By all accounts, Teri Jendusa-Nicolai should be dead.
The 38-year-old mother of two recalls the assault that nearly ended her life.
"I remember clunk, and then I remember kind of coming to and I was on the floor. I kind of got up after that, and he hit me again with the bat. … I could just hear the blood in my ears, feel the blood in my hair, and there was blood everywhere."
The man wielding the bat was someone Jendusa-Nicolai once loved, her ex-husband, David Larsen.
When she met Larsen, she thought he was quite a catch. He had a good job as an air traffic controller and owned his own home. After a year of dating, the couple married in 1996. But clues about her husband's violent side began to surface early — on their honeymoon in Hawaii, in fact. After they had what she thought was just a lovers' quarrel, he hit her several times in the head, she says.
Jendusa-Nicolai and Larsen soon started a family. Amanda was born in 1997 and her sister, Holly, two years later.
To friends and neighbors they seemed like a happy family, but inside Jendusa-Nicolai was fighting a difficult and private struggle. She says Larsen was unreasonably controlling and volatile.
She says she stayed in the relationship, hoping she could change Larsen. But during their three-year-long marriage, police responded to several domestic violence calls at their home.
Shared Custody Leaves Woman Vulnerable
But Jendusa-Nicolai says the effects the violent atmosphere was having on their daughters finally made her decide to leave Larsen in November 1999 and file for divorce. But the judge awarded the couple joint custody of their children.
The custody arrangement meant Jendusa-Nicolai was forced to have regular close contact with Larsen, leaving her trapped and feeling the threat of violence was always near.
Nevertheless, Jendusa-Nicolai managed to build a new life. She even met the man who would become her next husband, Nick Nicolai, in her church choir. And to remove the fear and danger from her life, she sought sole custody of the girls.
Through a series of delay tactics Larsen managed to drag out the legal process for four years until last January, when a judge declared there would be no further delays. What no one at the time could predict was what Larsen's next move would be.
On the morning of Jan. 31, just four days after their last court hearing, Jendusa-Nicolai went to pick up her children from Larsen's home in Wind Lake, Wis., northwest of Racine.
Jendusa-Nicolai says Larsen lured her into the house by saying the girls were hiding and he needed her to come inside and find them. She said her instincts told her something was wrong. "My first gut feeling was like, I am not going in that house." But she didn't want to disappoint the girls, so she went inside.
That's when she says the attack happened. Larsen surprised her from behind, she says, striking her at least 10 times in the head with a baseball bat. "I remember him saying, 'You're not taking the girls away from me. You always said that I abused you. Now you can see what abuse really is,' " she said.
She said Larsen was covering her mouth and nose and trying to prevent her from breathing, and then began to bind her with duct tape.
"He taped my ankles, taped my wrists, and then he started taping my face. And I just started thinking, 'Oh no, this is it, I'm not going to be able to breathe.' "
She decided to breathe shallowly and pretend that she was dead, hoping he would leave her alone.
But she says Larsen jammed her, bound, bleeding and barely clothed, into a large garbage bin, which he dragged outside and hid under a tarp in the back of his pickup truck.
It was then that Larsen made a crucial mistake — he went inside to get the girls and left his ex-wife alone. While alone in the truck, she manage to break one hand free of the tape and called 911 from a cell phone in the pocket of her light jacket — one of the few garments she had left.
The operator could barely understand her, but managed to get the address of Larsen's home.
Jendusa-Nicolai says she could hear the sirens of emergency vehicles coming, but Larsen was already driving away as the vehicles arrived at the house.
Police searched Larsen's house, seeing signs of a struggle and what appeared to be blood. But there was no sign of Jendusa-Nicolai or the girls. With the girls missing, investigators issued a statewide Amber Alert.
Jendusa-Nicolai managed to make another call to 911 for help. She told the operator her husband was trying to kill her and that she was in the back of his green Dodge Ram.
Left for Dead
Larsen eventually stopped at a public storage facility in Wheeling, Ill., about 40 miles south of Racine. Police say he piled boxes on top of the garbage bin he had stuffed his ex-wife into and left it inside a storage unit. He then dropped the kids off at a baby sitter's home, and at 6 p.m., reported to work at a Wheeling, Ill., airport where police were waiting to arrest him for kidnapping and child abduction.
Police say Larsen told them where the children were, and they were found safe at the baby sitter's house. They also say he pretended to be concerned about his ex-wife. According to a criminal complaint, he later told police he had struck Jendusa-Nicolai with a baseball bat because she suddenly appeared in his home with her pants around her ankles and holding a hammer over him.
Inside the storage unit, Jendusa-Nicolai was fighting for her life. She managed to pry up the lid of the garbage bin to get air, but the air she let in was brutally cold. Overnight temperatures were barely above zero, and she was barely clothed.
The next morning, police got a break. While checking Larsen's personal belongings they found a phone number in his wallet for a public storage facility just a mile from the airport where he worked.
As they arrived at the storage unit, they could hear Jendusa-Nicolai's shouts for help.
Unrecognizable and Close to Death
The surgeon who treated Jendusa-Nicolai, Dr. Terri Martin was shocked by the trauma she had suffered. "Her eyes were swollen shut. She was black and blue all over the face … she just wasn't recognizable as a human being," Martin said.
Doctors say her ability to remain coherent was almost miraculous. "She wanted to know about her children, in the condition that she was in, that was totally amazing," Martin said.
But Jendusa-Nicolai was only just beginning to take stock of her terrible losses. She and her new husband had found out the night before the attack that they were expecting a child. Doctors gave her the heartbreaking news that she had miscarried. She also learned she had suffered frostbite, and would have to undergo surgery to remove all of her toes.
Five weeks into her hospital stay, and with her ex-husband in a Milwaukee jail, Jendusa-Nicolai was finally awarded sole custody of her daughters.
She continues to undergo physical therapy in hopes of one day walking again. Perhaps as amazing as her physical stamina is her positive attitude. When people ask her how she keeps an optimistic outlook, she says she tells them, "I'm alive. My girls are safe. We have our family and he's where he belongs."
Larsen, who is now in federal custody, has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and interstate domestic violence. He faces state charges of attempted homicide, kidnapping and interference with child custody. The state is also considering a charge of first-degree murder for the death of Jendusa-Nicolai's unborn child.
A fund has been set up to help cover Jendusa-Nicolai's medical costs. If you would like to contribute, contact: First Banking Center Teri Jendusa-Nicolai Fund 7998 S. Loomis Road Wind Lake, WI 53185 Phone: (262) 895-7566 Fax: (262) 895-6310