Fear Factor

The LAPD created the nation’s first anti-stalking unit. Protecting the famous, infamous, and not-so-famous also makes it one of the busiest

Los Angeles magazine, November 2008

Her friends meant no harm. They decided to throw a birthday party for her at a Hollywood club and posted details and photographs on a Web site. A man trolling for attractive women spotted her picture. He located her MySpace page and discovered that she hosted a satellite radio show. Posing as an entertainment agent, he claimed to be a friend of a well-known Hollywood photographer. The photographer, the man said, wanted her to model for him and needed her phone number. As it happened, the woman knew the photographer. She also knew that he already had her number. She e-mailed back: Just tell him to call. Thwarted, the man responded, “Tell him yourself, bitch.” He began e-mailing threats. “I want to send someone to blow up your house.” “I want to cut you up and drink your blood.” “I will kill you.”

The woman, whose radio name is Tina Divina, ignored him, hoping he would go away. “But this guy was like a virus,” she says. “He got a list of my friends and started contacting them, asking for my number and address. When they blocked him, he started sending them threatening messages. After a while, he found out where they worked and showed up at their jobs. Now I’m really scared because instead of these anonymous e-mails, he’s taking action. I’ve got a young daughter. What if he goes to her school?”

She contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. Officers steered her to its Threat Management Unit, the first law enforcement division in the country created to combat stalking. Los Angeles is the stalking capital of the world. The Threat Management Unit—or TMU—handles about 250 cases a year, up by more than 40 percent since 2003. The TMU’s walls are lined with posters from movies with stalking themes, such as Fatal Attraction, The Fan, Paparazzi, and Swimfan. Based in a nondescript downtown office building, the unit has grown to nine detectives, including its leader, Jeff Dunn, a 24-year LAPD veteran with a diplomatic manner. Celebrities are only about 10 percent of the TMU caseload. Most victims are women who have problems with ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands; unlike celebrities, these women cannot afford bodyguards. About a fifth of the TMU’s investigations involve gay stalkers.

The Internet has made life harder for victims such as Tina Divina, and in turn for the TMU. “Before, in some cases, the obsession might have been there, but the contact wasn’t,” Dunn says. “The Internet has increased the opportunity for suspects to make contact with victims and made it easier to dig up personal information on victims.”

Many cyberstalkers, including the man tormenting Divina, believe they can remain anonymous. When her case came in last year, Dunn assigned detectives, including Jim Hoffman, to investigate. For stalking to be a crime, California law says there must be a “credible threat to place [a] person in reasonable fear for his or her safety.” The detectives know that some women who are harassed can be in jeopardy even though nothing illegal has occurred. When stalkers turn violent, it is too late. Divina was fortunate because Hoffman could show that her stalker had committed a crime; he had threatened her and several of her friends.

The detectives requested a home address from MySpace officials and searched criminal files for the names of the two men who lived there. One had a record of stalking and threatening. The detectives obtained a search warrant and seized his computer and other evidence. What they found tied him directly to Divina.

Over the years the detectives had learned how to handle suspects. It took them only a bit of interviewing in the TMU squad room to discover that the suspect needed to feel important. Although he did not have any clients, he claimed to be a record producer. The detectives treated him as if he were a music executive. They fed his ego, showed him respect, and questioned him gently. He confessed.

“He was a movie extra who desperately wanted to be in the Industry,” Hoffman says. “He’d become enraged when people realized he was a phony. Before this he stalked one of the leading actresses in Hollywood.”

He pleaded guilty to stalking and making criminal threats. A judge sent him to prison for three years. He ordered the man not to contact Divina for ten years.

In the late 1980s, Robert John Bardo, a 19-year-old high school dropout from Tucson, Arizona, first wrote to actress Rebecca Schaeffer. He ended up sending countless fan letters. Lugging a huge teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers, he turned up at a studio where she was taping a television show. A security guard sent him away. Eventually he hired a private detective, who obtained Schaeffer’s address from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Bardo went to the entrance of her Fairfax District apartment and shot her.

The murder of the 21-year-old actress created a furor in the entertainment industry, made headlines, and alerted people to the dangers of stalking. Movie studios began paying closer attention to obsessed fans, and new restrictions were placed on the release of DMV records. In 1989, California passed the nation’s first anti-stalking law, and Los Angeles created the TMU to enforce it. In order to streamline prosecution, the district attorney’s office established a Stalking and Threat Assessment Team. Stalking cases can be time-consuming, sometimes requiring detectives to accumulate hundreds of pieces of evidence: e-mails, letters, phone messages, and other documents. “This is very different from a robbery, where a detective might spend five minutes taking a statement from a witness,” says Rhonda Saunders, a deputy district attorney who helped establish the DA’s assessment team. “I talk to detectives in other departments who still don’t get it. I tell them, ‘We know where some of these cases end up, so would you rather investigate a stalking or a murder?’?”

That choice makes the TMU’s mission different. It’s not just to book suspects;  in some cases it’s to stop the stalking without making an arrest. Occasionally, visiting a suspect is enough. “Sometimes,” says Hoffman’s partner, Detective John Gregozek, “instead of just punishing the suspect, we’ll work with the Department of Mental Health and get them help. Sometimes family members are so desperate they’ll work with us.” Other times it takes a restraining order to stop the harassment. When pursuers step across the line and threaten someone, however, TMU investigators arrest them and seek prosecution.

