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Irvine mother who survived violent assault runs organization to empower crime victims

Founder Patricia Wenskunas poses for a portrait in front of a wall decorated with positive words at
Founder Patricia Wenskunas poses for a portrait in front of a wall decorated with positive words at Crime Survivors in Santa Ana. Wenskunas started the nonprofit organization after suffering from a violent crime 16 years ago.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

It took nine months for her to trust the man who would almost kill her.

So when he entered her Irvine home unannounced, she was a bit taken aback, but she didn’t feel the need to panic.

He said he was there to look at a treadmill she was hoping to sell — something they had spoken about at the 24 Hour Fitness where she built up a rapport with the personal trainer.

Then seemingly out of the blue he offered her a new “weight loss” supplement. It wasn’t particularly odd for a trainer to offer supplements to a client, but this drink had a strange blue froth.

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She drank it.

Then everything went dark.

She woke up undressed with the man on top of her.

Then Jeffrey Kelavos beat Patricia Wenskunas.

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He tried to suffocate her with Saran Wrap and threatened to kill her and then kill her 12-year-old son, Nathaniel— who wasn’t home at the time.

“I said, ‘God if you give me my next breath, then I would live for community above self,’” she said during an interview.

Wenskunas, fueled by the need to get to her son, was able to wrest herself away from Kelavos and took a plunge over a balcony to escape, fleeing into the neighborhood. Kelavos fled the scene and Wenskunas reunited with Nathaniel.

In 2003, about a year after surviving that attack, Wenskunas founded Crime Survivors, an Orange County-based nonprofit that seeks to empower crime victims. The organization opened a resource center in Santa Ana on April 4, the 16th anniversary of the attack.

“After the incident happened, I went into the mode of helping people so they didn’t have to suffer through the victimization and trauma that I did,” said Wenskunas, 48, of Irvine. Before the attack, Wenskunas had been abused as a child and suffered through a violent relationship with a man who beat Nathaniel with a paint-mixing stick.

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Patricia Wenskunas was beaten by Jeffrey Kelavos. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
(Courtesy of Patricia Wenskunas )

The reason she sought out Kelavos’ help in the first place was to try to tame eating disorders that had plagued her throughout her life.

But it wasn’t just the violent crime that fueled Wenskunas’ founding of Crime Survivors, it was the seemingly unjust legal saga that unfolded.

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During the trial, Wenskunas had to deal with PTSD and depression brought on by the attack as well as a judge who, in her words, lacked basic decency.

Wenskunas said former Orange County Superior Court Judge Susanne Shaw berated her throughout the trial.

“At one point she got up off the bench — I had my grandmother’s rosary and my son’s picture in my hand for some comfort and she took it out of my hand, set it on the counter and said I was making too much noise,” Wenskunas said.

The claim isn’t unusual for Shaw, who was permanently barred from courtrooms in 2006 following an investigation that determined she had been “abusive and demeaning” to defendants, attorneys, witnesses and prospective jurors. The state Commission on Judicial Performance concluded that there was a “high probability she will continue her unethical behavior if she were to sit in a judicial capacity in the future,” after determining there were 42 instances of misconduct over five cases she presided over in 2003 and 2004.

Shaw eventually tossed out attempted murder charges and Kelavos received 120 days in jail for assault with a deadly weapon and criminal threats.

“All these years later and I still don’t understand how he only had to serve 120 days,” Wenskunas said.

Wenskunas ended up filing a citation with the state against Shaw.

Kelavos is a free man today. Wenskunas thinks he’s still living in Southern California. But she tries to keep her mind from the demons of the past, focusing on the present so she can help crime victims heal.

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Crime Survivors has various programs depending on victims’ needs.

“We are really providing a place for them to turn to no matter if they need food, clothing or shelter,” Wenskunas said.

Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, Inc. hugs one of the victims during a dove r
Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, Inc. hugs one of the victims during a dove release in honor of crime victims during the unveiling of the Orange County Victims' Monument design at William R. Mason Park in Irvine.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman )

Included in the nonprofit’s several programs is supplying victims and law enforcement with victim emergency bags with tools that are helpful for victims in the days following an incident, support groups, assisting victims with travel and assistance related to legal support, and an education and career fund.

Wenskunas also travels throughout the state to speak with law enforcement personnel about what crime victims go through in the wake of an incident in the hope that it will make first responders’ actions more empathetic.

“Patricia is compassionate and driven,” Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel said through email. “For more than a decade, she has championed victim rights in the region, providing reassurance, resources and support for members of our community who have suffered trauma and loss. I commend her for work and the impact she has made.”

Wenskunas also does a lot of advocacy work. She’s now taking on a computerized justice tool, called a public safety assessment, claiming there are flaws in how it comes to determine whether defendants should be released pending trial. She believes a person should be in charge of making the determination rather than an algorithm.

With the addition of the new resource center, Wenskunas accomplished something she’d been wanting for years. There, victims can get therapy, counseling, attend support groups and take self-defense classes.

“To be able to not be defined by what happened to me but to be empowered and strengthened to help other victims is what this is about,” Wenskunas said. “I believe there is a reason I am still here. I made that pact on April 4, 2002, that if God gave me my next breath then I would live for others above myself.”

For more information about Crime Survivors, visit www.crimesurvivors.org.

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter:@benbrazilpilot


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