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Stalkers – History and Media Depictions

 

The popular new Netflix series Baby Reindeer is an extraordinarily intense depiction of the dark realities of stalking. The self-referencing fictionalized account of a stand-up comic who is physically and electronically stalked by an older woman that stars the actual victim, Richard Gadd, is unsettling and dishearteningly brilliant in its depiction of stalking and the profound trauma it produces.

The recounting of the harrowing events that fully consumed Richard Gadd’s life vividly analyzes how everyday people commonly react to physical and mental abuse, how they cope with emotional damage, navigate personal relationships and careers, and why law enforcement can’t always be helpful with this type of crime. The victim is often left to their own devices to manage their experience.

The series is especially informative about how previous trauma may make one vulnerable to potentially putting themselves at risk for situations that may breed additional trauma. Or how in some instances those with trauma are unknowingly drawn to one another almost as a magnetic toxic codependency. The series even suggests that victims may end up victimizing others because they do not know how to manage the harm inflicted on them, producing a confusing and demoralizing self-perpetuating cycle of abuse. A high percentage of stalkers have been victims of sexual abuse themselves.

In the late 1970s and into the late 1980s, a new kind of insidious phenomena was quietly emerging. And prior to 1990, there were no laws in the United States or anywhere else in the world to combat it. This deranged behavior was especially active in and around Los Angeles, California, with several high-profile crimes related to a relatively new nefarious activity called stalking.

As unique and engrossing as Baby Reindeer is, it’s not the first time a stalking victim has portrayed their own assault and trauma on film. It’s been 40 years since another performer, Theresa Saldana, bravely shared her life altering assault on television. In 1984, stalking was not yet a household word. It wasn’t even a crime anywhere in the world then. Theresa took it on herself to share her painful story of surviving her own stalking/attempted murder incident to deal with her own trauma through acting, very similar to Richard Gadd in Baby Reindeer. Theresa’s retelling’s main purpose was to force a public discussion on something that was not yet taken seriously enough to have laws, resources and protections for victims but needed to be addressed before more harm was done. Inevitably her performance of recreating her attack by a stalker led to the first anti-stalking laws in the world. Only through the survivor’s heroism to recount their stories to the world do we have the resources and knowledge to not only to prevent stalking and other abusive behavior but to understand how to assist those living with trauma.

In 1982, actor Theresa Saldana was stalked by Arthur Richard Jackson, a 46-year-old drifter from Aberdeen, Scotland. Jackson became obsessed with Theresa after seeing her in several films. He hired a private investigator who obtained the unlisted phone number of Theresa’s mother. Jackson then called Theresa’s mother and posed as film director Martin Scorsese’s assistant, saying he needed Theresa’s residential address to contact her to replace an actor in a film role. On March 15, 1982, Jackson approached Theresa in front of her West Hollywood residence in broad daylight and attacked her with a 5½-inch hunting knife, puncturing a lung. An attack so fierce that the blade bent. Although there were many nearby onlookers, including children, the attack was only interrupted when a delivery man, Jeff Fenn, intervened after hearing her cries, rushed from the second floor of an apartment building, and incapacitated Jackson. Following the assault, Theresa was hospitalized with 10 stab wounds and underwent a four-month hospital recovery. She relived the incident in the 1984 television film Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story and she appeared in the 1984 Charles Bronson film The Evil That Men Do . After her recovery, Ms. Saldana formed Victims for Victims, an organization devoted to helping others who had suffered violent attacks, and to campaigning for anti-stalker laws.

Theresa’s efforts to inform the public were not enough to prevent another tragedy nor did they get any new legislation passed quickly enough to prevent active stalkers. As they say, the wheels of justice are slow. It would take years, thousands of victims and more public outcry before law makers and politicians would implement new laws and provide resources and protections.

In the meantime, one piece of information exposed from Theresa’s ordeal proved to be helpful to another stalker, the hiring of a private investigator to get information. This time an unlisted address was obtained through California’s Department of Motor vehicles. The new assailant spent the next three years stalking his victim, 18-year-old actor Rebecca Schaeffer from the sitcom My Sister Sam . The stalker, Robert John Bardo, was eventually successful when on July 18, 1989, he shot Rebecca to death when she answered her front door in the same West Hollywood neighborhood that Theresa was attacked in seven years earlier.

Over the next year and only 40 miles south from West Hollywood, in Newport Beach, California, five women were murdered by ex-lovers, estranged husbands, or would-be suitors. All the victims had restraining orders and were terrified for their lives. Each told law enforcement, friends and family that they believed they would be killed by the person named in the orders.

After the killings, a local judge read the feature article about the tragedies in the paper. A police officer was interviewed and was asked why their department hadn’t taken any steps to protect these innocent victims. He answered that until a crime was committed there was nothing they could do.

The first anti-stalking law in the United States, California Penal Code Section 646.9, was developed and proposed by that judge, Municipal Court Judge John Watson of Orange County in Los Angeles. Watson with U.S. Representative Ed Royce introduced the law in 1990. Within three years, every state in the United States followed suit to create the crime of stalking, under different names such as criminal harassment or criminal menace.

Among some of the issues addressed in these laws was eliminating the ability to obtain unlisted phone numbers and addresses through the California DMV.

As part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1996, Congress also included an anti-stalking law to strengthen protections for victims and close any gaps in the law. This law, called the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act, made it a federal crime to cross state lines with intent to harm or harass another person. This law is now codified under Title 18 U.S. Code 2261A, imposing stricter penalties and expanding the definition of “stalking” to include electronic communications.

Stalking is a crime in every state, but when the act of stalking crosses state lines, occurs within U.S. territories or maritime jurisdictions, or utilizes U.S. mail or electronic communications at an interstate level, stalking can be charged as a federal crime —potentially with much greater penalties.

As Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer proves, even after decades of laws addressing stalking have been implemented and that “stalking” is a familiar crime that generally most people know about now, it is still very difficult to prevent and law enforcement may still have difficulty assisting. And with new technologies the activity of stalking has evolved and adapted, making it more common and pervasive than it ever was.

HPI has decades of experience investigating stalking cases. Our team and associates include highly trained and certified technical investigators capable of forensically examining computers, cell phones and tablets for spyware and data retrieval as well as the ability to examine residences, offices and vehicles for hidden electronic devices such as concealed cameras, microphones and tracking devices.

If you or someone close to you has concerns related to stalking or cyber-stalking, please reach out to see how HPI can assist you.

  • Victim Connect: 1-855-4VICTIM (1-855-484-2846)
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 En Español
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888, or by text line
  • Stalking Prevention, Awareness, & Resource Center – https://www.stalkingawareness.org/about-sparc/
  • Safety Net a project of The National Network to End Domestic Violence – https://www.techsafety.org/resources-survivors

 

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