Zelich enters not guilty pleas

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Margaret Plevak | July 17, 2014

ELKHORN—The attorney for the former West Allis police officer accused of hiding of two female corpses in suitcases left on a town of Geneva road said there's still more of the story that needs to be told in the case against his client.

Steven M. Zelich, 52, entered not guilty pleas to both charges at his plea hearing Thursday in Walworth County court.

After the hearing, Defense Attorney Travis Schwantes told a group of reporters outside the courtroom that details about the case are still unfolding

“There's still a lot more to be told in this case, and there's a lot we don't know,” Schwantes said. “We do know the deaths of the two women were caused at meetings in a hotel, when something terribly wrong happened after they were engaged in a consensual activity.”

Zelich was arrested June 25, almost three weeks after a highway worker in the town of Geneva found the suitcases in a ditch along North Como Road while preparing to cut grass. When a Town of Geneva police officer opened the cases on June 5, he discovered the naked bodies of two women, later identified as Laura Simonson, of Farmington, Minnesota; and Jenny Gamez, of Cottage Grove, Oregon. 

According to a criminal complaint, Zelich told authorities he had met both women through online BDSM websites, arranged to get together with them at hotel rooms—Simonson in Rochester, Minnesota in 2013; and Gamez in Kenosha County in 2012—and engaged in BDSM sex there. During the course of the sex, both women died, but their deaths were accidental, Zelich told authorities.

Zelich then kept both women's bodies in suitcases in his car and later, his West Allis apartment, he told police.

At a preliminary hearing for Zelich June 27, Walworth County Detective Jeffrey Recknagel testified Zelich told him the smell of the decomposing bodies forced him to get them out of his apartment.

Appearing via video camera Thursday from the Walworth County Jail—where he's being held on $1 million cash bond--Zelich said nothing during the hearing in Judge David Reddy's courtroom.

During Zelich's June 27 preliminary hearing, Schwantes argued that his client wasn't hiding the cases, but rather leaving them along a roadside to be found.

Walworth County Judge Philip Koss disagreed, saying Zelich clearly intended for the bodies not to be found.

After the plea hearing, Schwantes told reporters he had received a “three-foot high” stack of police reports on Zelich Thursday morning, but had not finished reviewing the material yet. He said tapes of police meetings with his client were promised to be delivered to him shortly for his review.

Schwantes couldn't comment on his client's demeanor in jail, but said Zelich had cooperated in conversations with authorities, and no court-ordered mental health evaluation for Zelich had been requested.

Schwantes said attorneys in Kenosha and Olmstead counties had been secured for Zelich.

After the hearing, Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci told reporters the not guilty pleas from Zelich were expected.

Necci said he was unaware of any other investigations related to Zelich in Walworth County.

Necci said he has been in regular contact with district attorneys in Kenosha County and Olmstead County in Minnesota to help them facilitate further action against Zelich.

“If homicide charges (against Zelich) are filed elsewhere, our case of hiding corpses will look like small potatoes by comparison,” Necci said.

A status conference for Zelich is scheduled for Tuesday, September 23. 

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