By GRETCHEN EHLKE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — A former suburban Milwaukee police officer accused of killing two women and ditching their bodies in suitcases along a rural Wisconsin highway pleaded guilty Monday in one of their deaths.
Steven Zelich could spend the rest of his life behind bars after admitting to reckless homicide and other charges in the 2012 strangulation death of Jenny Gamez. Authorities said the 19-year-old Oregon woman died during a sexual encounter in Kenosha, and that Zelich hid her body before dumping it in 2014.
Details of the case are similar to accusations Zelich faces in the 2013 death of Laura Simonson in Minnesota. Authorities say Zelich met both women online, choked them at hotels and stashed their bodies in suitcases in the trunk of his car before dumping them along the side of the highway.
Zelich, 54, faces two counts of hiding a corpse in Walworth County, where the suitcases were found by highway workers mowing the grass in June 2014. After those charges are resolved, Minnesota prosecutors could move to extradite him so he can face trial in Simonson's death.
The plea deal in Gamez's case was announced the same day the trial was expected to begin in Kenosha, about 30 miles south of Milwaukee.
Kenosha County Deputy District Attorney Michael Graveley said he would seek the maximum 75-year term, which includes at least 55 years in prison and 20 years extended supervision.
"It's just too dangerous a set of behaviors to allow him to be out of custody," Graveley said after the hearing.
Zelich's attorney, Jonathan Smith, wouldn't reveal why his client decided to plead guilty
"He decided for reasons that, thus far, are personal to him, that he didn't want to go to trial," he said.
Sentencing is scheduled for March 30.
Prosecutors have said Zelich invited the Gamez to Wisconsin, where they spent several days at a hotel in Kenosha. Zelich told investigators that after he choked Gamez, he put her body in her suitcase and took it to his apartment. He said he then put the body is his refrigerator in West Allis, about 5 miles west of Milwaukee.
Authorities say he killed Simonson more than a year later in Minnesota and drove her body home with him to Wisconsin. They say he put both bodies in suitcases in the trunk of his car and later dumped them in southern Wisconsin.
Calls to several numbers listed for relatives of Gamez and Simonson went unanswered or rang to disconnected numbers on Monday.
Gamez's foster mother, Lorraine Ericksen, told The Associated Press in 2014 that Gamez had been in foster care since she was a child and came to live with her about three years after Gamez relinquished her parental rights of her son.
Ericksen said Gamez "was a joy to be around," and that she'd moved from her home in Cottage Grove, Oregon, to be closer to a community college about 20 miles north in Eugene after winning a scholarship. She said Gamez lived with friends and visited family, but eventually fell out of touch. Ericksen said she and Gamez's friends in Cottage Grove eventually couldn't reach her.
Zelich worked for the West Allis police department from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001. Before his arrest, he had been a licensed private security officer since 2007 with a company that said he had passed criminal background checks done by the state every two years to renew his license.
Associated Press reporter Greg Moore contributed to this report from Milwaukee.
This story has been corrected to show that Gamez died in 2012, not 2014.
(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)