Crime Victims Find Unexpected Help

Suspects in Damon Nicholson’s 2009 killing in Laguna Beach have yet to be tried.

A suggestion from the county public administrator, who protects the assets and manages the affairs of deceased residents, proved a lifeline to Debbie Ambrose in 2009. Now, a Laguna police officer hopes he can offer a similar lifeline to others.

Shocked and in disbelief over the brutal murder of her brother, Damon Nicholson, the popular Hotel Laguna catering manager, Ambrose gratefully took the suggestion to seek resources from Irvine’s little known Crime Survivors Inc.

“They helped us enormously. I don’t know what I would have done,” said Ambrose, of Tucson, Ariz., confronted with picking up the strands of her sibling’s life from afar. Her parents and nine remaining siblings all live in Arizona.

Crime Survivors stepped in to help pay for burial, to clean her brother’s apartment of black fingerprint residue, and to donate his furniture. “They were awesome,” said Ambrose, who last month reconnected with Crime Survivors at its seventh annual fundraising banquet and discovered its other purpose.

There, meeting other survivors of wrongdoing, Ambrose took a measure of comfort in hearing frustrations similar to her own over seemingly interminable delays in the judicial system. She also came away with a new appreciation for the legal-limitations of police work.

Personally, Ambrose felt gratitude for a chance to summon memories of her brother’s life and recognized she possessed some peace of mind that other survivor’s lacked, since police made arrests of two suspects within weeks of her brother’s bludgeoning death on Oct. 23, 2009. Even so, more than 19 months have elapsed and the two Lake Forest men suspected in the killing have yet to come to trial. The initial preliminary hearing is set to begin on June 21.

“I don’t look forward to it, not that I don’t want them to pay for what they did,” said Ambrose, who remembers her brother by decorating the family Christmas tree with key chains from his vast collection.

As a result of Ambrose’s experience, Laguna Beach’s police association president, Larry Bammer, also wants to ensure that local victims of crime have ready access to unfamiliar resources.

“Crime Survivors distributes thousands of resource guides and victim emergency bags to make the first 24 hours more hopeful and comfortable for crime victims,” said Bammer, who would like to see the department stocked with at least 25 of the $25 kits and seeks the public’s help to pay for them.

Twenty two of the county’s law enforcement agencies already make available Crime Survivors’ bags, said founder and chief executive Patricia Wenskunas, who established the organization in 2003 after being attacked by her personal trainer.

“When my crime happened in 2002 I got no referral,” she said. “When you empower the victim, you can make or break their survival. It makes an amazing difference.”

More than 4,600 adult and child kits have been distributed. They include a 52-page resource guide tailored for crime victims in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. She is at work on similar ones for Riverside and San Bernardino counties as well. As an example, the guides include instructions on how to apply for a claim from a state victim compensation board.

“Chiefs want them,” said Wenskunas, overwhelmed by a Los Angeles Police Department commander who asked for 15,000. “Where do we find donors?”


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