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Stalkers cross line from fan to fanatical

Stars, and police, taking overly ardent admirers seriously
/ Source: The Associated Press

They’re out there.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sheryl Crow and Mel Gibson recently faced theirs in court. Anna Kournikova’s took a nude swim to find her. Andrea Evans feared hers for a decade.

They’re celebrity stalkers, perpetrators of an emotional crime that’s often — but not always — the result of mental illness.

Despite a recent rash of cases, experts say the act of celebrity stalking isn’t increasing, but stars are more willing to go to police when confronted. And, of course, the media is more likely to cover subsequent arrests and trials. All this has led to specialized police units and even entire businesses aimed at dealing with a troubled few.

Evans was playing soap tart Tina Clayton on “One Life to Live” in the 1980s when her stalker showed up several times at her Manhattan set. He once slashed his wrists outside the studios, then used Evans’ name as his next-of-kin.

“All of a sudden, I went from a nice happy-go-lucky life to having regular conversations with the police,” Evans told The Associated Press. “This was before people were that aware. There was a great disbelief that here this man was trying to harm me and the police could do nothing about it.”

After three years of living in terror, Evans quit “One Life to Live” and dropped out of public view. She wouldn’t be seen on a soap again until 1999.

Following the murder of “My Sister Sam” actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 and incidents like Evans’, the government, Hollywood and the world began to recognize celebrity stalking about 1990.

Hard to convict stalkersAs many armchair sleuths have learned from “CSI,” material crimes like burglary and murder leave copious amounts of physical evidence — but stalking is harder to prove. Witness the love-struck Crow fan who was acquitted last November after ardently pursuing the singer for 15 months, claiming he communicated with her telepathically and even visiting her sister and father.

** FILE ** Dawnette Knight, charged with making criminal threats against actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, appears in Los Angeles Superior Court in this June 29, 2004, file photo taken in Los Angeles. Knight pleaded no contest Friday, Feb. 25, 2005 to stalking and threatening Catherine Zeta-Jones. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, FILE)Nick Ut / AP

“Stalking is much more nebulous, much more of a challenge,” said John Lane, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective. “It is very difficult to investigate.”

Laws now exist in all states to combat stalking in some form or another. In Los Angeles, the LAPD’s Threat Management Unit exclusively tackles stalking. In 2004 it handled 60 celebrity cases. That’s typical, according to the unit’s leader, Det. Jeff Dunn.

“I think there’s a rise in reporting,” said Dunn. “Early in the ’90s, there was reluctance for fear of negative publicity. I don’t think they were widely reported. Now in 2005, you can’t turn on the TV without seeing a story about some sort of stalking. It doesn’t carry the negative stigma anymore.”

In recent years, the likes of Pamela Anderson, Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, David Letterman and Gwyneth Paltrow have claimed stalkers. In the past two weeks alone, people were convicted or pleaded no contest to stalking Gibson and Zeta-Jones. And in the Anna Kournikova case, a man was arrested Jan. 30 after swimming nude across a Florida bay toward Kournikova’s $5 million estate, then turning up on the pool deck at the wrong house and yelling, “Anna! Save me!”

Dunn said for every celebrity stalking case that’s splashed across headlines, 20 are never heard about. Those type of cases often fall to Lane, who after helping establish the LAPD anti-stalking unit started his own personal security firm, Omega Threat Management Inc. It’s one of several such companies that take care of celebrities’ threats — for a price.

Trying to control the threat
“In this day in age, public figures of all types have a much better idea of the risks that are present that come with their visibility,” said Lane. “The incentive to hiring a private firm is to help resolve the issue, to help control the threat. Some of these cases do get dangerous.”

Dunn recognizes the necessity of security firms.

“We work pretty well with private security firms, some better than others. Some fill a niche,” said Dunn. “We can’t provide 24-7 protection. They know what their limitations are in providing protection. There’s a line of demarcation. It’s symbiotic.”

Much like murder, mental health plays a major part in the crime of stalking. But stalking isn’t always the result of a mental disorder.

“Most of the time what you’ve got is an individual who is lonely or socially incompetent,” said Mace Benson, a psychiatrist at the University of California-Los Angeles who’s worked on many stalking cases.

When mental health is an issue, disorders such as schizophrenia or some form of dementia and an emotional real-life trigger are usually to blame. These elements combined make it easier for an individual to break down that invisible fourth wall.

“Usually, there’s been some kind of major loss in the life of the individual either one event or a series of events,” said psychologist J. Reid Meloy. “They then create a private bizarre reality that is very defined.”

Meloy has researched stalking since 1989, was the editor of the first science journal on the subject and has consulted on high profile cases like Madonna’s and Paltrow’s.

Very deep emotional bond“Somehow, they connect at very deep emotional level,” said Meloy. “With the Paltrow case, he saw her in the movie ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and formed a bond. The onset was very rapid.”

Stopping a stalker is often easy, according to the experts. In most instances, it just takes an intervention. But in extreme cases, confrontation might be the salt on the wound.

“Real events will occur that will often anger the celebrity stalker,” said Meloy. “Those events are often something like him feeling rejected or maybe it’s something security did or said to him. Because he feels he’s entitled, there could be danger with the celebrity following the rejection.”

Such was the case with Dante Michael Soiu, Paltrow’s stalker. Meloy said Soiu developed a “rescue fantasy” after reading and seeing tabloid and TV reports about Paltrow’s relationship woes with Ben Affleck. The frequency of his letters and e-mails to Paltrow increased. After being convicted in 2000, Soiu was sent to a high-security mental facility because the judge — with the help of Meloy and three other mental health professionals — determined Soiu was insane.

But that was a rarity. “Most stalking cases, including celebrity stalking, don’t get to the point of criminal prosecution,” said Lane.

Evans’ frightful experience never reached the courthouse — or a conclusion. She’s been back in the soap opera limelight, vamping it up on “Passions” as Rebecca Hotchkiss since 2000. She actively speaks out on the subject. But she will never forget about him.

“It has a lasting effect on me,” said Evans. “I love what I do. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to get my life back after that horrible experience.”