ELKHORN, Wis. — An Oregon teenager identified Monday as one of two women whose bodies were found in suitcases in Wisconsin had a hard time after giving up her son to his father, but she was turning her life around and had won a college scholarship before she disappeared, her foster mother said.
Investigators believe Jenny Gamez was killed in Wisconsin in late 2012 or early 2013, when she was 19. Steven Zelich, a 52-year-old security officer, was arrested last week and charged with two counts of hiding a corpse, though prosecutors say they expect to file homicide charges.
Gamez had moved from her home in Cottage Grove, Oregon, to be closer to a community college about 20 miles north in Eugene. She lived with friends and visited her family, but eventually fell out of touch, said her foster mother, Lorraine Ericksen.
“I was surprised that I didn’t hear from her,” Ericksen said. “I knew she spent some time in California with friends, but her friends in Cottage Grove said she stopped texting with them, and after that we could not get in touch with her.”
She said Gamez, who had been in foster care with numerous families since she was 5, “was a joy to be around.” Gamez came to live with her about three years after she relinquished her parental rights of her son, and Ericksen said she helped her get through high school.
Ericksen said she was shocked when police showed up at her door Friday, looking for a hair sample and telling her Gamez might have been murdered.
“We were all wondering what had happened to her,” she said.
Zelich was arrested after highway workers discovered the two suitcases while cutting grass June 5 along a highway in Town of Geneva, about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee. The other body previously was identified as Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota.
“It is one of the more horrific crimes I’ve been involved in,” said Geneva Police Chief Steven Hurley, who has worked for 36 years in law enforcement. “It has taken a lot of twists and turns in the past few weeks.”
He said one reason for the delay in identifying Gamez was that she had never been officially reported missing. Ericksen said she last saw Gamez more than a year ago, when Gamez visited and brought her a plant.
“She was an upbeat kid who wasn’t afraid of trying new things, she even took a sculpture class. Other kids all loved her. We were pretty close and it was devastating what happened to her,” Ericksen said.
“I’m also surprised she was involved with a man that age, it wasn’t what she would do here,” Ericksen added. “She never ran around with kids that were more than a year or two older than her.”
According to a criminal complaint, Zelich told investigators he met the women online. He said he killed Gamez in late 2012 or early 2013 in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and Simonson in November in Rochester, Minnesota.
Rochester police have said they believe Simonson died in a hotel there because she checked in with Zelich on Nov. 2, and he left alone the next day.
Gamez was identified through dental records, said Kurt Picknell, undersheriff in Walworth County, which includes Town of Geneva. He declined to detail how investigators linked Gamez to the bodies in Wisconsin.
Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci has said he expects homicide charges to be filed in the counties where the women were killed. But Zelich’s public defender, Travis Schwantes, said the deaths may have been accidents and perhaps something that happened during consensual sex.
Zelich had been working as a licensed private security officer for Securitas Security Services USA when he was arrested last Wednesday. He worked for the police department in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin, from February 1989 until his resignation in August 2001, a few months after a prostitute told police the two had struggled when she tried to flee Zelich’s home. According to a police report, Zelich told investigators the two struggled over money the woman tried to steal from him.
Wozniacka reported from Portland, Oregon.
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