July 22, 2014 | 05:01 PMELKHORN — Steven Zelich, the suspect in the suitcase bodies case, pleaded not guilty Thursday afternoon to two counts of hiding corpse.
Zelich, a 52-year-old former West Allis police officer, appeared in court by video from the Walworth County jail. During the brief hearing, Zelich said nothing and sat with his hands together and his fingers laced.
He is being held in the Walworth County jail on a $1 million cash bond. Although he allegedly confessed to killing the women whose bodies were found on North Como Road, he has not been charged with homicide.
After the hearing District Attorney Daniel Necci said the not guilty pleas didn't come as a surprise. Zelich's attorney, public defender Travis Schwantes, told reporters that his client has been cooperating with law enforcement and spoke to police for between eight and 10 hours after his arrest.
According to court documents, Zelich allegedly told police that he met 19-year-old Jenny Gamez, of Cottage Grove, Ore., on Internet sites dedicated to bondage, domination and sadomasochism in 2012. The two met in person in either late 2012 or early 2013.
Detective Jeffrey Recknagel testified on July 3 that Zelich told him he participated in BDSM sessions with Gamez at a hotel, and that he accidentally killed her during rough sex. He testified that he placed her body in a suitcase and transported it back to his apartment.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, he told police he kept Gamez's body inside of a refrigerator for about a year before moving it to the trunk of his car. When police raided Zelich's home on July 25, they were seen removing a refrigerator.
According to court testimony and documents, Zelich met Laura Simonson on a BDSM website in 2013. In November 2013, he met the 37-year-old woman in a hotel in Rochester, Minn., where they participated in BDSM sessions. He told police he accidentally killed Simonson during rough sex, placed her body in a suitcase and transported it to his West Allis home.
Zelich reportedly kept Simonson's body stored in the trunk of his car throughout the cold winter, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
West Allis police went to Zelich's apartment in January looking for Simonson.
"He told me he was storing the bodies in the trunk of his vehicle and that the smell was so strong that he decided he had to get rid of them," Recknagel testified on July 3.
Recknagel testified that Zelich dumped the bodies along North Como Road in the town of Geneva during the first week of June.
The two suitcases, which were standard-sized, were discovered on June 5 when highway workers cut the grass.
During a press conference on June 30, Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said the bodies were intact.
During that same press conference, town of Geneva Police Chief Steve Hurley said police hadn't found any connections between Zelich and Walworth County.
"There was no particular reason that we could come up with for why the town of Geneva was picked," Hurley said.
Zelich has been linked to a BDSM web forum where he apparently has the username "mr.handcuff."
Recent court proceedings
If homicide charges are filed, it will be up to prosecutors in Kenosha County, reportedly where Gamez was killed, and in Olmsted County, Minn., reportedly where Simonson was killed.
After the hearing, Necci told reporters that his office is cooperating with prosecutors in both those counties.
Schwantes, who met separately with reporters, said that his client has been cooperative with law enforcement. Schwantes has been assigned to represent Zelich in Kenosha County.
"Throughout the case, since he was arrested, he has been engaged in extensive communication (with law enforcement)," Schwantes said.
At the time Zelich was arrested, police had not yet identified Gamez's body. However, five days later, on June 30, law enforcement publicly identified Gamez. In early July, a source familiar with the investigation said Zelich pointed police to Gamez.
Not guilty pleas
According to court reports, Zelich allegedly confessed to police that he accidentally killed the two women and placed their bodies in suitcases. However, he pleaded not guilty to the charges during his June 17 arraignment.
When speaking with reporters, Schwantes said he typically advises clients to plead not guilty during arraignment hearings.
He said he has only recently started to receive the police reports and investigative materials from law enforcement. He told reporters he needs time to review that in order to do his job.
He said earlier that morning he received "three feet" of paperwork from the Walworth County District Attorney's office, which he only just started reviewing. He said he is also awaiting additional information.
When asked about his client's demeanor, Schwantes declined to answer the question citing attorney-client privilege. He said the same thing when asked whether he would request a competency hearing for Zelich.
During Zelich's July 3 preliminary hearing, Schwantes argued that his client placed the bodies on North Como Road to be discovered, and that his client didn't actually hide a corpse. (See previous stories at www.lakegenevanews.net).
However, Judge Phillip Koss found probable cause to bind Zelich over for trial. After the hearing, Schwantes reiterated the argument that his client didn't hide the bodies. He also said that the burden of proof is much higher during a trial than it is during a preliminary hearing.
On Sept. 23, Zelich is next scheduled to appear in Reddy's courtroom for a status conference. Reddy set a motion deadline in the case for that date.