Obsessed 

What part of “stay away from me” can’t a stalker understand?

A stranger stalked Brandy Farmer for a year and a half. It started in 1992, when he began stopping in at the Sandy restaurant Farmer managed.

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“He said he only came in when he saw my car outside,” Farmer remembers. It terrified her that he knew her car and how to find her. “I realized the only way he could know about that was if he was watching me.nn

The restaurant was the only building on the block to keep late-night hours. Farmer always stayed after the cooks and servers left. She counted the money and closed up. Then she walked out alone. Knowing she could be followed, Farmer developed a finely tuned habit of driving around town until she felt sure he wasn’t watching her. Then she would get on the freeway and drive home.

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The man persisted. He started calling Farmer “The Black Dahlia,” nickname of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, whose body was severed and found in a Hollywood vacant lot in 1947. The sensational murder case remains unsolved. The man told Farmer she would leave the planet after he took her to his house and they spent time together.

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“I was terrified of him. I imagined him cutting up my body parts,” Farmer says. When she reported the episodes of stalking to police, she says they told her there was nothing they do unless he physically harmed her.

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It wasn’t the first time Farmer found herself in this position. Years earlier, after a divorce, her ex-husband had stalked her, too. “He was fascinated with movies and did car chases with me in the neighborhood. I feared what he would do if he caught me,” she says. More than once, when he followed her, she drove into a neighbor’s driveway and entered the house without knocking. “I apologized and told them my ex-husband was following me.”

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He started showing up at her job. Farmer was a sales representative for a kitchen equipment company and did cooking demonstrations at the old ZCMI store in Salt Lake City. “I could ride up the escalator, and he would be there as a customer. I didn’t have any right to tell him to leave because it was a business,” she recalls.

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He drove past her when she was jogging. If she went to church, he was there. “People who have never been victimized take their freedom for granted,” Farmer says. “But when you are stalked, your freedom is compromised.” She felt her concern was finally validated when the ZCMI department manager urged her to tell security the next time her ex turned up, and security would escort him outside.

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Farmer’s stories are eerily familiar to Lauren’s, a 37-year-old college student and mother of two. Living in the YWCA women’s shelter at the time of this interview, she feared using her real name would compromise her safety. Lauren says she wanted desperately to break up with her violent boyfriend, Josh, but was terrified he would track her down and kill her if she left. Once, when Lauren mentioned ending their relationship, he slept in his car in front of her house for two nights. She called his mother and asked her to come and take him away. “No one can get to my house,” Lauren said. “He threatened to kill me and anyone else who is here.nn

Nothing stopped him. In the end, Lauren says she resigned herself to living in a state of constant anxiety. She feared he would eventually kill her. “It seemed better to stay with him and still be alive.nn

It’s one thing to act silly around a romantic crush, walking down a school hallway or driving on a certain street in hopes of seeing the object of desire, says Kris Knowlton, an assistant Utah attorney general who has prosecuted stalking cases. “A stalker engages in a course of conduct intending to cause fear of emotional distress and bodily injury. It goes beyond a crush and is weird and creepy.”

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Today, with clear hindsight, Lauren acknowledges that Josh’s controlling behavior started before they ever moved in together. If Lauren planned to go for a walk alone, he hid behind a tree or in a parked car. “He stepped out and grabbed me by the hair in front of everyone,” she recalls. He stayed out of sight in her office building to watch her. “My co-workers saw him and told me he was there,” she says. When Lauren visited a friend’s home for four hours, he was waiting when she returned. As she stepped through her front gate, he slapped her face, knocking her to the ground.

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An apology always followed the violence. But still, Josh continued to stalk Lauren. She says that after each fight, he knelt and begged her forgiveness. He paid a company to call her every 15 minutes, relaying a message that he loved her. Flowers arrived every half-hour.

Call the Cops
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Lam Nguyen and Kendra Wyckoff, program directors for the YWCA, say that Brandy and Lauren’s stories are common to all stalking victims. Stalkers follow their victims to work, to school, to their homes and social gatherings. There may be continuous phone calls, letters, e-mails and threats. They might vandalize the victim’s car, break into her home or leave notes in places where they know she will find them.

Ogden Police Sgt. Danielle Croyle adds that when law enforcement gets involved, “it often puts people into reality and a lot of people pull off.” Many stalkers fail to see their behavior as a crime. “But once they realize they can’t do that or they will get arrested, they don’t do it again,” she says.

Brandy Farmer turned her experiences with domestic violence into a job as a victim’s advocate for the attorney general’s office. She now works as a grant program manager for a supervised child visitation center. Farmer’s experience has been that, contrary to popular belief, protective orders are not routinely violated. “They are not violated by perpetrators who don’t want to get in trouble and believe they will get in trouble. It’s the perpetrator whose obsession has become so strong he doesn’t care about the law who violates the protective order.nn

Knowlton agrees. “Informal data from the Legal Aid Society indicate that in up to 82 percent of protective orders, there is no further violence. But a small percentage of perpetrators, no matter what you do, will continue to violate the order until they are locked up.nn

Naturally, those cases get media play. Think Fatal Attraction, the 1987 suspense thriller a scorned lover played by Glenn Close, who relentlessly and violently stalked Michael Douglas’s character. Even a judge’s signature will not deter a person who feels so compelled to control another with harassment and constant threats.

