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Suspect in suitcase bodies case: Deaths of two women were accidental

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Andrea Anderson
July 3, 2014

ELKHORN—The man suspected of killing two women then hiding their bodies in suitcases along a Walworth County road told investigators the women's deaths were accidental, a Walworth County sheriff's detective testified Thursday.

Judge Phillip Koss didn't buy it.

"It's not likely that this is accidental when it happens two times,” Koss said before ordering Steven Zelich, 52, of West Allis to stand trial on two counts of hiding a corpse. 

Two suitcases, each with a body inside, were found June 5 along North Como Road in the town of Geneva.

Zelich admitted causing the deaths of Laura Simonson and Jenny Gamez and admitted to ditching the bodies along the road the first week of June, Detective Jeff Recknagel, said at Zelich's preliminary hearing Thursday.

A highway worker mowing grass found the suitcases about 20 feet from the road in tall grass and moved them to the edge of the road, Recknagel said.

Recknagel inspected each suitcase at the scene and described the bodies as being “in a bad state of decomposition.”

At the hearing, Zelich sat in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. He stared straight ahead, occasionally looking to the right at his attorney, Travis Schwantes, and prosecutor, Dan Necci.

Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota, was found naked in one suitcase with a gag in her mouth and a rope around her neck. She was publicly identified June 25. Family reported her missing Nov. 22, 2013.

In the other suitcase was Gamez, 21, of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Her naked body was partially covered by garbage bags and her hands were tied behind her back with rope. She was publicly identified Monday. Gamez was never reported missing because she told her family she was moving in 2012.

Police were having difficulty identifying Gamez until Zelich provided her identity, according to testimony Thursday.

Dental records were used to confirm the victims' identities.

Both women were found intact and in "standard-size" suitcases, Walworth County Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said Monday.

Zelich told investigators he met both women through bondage websites and corresponded with them on the websites' chat rooms to schedule in-person meetings.

Zelich met Gamez online in 2012 and later that same year at a Kenosha hotel, where they spent a few days together, Recknagel testified Zelich told him. It was a Sunday morning when Zelich and Gamez were having a “BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) session” that Zelich “ultimately ended her life,” put her in a suitcase and hid her at his West Allis apartment, Recknagel said Zelich told investigators. 

Zelich met Simonson online in 2013 and in person at a Microtel Inn in Rochester, Minnesota, on Nov. 2, 2013.

She was seen checking in with Zelich that day and never seen after that. Zelich checked out Nov. 3, according to court documents.

In conversations with investigators, Zelich said he and Simonson were having a Sunday morning “BDSM session” and that is when “he ended up taking her life,” Recknagel testified.

Like Gamez, he put her body in a suitcase and hid her at his apartment.

Details on how the two women died were not given.

Each meeting was consensual, Recknagel said, but he could not say if the bondage activities were consensual.

Zelich said “the smell was so strong he decided he had to get rid of (the bodies),” Recknagel said.

Authorities can't find any ties between Zelich, Walworth county or the town of Geneva, town Police Chief Steven Hurley said Monday.

Schwantes argued Thursday it wouldn't be a crime to hide bodies if the deaths were accidental. He also argued the meaning of “hide,” saying to hide something means to keep out of sight. He said placing suitcases along a road near a police department isn't the same as keeping out of sight.

“I think the evidence does not establish, even to the low degree that probable cause is, that Mr. Zelich hid these suitcases,” Schwantes said. “It's more likely he placed them alongside the road to be discovered.”

Necci said the hiding a corpse statute does not state bodies need to be hidden well and that the “reasonable inference” is that Zelich hid them.

Koss bound over Zelich for trial, finding sufficient evidence that Zelich probably committed a felony.

Koss said Zelich clearly meant for the bodies not to be found after hiding the women's bodies at his home then in his car and ditching them along a rural Walworth County road.

“These could have been placed on Highway 100 in Milwaukee or West Allis if these wanted to be found or in hotel rooms,” Koss said. “It's not logical that if there's no crime that these needed to be hid at all."

Zelich is being held at the Walworth County Jail on a $1 million bond. He will appear in court next at 1:15 p.m. Thursday, July 17.

Charges have not been filed in Kenosha and Olmsted counties, where the deaths reportedly occurred.



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