Ex-cop charged with killing Oregon student says death was accidental

KENOSHA, Wis. — A former Wisconsin police officer killed a 19-year-old college student from Oregon during a choking game that went too far, hid her body in a suitcase she brought to their sex date and then kept her body in his refrigerator for months, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday.

Steven Zelich, 52, of West Allis, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide — the Wisconsin equivalent of murder — in the 2012 death of Jenny Gamez from Cottage Grove, Oregon. Zelich also is a suspect in the death of a Farmington, Minnesota, woman.

The women’s bodies were found in June in suitcases left along a rural highway about an hour southwest of Milwaukee. According to court records and testimony, Zelich told investigators that he met the women online, killed them accidentally during dates for sex and hid their bodies until they began to smell. Then he dumped them on the roadside, where they were found by highway workers mowing grass.

Kenosha County District Attorney Robert Zapf said he chose to charge Zelich with the most severe crime possible because he didn’t believe the deaths were accidents.

“Killing two women over the span of 15 months under the circumstances in which the defendant acknowledged, by gagging them with a ball gag in the mouth, ropes around the neck, hands tied behind their back, blindfold over their face. He may call that accidental. I call it murder,” Zapf said.

Zelich’s attorney, Jonathan Smith, said Zapf would have to prove that his client meant to kill the women, and that could be more difficult if they died during consensual sex. He also noted no homicide charges have been filed yet in the Minnesota woman’s death.

“The fact of the matter is, he’s charged with the death of one individual in Kenosha County, at this point, and that’s the death that we’re going to focus on,” Smith said.

The punishment for conviction on a first-degree intentional homicide charge is life in prison.

According to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday, Zelich met Gamez online and invited her to Wisconsin. He picked her up at the airport in Milwaukee, and they drove to hotel in Kenosha, where they spent several days together. Zelich told investigators they played a sexual game in which he would choke Gamez. On the last day, he lost control and choked Gamez until she died, the complaint said.

Zelich told investigators he put Gamez’s body in her suitcase and took it back to his apartment in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. He kept her body in his refrigerator until he brought the body of Laura Simonson, 37, home in November, the complaint said. He later put both bodies in suitcases that he kept in the trunk of his car until the weather warmed and they began to smell.

Simonson died in similar circumstances. According to court documents, Zelich met her online and set up a date for sex at a Rochester, Minnesota, hotel. He told investigators he killed her there while playing the same choking game that led to Gamez’s death.

Zapf said Simonson’s death proved crucial to breaking the case. Police quickly identified Zelich as a suspect in Simonson’s disappearance, and surveillance video from the hotel showed the two had checked in together but only he left. Investigators who interviewed Zelich in March took a DNA sample that later matched DNA taken from ropes used to bind Gamez.

West Allis police had searched Zelich’s apartment in January but did not find the bodies. Zapf said Tuesday that by March, the bodies were in the trunk of Zelich’s car.

Zelich worked for the West Allis police department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001, following an internal investigation that found he stalked women while on duty and used his position to get access to their personal information. His resignation allowed him to avoid discipline and pass state background checks for a private security officer’s license. He was working as a licensed private security officer when he was arrested June 25, the same day detectives wearing hazmat suits removed large, brown bags of evidence and a refrigerator from his apartment.

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