Obsessed | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 08, 2022 News » Cover Story


When a stalker wouldn't stop, one victim found help to get her life back.

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  • Derek Carlisle

Erica S. didn't buy anything listed on the REI receipt that landed in her email. Instead, it was her stalker who chose the silky sleeping-bag liner, women's underwear and European plug outlet.

He added Erica's email address to his own REI account, even though she had left their relationship in 2016. When the two had been together, they spoke of visiting Norway and Switzerland, then backpacking through Europe.

"Adding me to his account was his way of saying, 'I'm doing the European backpack trip with someone else,'" said Erica (whose name has been changed here). "His goal is to get me to reach out to him."

Instead, she hit delete. Then she contacted REI to remove her email address from his membership account. But a week later, "The Stalker" sent Erica's deskmate at work a "follow" request on Instagram, using the handle of his side business account.

"I was weirded out—they have no friends in common," Erica said. "This was her private, personal Instagram account. It let me know that he knew where I worked and knew who I worked with. He had studied my social-media presence and everything public that was out there."

  • Courtesy Photo

Stalking can begin with something as simple as a rose left on a windshield. But, the legal definition of stalking requires a combination of incidents that cause concern or fear, explains Danielle Croyle, executive officer with South Salt Lake Police Department.

"The first time something happens, and you know it shouldn't happen, call us with the date and time," Croyle said. "Keep whatever is presented—such as flowers or a card. If several incidents occur and are all documented, it makes a stronger case to push it toward prosecution."

Stalkers may follow their victims to work, school, home and social gatherings. In addition, there may be continuous phone calls, texts, emails or social-media harassment and threats, says Kendra Wyckoff, executive director of Peace House, a victim-services organization in Park City.

She adds that a stalker might vandalize a victim's car, break into her home or leave notes in places where he knows she will find them.

"Abusive partners can also use Apple AirTags or other small GPS devices to track a person by placing them inside of a victim's vehicle, purse or something they own," Wyckoff warns.

Erica said that in her case, the stalking behavior had persisted ever since she left the relationship. "There were only occasional periods of reprieve," she said. "I didn't initiate formal action until this behavior came to my work."

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Crossing Boundaries
More than 7 million people are stalked each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance. Even still, Alexandra Allen, assistant director of the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, says that stalking is a crime that's hard to understand. As a result, it's hard to prove.

Stalkers are people who are obsessed with another person, Allen said, and while their behaviors are often related to a prior romantic connection, "I've seen plenty of cases where there was no real relationship."

"Stalking crosses all boundaries," Allen added. "A stalker or a victim could be someone's boss, coworker, friend, teacher, professor or all sorts of random things."

Croyle, of South Salt Lake Police, said that involving law enforcement often helps to compel a harasser to back off. "Many stalkers initially fail to see their behavior as a crime," she said. "But once they realize they can't do that or they will get arrested, they don't do it again."

Through her own experiences and from reading scientific articles about the types of stalking personalities, Allen believes that stalkers tend to react in one of two ways. "They stop once they realize their behavior is unwanted," she said, "or they never stop."

Erica met The Stalker while working in an academic setting where he was a faculty member. They ended up together in a meeting. Twenty minutes after it ended, he contacted her, saying he wanted to know more about the work she did with the homeless.

"We had a great first meeting. We clicked," Erica said. "But as someone with a background in psychology, he knew exactly what I needed to hear at that moment."

The Stalker had left a long-term relationship. And soon after their first meeting, he said he wanted to see Erica socially. "I told him I was newly separated, going through a divorce and not in a position to see him," she said.

At the time, Erica was pursuing a college education that she hadn't sought earlier because of a troubled home life. "I ran away a lot and didn't usually live at home," she said. "My dad moved to another state when I was a junior. I was on my own often from the time I was 14."

She adds, "When you live that lifestyle, there is little support."

Erica found herself couch surfing, sleeping in boats in people's driveways, in houses under construction and holing up in gas-station bathrooms. "I would hear about a party where I knew I could crash," she said. "At one such party, I was assaulted."

Her parents immediately put her into counseling, where she was diagnosed with PTSD. "After receiving that mental-health diagnosis as an adolescent, I learned how to manage it really well," she said. "It is chronic, something I will live with daily for my entire life."

Some people, says Erica, use mental-health diagnoses to stigmatize others. She believes her PTSD made her appear vulnerable in The Stalker's eyes. "He used that as a weapon the entire time we were together," Erica said. "There were times when he would literally say, 'I am the psychology professor, and you are the patient.'"

Stalking often co-occurs with intimate partner violence, which can be how a person tries to exert power and control over another individual, says YWCA Prevention Program Director Jess Burnham. According to Burnham, stalkers seek to control victims using intimidation, making threats and isolating the person or thinking that their victim will be easy to control when they are separated from their support systems.

