"It's all such a whirlwind that I feel like I'm floating in a trance," says the statuesque 34-year-old known to the world as ' "Bambi," a former Milwaukee cop and Playboy Club waitress who became a folk hero of sorts following her 1990 escape from a Wisconsin prison. (Thousands convinced she had been framed wore "Run, Bambi, Run" T-shirts during her three months on the lam.) "Being happy is a strange and scary emotion. I don't know how to deal with it.
"For the past 10 years, I've felt like I was trapped in the play Waiting for Godot," she continues, watching the snow begin to fall outside her childhood home on Milwaukee's south side, which her parents mortgaged to pay her legal fees. "I got to the point where I couldn't even dream about the free world. Those memories were too far gone. I just lived from breakfast to lunch, lunch to dinner. Now, suddenly, there aren't enough hours in the day for everything I want to do."
Bembenek left behind the world of shackles and confinement last Dec. 9 when Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Michael Skwierawski released her on parole for the May 1981 slaying of her then husband's former wife. The judge, the same one who had presided over what he termed the strongest circumstantial case he had ever seen, reduced her first-degree-murder life sentence after Bembenek's lawyer struck a deal with prosecutors that allowed her to plead "no contest" to a lesser count, second-degree murder. (Although the charge carries a 20-year sentence, Bembenek was paroled based on time already served.)
"We had developed overwhelming evidence of her innocence," says Bembenek's lawyer, Sheldon Zenner, a former federal prosecutor who took her case without pay. Robert Donohoo, Milwaukee deputy district attorney, disagrees. "We still believe Lawrencia Bembenek murdered Christine Schultz," he says. But he admits Zenner's 147-page legal brief raised enough issues concerning the sloppiness of the initial police work and discrepancies in physical evidence to have posed a problem for a jury Bembenek had won a new trial. The brief included testimony from five forensic experts that the gun presented at Bembenek's trial could not have been the murder weapon. "Believing somebody did it and convincing a jury are two different things," Donohoo says, "especially after the passage of time."
Bembenek's day in court did not bring her the new trial she had sought to clear her name and did not lead to the indictment of another suspect. Zenner claims the facts strongly suggest that Bembenek's then husband, Fred Schultz, at the time a Milwaukee police detective, hired a hit man to kill his ex-wife. Bembenek believes police allowed her to take the fall to keep her from testifying in her sex-discrimination complaint against the department. (Schultz, who has remarried and works as a contractor in Florida, denies any involvement in the death of his first wife.) But being freed was victory enough for the woman who emerged from years of what she calls the "mental sodomy" of prison.
"I wanted to get out the right way. But I knew that motions for a new trial could drag on at least three years, and I still had five more months in solitary [a penalty for her escape]," says Bembenek, whose friends call her Laurie, not Bambi, and who has abandoned the Farrah Fawcett look that sealed what she decribes as her "killer bunny bimbette" image. (Her current Hillary Clinton-style bob was done at a fashionable Chicago salon courtesy of Diane Sawyer, who had interviewed Bembenek last spring.) "After 10 years, nobody in her right mind would do anything different."
Certainly not after experiencing the conditions Bembenek found in Wisconsin's Taycheedah Correctional Institute, "where you are strip-searched and ordered to urinate on command." When she arrived in 1982, there were no toilets in the cells, only chamber pots, and no hot water in the showers. Initially, "the other inmates hated me because I was a former cop, and the guards hated me because I was a convict," says Bembenek, who considered suicide—often. "I thought of the eternity to come, the years of iron doors and prurient guards stretching into the future," she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, Woman on Trial, the basis for an upcoming NBC miniseries starring Tatum O'Neal. The only thing that stopped her was the thought of her parents.
So Bembenek decided to fight. ' "I clutched my anger to my chest like a Bible," she says. "Thai's what kept me alive." Channeling her rage, she filed class-action suits against what she describes as "18th-century conditions" at the prison, helped other inmates research their appeals, fought for women denied medical treatment, started a prison newspaper (which she edited for four years) and won the right to be the first Wisconsin woman "lifer" admitted to a college-extension program.
