Wierson, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his daughter had struggled with mental illness since adolescence and her seven children were placed in foster care with him in 2010. Wierson also said she placed escort ads on Craigslist.
Zelich is scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon in Wisconsin on the hiding a corpse charges. Police said they expect homicide charges to be filed where the women were killed.
Walworth County public defender Travis Schwantes said he would most likely be the attorney assigned to represent Zelich in Wisconsin. Schwantes declined to comment on the allegations until he'd spoken with Zelich.
At least a half-dozen law enforcement agencies have been involved in the investigation because events happened in different places.
Zelich worked for the West Allis police department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001.
He has been a licensed private security officer with Securitas Security Services USA since 2007, according to the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services. Securitas said Zelich passed criminal background checks done by the state every two years to renew his license and his employment record reflected "no extraordinary or remarkable incidents."
Karnowski reported from Minneapolis.
Associated Press writers Gretchen Ehlke and M.L. Johnson in Milwaukee contributed to this report.