Burnham recalls a situation in which a guide at the YWCA Salt Lake Family Justice Center helped a woman after her neighbor broke into her home. The survivor explained she had already filed a police report for stalking and harassment. And like many stalking victims, this woman knew the perpetrator and lived near him.

The neighbor had followed her while she walked her dog, constantly bumping into her on her walk down the street. Finally, the behavior escalated to his breaking-in and entering her home while she was in the shower.

While the majority of cases involve a male perpetrator and female victim, experts caution that stalking is a form of progressive violence and abuse that spans the gender and racial spectrum. Burnham recalled a male client seeking Family Justice Center services who identified his wife as a stalker, forcing him to get a new phone and move to a different apartment. Although they were separated, the wife threatened to send men to hurt her ex and ruin his business dealings.

No matter the relationship, stalkers can use verbal and financial abuse to manipulate the person they're targeting,

"A core part of stalking is instilling fear," Burnham said. "It only becomes more complicated when a person might have children with this individual or be economically dependent on this individual."

No Turning Back
Five days before Erica and her children moved in with him, The Stalker disclosed that her name wouldn't be on the house mortgage, nor would she have a lease. "He gave us no protection from being kicked out if he wanted," Erica's daughter wrote in a letter.

While they lived together as a couple, The Stalker told Erica there was a gun in the house, but he wouldn't tell her where it was. And she wasn't allowed to set up her own computer in their shared living quarters. She recalls him saying, "That's just taking up more house space."

At the time, when Erica had the remainder of one semester left to graduate from college, The Stalker would lock her out of their home office, preventing her from completing and turning in her coursework on time, she said. And there were occasions when he parked his car in a way that blocked her vehicle inside the garage.

"I would have to ride a bike to Rose Park, and I would be 30 minutes late," she said.

When Erica questioned such behaviors, The Stalker would respond that punishment is supposed to be unpleasant. "This is how you learn," she recalls him saying. "He punished me so that I would behave in a way he thought was pleasing."

Erica admits that people might wonder why she stayed in such a relationship for any time at all. She explains that, earlier in the relationship, they would have a big argument once every month or so, "where he would have me crying in a corner." It would take her days to recover.


Those arguments would be followed by a period of emotional "deprivation," Erica described, followed by a renewed bout of attentiveness and support. "You grieve the loss of this person," she described, which would be followed by a sort of honeymoon phase "where it's like you are in a new relationship and the perfect partner is back."

"Then they disappear," she said, "and the monster is there again."

Over time, Erica said, the cycles became shorter. "There is no longer any false hope that I romanticize anything about him," she said. "I know his love bombing is manipulative and disingenuous. I don't think there was anything real about the partner I thought was great. The real person is the abuser."

Erica spoke with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, asking for advice on safely leaving the relationship. She outlined her concerns. "I explained that he was uniquely capable of creating a situation where I was incapacitated," she said. "He would get me crying in a corner very quickly, and I couldn't do much. Now, I was terrified that I wouldn't make it out the door."

But on the day he chased her young son down the stairs and cornered him in his room, she knew there was no turning back. The Domestic Violence Coalition helped Erica create a strategy where she kept her essential documents—such as birth certificates—in a safe that she kept in her car. She also packed emergency clothes.

She and her children left under the pretense that her relationship with The Stalker would continue and that the furnished home she bought in Southern Utah would be theirs when they both retired. "I left behind my entire investment in the house and almost all of my furniture," she said. Weeks later, Erica's father hired movers to help her retrieve the family furniture. After they loaded the truck, he told her ex, "We expect you to stay away from her now."

But, she adds, "Before we left, my dad reached out to shake The Stalker's hand, in what looked like a weird gentleman's agreement." Despite the shared handshake, the stalking started almost immediately.

Erica moved across the state to get away from her stalker. "I didn't want him anywhere near me. But he began to think of the house in Southern Utah as 'our' house," she said. "He started showing up with bags of my stuff. A lot of it was broken."

A photo of a cherished aunt was smashed, which he claimed was an accident while driving. She had also spent a lot of time and money on a vintage bike that was a collector's item, but, "he stripped it and dropped off the frame," she said. "When I asked why he did that, he said, 'Because you weren't there.'"

Allen, of the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, said that while behavior like The Stalker's when he and Erica lived together could be termed abusive, it wouldn't be described as stalking until after she left the relationship. But after Erica and her children moved, she said her daughter received a manipulative email trying to arrange a family meeting so he could deliver a gift. Instead, she responded from her mother's account (with expletives) telling him to leave her mother alone.

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Gathering Evidence
Erica eventually felt safe moving back to northern Utah, although she decided not to return to Salt Lake City. She landed a job near the University of Utah and, before long, she saw a woman going through a new-hire orientation whom she had seen hiking with The Stalker.

"It took my breath away," Erica recalls.

Later, she thought, "That is his girlfriend, and she got a job at my work. He's here. He found a way. It didn't matter that I had a police report going back a month and a half."

