By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Most of the men in Judge Bert Bunyan's Brooklyn courtroom on a recent Thursday were there for physically attacking their girlfriends or wives. They had shoved these women to the ground, punched them in the face, broken their arms or legs or, in one case, a jaw. Not Igor Yakunkov, though. Not only had the 26-year-old Russian émigré never hit the woman whose charges brought him into domestic violence court that morning, he had never been in a relationshipor even on a datewith her.
Yakunkov, a slight, boyish-looking man with sandy hair, wanted to be closer to someone we'll call Dina, a 24-year-old woman who taught him in an English-as-a-second-language program at Long Island University. During one of his first lessons, while she was running through lists of vocabulary words, he asked her out repeatedly. She responded that she was his teacher and didn't want to go out with him. On another occasion, he showed up at the school with an elaborate drawing that centered around the words "I love you." This time, Dina both demurred and reported his behavior to her supervisor, who told the student to cease contact with the young womanand assigned him to another teacher. Nevertheless, Yakunkov began waiting for her and trying to talk to her at the DeKalb Avenue subway station, once even boarding the train with her and asking her to marry himor as his halting English rendered the proposal: "You, me, marry."
Dina again told him to stop, explaining that she wasn't interested in datinglet alone marryinghim and wanted him to leave her alone. But Yakunkov continued to show up on the subway platform, once with a bouquet of flowers. The day he boarded the train with her, he even followed her off at her stop, where she ran to a pay phone and called her roommate, all the while crying and telling him to stay away from her.
Never did Yakunkov threaten or try to touch the woman he claimed to love. But his continued pursuit in the face of her first polite and later frightened and insistent refusals is now a crime under New York State law. On June 29, after pleading guilty, he was sentenced to three years' probation for stalking in the third degree. Wearing a "New York" T-shirt and speaking through a Russian interpreter, he hung his head ashamedly as the assistant district attorney for domestic violence, Michelle Kaminsky, read through his litany of offenses:
"[She] clearly informed you she was not interested in going out, yet you continued to pursue her. Is that correct?" asked Kaminsky.
"You asked her to marry you on the subway?"
"You saw that she was afraid, and yet even after that you continued to wait for her and follow her and draw her pictures telling her you loved her?"
In December 1999, New York became the last of the 50 states to pass an anti-stalking statute, capping a wave of legislation that attempts to navigate the murky waters of failed, tormented, and sometimes imaginary romantic relationships. The law, which many victims and women's advocates considered overdue by the time Governor George Pataki signed it, continues to make frustratingly slow progress now that it is on the books. Though there had been 477 stalking arrests and 125 convictions as of May, experts in the justice system say those numbers represent a tiny fraction of the people stalked in this city. Many victims never call the police. And many prosecutors have yet to useor even find out aboutthe one legal weapon against this disturbing and increasingly pervasive behavior. Yakunkov's is the first stalking case in which Kaminsky has used it in court thus far.
Before the law, prosecutors had to rely on prohibitions against menacing, harassment, and criminal contemptcharges that carry a higher threshold of evidence and pertain to a single incident. Now they can present a range of behaviors as part of a threatening pattern of stalking, so phone calls, gifts, and even love notes can be understood as creating a frightening context.
The level of stalking charges gets more serious with each offenseescalating from a misdemeanor to a felony so that repeat offenders are punished for their persistence. The new legal language also shifts the focus from the defendant's state of mind to the effect on the victim. "We have to prove he is scaring the hell out of her," says Deirdre Bialo-Padin, head of the domestic violence division of the Brooklyn District Attorney's office.
The law is just part of a growing assault on the obsessive "every step you take" behavior, which most often follows breakups and can presage serious violence. In the Brooklyn North precinct, the police department is trying to stop stalking before that happens with a pilot program called Stalk the Stalker. Through it, cops are aggressively trying to track down stalkers just as the stalkers themselves track down their victimsby waiting for them around their jobs and homes. Under the program, police will go so far as to subpoena phone records, wire a victim's house, and even make use of a hostage negotiation team.