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Steven Zelich, suspect in suitcase bodies case, remains an enigma

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Bruce Vielmetti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 16, 2014

There is the woman who tried to back out of giving Steven Zelich a lap dance because she thought she heard handcuffs.

There are the neighbors who recall dealing with a sudden fly infestation, which they now think might have been caused by dead bodies.

There is the checkered job history, the apparent lack of social connections.

But Zelich, now suspected of killing two women whose bodies police say he left in suitcases along a rural Walworth County road last month, remains an enigma even as his case draws national attention. Family, friends and colleagues have little to say about the former police officer. What emerges from public records and a few limited observations is a sketch more than a portrait, a glimpse of someone confident — though largely unsuccessful — with women and business, yet apparently wily enough to keep two dead bodies hidden for months, even as people began asking questions.

His case begs the obvious question: Are there more victims?

“Chances are he has been involved with other women,” said Stan Stojkovic, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The question is, did he kill them?”

It will take months to find out, Stojkovic predicted, as investigators continue searching Zelich's computer, other sources of evidence and “drilling the guy day and night” for more information.

PRODUCT OF SOUTH SIDE

Zelich grew up around S. 27th St. and W. Howard Ave. on Milwaukee's south side. He graduated in the top third of his class at St. Thomas More High School in St. Francis in 1979.

He studied business at Marquette University until 1982, then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study criminal justice. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1992.

Zelich received his state law enforcement certification in 1984 and landed a job as an officer with the Mequon Police Department. Officials there said Zelich served five years and “left in good standing” to join the West Allis department in 1989.

Over his 12 years with the department, Zelich racked up discipline starting in 1993 for insubordination, neglect of duty and untruthfulness, and getting involved in three squad car crashes.

He mishandled a domestic violence call, and the woman involved later tried to commit suicide. He didn't write many tickets, one review noted.

Off duty, he started working security at a Brookfield hotel in 1995, and in 2000 he and three friends from the department started side jobs as sales associates for Pre-Paid Legal Services.

Zelich was stalking several women while on duty, constantly asking them out despite rejections. One of his regular stops was the Spot Lite Lounge, a strip club at 6426 W. Greenfield Ave.

“I suppose he was taking a break,” said longtime owner Ed Bomback.

He said he noticed Zelich because it was unusual for police to come in uniform to the lounge unless they were checking a license or looking for someone. Zelich would stay 45 minutes to an hour, drinking soda.

Bomback said three of his dancers finally complained to police about Zelich, the only time in the club's 40 years that dancers had reacted that way about a specific customer.

Zelich stayed away after that.

“I'm just glad none of the girls got caught up in his ideas,” Bomback said, adding that he plans to remind his current staff to be careful with anyone, even a police officer.

“This tells you it's not a safe world out there,” Bomback said. “It reminds you to keep your guard up.”

The last straw was when police were called by neighbors in May 2001 to Zelich's apartment. A woman had run away crying, in her underwear.

She said Zelich had agreed to pay her for a lap dance, but she tried to leave when she heard a noise like handcuffs, and Zelich “went ballistic” when she asked about it. He said she stole $125 from his wallet.

He was forced to resign soon after the incident.

JOB IN SALES

Out of a job, Zelich apparently continued to sell prepaid legal services contracts, a product he was still advertising on Craigslist when he was arrested in June. The company he represented — Ada, Okla.-based LegalShield — did not return calls.

The next year, Zelich's father died. Zelich served as the personal representative of the estate, per his father's will, drawn in 1990 after he and Zelich's mother divorced.

Zelich and his younger sister were the only heirs and split an estate worth about $450,000, according to court records.

The year the estate closed, in 2003, Zelich and his sister purchased a condo in Franklin.

Over the next few years, Zelich got involved in at least a couple of failed businesses and racked up a string of civil judgments, from $55,000 in favor of a title insurance company over commissions he didn't pay to $7,000 owed to his former landlord at a house where he lived on W. Washington St. in West Allis from 2007 to 2012.

For part of that time on Washington St., Zelich had a roommate. Jamie Bates, 32 and now living in Michigan, told a TV station after Zelich's arrest that she and her children lived with Zelich until she found a large animal cage in the basement, and Zelich told her that he once kept a woman captive in it for years.

Calls to the landlord and his attorney were not returned.

Longtime resident Marlene Burdick said most people in the neighborhood are very social, but Zelich mostly kept to himself. She said West Allis police squad cars would often stop by the house, apparently visiting Zelich.

In 2012, Zelich moved to the apartment at 8011 W. Lincoln Ave., where investigators served a search warrant last month and removed multiple items, including a refrigerator or freezer.

The manager said Zelich was quiet, paid his rent and was never a subject of complaint from other tenants. Neighbors in the building said they didn't know Zelich or interact with him.

Edgardo Rivera and Anna Ravas did recall a sudden maggot and fly problem last summer. They had just moved in and didn't have food or garbage in their apartment.

Now they think it may have had something do with the bodies police believe Zelich was storing in his apartment. A tenant in the apartment above Zelich's said he recalled a time last fall when there was a smell “like a dead animal.”

SECURITY GUARD

Zelich obtained a state license as a private security guard in 2007 and began working for Securitas. The company would not say where Zelich had been assigned the last several years, but he was working at Johnson Controls' headquarters in Glendale when he was arrested.

It was during this post-police department period that Zelich apparently became active on Internet sites that specialize in matching up people interested in bondage, domination and sadomasochism. Using the name “mrhandcuffs” he sought women interested in “enslavement.” Bates, the woman who with her children lived with Zelich for a time until she moved out in 2007, said she met him through such a site.

Late last year, Laura Simonson of Minnesota went missing. Her friends took to the Internet for help finding her and said they knew she had met Zelich on a bondage site. West Allis police talked with Zelich in January. He said he had known her but hadn't seen her in months. He let police walk through his apartment. Police found nothing suspicious.

After a highway maintenance crew found the suitcases, the second body was later identified as Jenny Gamez of Oregon. Her foster mom last saw Gamez on Mother's Day 2012. Gamez then moved in with friends near Eugene and then apparently went to California. Friends say they lost touch with Gamez.

Zelich has told police that he met Gamez through a bondage site in late 2012, and that she died during a days-long sexual encounter at a Kenosha hotel. He then moved her body back to his West Allis apartment.

Ashley Luthern, Gina Barton, Sara Maslin and Megan Trimble, all of the Journal Sentinel staff, contributed to this report.



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