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2014 story: Missing Farmington woman found dead in Wisconsin

Laura Jean Simonson, left, was last seen by family in Farmington on Nov. 1, 2013. On June 5, her body was found in a suitcase along a road in the Town of Geneva, Wis. A second suitcase at the scene contained the remains of Jenny Gamez of Cottage Grove, Ore., who went missing in 2012. 1 / 2
Steven M. Zelich, 52, of West Allis, Wis., has been taken into custody in connection to Laura Jean Simonson's murder. He was booked with two counts of hiding a corpse. 2 / 2

A 37-year-old Farmington woman who went missing in November has been found dead in Wisconsin. The body of Laura Jean Simonson was found June 5 in a suitcase near Geneva, Wis. Wednesday afternoon, Steven M. Zelich, 52, of West Allis, Wis., was taken into custody in connection with Simonson’s death. On Thursday, the Farmington family of Simonson asked, through Farmington police detective sergeant Lee Hollatz, to be left alone as they deal with Simonson’s death. The family has declined all comment on the incident. Simonson’s body and the body of another woman, Jenny M. Gamez of Cottage Grove, Ore., were discovered June 5 when a highway worker came across two suitcases while mowing grass in Geneva. The suitcases were moved to another location, but not opened. Another person spotted the cases and contacted Town of Geneva police. According to a criminal complaint issued by the State of Wisconsin, Simonson was found naked with a rope around her neck and a gag in her mouth. Gamez was found partially concealed in a black plastic garbage bag, with her hands bound behind her. A missing person Simonson was last seen by family members on Nov. 1, 2013. She had residences in both Farmington and St. Paul, so family members were not initially concerned when they had not seen her for several days. On Nov. 2, she left her van parked at her mother’s Farmington home. Family members reported her missing on Nov. 22. At the time of the report, Farmington police detective sergeant Lee Hollatz said family members indicated Simonson was having some difficult issues in her personal life. Family members were also concerned she may have been without the medication she was taking. Because he considered her a vulnerable adult, Hollatz put Simonson’s information out on the Minnesota Crime Alert system. Within a week, he received a call from the Microtel Inn and Suites in Rochester. The management provided Hollatz with video of Simonson and a man checking into the hotel on Nov. 2, and of the man checking out Nov. 3. In early December, Farmington police received a tip that Simonson was spotted in the Apache Mall in Rochester. That information turned out not to be creditable. In early January, Hollatz received another tip that Simonson was with a Wisconsin man named Steven Zelich. With that name and information he found through accessing her online chats, Hollatz located an email account registered to Zelich in two separate locations, both of which were connected to online chats with Simonson. “With that, I knew the information we had was reliable,” Hollatz said, “and I knew, from the beginning, with the information I had, that he was involved and I didn’t like it.” Hollatz was able to get an address for Zelich. He contacted the West Allis Police Department for assistance. It was then he learned Zelich had once been an officer on the West Allis force. West Allis police confirmed the man who checked into the Microtel was Zelich. After making that ID, Hollatz wrote a letter to Zelich. At that point, Hollatz said, Zelich was the last person to have seen Simonson. “I’m doing a missing persons investigation and I was looking for her,” Hollatz said. “This Zelich was the last one to see her. I wanted to talk to him.” Evidence Hollatz collected indicated Simonson left Farmington of her own accord. She was picked up from a parking lot at Akin Road Elementary School on Nov. 2. Hollatz asked the West Allis police and the Wisconsin Department of Justice — Division of Criminal Investigation to help him make contact with Zelich. In the weeks to follow, the FBI from Minneapolis and Milwaukee also became involved. From March through June, investigators continued to search for Simonson. It was late on June 5, hours after the suitcases were found, when one of Hollatz’s contacts called him to say they had found someone matching Simonson’s description. Hollatz was able to identify Simonson by one of the tattoo patterns on her body. Dental records confirmed her identity. A death investigation Rochester police were brought back into the investigation on June 10. Rochester crime scene investigators processed the room Zelich and Simonson had rented two days later. Based on evidence collected there, and at Zelich’s home earlier this week, Zelich was taken into custody. He is being held at the Walworth County Jail in Wisconsin on two counts of hiding a corpse. The Mower County attorney’s office is working with the Rochester Police Department to determine charges related to Simonson’s death, according to Rochester Lt. Casey Moilanen. In the Wisconsin criminal complaint, Zelich admitted he met Simonson in Rochester in November, 2013. He also admitted to causing her death, putting her in a suitcase and hiding her body in his vehicle. The second victim According to online reports, Gamez went missing in late 2012. She was born April, 1993, and had a 6-year-old son. In the criminal complaint, Zelich told officials he met Gamez online in 2012. They met in late 2012, or early 2013, in Kenosha, Wis., where he caused her death. Zelich allegedly told officials that after causing her death, he hid her in his home, and later hid her body in his vehicle in 2014. Gamez’s identity was released Monday. Her death is being investigated by the Kenosha Police Department. Both Gamez’s and Simonson’s bodies showed signs of decomposition, according to the complaint.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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