Stalking the Stalkers

City Prosecutors Target Romantics Gone Wrong

If such comments might be expected from a defense attorney, they send Dina into a rage. "I have to be raped first in order for it to be a big deal?" she asks, incredulous. Having recently moved here after growing up with protective parents in Greece, she was terrified by a relative stranger's unwanted attentions. During the worst of it, she says, "I was waking up in the middle of the night. I didn't even want to go out for a walk because I was afraid he might be watching." After he had crossed the line of propriety, Dina didn't know where Yakunkov would stop.

Indeed, gauging the danger presented by stalkers can be difficult. A small minority clean up their acts after a night in jail or even a simple talking-to, according to Rosenfeld, a former senior psychologist with the New York City Forensic Psychiatry Clinic. Others are only temporarily stymied by arrest: "For them, it won't clear up the underlying problem. They may stop with that one person but go on to stalk their next girlfriend," he says. Rosenfeld sometimes recommends that repeat offenders try therapy to "restructure their thinking about relationships," though no one knows yet how successful that—or any stalking treatment—will be.

Deluded that another person—often a stranger or acquaintance—is in love with them, a small subset of stalkers—probably less than 10 percent—pursues relentlessly. Most erotomanics are female. New York City's most renowned example is Diane Schaefer, who—despite being arrested at least eight times over the course of 15 years—has fixated on a seemingly endless series of "love" objects, including a famous cancer surgeon, a judge handling her case, and her own attorney.

Illustration by Max Grafe

George Stephanopoulos seems to be the focus of a similarly determined stalker, Tangela Burkhart, who is awaiting trial in September. After lurking in a coffee shop near Stephanopoulos's apartment, writing him letters, and eventually violating the order of protection he got against her, Burkhart has been barred from Broadway between 76th and 96th streets as well as from a considerable stretch of Columbus Avenue. (In addition to attracting more stalkers, celebrity apparently brings unusually broad orders of protection; orders for ordinary citizens usually extend less than a city block.)

Still, the most dogged stalkers aren't necessarily the most dangerous. Erotomanics, in fact, turn out to be less likely than most stalkers to become violent. Younger stalkers as well as those who have weapons, make threats, and are seeking revenge appear to be the most likely to turn violent, according to the scant research on the subject. Experts advise being very clear with these former partners, telling them unequivocally that a relationship is over and then, if the stalking persists, contacting the police.

But even victims who take all the right steps aren't guaranteed safety or resolution. Consider Virginia, as we'll call her, a fortyish Queens woman whose relationship with her ex—we'll call him Hank—lasted a mere four months. Though he was at first energetic and charming—and revealed nothing about his prior arrests for robbery and domestic violence—Hank began having fits of irrational rage and jealousy. He accused Virginia of being interested in other men and demanded her constant attention.

When Virginia decided she wanted to break up, Hank attempted suicide. He also began appearing unannounced at places he knew she'd be—her home, her work, her children's school when Virginia was dropping them off. He even trailed behind her and her daughters when they went trick-or-treating. "He was just close enough so we knew he was there," she recalls.

In some ways, Virginia has been a lucky stalking victim. Though her problems with her tormentor began four years ago, before the stalking law was in place, she was able to get an order of protection against him after he threw a fire extinguisher at her and put a knife to her throat. When he violated that order by coming to her house and threatening to kill her, Virginia made sure to have her ex arrested.

The process involved moving her children to a friend's father's house for a week while she made repeated phone calls to the police station, parole officers, social workers, and even the mayor's radio call-in program, but eventually she succeeded. And because Hank was on parole at the time, he served more than two years for harassment and violating an order of protection—crimes that might otherwise have earned him no jail time.

Had the stalking law already been in place, Hank might have faced an even more severe penalty as a repeat offender. He had already gotten into legal trouble once when stalking a previous girlfriend and then a second and third time when stalking Virginia. As a result, "he could have ended up facing a substantial felony charge that could have raised the penalty level," says Liberty Aldrich, senior director for legal services at the New York City-based victims' services group Safe Horizon, who adds that the new stalking law is designed to "ensure that victims like Virginia are taken seriously."

The additional legal muscle comforts Virginia—somewhat. After Hank got out of jail last October, he promptly left her a threatening message. Then, about six weeks ago, Virginia saw him walk by her living room window. Though he's since then been arrested for harassing another woman among other charges, Virginia is still terrified. Four years after she ended her relationship with Hank, she has alerted her current boyfriend to the situation and warned her children to "scream bloody murder" if Hank comes near them. She doesn't go out alone anymore—not even to walk the dog. As she puts it: "I will always have to watch my back."

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