Ex-officer sentenced for killing woman, dumping body

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — A former suburban Milwaukee police officer has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for killing an Oregon woman and ditching her body in a suitcase along a highway.

Steven Zelich, 54, was sentenced Wednesday in the 2012 death of 19-year-old Jenny Gamez, whose body was found along a Wisconsin highway in 2014. He pleaded guilty in January to first-degree reckless homicide with use of a dangerous weapon and hiding a corpse.

The case’s details are similar to accusations Zelich faces in the death of Laura Simonson of Minnesota, who died in 2013. Authorities say he met both women online, choked them at hotels during sexual encounters and stashed their bodies in suitcases before dumping them along the highway.

The suitcases were found by highway workers mowing grass in 2014 in Walworth County, where Zelich faces two counts of hiding a corpse. Charges are also pending in Minnesota, where Simonson died, the Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1RrynLS ) reported.

Zelich’s attorneys said the deaths were accidental. Defense attorney Jonathan Smith said he didn’t know whether Zelich would appeal the sentence.

Prosecutors have said Zelich invited Gamez to Wisconsin and they spent several days at a hotel in Kenosha. He told investigators that after he choked her, he put her body in a suitcase and took it to his apartment and then put the body in his refrigerator.

Authorities say Zelich later killed Simonson and drove her body home with him. They say he put both bodies in suitcases in his car’s trunk and later dumped them.

Zelich worked for the West Allis police department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001.