Law enforcement personnel, nonprofits, services providers, philanthropists and businesses recently were honored at the “Hope Gratitude Gala,” an event celebrating the organizations and individuals that provide comfort to crime victims and their families.
The 16th annual gala and fundraiser, which took place Aug. 2 at Chapman University in Orange, was organized by Crime Survivors Inc., a nonprofit founded by Patricia Wenskunas, a crime victim turned survivor and advocate.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, one of Crime Survivors’ most ardent supporters for most of the past 16 years, stood at the podium and announced a new position he created to specifically address the needs and concerns of crime victims – victim ombudsman.
“As the new DA, I’ve made an absolute commitment, really because of the inspiration of Patricia Wenskunas and Crime Survivors, to dedicate serious resources to crime victims in the DA’s office,” Spitzer said. “For the first time in Orange County history, if you are a crime victim and you feel you haven’t gotten justice, if you feel your case is not being heard, if you are frustrated with the system, you are going to have a direct contact with a prosecutor in our office.”
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes may have put it best when delivering opening remarks to the hundreds of attendees.
“It’s often said there is a silver lining in every dark cloud,” said Barnes, who was one of several recipients of Crime Survivors’ Above & Beyond Award, given to a variety of individuals and groups whose extraordinary efforts have helped crime victims heal and thrive. “It’s unfortunate that organizations like this need to exist, but we are also blessed that organizations like this doexist … It’s important that we as a community are the shoulders to lean upon and lift each other up and be a system of support.”
Wenskunas was inspired to form Crime Survivors after being the victim of a brutal attack in her home on April 4, 2002.
She was drugged and beaten before she managed to escape her attacker.
But following the attempted murder, Wenskunas found the lack of sufficient resources available to crime victims almost as traumatic as the incident itself.
Not wanting future victims to run into the same problem, Wenskunas founded Crime Survivors in 2003.
Without a building in which to operate, Wenskunas provided an array of services to victims of crimes.
Then, in April 2018, Wenskunas realized her longtime dream by opening the Crime Survivors Resource Center in Santa Ana, which offers free counseling, healing classes, legal support, and other services (844-853-HOPE,www.crimesurvivors.org).
“We are most proud of our collaborations, partnership and influence to continue supporting victims of crime with hope and healing,” Wenskunas said. “I feel like I got into this movement to be a voice for the voiceless and I will remain that for the rest of my life until I have my last breath.”
Above & Beyond Awards went to:
Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Don Barnes
Since becoming sheriff of the 4,000-member agency in January, Barnes has been a strong victims’ advocate and is working to implement initiatives that will further improve the department’s 21 divisions.
Barnes has held every rank during his career with OCSD, including serving as undersheriff prior to being sworn in as sheriff.
As undersheriff, Barnes led a coalition to address the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana Riverbed.
Barnes also served as incident commander during the 2007 Santiago Canyon Fires and has overseen the construction of upgrades to Theo Lacy Jail while balancing OCSD’s billion- dollar budget.
Orange Police Department, Officer Fernando Maldonado
In January 2018, Maldonado was assigned to investigate an attempted murder case in which the victim interrupted an auto burglary of his own vehicle.
The victim chased the suspect, who then entered a vehicle, which he had parked around the corner.
Once in the vehicle, the suspect shot the victim in the chest and fled.
The victim survive, and Maldonado showed compassion while communicating with the victim, his family, and the community as a whole, which had become concerned for their safety following the incident.
Maldonado submitted numerous items of potential evidence to the crime lab in an effort to identify the suspect.
Maldonado also spent countless hours following up on anonymous tips provided by community members.
The detective was contacted by the Torrance Police Department, which informed him that one of their burglary suspects was possibly involved in the Orange incident.
After coordinating surveillance of the suspect with the Torrance and Buena Park Police Departments, authorities served a search warrant at the suspect’s residence in Buena Park.
The suspect was arrested and the clothes he was wearing during the shooting, along with several firearms, were located.
Maldonado made it a point to visit the hospital on a daily basis to check in with the victim and his family and provide updates on the investigation.
Since the arrest, Maldonado has stayed in contact with the victim and his family to help them navigate through the court process.
Other Above & Beyond Awards went to:
Det. Sgt. Patrick Launi – Cal State Fullerton Police Department
Officers Haldor Larum and Leticia Hernandez – Irvine Police Department
Supervisor Kathryn Barger – Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
Advocates Maria Alonso, Maria Foster and Maria Guerrero – Office Bureau of Victim Services, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office
Comdr. Carlos Marquez, Captains Jorge Valdez and Todd Deeds, Lieutenants Andrew Meyer, Michael Burse, Robert Peacock and Richard Ruiz, Sgt. Richard Martinez, Detectives Steve French, Tifani Stonich and Chris Waladis and Operations Assistant Denise Castillo – Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Deputy District Attorneys Kevin Beecham and Kimberly DeGonia, Senior Investigator II, Wade Walsvick, and Victim Advocate Sherri Marcus and Yadira Sanchez – Riverside County District Attorney’s Office
Thomas Laing, retired chief, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
Dr. Kali P Chaudhuri and KPC Health Chairman and Founder, Dr. Kali P Chaudhuri
Victim Services Manager and Ellie Liston Crime Victims’ Assistance Unit – Ventura County District Attorney’s Office
Vanessa Reyna Program Director, Victim Assistance Programs Waymakers
A Citizen of the Year Award also was given to Marisol Molina, on behalf of theAnaheim Police Department, for thwarting an attempted kidnapping of an 8-year old girl.
At about 7 a.m. on May 9, Molina was working as a clerk in a 7-11 store when a young girl, who had been on her way to school, came into the store, crying, saying a man was trying to kidnap her.
The would-be kidnapper followed the girl into the store, seemingly determined to follow through with the abduction.
Molina put herself between the young girl and her potential abductor, told the suspect to leave the girl alone and leave the store.
The suspect fled and Molina called the Anaheim Police Department, providing a description to the police dispatcher.
Within minutes, patrol officers located the suspect and arrested him on suspicion of attempted kidnapping.
The investigation revealed the girl was approached by the suspect in the driveway of the 7-11.
The suspect took the girl by the hand and did not release his grip as he spoke to her, even though she was trying to pull away.
The girl finally was able to break free from the man’s grasp and run into the 7-11 store.
Then Molina stepped in.
Community Policing Organization of the Year:
Santa Ana Police Department
Victim Advocacy Lifetime Achievement Award:
Harriet Salarno, Founder, Crime Victims United