Monday, February 16, 2009

Though Many Are Stalked, Few Report It

By Elizabeth Olson

When Vernon E. Miller was sentenced for stalking last November, cellphone records showed that he had made 3,788 calls to his former girlfriend in a single month.

He rang her doorbell repeatedly for months, the police said, and he had been seen peeking in her window. Mr. Miller had pleaded guilty to stalking the woman but asked that he receive no jail time.

“It is a crime of being in love with someone, and no one else in the world to turn to,” Mr. Miller, 40, told Judge John M. Cascio of the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County, Pa., at his sentencing. He begged for “a little compassion” because his girlfriend “had found somebody else.” But the judge, noting that Mr. Miller, formerly of Cumberland, Md., had been accused of similar behavior before, sent him to the county jail.

Whether they are obsessed fans fixating on celebrities or former romantic partners, stalkers like Mr. Miller typically invoke spurned love — real or imagined — to defend their actions. But stalkers seldom have to justify their behavior in the legal system because only one in three cases is ever reported to the authorities, according to a Justice Department study released last month.

The report was the first in-depth federal look at the prevalence of stalking, which is a crime in all 50 states. While many people tend to associate stalking with the pursuit of stars like Uma Thurman and David Letterman, researchers found that 3.4 million people were subjected to stalking, defined as a course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. Women were more often the victims than men. And 11 percent, about 374,000 people, had been stalked for five or more years.

And then there were those like Cameron Wallace of New Franklin, Ohio, who endured the terrifying experience far longer. Ms. Wallace, now 28, was in her sophomore year of high school in 1996 when she sat next to Ryan Clutter in art class. Although they never dated or were even friends, he began turning up just about everywhere she went.

For the next 11 years, he appeared at her house or at the mall, sat behind her at the movies, sent demands by e-mail and threatened her life. He described how he would kill her: “He was going to gut me,” she said in an interview this month, still tearful.

Yet, she said, the police told her that it was hard to “connect all his actions” and that he had denied them. “They could not act until he did something more serious,” Ms. Wallace said.
Three-quarters of victims know their stalker, whether it is a current or former friend, roommate or neighbor, this study and others have found. “Often stalkers want to make their victims fearful,” said Eugene A. Rugala, a former F.B.I. profiler who advises on workplace threats. “They are thinking, ‘How dare you do this to me? I’m going to make you pay.’ But others feel it could be a way of getting back into the relationship.”

Experts say only a small number of stalking incidents reach the courts because cases are often difficult to compile. There is often no clear physical evidence linking a stalker to the victim.

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