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Former Wisconsin police officer held after bodies found in suitcases

In this undated booking photo released by Walworth County Sheriff's Office, Steven Zelich is seen. The former police officer has been charged Thursday, June 26, 2014, with hiding a corpse after the bodies of two women were found stuffed in suitcases deposited along a rural road in Wisconsin. (Walworth County Sheriff's Office)

FARMINGTON, Minn. -- Farmington police Detective Lee Hollatz followed a trail that led from a Farmington school parking lot to a suitcase in eastern Wisconsin as he tried to locate Laura Jean Simonson.

Simonson, a 37-year-old Farmington resident, was found dead this month in a suitcase in Geneva, Wis. Steven M. Zelich, a 52-year-old former police officer from West Allis, Wis., has been arrested in the deaths of Simonson and another woman also found in a suitcase. He was being held on two counts of hiding a corpse.

Police said they have identified the second woman but have not yet released her name.

Authorities said Zelich told investigators he was present when one of the women died at a Rochester, Minn., hotel last year.

Rochester police believe Zelich and Simonson corresponded over the Internet and were together at the Microtel Inn and Suites in Rochester, where they believe she died in November, police Lt. Casey Moilanen said.

Hollatz, the Farmington detective, had been looking for Simonson since her family reported her missing Nov. 22.

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. The hotel management provided Hollatz with video of Simonson and a man checking into the hotel Nov. 2, and of the man checking out of the hotel Nov. 3.

In early December, Farmington police received a tip that Simonson was spotted in the Apache Mall in Rochester. However, that information turned out not to be creditable.

But in early January, Hollatz received another tip that Simonson was with a Wisconsin man named Steven Zelich. With that name and information he had found through accessing her online chats, Hollatz started searching various sites and databases.

Through his investigation, 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.

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.

Hollatz emailed a copy of the photo of the man checking out from the Microtel Inn and Suites on Nov. 3 to West Allis police for identification. West Allis police confirmed the man was Zelich.

After making that ID, Hollatz wrote a letter to Zelich to ask him to contact Hollatz. 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 that Simonson left Farmington of her own accord. She was picked up from a parking lot at Akin Road Elementary School on Nov. 2, he said. He has evidence that indicates Simonson left willingly.

Hollatz asked the West Allis police and the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation to help in making contact with Zelich. In the weeks to follow, both 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 two suitcases were found, when one of Hollatz’s contacts called him to say someone matching Simonson’s description was found in one of the suitcases.

Hollatz was able to identify Simonson by one of the tattoo patterns on her body. Dental records confirmed her identity.

Rochester police were brought back into the investigation 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 was being held at the Walworth County Jail in Wisconsin on two counts of hiding a corpse.

A cause of death for Simonson has not been released.

Reuters news service contributed to this report.

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