ELKHORN, Wis. (AP) – Two women whose remains were found stuffed in suitcases dropped along a rural Wisconsin highway may have died accidentally, perhaps during consensual sex, the defense attorney for a former police officer suspected in their deaths said Friday.
Steven Zelich, a 52-year-old security officer, has been charged with two counts of hiding a corpse. A prosecutor convinced a judge to set bond at $1 million, saying he expected homicide charges to be filed in the counties where the women were killed, but Zelich’s attorney said it’s unclear how the women died.
“It could be anything from premeditated homicide down to accidental death that occurred through a consensual sex-related act,” Walworth County public defender Travis Schwantes said after the bond hearing.
Zelich previously was involved in an incident with a prostitute, according to police records, and authorities have said he may have met one of the women in the suitcases on a bondage website.
He was arrested Wednesday, when detectives wearing hazmat suits removed a refrigerator and large brown bags of evidence from his apartment in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb. He appeared for Friday’s bond hearing through a video from jail but did not speak.
According to a criminal complaint, Zelich told investigators that he met the women online. He said he killed one in late 2012 or early 2013 in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and the other in November in Rochester, Minnesota. Authorities have not identified the first woman, but say the second was Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota.
Zelich stored the bodies in suitcases kept in his apartment and vehicle for months before dropping them in the Town of Geneva, some 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee, in early June, the complaint and prosecutors said. Highway workers cutting grass discovered the suitcases on June 5.
Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci justified his $1 million cash bond request in part by saying he expected homicide charges to be filed in Kenosha County and Olmsted County, Minnesota, which includes Rochester.
Rochester police have said they believe Simonson died in a hotel there because she checked in with Zelich on Nov. 2, and he left alone the next day. Hotel employees who remembered Simonson contacted police after she disappeared, but Farmington police Detective Sgt. Lee Hollatz said all he had was a missing person’s case until the bodies were discovered.
West Allis police interviewed Zelich in January about Simonson and searched his apartment but did not find any signs of her, according to records released Friday by that police department.
Jim Martinson, chief deputy attorney in Olmsted County, said Friday that he needed to see the evidence before deciding what charges to file and the “lion’s share” of that was in Wisconsin. He said he hadn’t received reports yet from the many law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation.
Martinson also said it could be awhile before forensic evidence from the hotel was processed and Zelich was extradited to Minnesota.
Schwantes said Zelich has asked for a public defender in Kenosha County in anticipation of charges there, and would seek one in Minnesota. He wasn’t sure whether Zelich had provided any help in identifying the woman killed in Kenosha County, but said Zelich has been cooperating with investigators and answering their questions.
Simonson was found naked except for a collar, with a rope around her neck and a gag in her mouth, according to the criminal complaint filed in Walworth County. The other woman’s hands were bound behind her back.
Zelich worked for the West Allis Police Department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001, a few months after a prostitute told police the two had struggled when she tried to flee Zelich’s home.
The woman told officers in May 2001 that she met Zelich in a bar and went to his home but tried to leave when she thought she heard him get out handcuffs. Zelich threw her to the ground, but the woman was able to escape by asking for a drink of water and running when Zelich went to get it, according to the records from West Allis police.
Zelich told officers the woman tried to steal from him and their struggle was his attempt to get the money back.
The records do not say whether the incident led to Zelich’s resignation, and Police Chief Charles Padgett did not immediately respond to a phone message asking about the incident.
Schwantes said he had not seen the report and could not comment on it.
Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in West Allis, Wisconsin, and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.