Bembenek also coped by keeping physically and mentally fit. The former fitness instructor did aerobics and jogged five miles a day—in her cell if necessary. Intellectually she pushed herself even harder. A voracious reader whose conversation is peppered with quotes from Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and feminist writer Germaine Greer, she began working toward a degree in humanities from the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. She received her B.A. on Dec. 20 at a ceremony her parents, Joseph, 73, and Virginia, 68, thought they would never live to see. "You showed them," her father told Bembenek after her name was called, to whistles and cheers from the crowd. "It was the frosting on the cake," says her mother, "to see our daughter graduate with honors as a free woman."
Bembenek also wrote poetry and painted, in addition to working on her autobiography. "I had to keep producing and achieving to maintain some kind of self-esteem," she says as her new white kitten, Tonto, a Christmas present from her sister Colette, frolics on the sofa. "When you are treated like an abused animal, you have to save some part of yourself. In prison, everything is taken from you, your possessions, your privileges. But the one thing they can't take from you is your knowledge."
It is taking time to adjust to life on the outside, Bembenek admits, though she had a taste of it in 1990 when she fled to Canada with then fiancé Dominic Gugliatto, the brother of a fellow inmate, after escaping through a window in the prison's basement laundry room. (That relationship disintegrated after Gugliatto, a divorced Milwaukee factory worker, was sentenced to a year in jail for aiding the escape.) She was recaptured in Thunder Bay, Ont., where she was working as a waitress; one of her customers recognized her from the photo that had run on TV's America's Most Wanted.
"It was horrible being caught, and for a long time I couldn't talk about it without choking up in tears," Bembenek says. "But I was so institutionalized that in a strange way there was a certain rebel to being back in prison. Certainly, my being caught led ultimately to the plea arrangement, which is preferable to spending my life looking over my shoulder."
Now Bembenek says she feels like Rip Van Winkle when she sees the big trees outside her parents' home, which were just saplings when she went to prison. "I'm not comfortable in crowds or having people behind me where I can't see what they're doing," she says. "I can't really do two things at once. And choices are very difficult for me because in prison you are not given any choices."
Still. Bembenek is enjoying making some small ones. As a vegetarian, she enjoys raiding the refrigerator for yogurt and fresh produce; for years she subsisted on bread, potatoes, overcooked vegetables and canned fruit cocktail. She also relishes little things—like the freedom of opening her own mail and learning to drive again. She has discovered that though her old clothes still fit her trim 5'10" frame, they do not necessarily fit the more mature woman she has become.
Since the end of her relationship with Gugliatto, Bembenek says that she is wary of emotional involvement. "I have built walls around myself," she acknowledges. "When you've been in prison as long as I have, you develop a sense of temporary relationships. Every time you turn around, someone is saying goodbye. It's real hard for me to be open in a relationship because I've been betrayed over and over."
As for her future, Bembenek is uncertain. "I never had to think realistically about it because I was facing the prospect of life in prison," she observes. "My life was consumed with fighting my conviction." for now she is living at home and working on a revised last chapter for her autobiography, which HarperCollins plans to reissue soon. After that, she is thinking about applying to law school, even though she realizes that as a convicted felon she may never be admitted to the bar. "I want to continue to work for prison reform and be a voice for the women who have no voice," she says.
"For 10 years I was in a human zoo. I can't forget. I don't want to forget. After you've been through what I have, it gives you the strength to do anything."
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Milwaukee
- Civia Tamarkin.
YESTERDAY SHE WAS IN SOLITARY, shackled with her hands cuffed to her waist as the guards marched her off to the prison showers. Tonight she is luxuriating in a deep, steamy bubble bath. Could she be dreaming? No, the water is warm against her skin, as real as the creamy chocolate in her mouth. After more than a decade behind bars—the last seven months in solitary confinement—for a murder she steadfastly maintains she didn't commit, Lawrencia is savoring her first taste of freedom.