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People Top 5
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- October 19, 1998
- Vol. 50
- No. 14
A Pioneering L.A. Legal Squad Turns the Tables on Predators Who Stalk Human Prey
Not exactly. The officers at Steigerwald's home are no ordinary cops. They represent the country's premier antistalking squad, a unit of the LAPD devoted solely to halting the obsessive harassment that has plagued celebrities from Madonna to Steven Spielberg, as well as hundreds of average citizens. "We are talking about people who take joy in reducing their victims to quivering masses," says L.A. Deputy District Attorney Rhonda Saunders, 51, who was largely responsible for obtaining a beefed-up 1994 California antistalking statute and now helps run a groundbreaking task force out of the D.A.'s office. "We need to intervene before a threat can become murder."
There was no such law in place in 1989, when obsessed fan Robert Bardo paid a private investigator $250 for the address of rising actress Rebecca Schaeffer, then gunned her down at the door of her L.A. apartment house. But since passage of the new statute, Saunders's team has successfully prosecuted its share of celebrity stalkers, including Robert Hoskins, who scaled the security wall surrounding Madonna's Hollywood Hills estate in 1995, and Jonathan Norman, convicted in March after targeting Steven Spielberg and his family. "Now those who use fear as a weapon have something to fear themselves," says U. S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), author of federal and state stalking laws, "an aggressive prosecutor with the tools to shut them down."
Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, George Stephanopoulos—the list of celebrity stalking targets seems to grow by the month. "Familiarity breeds contempt," Saunders says. "People begin to think they have some kind of relationship with celebrities because they see them all the time."
One woman, Saunders recalls, had convinced herself that L.A. television weatherman Dallas Raines was sending her signals over the airwaves. "She believed he could see her," Saunders says of Martha Cane, then 41. Cane, herself a onetime Los Angeles police officer, became dangerous when she fixated on Raines's wife, who she believed was standing in the way of her relationship. (Convicted before the new antistalking statute, Cane spent less than six months in jail.)
But only about 10 percent of the hundred cases handled each year by Saunders's unit—officially known as the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Stalking and Threat Assessment Team—involve celebrities. Far more common are ordinary love affairs gone awry, such as the one between Steigerwald and a fellow student at Pierce College whom he dated for two weeks last November before she broke off the relationship. Since then, despite a restraining order stipulating he keep 20 feet away from her on campus and 100 feet off campus, police say Steigerwald shadowed her relentlessly, pacing outside her house at dawn, leaving flowers and notes on her car, and dropping by her workplace unannounced.
"He believes they still have a relationship," says Det. Alex Vargas of the special LAPD squad, known as the Threat Management Unit, that works with Saunders's team. Steigerwald pleaded no contest to stalking on Aug. 20 and was sentenced to 27 days in jail, five years' probation and mandatory psychological counseling during the entire period.
Such outcomes bring immense satisfaction to Saunders, a former music theater performer and mother of two, who has worked for the Los Angeles D.A.'s office since 1986. She was prosecuting felonies in night court in 1991 when she got her first stalking case. The victim, an interior decorator, had repeatedly alerted police that she was being harassed by another woman, including frequent phone calls at all hours and embarrassing letters to her friends. But the police could offer little help since she had not been physically attacked. When the victim hired a company to install a security system, workers discovered that the stalker had been living in the crawlspace under the victim's house. "I had never seen such human damage," says Saunders of her interview with the victim. "She was having nightmares. She had to leave her home of 15 years. She looked haunted."
Though Saunders was able to convict Susan Dyer of assault with a deadly weapon in that case, the law then on the books made it virtually impossible to even file a stalking charge. (The assault charge stemmed from an incident in which Dyer pointed a loaded gun at a friend of the victim's and then held off a SWAT team for 11 hours.) "Now we could have gotten three years for stalking in addition to the seven years for the gun," Saunders says. "We could have gotten a 10-year restraining order including mandatory mental counseling." That experience spurred Saunders to lobby California legislators until they enacted a new statute in January 1994 that redefined stalking to include threats "implied by a pattern of conduct" and mandated that victims be notified 15 days prior to a stalker's release from prison.
Then, last year, Saunders and her partner Deputy D.A. Scott Gordon were authorized by District Attorney Gil Garcetti to start their unit, which is largely aimed at preventing stalking from turning violent, as it does roughly 15 percent of the time. Since some half of all stalkers have had previous run-ins with the law, says Gordon, 42, "if we can recognize those cases earlier, we might be able to prevent bigger problems."
In the case of celebrities, it's sometimes hard to tell where fanhood ends and obsession begins. "If a fan writes a letter, that's fine," says Saunders. "But when that fan decides to find out where that celebrity lives and then goes to their home, we are getting a bit closer to stalking."
On rare occasions, the celebrity has actually had a relationship with the stalker. Actress Andrea Thompson, who plays Det. Jill Kirkendall on NYPD Blue, was briefly involved romantically with Gianluigi Assennato, who designed the ensemble she wore to the 1997 Emmys. When Thompson broke off the relationship in April, he wouldn't let go and began secretly living out of her garage, says John Nazarian, the private detective she subsequently hired.
In July the Italian-born designer was arrested for stalking, slashing Thompson's tires and making threats against her and her 6-year-old son. (In this case, which Gordon is prosecuting, Assennato is currently in L.A. County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail pending a pretrial hearing scheduled for Oct. 21.) "The fact that my client is being portrayed in the media as a psycho stranger is untrue," says Assennato's lawyer Jeffery Rubenstein. "This is a breakup situation." Nazarian, however, tells a different story. "She was terrified," he says of his client. "It got to the point where she didn't want to leave her house."
For many stalking victims, such fears never abate. "Whether it was Madonna, Spielberg or my Jane Doe cases, they are scared to death," notes Saunders, who says victims consistently report nightmares about the stalker catching them. "None of them will ever feel safe again." For instance, Spielberg—whose stalker had shown up at his home with handcuffs, a knife and duct tape, intending to sexually assault the director—fortified his house with extra lights and cameras and now travels with more security personnel.
Less affluent victims suffer the same fears, with only the law between them and their stalkers. Take Robin Curry, who was divorced from her husband, Bill, in 1994. After they had separated the previous year, he began terrorizing her and the couple's three children. Once he smashed her windshield. Another time he drove his truck through her front door. Treating these incidents as an ongoing domestic dispute, the police did nothing beyond riling reports. But after Bill threw a hammer through her window, narrowly missing their daughter's head, one officer suggested to Robin that this amounted to stalking, and he sent the case file to Saunders's attention.
Saunders got a restraining order against Bill. "Rhonda said, 'It's going to be okay. I'm going to take care of this,' " says Robin. "And she did." Sent to prison once for stalking, Bill violated his parole in 1996. He returned to prison and was released last January, with a parole condition that he stay 35 miles away from his ex-wife. Still, says Robin, "I know I will have to deal with him for the rest of my life."
Indeed, experts say that stalking usually stems from mental illness that often cannot be cured. "It is hard to change obsessive behavior," says Greg Boles, head detective of the LAPD's Threat Management Unit. "We could have a case forever." Certainly fighting stalkers can seem an endless task. For Saunders, her job means frequent nights with minimal sleep and long stretches away from her children. Still, the kids seem to appreciate her work. "When my daughter was 8 she said, 'Mommy, you're a hero. You put the bad people away so they can't hurt anyone anymore,' " says Saunders, smiling at the memory. "That's what it's all about."
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan.
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