Can This Marriage Be Saved?
by Bruce McEwen, April 21, 2010
Many longtime Ukiahans know the story of Johnny and Mina Kvasnicka. An ambitious, hard-working couple, the Kvasnickas built an enviably beautiful new house at the swanky address of Saratoga Court in developer Gilbert Ashoff’s upscale Vichy Springs Resort east of Ukiah. The Kvasnickas raised their daughters at Saratoga Court and accumulated lots of nice things, including a $50,000 BMW.
Then love fled.
Or was forced to flee.
The BMW figured prominently.
The Kvasnickas were in Superior Court last week where Johnny K faced felony domestic abuse charges.
The trajectory of the Kvasnickas volatile marriage began to seek its nadir on January 9th of 2009 when Johnny K declined to accompany his wife Mina to what Mina billed as “the wedding of the century.” This mega-event was scheduled for Texas where they do things big. Johnny and Mina’s own wedding must have caused something of sensation back in the day. He’s a man’s man (and I say that in the traditional sense, not as a gay slur), fit and trim, a heavy equipment operator. She’s very pretty and delicate-looking, a Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman.
The K's worked hard, persevered and, it would seem, achieved the American dream, such as that dream manifests itself these days in lots of expensive stuff.
Mina claims that Johnny was something of a control freak, as the young people describe dominating personality types. He kept the couple's American Dream stuff in his name, and he also hid the phone bills from Mina.
It seems that Johnny maintained a close relationship with another woman, and it was that relationship that put a serious strain on the marriage.
Women say Johnny was abusive from the git-go, the men aren’t so sure. A woman, Deputy DA Heidi Larsen, prosecuted the case; and a man, Justin Petersen, defended.
Larsen: “When were you married?”
Mina: “I don’t remember the date, but it was 25 years ago, in March.”
It’s usually the man who forgets the anniversary date, but there isn't much usual about this couple.
“We have two daughters,” Mina said. “They are 18 and 20 years old.”
“Are you still married?”
“Yes, but we are 15 months into the process of a divorce after 25 years of abuse and unfaithfulness on his part. We separated on January 9th of last year.”
Calm and solicitous in her direct examination of her witness, Ms. Larsen merely asked, “Why?”
Mina said she’d asked Johnny to go to the Texas wedding with her where there was also a Mary Kay convention. Both events were important to her, but Johnny refused, saying they couldn’t afford it. So Mina drove to her sister’s house in Windsor from where she planned to drive to the Bay Area and catch a flight to Texas the next day.
Johnny, she said, showed up in Windsor at 4am, parked down the street, and hid himself in her car, waiting for Mina to emerge from her sister's house. Mina discovered Johnny and called the cops. The cops escorted Johnny out of town, and Mina flew off to Texas.
When Mina returned to Ukiah she went to an appointment with an eye doctor. Johnny followed her there where “a verbal confrontation” ensued. Mina went to stay at another sister’s house in Ukiah, where, Mina said, Johnny called her all the time, even using a friend’s phone to get her to answer — she’d made it clear by that time that the marriage was over, and there was nothing left to say to him about it or anything else.
She testified that Johnny had gallantly moved out of the house and let Mina live there with their daughter.
“Did he visit?”
“Yes. Every day, pretty much.”
“Who paid the bills?”
“When did you file for divorce?”
“”January 20th of ’09.”
“Did you ever want to reconcile?”
“In April of ’09 there was an incident?”
“Yes. He came to the house in the morning. He was going to do some work outside. I was putting my make-up on when he pulled up. I ran to get dressed, and when I came out he was standing outside my bedroom door.
“What did you do?”
“I offered to make him breakfast.”
“That’s just the way I am.”
“So you were speaking.”
