A former Wisconsin police officer received 35 years in prison last week after pleading guilty to killing a woman he met on a bondage website, asphyxiating the 19-year-old woman before hiding her body in a suitcase he threw on the side of a highway in Warworth County, Minnesota.
Steven Zelich, 54, is still facing charges of killing a 37-year-old woman in the same manner.
Complaints against Zelich began mounting years before the murders took place but went ignored by the West Allis Police Department, which employed him from 1989 to 2001.
It was not until the bodies were found packed in suitcases in 2014 that he was finally arrested.
Ninteen-year-old Jenny Gamez was Steven Zelich’s first murder victim, but wouldn’t be his last.
“It’s a crime that is almost beyond comprehension that this great indignity would be visited upon this person,” said Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder
Charges against Zelich are still pending in Olmsted County Minnesota for another murder of 37-year-old Laura Simonson who also died after he asphyxiated her.
He also faces two felony counts in Walworth County Minnesota for hiding corpses after the bodies of women were found in suitcases in June of 2014.
But are these crimes that could have been prevented?
Zelich’s Personal Record as a West Allis Cop
It included complaints to the West Allis Police Department about him from from several victims: a hair-stylist, exotic dancers, prostitutes, a college student and a bartender – all claiming that Zelich was stalking them and would not stop.
In 2001, a prostitute went to West Allis Police and told them Zelich would not let her out of his apartment and was afraid he was going to kill her after she heard the sound of handcuffs.
He later slammed her to the floor and choked her.
Investigators questioned Zelich about information from another accuser saying she had moved three times, changed her unpublished number three times, but he always found her address and phone information anyway.
An investigator told Zelick, “the reason she stopped answering your phone calls and actually stopped dancing on Sunday nights was because she was afraid of you. You were stalking her.”
Documents from the investigation showed Zelich would perform traffic stops on dancers, and then obtain their license plate information, phone number and address.
In one case, Zelich offered to trade his handcuffs he’d placed on a dancer in exchange for her police officer strip routine.
In another case, investigators asked Zelich if he’d “asked women out possibly hundreds of times and not taking no for an answer?”
He answered, “Yes.”
In yet another complaint, a female victim told police that Zelich would block her car in an alley so she was forced to have conversations with him, even though she had a fiance close by and a baby with him.
She told investigators he scared her. When they questioned him his response was, “I’m supposed to scare people,” according to the documents.
West Allis police investigated some of the claims, but never filed any charges with the District Attorneys office –not even after the allegations made by the prostitute who alleged he held her against her will and assaulted her.
And they never fired him.
Instead, they allowed Zelich to resign.
Once Zelich’s file went from three inches to four inches, the department apparently had enough and threatened to charge him if he did not resign.
In his resignation letter, Zelich wrote that he offered to resign so that charges would not be referred to the DA’s office.
After all, Zelich was a cop and most of his victims considered lowly sex workers.
“Making a Murderer”
Meanwhile, Steven Avery, the subject in the documentary “Making A Murderer” was locked up by Wisconsin Sheriffs and prosecuted for an act of violence against a woman with circumstantial evidence.
Avery was a learning-impaired salvage-yard worker and his alleged rape victim, 25-year-old photographer, Penny Beernsten, was a so-called productive member of “society”.
He served 18 years in prison before he was set free due to DNA evidence that proved the assailant had been not him, but Gregory Allen.
The documentary questioned the practices police used to persuade rape victim Beerntsen to pick Avery out of a lineup.
Beerntsen is now speaking about how awful she felt when she realized what had happened because of her testimony.
“My testimony sent an innocent person to prison. His kids have grown up without him.”
Now Avery is back behind bars in a case many are debating.
Steven Zelich’s Murders
Zelich killed Jenny Gamez sometime in 2012 and then held her body in a refrigerator in his Wisconsin apartment.
Zelich stated he knew Gamez died because she defecated on herself. He then put her body in her own suitcase and drove back to his apartment.
Her body remained in his refrigerator until November 2013, more than a year after her murder.
Then he came home with the body of Laura Simonson, 37, who he put in another suitcase. She also met Zelich through BDSM websites.
The bodies of both women were later found along a rural Wisconsin highway.
When law enforcement caught up with Zelich, he told investigators both women died during “breath play” that involved consensual sex that got out of hand ‘on accident’ and he just ‘lost control’ during a choking game.
At his sentencing, Zelich’s defense attorney argued to Judge Shroeder that he shouldn’t consider Simonson’s death during sentencing because Zelich would be held accountable during future court proceedings.
However, Judge Schroeder did factor that into his decision because Zelich continued contacting women on BDSM websites after the deaths of both women.
“Where the monstrous nature of this crime becomes most evident is the willingness to take the same risk with another human being,” he said.
District Attorney Graveley said in court that during Gamez’s final moments alive, she was handcuffed with a gag in her mouth.
“It was not an intentional act,” Zelich told the court during sentencing. “I’m very sorry Jenny was the victim and I wasn’t able to protect her the way I was supposed to.”
Zelich initially faced a charge of first degree intentional homicide before he pleaded guilty to first degree reckless homicide and received his 35-year sentence.
D.A. Graveley reacted to the sentence, “Really the priority in this case always was to make sure that Steven Zelich was never out in the community at an age where he would physically be able to commit this kind of crime again.”
Zelich still faces charges for the murder of Laura Simonson who was reported missing before her body was also found in a suitcase.
Rochester Police began an investigation after motel employees recognized Simonson from the missing persons report when they learned Zelich and Simonson checked in on November 2nd of 2014.
Zelich checked out alone on November 3rd.
Even though he’s only been sentenced for the murder of Jenny Gamez, Zelich will remain in prison until he is at least 88 years old.
He also has ten years of extended supervision once he’s out of prison.
But it makes you wonder.
Could West Allis police have done something when Steven Zelich was employed by their department?
We’ll never know.
But we do know that after Zelich went unchecked by West Allis Police, he became a double-murderer.
And we do know Steven Zelich had one thing Steven Avery did not.