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Both Farmer’s experience with her husband and Lauren’s with her boyfriend fit the category of simple obsessional stalking, the most common and potentially dangerous type of stalking, says Knowlton.

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In cases of simple obsessional stalking, a prior relationship exists between the parties. The stalkers range from mere acquaintances to intimate partners of the victim. These cases start with less personal modes of contact'phone calls, letters or e-mails'and can progress to more personal interaction'following a victim in a car, showing up at work or a home. Communicated threats are a significant indicator of a high-risk situation, says Knowlton. “Emotion drives the obsession, and the stalker wants the former relationship back in his life.” The stalker might also threaten a current girlfriend or boyfriend of his original target, thinking, “If I can get him away, she will take me back.nn

The YWCA’s Wyckoff points out that unwanted gifts and flowers may appear to be a harmless act, but they do achieve a stalker’s desired outcome. “With stalking, the intent is to intimidate and frighten, to re-establish power and control,” she says.nn

Josh used to take the home telephone with him to work so Lauren couldn’t use it. He tried to control what she ate and the activities she enjoyed'swimming, crocheting or having family members visit her home.

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Controlling a victim with belittling or by revoking access to certain activities, like taking the phone or car keys, is simply a way to diminish personal power and freedom, says the Y’s Nguyen. Lauren remembers telling her sister that if she left the relationship, and the judge awarded her access to the apartment, Josh would “leave me dead in there.”

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Once a relationship ends, an obsessional stalker senses loss of control and the harassment begins, Nguyen says. “Stalking is unpredictable. It’s relentless, unwanted harassment and threats that last an average of two years.nn

Among female victims, 26 percent have reported losing time from work because of anxiety. A victim may change her entire life pattern in efforts to avoid a stalker. “[Victims] change daily behaviors, such as where they live, their routes to work, their jobs, even visiting their family and friends,” Nguyen says. “They are hypervigilant and anxious.

The Strong, Protective Type
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Brandy Farmer experienced a more rare form of stalking with the stranger who came to her restaurant. Knowlton says those cases usually involve a male stalker and a victim he’s never met or is only marginally acquainted with. Celebrities are sometimes stalked in this way.

Experts agree it’s tough to identify who might become a victim of stalking. But there are similarities to victims of domestic and dating violence. “We do see, in some cases, domestic violence and child-abuse victims becoming attracted to what they see as the strong, protective type'who ends up being a stalker. It’s like they are particularly vulnerable to these men who can be protective and charming and say the right things. They think ‘I’ve had a crummy time and now someone wants to take care of me.’ It’s like there is an invisible radar.

Knowlton’s first stalking case related to a woman becoming obsessed with a middle-age man she first saw at church. “She called him, followed him, walked by his house and left gifts.nn

The woman committed no crime. She did nothing physically aggressive. The male victim told her to leave him alone. “Any reaction, positive or negative, feeds the obsession because the stalker received a response,” Knowlton says. The woman sent the man letters claiming to have known him in a previous lifetime and that she had waited several lifetimes to find him again.

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Stalking is a frustrating situation for both law enforcement and victims. “Stalking is hard to prove,” says Ogden Police Sgt. Croyle. “You have to build a case on stalking, and the investigation is a long process. Stalking is repetitive behavior'not one incident.nn

Farmer remembers feeling like a prisoner. “I felt like I was never going to be free'it was as if I were being institutionalized by an imaginary chain-link fence and would never get outside of it. … Freedom became something I valued so much.nn

Farmer’s ex-husband stopped stalking her when he started a relationship with another woman. It’s a typical way for the harassment to end; the stalker moves away or finds a new love interest. Police involvement and prosecution also will interrupt, if not end, the behavior. Victims’ advocates aren’t surprised to learn that a stalker may have successive victims. Lauren says Josh told her that, in a previous relationship, he raped a former girlfriend at gunpoint.

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The day came, finally, when Lauren had had enough. She left her house carrying only a pair of shoes. She fled to the YWCA shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. Josh scoured women’s shelters to find her. While the shelters are secure for victims, their phone numbers are available and “there would be no way to stop him from calling to ask if she was there or watching to see if she might come out,” Knowlton says. Lauren has stayed free of Josh and is rebuilding her life. Sometimes the feeling he is still stalking her haunts her. She sometimes checks for him outside her home. When she goes to the store, she feels like he could be standing in back of her. But she is beginning to feel safer.

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“Sometimes,” Lauren says, I go to the park and lie on the grass. When I feel the wind on my face, I know I have the freedom to be me. I never thought that I would have the courage to leave him. Sometimes, I still feel surprised. “

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