“Yes. He was in an extremely good mood. He was talking about putting the divorce behind us. So I asked about seeing the phone bill, the records of our cell phone calls. I went to US Cellular, but they said I couldn’t access the phone records, Johnny had to do it. So I called him and he snapped. He said I was *never* going to get those records. When I went home my daughter was there and I let her take the car. And after a few seconds, Johnny came out yelling at me for letting her take the car. We both went inside and the yelling escalated. He said I would never get those phone records, and I said I already had the phone records.”
“Did he ever put his hands on you?”
“Yes. After I said I already had the phone records. He put his hands around my throat and said he could effing kill me. I was scared. He’s big, intimidating. He threw me against the wall. I grabbed a flashlight from the table and hit him, trying to get away. After that he took my scarf and tied my hands extremely tight.”
“Then what happened?”
“I was on the floor — he’d knocked me down — and he took the flashlight and started hitting me on my hands and arms, which I held in front of my face. He hit me over and over and over. Then he dragged me into my office. He was sitting on me saying he was going to take me out, kill me, right now, and there was nothing I could do about it. I realized that was true so I closed my eyes and started to pray that someone would save me. That’s when the cement truck pulled up outside. We both heard the truck and he ran outside. That’s when I jumped up and called 911. He was only gone a minute, and when he came back in I was trying to untie my hands with my teeth — the scarf was so tight they were about to explode. He spit in my face and made me promise not to tell anybody. After he untied me I tried to leave and he started throwing my things.”
Pictures of Mina’s hands and arms, very badly bruised and swollen, were shown to the jury, and a tape of Mina's frantic 911 call was played.
Mr. Petersen cross-examined the witness, hoping to reveal some inconsistencies in her testimony, but the objections from Ms. Larsen, on points of foundation and other rules of evidence made Petersen's questions so long and freighted with subjunctive phrases that they were absurdly awkward and time-consuming, their meaning elusive.
Mina’s sisters were called to testify, and they corroborated her story of long-standing abuse at the hands of her husband.
On the day when Johnny was to take the stand, one of the Kvasnickas’ daughters somehow managed to hurtle off a road and down a steep embankment. The girl was spared serious injury, but a picture of the upside-down vehicle subsequently appeared on the front page of the Ukiah Daily Journal. The day Miss K went over the side, court proceedings were postponed until it was determined that she'd been unharmed.
Johnny was sworn in.
The women in the courtroom glared at him, the men probably wondered how he'd explain himself.
“How long have you been married,” Justin Petersen asked
“And you began having problems in January of '09?”
“Did your wife suspect you were having an affair?”
“Who was the other woman?”
“Your wife asked you to go to a wedding in Texas?”
“I said we couldn't afford it. It was the daughter of someone Mina knew. It would be 'the wedding of the century,' she said.”
“Why did you follow her to her sister's house in Windsor?”
“Basically, to check on her. I wanted to discuss where she'd been, and talk to her about going to Texas.”
“To talk her out of it?”
“Yes. We couldn't afford it.”
“Why did you park down the street and get into her car?”
“There was no place to park, and I didn't want to miss her.”
“Were the police called?”
“Yes. A squad car came. I said it was my vehicle, and I reached in my pocket to get my ID — which wasn't such a good idea; they removed me from the car.”
“Mina didn't want to talk to you, then?”
“But at that time it wasn't clear to you that she had left you?”
“When did it become clear?”
“When she came back I met her at the eye doctor's and I realized then that this was the real deal.”
“Did you try to get Mina to come back?”
“Yes, every day. But I was served with divorce papers on March 3rd, so I re-contacted Christine Harris.”
“Did you ever introduce Ms. Harris to the family?”
“Yes. On Easter of that year, at my mother's house.”
“Did you introduce her to your daughters?”
“Uh, no. But everybody knew who she was.”
“Did you describe your relationship with Ms. Harris to your daughters?”
“I think I was vague. I held back because I was worried about their reactions. There was a lot of history with Christine.”
On the day of the incident in question, April 16 of '09, you went to the house on Saratoga Court?”
“Yes. I was putting in a retaining wall before selling the house.”
“Did Mina fix you breakfast?”
