The Unseen Observer

In America, most stalking cases don’t even make it to trial. Often, the victim can’t or won’t go to the authorities. In other cases, the victim asks the law for help, but the authorities are either unable or unwilling to intervene. Sometimes, the stalker can’t even be found. In worst-case scenarios, the stalker eventually takes action.

This occurred in rapid-fire succession recently in Ohio when two women were brutally murdered by stalkers. On March 25th, 2013 in Toledo, 20-year-old Kaitlin Gerber was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend Jashua Perz outside of the local fitness center. Perz, 29, then took his own life. He had also been threatening various members of Gerber’s family with violence, and he had been stalking Gerber for only a month.

Three days later in Fremont, Ohio, Randall J. Ross was arrested after fatally shooting his estranged wife, Amy, 40, at an Oak Harbor residence where she had moved following alleged abuse by her husband. Ross, 47, then shot himself two times. As of this writing, he remains in critical condition.

All too often, after an estrangement, stalkers pursue and torment their victims over extended periods of time. In the case of Charles Conner from New Albany, his ex-girlfriend is finally able to sleep soundly after more than a year of ceaseless phone calls and text messages, extreme threats, and various other forms of terrorization. After the woman chose to end her intimate relationship with Conner in 2011, he would call her up to 170 times a night. He threatened to pour acid all over the woman’s face and body, held her in her home against her will, and toyed with her by pressing pillows over her face and laughing while she struggled to breathe. On January 20th, 2013, after threatening his former girlfriend with a Taser, Conner was finally arrested by local police and placed in jail. He is still awaiting trial.

Scenarios such as these are not uncommon. In fact, they address only a fraction of the many hidden and nightmarish experiences stalking victims endure. A number of stalking victims’ everyday lives carry on like this for extended periods of time and, for some, for so long that they actually begin to accept the additional presence of stalkers in their lives as if the stalkers are nothing more than a natural phenomenon. They might eventually numb themselves to the fact that such an invasion is, in truth, both unwelcome and unnecessary; they give up, in a sense, and learn to live with the inconvenience and possible threat. Other victims may ultimately reach a point where they simply cannot take any more intimate intrusion or abuse. At this point, it’s likely that such a person might snap emotionally. Any number of unpredictable outcomes can occur if this happens. Someone’s reaction to such circumstances simply can’t be judged until a time when he or she has endured months and years of such behavior.

The average rate at which stalking occurs in the United States is shockingly high. Statistics show that between 19 and 25% of women in America have been or still are the victims of stalking. This translates to about a fifth of the female population — women who live in this very country, not in some distant fantasy world — who are experiencing an extreme lack of control and loss of security in their lives. At least one out of every 5 females lives in a sort of private hell, unable to escape the fearful strangeness that has become her life. In other words, one in five women spends entirely too much of her own time double-checking shadows and looking over her shoulder for some sign of an unseen follower who might do her harm.

One in five women. Consider the number of women with whom you are acquainted in some way, and then try to single out which one of five might qualify as a stalking victim. Is it the mother of a stable suburban family, or the sister of a friend who plays on the school volleyball team? Is it the gas station attendant who smiles and passes people their change each morning, or the woman who answers phones at the local animal shelter? Is it a family member, or a friend, or perhaps a classmate or coworker? Is it you?

Unfortunately, stalking victims must deal with double standards every day in this country. For instance, by law in America, no person is allowed to excessively follow, watch, or inappropriately interact with any other individual under the age of eighteen. Other American laws dictate that an intimate partner who behaves in a menacing, terrorizing, or oppressing manner in a domestic situation can be considered a criminal and will be treated as such. When courts view these actions as separate charges, or as charges related to domestic violence, rape, or juvenile abuse in any way, they must, by law, consider the actions illegal.

Why then, when these acts relate to stalking, must they be proven to happen twice or more within the same state (and sometimes even within the same county) in order for them to be considered worthy of any real attention from the law? And why must a physical assault or attack take place and be proven with hard evidence before authorities view the aggressor as any real threat? These requirements punish the victim in disturbing and dangerous ways.

The struggle for stalking victims to reacquire their own freedom and autonomy has always been difficult, and the United States legal system doesn’t go out of its way to make things any easier. As Dawn A. Morville points out in “Stalking Laws: Are They Solutions for More Problems,” until recently, “existing criminal law proscribing harassment and assault, for example, failed to criminalize stalking. The offender usually had to commit an overt attack before he could be arrested or prosecuted. Moreover, the typical civil remedy — a protection order or restraining order — often failed to protect the victim adequately because restraining orders cannot be enforced on an hourly basis.” This is assuming that such an order can even be obtained by the victim at all. Unfortunately, the parameters of American law serve only to further complicate this already abstruse matter.

