Stalking the Stalkers

City Prosecutors Target Romantics Gone Wrong

Citywide, police in training now see a video about stalking in which an officer logs a bouquet of roses as evidence after a stalker tries to deliver them to his ex's workplace, uninvited. And indeed, the trappings of romance are becoming grounds for arrest. "The number of dead roses we see being left on women's doorsteps—it's not funny," says Bialo-Padin, who notes that when it comes to stalking, context is everything. In one case handled by her division, the stalker sent his ex-girlfriend a dozen white roses. "It seems sweet," says the prosecutor, "but really it's fraught with menace. What most people don't know is that, in her family, white roses are used at funerals."

As New York's first stalking cases begin to wend their way through the justice system, the question of when and how to apply the law has become a sticky one, with some defense attorneys arguing their clients are being unfairly swept up in a wave of zealousness. At the very least, lawyers, social workers, and spurned lovers disagree as to exactly when passionate pursuit turns seriously problematic—or "the bunny goes into the boiling pot," as Linda Fairstein, chief sex crimes prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney's office, puts it. Fairstein's reference to Fatal Attraction, in which the Glenn Close character murders her love object's family pet—and becomes a deranged, homicidal maniac—is unfortunately apt. An estimated 2 percent of the more than 1 million stalking cases in the United States each year turn into murder cases. (Between 6 and 9 percent of stalking victims report having their pets threatened or killed.) And according to a report recently published in Homicide Studies, an academic journal, more than three-quarters of women killed in 10 U.S. cities were stalked in the year leading up to their deaths. (Four out of five stalking victims are women.)

Illustration by Max Grafe

Though some stalkers, like Yakunkov, are barely acquainted with their victims, most—62 percent—have had some sort of relationship with them, from dating to marriage, according to research conducted by the National Institute of Justice. The range of entanglements makes stalking a frustratingly difficult crime to classify. It takes several tries to leave an abusive relationship, studies say, which means that many an obsessive, jilted lover has indeed seen his—or her—attentions rewarded with a loving, if temporary, reunion. And while some stalkers seem satisfied to gaze forlornly up at their ex's windows, the ones at the more violent end of the stalking spectrum may also be batterers. Eighty-one percent of the women in the NIJ study who were stalked by an ex had also been physically assaulted by that partner.

When the whole range of its expressions are considered, stalking is practically a commonplace of the romantic landscape, with 8 percent of women and 2 percent of men being stalked at some point in their lives, according to a study conducted by the NIJ; the researchers included sending former partners unwanted gifts or letters, following or spying on them, and vandalism within their definition of stalking. Among female college students, the numbers shoot up, with 13 to 14 percent reporting being stalked in the past year alone.

In New York City, at least, these figures seem to be increasing; the number of people referred for psychiatric evaluations after being arrested for stalking-related charges increased sevenfold between 1987 and 1997. Though part of that jump can be attributed to the new law and an attendant, growing awareness of stalking, some also think the behavior itself is becoming more widespread.

"With computers and the Internet, you can track people in a much more detailed way now," says Barry Rosenfeld, a professor of psychology at Fordham University who has done research on stalkers. Rosenfeld also thinks that New York is especially conducive to stalking: "It's a big city, and it's easy for people to fade into the woodwork here. When people feel more isolated, and then they feel like they have some sort of connection, they fight harder to maintain it."

Despite the jolting stats, stalkers often come off as romantic—or just pathetic—rather than seriously threatening. When Kaminsky read the details of the Yakunkov case aloud for the judge, for instance, giggles erupted throughout the courtroom; a police officer smirked and rolled his eyes at the mention of flowers, and at the description of the marriage proposal, two female legal aid attorneys laughed openly. (Kaminsky later asked them to explain their response, and the lawyers insisted they were amused by something else.)

Yakunkov's lawyer, Barry Cohen, might also have found the charges laughable if they hadn't earned his client three years' probation, a permanent police record, and likely problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Though Cohen advised Yakunkov to plead guilty in order to avoid the possibility of jail time, the lawyer characterizes the student's obsession as benign puppy love. "This guy was just young and naive and he got a crush on this woman," says Cohen. "It makes sense he wanted to marry her. Here he was in a strange country, and along comes this sister of mercy, teaching him English and being sweet and kind toward him. I don't think it's criminal—at most it's neurotic."

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