December 21, 2016 11:48 PM
(ABC 6 News) - A man who authorities say killed two women and left their bodies on the roadside in suitcases is set to appear in Olmsted County District Court this week.
Steven Zelich, a former Wisconsin police officer, is already serving a 35 year prison sentence for killing a woman in Wisconsin.
In an ABC 6 exclusive, we sit down with the family of the Minnesota woman who investigators say was killed by Zelich. In the emotional interview, the family of Laura Simonson shares her story and their plea for justice.
Not a day goes by that Niki Carlson doesn't think about her younger sister Laura -- sifting through old photos of Laura smiling with her seven children as they celebrate life's simple moments.
"She loved celebrating birthdays and holidays, they'd love popcorn movie nights, they'd all just cuddle up and be together," remembers Carlson.
Tears of joy quickly fading into tears of pain. "That's the one thing that I regret the most, is not being able to say I'm sorry," said Carlson.
Remembering the weeks, even months leading up to Simonson's death the two weren't talking. Carlson sharing how Simonson became different after the death of her daughter just six months before her own.
"It broke her heart," said Carlson. "She got to be a little distant, she wasn't quite the same person anymore, you know she was hurting, but she wouldn't let you in."
And she never would. On November 2, 2013 the 37-year-old left to meet someone and was never seen by her family again.
Simonson's body was discovered in Walworth County Wisconsin - 270 miles away from Rochester where authorities say she was last seen at the Microtel Inn & Suites with Steven Zelich.
"I couldn't tell my mom, I couldn't tell her that her Laura was gone. It was hard enough for me to have to lose my sister, but to have to tell my mom that she lost her baby girl, I couldn't do it," said Carlson through tears.
Zelich is charged with first and second-degree murder in Simonson's death. Her body and the body of 19-year-old Jenny Gamez were found in suitcases along a Wisconsin highway in June of 2014.
In both cases, authorities say Zelich claimed the women died accidentally during sex. Zelich pleaded guilty in Gamez's death in Wisconsin and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
"Every state is different, every state is different in what they call charges and different in how they sanction so we've been really open about the differences in Minnesota and Wisconsin law," said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem.
In his ten years as county attorney, Ostrem says he's never seen a case like this. Because Zelich was arrested in Wisconsin, that case had to be prosecuted first. Fast forward to now and the case for Simonson's death is finally in motion in Minnesota.
Forcing all the raw emotions to come back for Carlson and her family. "It's been very hard on my parents, especially my mother, nobody should ever have to lose a child, especially in this way," she said.
"We do know in this case the number one thing the victim wants is for the system to have just as much respect for her as the first victim over in Wisconsin," said Ostrem. "Our goal is to make sure that the victim from our case is not considered a second victim or any less of a victim just because that case happens to go second."
"So we're working very hard with the family to make sure their voices are heard," said Ostrem. But Carlson is making a plea of her own.
"I have been very frustrated with the whole judicial system here in Minnesota," said Carlson, "I'm not happy that he was offered a plea bargain when they have such a solid case against this monster."
Ostrem confirms his office is working on an offer with Zelich's legal team, saying they always explore all options, he but wouldn't go into any of the details.
However, Carlson says she's upset because if a plea deal is reached the charge of first-degree murder could be taken off the table.
"We found out later on, after they'd already offered the plea bargain," said Carlson.
According to Minnesota sentencing guidelines murder in the second-degree and third-degree could carry anything from 25 to 40 years in prison. A first-degree murder conviction is life in prison. However, Ostrem tells us no agreement has been reached in this case.
"Our goal is to get the best resolution we can, an appropriate resolution for the victim," said Ostrem.
"We're not trying to avoid a trial, we're ready for a trial, but the reality is 95 percent of cases don't go to trial because ultimately defendants understand that what they did was wrong and they admit it," he said.
"But what if their case doesn't fall inside this equation? This box? And they feel like their concerns are not being heard or the justice they are seeking is not being fulfilled?" Laura Lee asked Ostrem. "How do you as county attorney address that?"
"There is no doubt that at some point the defendants rights outweigh the victims rights," said Ostrem.
He also says, "the constitution grants him that right to a fair trial by his peers, we know that the fourth, fifth, sixth amendments are all about the defendants rights not the victims, but we work really hard for our victims to be heard and to make sure they get the best outcome we can for them."
"To them this is more of a job, these are their guidelines that fit in this box, we're the family, I lost my sister, nothing will ever bring her back to me, but to know that this man is being convicted of murder and is being put away forever will at least help me a little bit," says Carlson.
While nothing will ever bring Laura back, Niki says she is not alone. She has now befriended the sister of the other victim, Jenny Gamez.
"It has actually helped me through the healing process to know that there is another sister out there just like me," she says.
As two sisters grieve and heal, they remember the precious moments in life and not death.
"She did such a great job raising those kids, they are just amazing, and I just want them to know how much their mother really did love them," said Carlson.
"What would you say to Laura today?" Lee asked Carlson.
Through tears Carlson responded, "I miss her, I'm sorry I never got the chance to say it as much as I should, and that I know she's still here sometimes; I can feel her around me and every now and then in the car, I think I should call her, and then I realize I can't. So I try to take that with me as far as letting the people around me to know that I love them."
"She made me a stronger person, and I truly miss her."
Zelich's court appearance is scheduled for Thursday afternoon. We're expecting to find out if Zelich will make a plea and how his case will move forward.
Stay with ABC 6 News as we continue to follow this developing case.
Updated: December 21, 2016 11:48 PM
Created: December 21, 2016 11:45 PM
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