The Stalker came to the office, had lunch with his girlfriend and attended events. Security camera footage revealed him milling around Erica's office door. "He lingered for an uncomfortable time, standing on his tippy-toes looking in," she said. "He was there on a visit with his girlfriend and her family."

Erica talked with her boss, explaining that she was uncomfortable with this person. But she said she had no problem with The Stalker's girlfriend working there. "I didn't want to diminish any of her opportunities; I ran on the assumption that she is also a victim."

Erica's boss referred her to the Office of Equal Opportunity, which said that it made sense that she didn't want to work with her former abuser there.

"They said, 'You can go home when he is there.' They created a work-from-home agreement," Erica said. "But I didn't want to work from home—I didn't want him at my work."

She was then referred to victim advocates at the University of Utah, who referred her to the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, which provides free legal representation to crime victims when victims' rights are at stake. "We represent victims of crime in criminal cases and protection orders," says Allen.

Allen felt that Erica had accumulated sufficient evidence to seek a stalking injunction. "When you are dealing with a stalker, you need evidence," Allen said. "The stories sound scary, and the victim feels crazy."

But Allen added that Erica is smart and calculated and focused on what could be proven, which bolstered her case. "Later on, when we were deep into this, it blew my mind even more," Allen said. "I would think, 'we could have included this, or we could have included that.' The more I learned, I knew this man decided to stalk Erica because he had lost control."

Allen also understood when Erica followed her gut instinct and decided to pursue a cease-and-desist order instead of a stalking injunction because it would be less intrusive than the court process. "A cease-and-desist order, filed with the court, sets a strong boundary," says Allen.

She explains that it's easier for a police officer to enforce the law with such an order in place, "because part of their case is already there. There has already been a notice not to contact the person." As a victim advocate, Allen helped Erica craft her cease-and-desist letter, stating that The Stalker was already informed to stop contacting Erica several years earlier.

Yet, he had ignored this request by contacting her and her children, friends, coworkers as well as the places where she worked. In one instance, after Erica and her current boyfriend marked their remote hiking location on the Strava app, The Stalker appeared there. He approached her daughter at a Bernie Sanders rally. He entered employees-only areas where Erica worked the day he located her office.

The Stalker hired an attorney who sent a rebuttal to the cease-and-desist order. It listed several reasons Erica would not prevail in seeking a stalking injunction against him, such as the idea that their lives would naturally intersect because of their past relationship and the reality that they both work in academia. In addition, the attorney stated that she felt Erica would never be able to prove that any of The Stalker's actions could cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or suffer emotional distress.

The attorney's response included a mutual restraining order, which Erica did not sign. Erica explained that The Stalker had admitted in writing to coming to her work more than once and reaching out to her coworkers for "collaborations."

"Making me and my requests seem crazy is the only way he could keep bulldozing my boundaries and forcing his way into the life I created for myself after I dissolved our relationship," Erica said.

Right to a Life
When his girlfriend's temporary job in Erica's office ended, The Stalker continued reaching out to Erica's colleagues for collaborations. In one instance, Erica had booked an advance appointment for the day after Thanksgiving where she planned to accompany people who wanted to tour her organization.

"I checked and saw that the girlfriend was on the schedule with The Stalker at the same time," she said, which prompted her to reschedule her appointments.

Allen and others from UCVLC filed documents and gathered witness statements in preparation for a hearing to consider banning The Stalker from the University of Utah. And in October 2020, the presiding officer ruled that evidence showed that The Stalker created a disruptive environment for Erica at her place of employment.

"I believe that you knew or should have known the impact you had on [Erica] ... including entering workspace not open to the general public—particularly in light of the tumultuous history of your relationship with Erica," the officer stated. A no-trespass order was granted.

Today, Erica fears The Stalker will come back to her if she reveals their real names. She says his behavior was bolder and more overt during the first few instances, with later encounters designed to appear unplanned and accidental. "Because I refused to ruminate on him or our past, I ignored him and hit delete," she said. "Then he got clever and started disguising the behavior behind coincidences, honest mistakes and overlapping professional interests."

Eleven days after The Stalker responded to the cease-and-desist order that UCVLC submitted on Erica's behalf, her colleague received an invitation to meet with one of The Stalker's professional associates. "She reached out to two of my colleagues through this partner organization no fewer than four times following the cease-and-desist notice, including once three days after the no-trespass order was issued," says Erica. "She also asked to be introduced to other employees at my work in one email."

Another meeting request was sent on the same day that someone smashed Erica's mailbox.

Erica says she has experienced no further stalking incidents since May 11, 2021. "I am grateful, and I want it to stay that way," she said. "Like me, I am sure he does not want this terrible experience to define him."

She says that her family and friends are safest when The Stalker is doing well.

"For our safety and the safety of those around him, I genuinely hope he can move on and live his life healthily and productively. Just nowhere near me, my friends or my family," she said. "I have a right to a life without this man in it."

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About The Author

Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.

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