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Wisconsin ex-cop said death of Minnesota women in luggage an accident

Steven Zelich (Photo from: Walworth County Sheriff's Department).
Steven Zelich (Photo from: Walworth County Sheriff's Department).

By Brendan O'Brien

ELKHORN Wis. (Reuters) - A former Wisconsin police officer suspected in the deaths of two women whose bodies were found in suitcases said that he accidentally killed the women during sexual encounters, a detective testified on Thursday.

The testimony by the detective, Jeffrey Recknagel, of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office, came during a hearing in the case. Judge Phillip Koss ruled on Thursday that Wisconsin prosecutors have demonstrated probable cause to continue the case against Steven Zelich, 52.

Zelich is accused of hiding the bodies of two women in suitcases and dumping the luggage in a roadside ditch. He is charged with two felony counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County, where the suitcases were found.

Investigations are continuing in another Wisconsin county and in Minnesota into the deaths of the women, who were identified as Jenny Gamez, 21, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, and Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota.

Recknagel testified Thursday that Zelich had told him during questioning that he met Gamez and Simonson online and took their lives accidentally during sexual encounters at hotels that included bondage.

Zelich also told investigators the smell of the bodies in the suitcases was so strong that he decided he had to get rid of them and had dumped them a few days before authorities found them, Recknagel told the court.

Zelich's attorney, Travis Schwantes, said that the former police officer did not try to hide the corpses or attempt to conceal other crimes. "Clearly they were hid," the judge said. "It's not likely to be accidental when this happens two times. Therefore I do believe they were hid with the intent to conceal a crime."

Authorities believe Simonson was killed at a Rochester, Minnesota, hotel in November and Gamez at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, hotel in 2012. Zelich is accused of keeping their bodies in suitcases at his apartment and in the trunk of his vehicle before he dumped the luggage, which was found on June 5.

If convicted, Zelich would face up to 10 years in prison on each of the two charges of hiding a corpse. He is being held in the Walworth County jail on a $1 million bond.

(This story has been fixed to correct the name of the judge in paragraph 2 to Phillip Koss from David Reddy)

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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