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 relationship—or even on a date—with 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 woman—and 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 him—or as his halting English rendered the proposal: “You, me, marry.”
Dina again told him to stop, explaining that she wasn’t interested in dating—let alone marrying—him 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 use—or even find out about—the 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 contempt—charges 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 offense—escalating 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 victims—by 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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.”