TOWN OF WATERFORD — After surviving a harrowing attack in which she was beaten with a baseball bat, stuffed in a trash can and left to die in a storage locker, it was only natural people wanted to talk to Teri Jendusa-Nicolai about it.
In the time since her nightmarish early-2004 ordeal, the Town of Waterford resident has become an outspoken advocate for victims rights and anti-domestic violence efforts.
Her profile figures to grow even bigger in the coming years. Jendusa-Nicolai, 51, will be one of the faces of a push to amend the Wisconsin Constitution to include victims’ rights. She also appeared Tuesday on the nationally syndicated “The Dr. Oz Show,” which highlighted an Oxygen television series that details her story.
From victim to advocate
For many in Racine County, Jendusa-Nicolai’s story is well known. On Jan. 31, 2004, Jendusa-Nicolai’s ex-husband, David Larsen, lured her into his Wind Lake home, attacked her and put her in a garbage can, which he left in an Illinois storage unit in freezing weather conditions.
Racine County sheriff’s investigators found her about 26 hours later, bound and badly beaten, drifting in and out of consciousness but alive. She lost the baby she was carrying, as well as all of her toes from frostbite.
In the summer of 2005, more than a year after the attack, Jendusa-Nicolai was asked to speak to church groups.
After some hesitation, she agreed.
“I didn’t know if I really wanted to do that, but I did and I just saw the impact it made on people,” she said. “People would bring their teenage daughters to come hear me, and then I started realizing this is a lot bigger than me.”
That fall, she spoke to students at Carroll College. It was the first of many colleges and universities she frequented, as she told audiences about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships and how to help themselves or people they know.
Her own relationship with her then-husband began innocently enough.
He insisted she not work, for example. But what seemed like a nice gesture was, in reality, a way he could exert control over her — and he did, controlling her money and forcing her to account for every penny she spent, she said.
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Or he would insist on taking her somewhere and push out the family member or friend who planned to accompany them. Over time, those family members and friends fade into the background.
“It’s little things like that, that you don’t realize are going on,” she said. “It can start off very, very sneaky.”
In about 2009, Jendusa-Nicolai’s advocacy took off as she traveled the country, speaking at colleges and universities. She made her presence felt at the state Capitol, testifying on legislation strengthening domestic violence laws and creating tougher penalties for perpetrators.
That included a bill establishing a clear process for taking guns away from abusers. In Jendusa-Nicolai’s case, a restraining order dictated her ex-husband turn in his guns. But he kept them because authorities lacked adequate power to seize them, she said.
In 2014, Jendusa-Nicolai started in politics, participating in a television ad for Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election campaign in which she praised Walker’s efforts to combat domestic violence. She approached Walker’s team about doing the ad after what she felt was unfair criticism of Walker’s attitude toward women, she said.
Now a full-time victims’ rights advocate, Jendusa-Nicolai will be in another bright spotlight as part of a statewide push for victims’ rights to be added to the state constitution.
Known as Marsy’s Law, the ballot initiative has passed in several states and has generally meant amending state constitutions to include rights for victims, such as making sure trials proceed in a timely fashion, ensuring victims have information about hearings and plea negotiations and protections against alleged perpetrators.
While Wisconsin already has a history of recognizing many victims’ rights, Marsy’s Law aims to strengthen them and put them in the state constitution to ensure victims truly have equal rights to those afforded to the accused.
Reached for comment, a spokesman for the initiative in Wisconsin said the language of the bill is still being drafted. Racine state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican, is a co-sponsor, and the Attorney General’s Office also backs the effort.
“We appreciate the leadership of Attorney General Brad Schimel and look forward to working with Sen. Wanggaard and Rep. (Todd) Novak to keep Wisconsin on the forefront of this issue,” said Brian Reisinger, Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin spokesman. “We’re working closely with victims like Teri, victim advocates, law enforcement, and others to draft a Wisconsin solution that will ensure equal rights for crime victims.”
Opponents argue it could slow trials and increase costs. Jendusa-Nicolai still wants to see the final version of the bill, but said adding language to the Constitution to protect crime victims is a good idea.
“You’re just basically evening the playing ground,” she said. “You’ve got the perpetrator who’s got all these rights. The victim should have just as many rights or more.”
When the bill is eventually unveiled and debated in the state Legislature, she will be at the forefront giving a voice to those victims.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the bigger issue,” she said. “If I can speak up for other people who maybe don’t want to or can’t, then I will.”
"I just saw the impact it made on people. People would bring their teenage daughters to come hear me, and then I started realizing this is a lot bigger than me."
— Teri Jendusa-Nicolai