Search About Newsletters Donate
Support independent, nonprofit journalism.

Become a member of The Marshall Project during our summer membership drive. Our journalism has tremendous power to drive change, but we can’t do it without your support.

Life Inside

I Survived a Violent Crime, Then the Justice System Let Me Down

"I was made to feel like a second-class victim."

It was an April morning when my personal trainer came into my home in Irvine, California, to take a look at the treadmill I’d been planning to sell.

Then he gave me this pill, this little yellow “weight loss” pill, and a chocolate drink.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

“What is this?” I asked. “There’s something blue in the drink.”

He was like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s probably something in the cup…”

I don’t remember much of the next half hour, but do remember vividly what I felt next: I was undressed and in my son’s bed. I couldn’t get words out of my mouth. I felt like I was under anesthesia.

Before I knew it, my trainer had wrapped my face and head in Saran wrap and was beating me and smashing my head into the wall. He was screaming that he was going to kill me and my son, Nathaniel, who was 12 at the time but, mercifully, wasn’t in the house.

“Listen, I’ll give you sex,” I remember saying. “I’ll give you money. I’ll give you whatever you want. But please don’t kill my baby…”

I don’t know if I jumped, if I fell, if he pushed me — I have no idea — but eventually I went over my 12-foot second-floor railing. I landed in the kitchen, and was able to get out the door and run to my neighbor’s house to call 911. And then the police showed up along with the paramedics.

At the end of the night, they dropped me off at my friend’s house, and my friend and his wife were standing at the door. They say they'll never forget how I looked.

I have blue eyes, but they say that when they saw me that evening, my eyes looked black — as if my soul had left my body.

On that night in 2002, my personal trainer did not murder me. There was also no evidence that he raped me. He didn’t steal anything of value from my house, nor were any drugs found in my system other than allergy medication.

Because of all these things, the prosecutor in my case didn’t pursue the most serious charges against my assailant, and the judge made me feel like some kind of second-class victim.

I remember, at one point, the DA showing me a blown-up picture of a bloody knife (from one of his murder cases) and saying, “You should take your son to the pumpkin patch. You should go live your life. You survived. I have other cases in which the victims were murdered, and they’re no longer here.”

I told him, “I wish I would’ve been murdered, because maybe there would be justice in this case.” Obviously I didn’t feel that way, or don’t feel that way now, but that’s what I remember saying.

My first interactions with the system, especially the police, had actually led me to believe that I’d be treated with great respect.

Yes, I had to do a rape kit, which is invasive, and have photos taken of my body multiple times, and get asked all sorts of questions. But the investigator, the detective in my case, treated me with real dignity. I felt like: Someone’s standing up for me, someone’s protecting me, there’s going to be justice.

I remember hearing him in the hallway, when I was in the emergency room, talking to another officer and saying, “I’m supposed to go to the movies with my wife... You know I was looking forward to that popcorn… But you know what, I think this victim needs me more…”

And when they questioned me, they said, “You know, Patricia. These are going to be some very difficult questions that we have to ask you. It’s going to sound like we’re doubting or blaming or questioning you, but we’re not. We just need to ask these questions so that we can ensure we get an arrest and a prosecution in this case.”

Then the court system happened.

One day, I got a call from an officially-appointed victim advocate saying, “Patricia, you need to get to court right away.”

I got dressed and quickly made my way to the courthouse, where, upon arriving in a courtroom, I heard, “Okay, sentencing will be…”

I looked at the advocate and asked, “What just happened?” I hadn’t been told anything about any of this.

“Oh, don’t worry about it, Patricia,” she replied. “He admitted to doing everything to you. He signed on the dotted line. And the District Attorney decided to take a two-year plea agreement, so he’s going to do two years.”

All I remember next is getting up, going out to the corridor, and throwing up.

I couldn’t understand or even fathom what had happened — it seemed to be the opposite of how the police had treated me. This man had tried to kill me, threatened to kill my son, and he’s just going to “do two years”? I just kept thinking, That’s not how it happens on TV. If he gets away with this, he’s going to kill someone else, or he’s going to come back and kill me and my son…

So I decided to picket the courthouse, gathering a bunch of friends and holding signs up out in the parking lot.

At the next hearing, when the sentencing was going to be officially pronounced, the judge looked at the DA and said, “Well, your victim is here today. She doesn’t like you, she doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like your plea deal. And she’s picketing my courthouse. So if she wants a trial, let’s give her a trial. I’m going to throw out this plea deal and give the defendant a chance at trial.”

But the judge threw out the attempted murder charge, and the jury could only find my personal trainer guilty of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon and criminal threats. So he ended up getting only 120 days in jail. And five years of anger management and five years of probation.

News Inside

The print magazine that brings our journalism behind bars.

Then came restitution, the part of a criminal case when the perpetrator is supposed to make the victim (at least financially) whole.

When I went to provide all my receipts, all my documentation of what I’d spent out of my own pocket because of this crime, the judge scoffed, “You’re expecting him to pay for your bed and your sheets and your pillow? Why would I award that?”

“Because he attacked me in my bed. I couldn’t keep the mattress, the box spring, the sheets, the pillows. I couldn’t sleep there. I threw them in the trash, and I relocated.”

“Well, I’m not going to honor that,” she said. (Editor's note: California only awards restitution for stolen, damaged or destroyed property, but not long after, the same judge was permanently barred from courtrooms after a state commission determined she had been “abusive and demeaning” to defendants, attorneys, witnesses and prospective jurors.)

I think out of approximately $54,000 that I’d spent, including moving into a new home because I was so traumatized, I probably got back about $800 total over the years.

I’ll never forget the first restitution check I actually received… for $54. I remember being in my car at my storage unit, opening up the envelope, thinking: What is this? Then I realized what it was and actually ripped the check halfway in half before I sat there and cried.

I put the ripped check on my dashboard. It sat there for maybe two weeks.

I was so naïve during my court case, much more so than I am today. Surely he’s going to go to prison for the rest of his life, I thought. Surely justice was going to make me whole again.

But if they don’t want to see me as a victim, I won’t either. I’ll be a survivor and thrive.

Patricia Wenskunas is a resident of Irvine, California, and the CEO/Founder of Crime Survivors, an organization that seeks to empower and advocate for crime victims.