Hoffman has been fascinated by stalking ever since he worked for a private security firm shortly after graduating from college. He has worked homicide, gangs, and sex crimes, but he remains intrigued by threat management. When he made detective, his goal was to join the TMU. As an investigator in South Los Angeles, he obtained a master’s degree in criminology at Cal State Long Beach. His thesis was titled “A Perspective on Controlling Stalking Behavior.” Hoffman likes the variety of cases the TMU offers. “I could be in a studio apartment in a bad part of the city in the morning and in a celebrity’s house in Bel-Air in the afternoon,” he says. “The mix of the mental aspects of the disorder with the investigation makes the cases very challenging.”

Stalking is one of the few crimes, Hoffman says, in which victims can aid in the investigation. He tells them to keep a detailed chronological record of a stalker’s actions, with times, dates, and locations. Some private security firms caution against obtaining restraining orders for fear of angering stalkers and making them more violent. Dunn’s detectives and Saunders, the deputy district attorney, counter that a restraining order is useful as proof that the law has been broken. Moreover, violating a restraining order can add a year to the maximum three-year prison term for a stalking conviction. Being soft on harassers is a mistake, says Kris Mohandie, a former LAPD psychologist who has conducted extensive research on threat management. He says people should be consistent when relationships end. “Some women, instead of setting limits, do a polite dance,” he says. “That just encourages the stalker.”

Saunders has prosecuted harassment cases involving numerous celebrities, including Madonna and Steven Spielberg. Their stalkers were not merely overzealous fans. Jonathan Norman, who told police he wanted to rape Spielberg, had three pairs of handcuffs, duct tape, and a box cutter when he was arrested a decade ago in front of the director’s Pacific Palisades home. The stalking conviction was his third strike, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Madonna’s stalker, Robert Hoskins, threatened to slash her throat if she refused to marry him. In 1995, he scaled the wall surrounding her Hollywood Hills home. He lunged at her bodyguard and began choking him. The bodyguard shot and wounded Hoskins. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for stalking, assault, and making terrorist threats. He was so proud of his notoriety that he wrote on the bottom of his jail bunk, “I am the Madonna Stalker.” Other inmates called him the “Material Man.”

Decades ago many things about the lives of celebrities were a mystery. Now, with entertainment news on cable television and the Internet, it is easier for stalkers to feel a connection to celebrities and to concoct, in their minds, tenuous relationships. Some of these stalkers suffer from erotomania, a disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. They develop delusions that a person, often famous or prominent, is in love with them from afar. A few years ago Dunn investigated a case involving a wealthy Japanese businessman who had never met Britney Spears but was convinced that she loved him. He flew to the United States and followed her concert tour, sitting in the front row during 25 shows. Every time Spears pointed to the audience, the man thought she was expressing her devotion to him. He then showed up at the front door of two of her homes.

“After we got involved, we interviewed him,” Dunn says. “He was staying at a nice hotel in West Hollywood. He was a successful guy, well respected in Japan, an electrical engineer who owned several patents, but he was clearly delusional. Based on our interview with him, we recommended she get a restraining order. We served him, and I talked to him at length.”

The man said the detectives were wrong to keep him away from the woman who loved him. If Spears were in the room right now, he told Dunn, instead of being afraid, she would try to kiss him. Because he had not threatened Spears, the detectives could not arrest him. When his tourist visa expired, the man was banned from the United States. He tried to sue the federal government, then attempted to enter the country from Canada and Mexico. He was turned away five times.

A woman recently contacted TMU detectives about her ex-boyfriend. He had always been possessive, she said, but his jealousy became obsession when he lost his job. With nothing else in his life, he began accusing her of sleeping with other men while they were together. He followed her and telephoned dozens of times a day. She broke up with him and refused to take his calls. When he sent dead roses and angry letters to her office, she grew frightened.

Several detectives, including Martha Defoe, talked to the woman. They could not arrest the stalker because he had not threatened her. Because of his harassment, however, Defoe advised the woman to go to court and obtain a restraining order. Instead of using a process server or a sheriff’s deputy to deliver the order, Defoe and two other TMU detectives did it themselves. They wanted to interview the man and assess the risk he presented. They drove to Palm Springs, where he lived with his mother. He was intelligent, Defoe says, and spoke five languages—but he also was bipolar, on medication, and seeing a psychiatrist. “He was very honest,” she says. “He admitted everything, but he felt it wasn’t wrong, just an expression of his love and admiration.” Defoe told him he was scaring the woman and served him with the restraining order. He agreed not to contact her.

When Defoe returned to her office, she found a voice mail message. The man thanked her for treating him with respect. The next day he left five messages. He said Defoe was nice. He liked what she wore. He asked why he couldn’t meet someone like her. Later in the week he sent her a letter. Then another letter. Then five letters a day. Then sexually explicit letters.

Defoe lives on a cul-de-sac and knows the cars on her street. One evening she saw an unfamiliar vehicle parked in front of her house. She opened her door and the car sped off. The next night, when she spotted the same car, it careened away again, burning rubber. Her husband ran to his car and gave chase but could not track down the driver. Defoe can protect herself, but she grew concerned for her children’s safety. She stopped letting them play in the front yard. She notified police in the suburban city where she lives, and they began patrolling the street. She circulated photographs of the stalker among her neighbors. “I have a real feel now for what the victims I work with go through, the feelings of being violated, the paranoia,” Defoe says. “Victims are always calling you saying, ‘I think I saw him down the street,’ ‘I think I saw him by my house.’ We call it the ‘Bogeyman Syndrome.’ All of a sudden, I was going through it.”

She obtained a restraining order. A few days later the man left her another message at work. He had just met another woman. Like Defoe, she was a Latina in law enforcement. He was infatuated with her. Defoe never saw or heard from him again.

Photograph by Debra DiPaolo