“I don't recall. But she may have. She was just that way.”
“Did you have any contact with Mina?”
“Yes. Our daughter started to drive off and I go, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa — I thought we agreed she couldn't drive our $50,000 car.'
“She said you were outside her bedroom door when she came out.”
“I don't recall that happening.”
“So you went into the house and stood in the entryway arguing. Then what happened?”
“She grabbed a flashlight off the table and whacked me with it.”
Petersen displayed a photo of Johnny's black eye, his eyebrow cut, and asked what happened next.
“I said to her, grabbing my cell phone from my pocket, 'That's it. You're going to jail.' She yelled at me and said, 'No!' Then she swung at my wrist, knocking the phone out of my hand. After she whacked me again it was time to go on defense. I rushed her and pressed her against the wall, with my forearm across her neck.”
Petersen displayed the photo of the bruise on Mina's neck. Johnny said it could have been caused by his wristwatch. Then Petersen showed the picture of the bruise on Mina's back, and Johnny said it would be consistent with the window sill he'd shoved her against.
“As you were pushing her back against the window sill, did you ever have your hands on her neck — did you choke her?”
“Never. I never put my hands around her throat.”
“Okay, what happened next?”
“As soon as I got the flashlight out of her hand, I said effing stop it, and whacked her across the hand. I said, 'Gimme your cell phone.' At this point I was still going to call the cops. She wouldn't give it to me so I started walking to her office to use the land line. Then she comes at my back, grabbing my shirt. I turned and pushed her away, I pushed her face with my bloody hand; that's how she got blood on her face. But she was still trying to stop me, so I pushed her back again and she must have hit the picture frame, and it fell to the floor and broke. My grandmother gave me that picture. She was still persistent, still tugging at me so I turned and grabbed her forearms, forced her to the ground and tied her hands with her scarf. I pulled a tight knot on it, no doubt about it.”
Petersen wanted a knot-tying demonstration.
Petersen asked Johnny to show the jury how it had happened.
Johnny took Petersen's forearms and pushed him down behind the witness stand, out of view. We could hear them scuffling back there.
Petersen said, “Careful not to tear my shirt, Johnny.”
The jurors had to stand to see these strenuous visuals, and they all laughed.
Johnny said, “I put her to the ground. Then I tied her up. Then I lifted her up — you're a lot heavier than she is,” he told Petersen. “Then I take her in the office and sit her in the chair, the nice office chair she got as a reward from Mary Kay.”
“She said you hit her over and over with the flashlight. Remember that?”
“That never happened. She bruises like a banana.”
“Objection, your honor!”
“Anytime I'd help her up off the ground, or she'd bump into something, she'd bruise real easy. Like a lot of women”
“Objection,” Larsen said indignantly. “Move to strike!”
“The answer is non-responsive. What happened next?”
“Well, at that point, I could see that nothing good was going to come from calling 911, with the impact it would have on our daughters, so I said I was cutting her some major slack.”
“Does the concrete truck pull up when you're on the floor?”
“Yes, that would be pretty accurate.”
“Did you ever make the statement that you both could end up in jail?”
“I believe I may have. I was pretty agitated. She was basically getting off for whacking me with the flashlight, so when I'm walking out, I swept my arm across the table there with all her little cosmetic things on it and scattered 'em on the floor. When I came back in Mina was still in the chair saying the scarf was hurting her arms, so I untied her arms. I had no idea she'd called the police. At that point, Detective Whittaker pulled up, and directed me to go sit down.”
That was Johnny's story, and the judge said the jury would have to come back on Monday to hear the final arguments and decide justice.
* * *
Another jury, on a civil matter, was due to come back that afternoon, so I ran up to Judge Behnke's Court to hear the verdict. The excellent Purple Rose Restaurant in Cleone was being sued for negligence by Susan La Chance. Ms. La Chance had fallen in the restaurant and injured herself, she said, to the tune of $185,000.
The jury found the restaurant had not been negligent.