Ex-cop charged with homicide says Oregon teen's death accidental

Ex-cop charged with homicide says Oregon teen's death accidental
Jenny Gamez (left) and Laura Simonson

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — 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.

Zelich was charged previously with two counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County, Wisconsin, where the bodies were found. He faces an additional charge of hiding a corpse in Kenosha County, which Zapf said is separate and based on Zelich's actions the day Gamez died.

A Walworth County detective testified in June that Zelich told investigators he met Gamez at a Kenosha County hotel in 2012 and killed her accidentally during rough sex. Zelich then put Gamez's body in a suitcase that he stored for more than a year in his home and car, Walworth County Sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Recknagel said.

The other victim has been identified as Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota. Zelich told investigators she died in November at a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, Recknagel said. No charges have been filed yet in Minnesota.

Zelich eventually moved Gamez's body to the trunk of his car, where he also was storing Simonson's body, a criminal complaint said. He dropped them in Walworth County in early June after they began to smell, Recknagel said.

Zelich worked for the police department in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis 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.