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Steven Zelich appears in court on Thursday afternoon through a video feed at the Walworth County jail. (Photo by Joy Kowald) (click for larger version)
Travis Schwantes, the public defender representing Steven Zelich, answers questions about the case after Thursday afternoon's hearing. (Photo by Joy Kowald) (click for larger version)
July 17, 2014 | 01:41 PMELKHORN — After his arrest, Steven Zelich, the suspect in the suitcase bodies case, spoke to law enforcement for between eight and 10 hours.
"Throughout the case, since he was arrested, he has been engaged in extensive communication (with law enforcement)," said Travis Schwantes, Zelich's public defender.
During a brief court hearing Thursday afternoon, Zelich, a 52-year-old former West Allis police officer, pleaded not guilty to two counts of hiding a corpse.
Zelich appeared in court on video from the Walworth County jail in front of Judge David Reddy, and he entered his plea through Schwantes.
Zelich is being held in the Walworth County jail in lieu of a $1 million cash bond. During the hearing, Zelich sat quietly with his hands together and his fingers laced.
After the hearing, both District Attorney Daniel Necci and Schwantes met in the courtroom hallway with reporters.
Schwantes said during an arraignment hearing he typically advises clients to plead not guilty, which allows him time to review police reports and other material from law enforcement.
He said earlier that morning he received "three feet" of paperwork from the 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.
On June 25, police arrested Zelich and raided his home. The search came just three weeks after two bodies were found in two separate suitcases on North Como Road in the town of Geneva.
Zelich told police he met 37-year-old Laura Simonson and 19-year-old Jenny Gamez on bondage, domination and sadomasochism websites. He told police he brought the women to hotel rooms where they participated in BDSM sessions, and that he accidentally killed them during rough sex.
After killing the women, Zelich put their bodies in suitcases and brought them to his West Allis apartment. He told police that he stored them in his home and his car.
"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," Walworth County Sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Recknagel testified during Zelich's July 3 preliminary hearing.
In Walworth County, Zelich has been charged with two felony counts of hiding a corpse. Although he allegedly confessed to killing the women, he has not been charged with homicide.
If homicide charges are filed, it will be up to prosecutors in Kenosha County, where Gamez was reportedly killed, and in Olmsted County, Minn., where Simonson was reportedly killed.
After the hearing, Necci told reporters that his office is cooperating with prosecutors in both those counties.
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.
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.
After the hearing, Schwantes 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.