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Bond set at $1M for ex-cop in suitcase deaths

Published: Friday, June 27, 2014 10:24 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Gary Porter)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, Walworth County investigators carry bags full of material from an apartment in West Allis, Wis., after picking up a suspect allegedly involved in two murders where the bodies were found in suitcases along a rural road in Geneva Township several weeks ago.

ELKHORN, Wis. – Two women found dead in suitcases along a Wisconsin highway may have died accidentally, perhaps during consensual sex, the defense attorney for the former police officer suspected in their deaths said Friday.

Steven Zelich, a 52-year-old security officer, is charged with two counts of hiding a corpse. Prosecutors convinced a judge to set bond at $1 million after saying they 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.

Investigators have said Zelich met the two women online.

Zelich 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.

Highway workers cutting grass discovered two suitcases on June 5. Police identified one woman as Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota. Authorities have not released the identity of the second woman but describe her as a white female with long, dark hair, a pronounced overbite and a small heart tattoo on her lower left abdomen.

Investigators allege that Zelich said he killed both women after meeting them online and stored their bodies in his home and vehicle for months before dropping the suitcases in the Town of Geneva, some 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee.

A criminal complaint alleges that he killed the unidentified woman in Kenosha County, in southeast Wisconsin, in late 2012 or early 2013, and Simonson in Olmsted County, Minnesota, about 280 miles away, in November.

Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci justified $1 million cash bond request in part by saying he expected homicide charges to be filed in the counties where the women were killed.

Schwantes unsuccessfully argued that the the bond should reflect the charges already filed.

Farmington police detective Sgt. Lee Hollatz said previously that Zelich was long his main suspect in Simonson's disappearance. He said that after her family reported her missing, he learned she had checked into a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, with Zelich on Nov. 2. Zelich left alone the next day. But Hollatz said all he had was a missing person's case until the bodies were discovered.

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 a while 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.

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.

Police have said that at least in Simonson's case, Zelich may have met her through a bondage website.

Zelich worked for the West Allis police department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001. From 2007 until his arrest, he worked as a licensed private security officer with Securitas Security Services USA. The company said he passed regular background checks to keep his state-issued license.

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