Often, a victim is required to locate the stalker personally before a protection or restraining order will even be considered. In Colorado and California, an actual address where the stalker resides must be lawfully proven and provided to authorities in order for the stalker to be served with a court order to appear before a judge, and the authorities are often only willing to check an address once or twice before declaring that the stalker could not be located in order to be served. Once this occurs, the victim must start the entire application process over again. Each attempt at a restraining order costs the victim between $40 and $200, and the only way to ensure that papers are served is to hire a private investigator who will devote the time and effort required to do so. In short, the American legal system hinders stalking victims in their quest to escape the dark shadows which surround their daily lives.

In other cases, states do little to protect stalking victims because their laws are weakly ambiguous. For instance, California, Colorado, and Tennessee “prohibit stalking only when linked with a threat of physical violence. . . . [A] stalker who refrains from making a verbal threat may still be able to follow or harass a person without being subject to these laws.” In the eyes of a stalker and his victim, these limp parameters leave nearly endless possibilities open for other forms of prowling and pursuing to occur. Since actual physical violence must be proven without a shadow of a doubt before police will bother to check into a case listed under the label of ‘stalking,’ aggressors are oftentimes overlooked, ignored, and therefore basically allowed to continue to cause trouble and torment their victims.

For instance, in Colorado, a woman who calls the police on her live-in boyfriend or husband for even appearing to be menacing or violent can be reassured that, within the hour, there will be a couple officers knocking on her door. And yet, in the same state, a woman who phones the police complaining of the same threats to her safety, but in relation to a stalker rather than a current intimate partner, is likely to be faced with placating comments and attempted mollification by a less-than-concerned phone attendant who has no intention of taking her claims seriously.

North Carolina stalking victims don’t have things any easier. Before a stalker can be legally charged with any level of stalking, state law requires that victims make a direct request to their stalkers to stop following or harassing them. A victim must come face to face with a person who has already chosen to refuse simple appeals for distance kept or polite requests to be left alone. Often, this Catch-22 works only to the stalker’s advantage.

In West Virginia, the stalking statute applies solely to stalkers with whom the victim has either lived for an extensive amount of time, or to whom he or she has engaged in intimate relations on some significant level. As Morville notes, many states in America “require the stalker to make a ‘credible threat’ of violence and the victim to have a reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury. These states [include] Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming,” just to name a few.

The same lack of proper attention and awareness to the subject of stalking can be seen in many other American states, especially when one takes the time to review the penalties imposed for stalking offenses. In Louisiana, for example, the maximum penalty imposed upon a proven stalker is just one year of jail time and a $1,000 fine. This penalty is the same whether or not a lethal weapon is involved, and it is only enforced when a victim is able to prove that he or she is being stalked. If a restraining order happens to have occurred prior to the incident, the jail time is increased to two years and the fine upped to an amount ranging from between $1,500 and $5,000, depending on the state in question.

As if these meager consequences were not lenient enough, charges filed for second and third offenses are not treated any more seriously. The same scarcely increased penalties listed above also apply to cases in which a person is physically proven in court to have stalked another person repeatedly, and in ways which involved aggression or violence. Even if police apprehend and charge someone with numerous stalking incidents or any of its sub-categories, the stalker rarely has to worry about more than a few years in jail and a few thousand dollars spent. Mere money. Many stalkers are willing to spend quadruple that amount of money anyway in their efforts to keep close tabs on their intended interest.

Put simply, inadequate penalties like these plague the nation, and no one can guarantee that each state will even bother to enforce what should be seriously treated stalking laws. Often, authorities find it easier to look the other way and assume that things will simply work themselves out for the victim, perhaps because many stalkers go largely unnoticed by all except for the intended victim. Since the majority of a stalker’s actions are undetectable to the bulk of society, the average person typically does not recognize tell-tale signs for what they really are: a path that almost certainly leads to disaster for everyone involved.

Rather than see the subject of stalking as one worth heavy consideration in all legal corners, the American public continues to speak of it as if it were something lighthearted and amusing. The subject of stalking has actually become a source of crude humor. Rather than face the ugly truth, some find it easier to simply avoid or deny the existence of a problem. The general public knows of the word, and most of us can provide a basic, if slightly misinformed, description of what it means, but all too often, people laugh clumsily and make a joke of some sort to cover their discomfort at being forced to address an issue which is, like so many others in the United States, ignored or discounted as trivial when, in fact, stalking is a terrifying journey into someone else’s world and, in many ways, even into someone else’s mind.

The point is this: America as a whole should be doing more to ensure that no one ever endures months or years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of a stalker. Everyone should realize how serious this issue is, and the topic should no longer be sidestepped or ignored. American citizens are being pursued, hunted down, and tormented every second of every day by deviants who are essentially given license to do so by the authorities in this country. The decision to take action belongs to every person who cares about this issue.