Ex-cop pleads guilty to killing woman, ditching body in suitcase

Former police officer Steven Zelich sits in court in the first day of his trial Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Kenosha, Wis. Zelich pleaded guilty in the death of 19-year-old Jenny Gamez, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, whose body was found in a suitcase along a Wisconsin highway in August 2012. He will be sentenced in March, and could spend as many as 55 years in prison. (Kevin Poirier/Kenosha News via AP)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A former suburban Milwaukee police officer pleaded guilty to killing an Oregon woman and ditching her body in a suitcase along a Wisconsin highway on Monday, the same day his trial was set to begin.

Steven Zelich pleaded guilty in the death of 19-year-old Jenny Gamez, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, whose body was found along a Wisconsin highway in August 2012. Zelich also is accused of killing a woman from Minnesota a year later whose body also was found in a suitcase along the same highway.

FILE - This undated photo provided by Lorraine Eriksen shows Jenny Gamez from Cottage Grove, Oregon. Jury selection for former police officer Steven Zelich, accused of choking the Oregon college student to death, stuffing her in a suitcase and leaving it on a rural highway, is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 25, 2015, in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of Lorraine Eriksen via AP, File)
FILE – This undated photo provided by Lorraine Eriksen shows Jenny Gamez from Cottage Grove, Oregon. Jury selection for former police officer Steven Zelich, accused of choking the Oregon college student to death, stuffing her in a suitcase and leaving it on a rural highway, is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 25, 2015, in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of Lorraine Eriksen via AP, File)

Zelich pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide with use of a dangerous weapon and hiding a corpse in the Gamez case, which is being handled in Kenosha County, about 40 miles south of Milwaukee.

The former West Allis police officer also is charged with killing 37-year-old Laura Simonson the following year. Authorities allege she died in Minnesota, so charges in her death were filed there.

Kenosha County Deputy District Attorney Michael Graveley said he will push for the maximum 75-year prison term when Zelich is sentenced on March 30. Zelich was originally facing charges that carried up to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but Graveley said the former officer’s defense attorneys reached out to him Friday about a plea agreement.

Zelich’s attorney, Jonathan Smith, said his client decided he would rather plead guilty than go to trial. He declined to elaborate, but has long said that the death “was a non-intentional act.”

Zelich met Gamez online and invited her to Wisconsin, according to court records and testimony. He picked her up at the Milwaukee airport and they drove to a Kenosha hotel, where they spent several days. Zelich told investigators they played a sexual game in which he would choke Gamez. On the last day, he lost control and choked Gamez until she died, according to the criminal complaint.

Zelich told investigators that he put Gamez in her suitcase and took it to his West Allis apartment, and then stashed her body in his refrigerator.

Simonson, of Farmington, Minnesota, died in similar circumstances in November 2013. According to court documents, Zelich said he met her online and killed her while playing the same choking game at a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota.

He drove home to Wisconsin with her body and later put both bodies in suitcases in his car’s trunk. When they began to smell, he dumped them on the roadside, where highway workers mowing grass found them in June 2014, according to investigators.

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