Lawrencia Bembenek was a folk hero to some, a killer and an opportunist to others. From 1982 through the mid 1990s, she was Milwaukee’s version of Ruby Tuesday: a complex character that was immune to labels. The more you tried to understand what was going on behind those ice-blue eyes, the more confused you became.
She was a police officer and a waitress at a Playboy club.
She was a convicted killer and a patsy.
She was someone who sought the limelight and someone who hid from it.
She was Lawrencia in the press, Laurie in later years and Bambi to the outsiders who cheered for her.
Bembenek died this week at the age of 52.Her trial for the murder of her then-husband’s ex-wife captivated Milwaukee in those pre-CSI:Milwaukee days of perfect DNA evidence and GPS trackers. She always maintained her innocence, even in the days before her liver finally failed.
Her escape from the laundry room at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in 1990 gave rise to a growing sect of people who believed she was set up for the murder. T-shirts and bumper stickers that proclaimed “Run, Bambi, RUN!” sprung up like dandelions on a summer lawn.
Every day on the drive to school, a friend and I would listen to the local DJs doing Bambi updates. They introduced the names of Ira Robbins, Dominic Gugliatto and Thunder Bay, Ontario to our vocabulary. They also did a spoof version of it for us. For some reason, I still remember them referring to Gugliatto as Dominic Pizza: guaranteed to help you break out in 30 minutes or the escape is free.
They caught her in Canada after three months of searching, cut a deal and let her go with time served. She was the thorn in the paw of the Milwaukee justice system and the city decided it was better to cut her loose than to deal with the headaches.
She rode the fame for a while, but eventually took on the quiet life. She was like a one-hit-wonder band: We didn’t think about her often, but when the name came up in conversation somehow, we all remembered her and what she meant.
She died at a hospice in Oregon, still hoping for a pardon. If the Jeff Spiccoli-like approach that outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle is taking toward a billion-dollar light rail project is any indication, Bembenek would have been better off hoping for a unicorn ride. Whether she gets it or not, she remains an enigma, a curiosity and a flashpoint of discussion.
I hope, however, wherever she is, she has found peace after a life of tumult. Prince or pauper, lawman or thief, we all deserve peace when all is said and done.
Rest, Bambi, rest.