New podcast on U.S. fugitive Bambi Bembenek retells Thunder Bay story — with a twist
Producer says being in northwestern Ontario city in 1990 was 'bright time' for convicted murderer
A new podcast revisits the story of U.S. fugitive Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek, a former Milwaukee police officer and convicted murderer whose capture in Thunder Bay over three decades ago put the international spotlight on the northwestern Ontario city.
Catherine Fogarty is host and producer of the three-part series Woman on the Run, presented by her Toronto-based network Story Hunter Podcasts.
"I was so shocked to read about what happened to her," said Fogarty. "I strongly believe she was wrongly convicted and the fact that the Milwaukee prosecutors never, never retracted her conviction."
Fogarty said she stumbled upon Bembenek's story while researching other cases for her podcast network. She said she remembered the story, but was previously unaware of the strong Canadian connection to the case.
Escaped from prison
Bembenek escaped from prison in Fond du Lac, Wis., where since 1982 she had been serving a life sentence for the death of her then husband's ex-wife. She was on the run for three months and working in Thunder Bay as a waitress when she was apprehended in an apartment she'd been renting with her partner in 1990, after someone recognized her from the program America's Most Wanted.
Bembenek was extradited to the U.S. and later released on parole for time served as part of a plea deal. She died in hospice care in Portland, Ore., in 2010.
Bembenek, who later changed her name to Laurie, and many of her supporters maintained she was innocent. She swore she had been framed, something Forgarty believes too.
Thunder Bay 'rallied' for Bembenek
"It's a very sad story and it's a tragic story. But what happened with Laurie when she came to Canada was kind of the one bright time in her life," said Fogarty. "Even though she was captured in Thunder Bay, everybody in the city rallied around her. They helped her."
The launch of the podcast has stirred up memories for some Thunder Bay residents, including the family of the late Ron Lester, a former lawyer and judge who worked on Bembenek's case.
"We became quite close friends with Laurie after Ron became a judge because we had developed a close relationship with her and her parents, because her parents had come up here," said Susan Lester, his wife.
The Lester family's involvement in Bembenek's case, along with the involvement of other Canadian lawyers such as Frank Marrocco, who also went on to become a judge, is an element of the story being examined in the podcast.
Fogarty said if it weren't for the two Thunder Bay lawyers, including Lester, her life may have been much different.
Friend of Bembenek 'happy' to see story retold
"She really really loved it," said Lester, talking about Bembenek's time in Canada.
"The fact that someone took an interest in her case and tried to protect her as Ron did from the media, the hounding of the media, and the people that were trying to get to her via the Milwaukee police department … she felt very good about that."
Lester recalled her family had to change phone numbers several times as a result of the case, adding she was the one who often fielded calls from American reporters, and even the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes.
"It was quite funny because Ed Bradley said to me, 'Oh, you get 60 Minutes up there,'" she said. "It was very surreal, very bizarre being in the middle of this. And of course, this case kind of overtook most of Ron's time."
Lester said her husband spent countless hours on the case and can be credited with constructing Bembenek's defence as seeking refugee status that ultimately led to the retrial of her case.
"Having this story brought back … I'm quite surprised. But you know what — I'm happy that her story is being told in a different perspective this time."