MINNEAPOLIS - The disappearance of a Minnesota mother of seven was just a missing person case when it landed on the desk of Detective Sgt. Lee Hollatz. Seven months later, her body and that of another woman were found stuffed in suitcases along a rural Wisconsin highway, and the former police officer whom Hollatz had long considered his top person of interest is now suspected in their deaths.
Steven M. Zelich is scheduled to appear in court in Wisconsin on Friday afternoon on two counts of hiding a corpse. Authorities say Zelich, a 52-year-old security guard from West Allis, Wisconsin, met his victims online, bound and killed them and kept their bodies for months, either in his vehicle or his home, though he has not yet been charged in their deaths.
One of the women was Laura Simonson, whose family reported her missing last November. Hollatz, a police detective in the Twin Cities suburb of Farmington, Minnesota, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Zelich had been "the No. 1 person on my radar" since January. But the crucial break didn't come until highway workers found the suitcases with the bodies on June 5 in the Town of Geneva, some 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
Authorities have not released the identity of the second woman but describe her as a white female with long, dark hair, a pronounced overbite and a small heart tattoo on her lower left abdomen. According to a criminal complaint, Zelich told investigators he killed her in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, in late 2012 or early 2013 and Simonson at a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, in November.
Walworth County public defender Travis Schwantes said he would most likely be the attorney assigned to represent Zelich in Wisconsin. Schwantes declined to comment on the allegations until he'd spoken with Zelich.
Simonson, 37, of Farmington, was reported missing by her family Nov. 22. Hollatz said all he had was a missing person's case until her body was found.
"I always saw her as vulnerable because of the mental health issues, drug use and things," he said, though he declined to go into more details. He added: "Don't get me wrong. Laura was a nice lady. No doubt about it."
Hollatz tracked Simonson's last movements to the Microtel Inn and Suites in Rochester, because employees recognized her from a crime alert he sent out. He said they remembered her because someone had been smoking in her room in violation of hotel rules.
Simonson checked in under her own name on Nov. 2. He said the hotel's security video showed a man later identified as Zelich leaving alone the next morning, but Simonson was not seen leaving. In mid-January, Hollatz got a tip that Simonson probably was with a man named Steve Zelich from West Allis.
The West Allis Police Department, at Hollatz's request, went to Zelich's apartment but found no signs of Simonson. A few weeks later, after Zelich failed to respond to a letter from Hollatz, FBI and Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation agents went to talk to Zelich.
Hollatz declined to say what Zelich told the agents. But, he said, "After that interview Steven Zelich was still the No. 1 person on my radar."
Zelich worked for the West Allis Police Department from 1989 until he resigned in 2001. He had been a licensed private security officer with Securitas Security Services USA since 2007.
Ramde reported from West Allis.
Associated Press writer Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
In this photo provided by the Geneva, Wis., Police Department is Laura Simonson, 37, from Farmington, Minn. Authorities said that a man Steven Zelich was arrested in connection with the killing of Simonson, one of two women whose bodies were discovered June 5 in two suitcases discarded along a rural road in Town of Geneva. Authorities have released the identity of the second female.×
In this photo taken on Wednesday Walworth County investigators carry bags full of material from an apartment in West Allis, Wisconsin, after picking up a suspect allegedly involved in two murders where the bodies were found in suitcases along a rural road in Geneva Township several weeks ago.×