Deal delayed for ex-officer in bodies-in-suitcases case

AP News
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Posted: Jun 08, 2016 8:17 PM
Deal delayed for ex-officer in bodies-in-suitcases case

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A proposed plea deal was delayed Wednesday for a former suburban Milwaukee police officer charged with ditching the bodies of two women he's accused of killing in suitcases along a rural Wisconsin highway.

The Wisconsin case against Steven Zelich had been expected to wrap up Wednesday when he was to enter a plea and be sentenced on two counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County. Zelich, 54, has already been sentenced in nearby Kenosha County to 35 years in prison in the 2012 death of Jenny Gamez, 19, of Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Authorities are hoping to extradite Zelich to Minnesota, where he's charged in the death of the other victim. But Judge David Reddy said he was concerned that things were happening too quickly after the initial plea agreement was changed just before the hearing, The Janesville Gazette reported.

"I'm not willing to proceed to sentencing," Reddy said.

Zelich's attorney, Jonathan Smith, agreed to set the case for trial to have more time to talk to his client. The jury trial is set for Oct. 3.

The former West Allis officer was initially expected to plead guilty to one of the two counts of hiding a corpse, with the other count dismissed, according to Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci. The prosecution and defense had agreed to recommend a 10-year prison sentence, Necci said.

The new recommendation was to have Zelich plead guilty to both felony counts but have the same sentencing recommendation, Smith said. Zelich agreed to the new recommendation just minutes before the hearing, but the judge questioned why there was no additional prison time.

Necci said the goal was to wrap up the Walworth County case and get Zelich to Minnesota.

"One of many factors that came into coming to this joint recommendation was trying to get the closure for these victims as close as possible," Necci said after court. "This has been going on a long time."

Details of the Gamez case are similar to accusations Zelich faces in the death of Laura Jean Simonson, who was killed in Rochester, Minnesota, in 2013. Authorities say he met both women online, choked them with ropes during sexual encounters at hotels and hid their bodies in suitcases, which were found by highway workers mowing the grass in 2014.

Zelich is charged in Olmsted County, Minnesota, with first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and second-degree murder while committing a felony in Simonson's death.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said Wednesday that authorities have been waiting for prosecutors to wrap up their case in Wisconsin before Zelich can be extradited to Minnesota. Ostrem said that process will begin as soon as Zelich is remanded to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Zelich told investigators the deaths of both women were accidental. A criminal complaint says Zelich invited Gamez to Wisconsin and they spent several days at a hotel in Kenosha in 2012. He told investigators that after he choked her during sex, he put her body in a suitcase and took it to his apartment and then put the body in his refrigerator.

A criminal complaint filed in Olmsted County said Zelich had been talking online with Simonson, 37, prior to her disappearance in November 2013. The online conservations indicated Zelich would collect Simonson near her mother's home in Farmington, Minnesota, on Nov. 2. According to the complaint, the two drove to the Microtel in Rochester, Minnesota. Surveillance video captured Zelich checking out alone on Nov. 3.

Authorities said after Zelich strangled Simonson with a rope, he took her body home with him in a suitcase and put the remains of both women in the trunk of his car until a co-worker complained about the stench. Zelich told investigators he then drove around looking for a place to dump the suitcases, prosecutors said.

Zelich worked for the West Allis Police Department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001.