After years of spousal abuse, Wisconsinite Teri Jendusa-Nicolai decided to divorce her husband David Larsen in 1999—but when a judge awarded her husband joint custody of their two children, her life remained more in threat than ever.
“Courts in ’99 were not understanding of the situation so they put these women in dangerous situations every week,” said Jendusa-Nicolai, whose harrowing story is the subject of the first episode of Oxygen's new show, Three Days to Live (Sundays at 6/7c and 9/8c). “At that point, the court was saying, ‘oh, a dad who wants to see his kids! Isn’t that great, there are two parents who want to see the kids.’ He just wanted to use them to get to me. Most of the time he had them he left them with a babysitter.”
In 2004, Larsen used this custody agreement to manipulate his ex-wife—eventually kidnapping her, beating her to the brink of death, and stuffing her in a garbage bin in the back of his pickup truck. She survived; her unborn child didn’t.
Her astonishing tale of escape from this attack is outlined in the first episode of Three Days to Live, a new show premiering on Oxygen this Sunday. In advance of the episode, we spoke to Jendusa-Nicolai about her marriage to Larsen, and what made her finally leave him. It was a decision that Jendusa-Nicolai struggled with, even while facing Larsen’s abuse.
“He would say that children have a worse life in single parent families,” she said “but my children were the ones who helped me to leave because I could see what they were going through.”
“I figured children from a single family home,” she added, “are much better off where children are brought up with a house with violence.”
Larsen remembers when she first told someone—her best friend, Sheila—that her husband was abusive. “I think part of it was that I was trying to validate myself. Am I crazy, or is he a jerk? And she basically told me [no,] that that’s not normal.”
But it was after leaving her ex that Jendusa-Nicolai faced the assault that would nearly end her life, thanks to the shared custody agreement. Larsen’s history of domestic violence was a matter of record, she said, but the judge deemed this not relevant, asking Jendusa-Nicolai if her husband had ever abused their children.
“I said, ‘not yet,’” she claimed. It didn’t matter; Larsen wasn’t deemed a threat to them. Never mind that shared custody put Jendusa-Nicolai in constant contact with the man who she alleged even hit her on her honeymoon.
Over the next few years, she got remarried, to a man named Nick Nicolai, and became pregnant with his child. Again, she decided to seek sole custody of her daughters.
With the court date for the custody hearing looming, on Jan. 31, 2004, Larsen told Jendusa-Nicolai that her daughters were hiding in the house, and that he needed her to go inside to get them, according to ABC News.
That’s when he began beating her with a baseball bat until she was bloody. That’s when he covered up her mouth and nose to keep her from breathing. That’s when she played dead in the hopes that he would leave her alone, only to be thrown into a garbage bin in the back of Larsen’s truck.
In the bin, she managed to dial 911, alerting police to her situation and giving them the address of her ex’s home, but by the time emergency vehicles arrived, Larsen was driving her away. He put the garbage bin in a storage unit, and left Jendusa-Nicolai for dead in freezing cold temperatures.
By the time police found her, she had suffered frostbite, and she had to get surgery to remove her toes. She had to relearn how to walk. She also suffered a miscarriage.
Larsen was quickly arrested and sentenced to 35 years in prison for the assault. Jendusa-Nicolai, meanwhile, has become an advocate for mothers facing domestic violence. In the wake of her assault, Wisconsin passed a law that said judges had to look at previous domestic violence instances when deciding custody agreements, even if the domestic violence isn’t against the children. She’s also worked to keep domestic abusers from maintaining access to weapons and to make restrainer orders stricter.
Because she, as much as anyone, understands how there needs to be resources in place to protect women who choose to leave abusive relationships—or else partners face a situation where it’s safer to stay with the person who’s hurting them.
“A lot of people say why don’t you just leave?” she said. “And they don’t understand that when you leave that the chance of something horrible happening go up by 75 percent.”