Gary James' Interview With L.A. Prosecutor
Rhonda Saunders has been a criminal prosecutor for twenty-four years. She is the foremost expert in the United States on stalking. She prosecuted the stalkers of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Steven Speilberg. She established S.T.A.T. (Stalking and Threat Assessment Team) for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and the L.A. Stalking Task Force.
Rhonda Saunders is the author of Whisper Of Fear: The True Story of the Prosecutor Who Stalks The Stalkers.
Q - Rhonda, why did you decide to write this book at this particular time? Is there a reason?
A - It's something that I've been thinking about doing for a long time because there's so many people out there, primarily women, but men get stalked also, who are being stalked. They feel like they're the only person that is isolated. We still have situations where police agencies don't quite get it. We're still seeing people murdered by stalkers. I started the Stalking Unit in the District Attorney's office. I also worked on re-writing the first stalking law that the country ever had. California was the first place to have a stalking law in the world, but it was really bad. It was the result of the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, or at least that's what the media says. That's when the legislature paid attention to the crime of stalking, when Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered. But there had been stalking cases prior to that. Ed Royce, who's a Congressman from Orange County, he was a State Senator at the time and he in the 1980s had been trying to get a stalking law passed and was ignored by his colleagues. It wasn't because of the celebrity cases, it was because he had six women in his district who had been murdered within a year by their ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends. Each woman had a restraining order which did her no good what-so-ever. They had been stalked. They had been murdered. It wasn't until Rebecca Schaeffer's murder where the media focused in and the legislature went "Oh, there's a crime called stalking" that they passed the law, but it was pretty much useless. Just to sum it up, what happened was I got my first stalking case in 1992. The stalking law went into effect in 1991. It was a horrific case where a woman was stalking another woman and it turned out she was living in a crawl space of the victim's house for several months. The victim kept hearing noises coming from under the house and thought it was an animal trapped there, but instead it was her stalker who was listening into her phone conversations to conversations when she had friends over. The victim couldn't figure out how her stalker always knew where she was going to a movie or a restaurant because this stalker was actually sleeping, eating under the house, listening to the conversations and then it wound up in an eleven hour S.W.A.T. stand-off. That was my first stalking case. But we couldn't file stalking because the law was so bad. So, I went up to Sacramento twice to change the laws and finally in 1993 we wrote the stalking law that pretty much is the stalking law we have now, in effect.
Q - Do you write about people who are celebrity stalkers in your book, or are there non-celebrities in your book?
A - Primarily non-celebrities because those are the cases that make up the majority of stalking cases. As with Rebecca Schaeffer, it seems like the only people who get stalked are celebrities because those are the only people the media are interested in and write about. The majority of cases that we see with stalkers involve domestic violence.
Q - How does someone leave their home town and survive in a city like Los Angeles, when all they're doing is stalking someone?
A - That's their job. This becomes their whole life. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow's stalker was a pizza delivery man. He sent her hundreds and hundreds of letters, packages, sex toys. We kept asking how in the world does he get the money to first of all purchase all of these items and number two, the shipping charges, plus, he came out to Los Angeles twice and actually confronted her mother Blythe Danner at Blythe Danner's house. He tracked them down and stalked them. They're the smartest criminals I've ever dealt with. And, they're able to track their prey. Steven Spielberg's stalker found out where he lived by buying a $7 star map that they sell on Sunset Blvd. To answer your question, I don't have a clue how these people survive. Celebrity stalkers are generally people who are in the lower end of society, transients, people who don't have a whole lot going on in their lives and they focus on these celebrities and whether they're eating at McDonald's, eating out of garbage cans or in the case of Jonathan Norman who stalked Steven Spielberg, he had a would be lover who was willing to feed him, house him, clothe him, even though Norman had beaten this guy up and knocked his teeth out. So, they prey on other people in order to subsidize their stalking. Madonna's stalker was Robert Hoskins, who was a transient. We don't have a clue how he fed himself or even managed his bus fare, although his brother from Oregon said he gave him bus fare just to get him out of Oregon. So, I think that's how he wound up here (California).
Q - I have to admit, I haven't heard a whole lot about these cases, although I'm not watching E! Entertainment Network night and day.
A - The news media covered it all over the world. Spielberg's was covered all over the world and so was Madonna's. Paltrow, we managed to keep under the radar until she actually had finished testifying. You talk about the six degrees of separation, right after she testified, she had to leave for England because she was Madonna's maid of honor in her wedding. So, they all kind of knew each other. But, these were pretty big cases. Jonathan Norman's case was really chilling. He told everyone who was willing to listen that the reason he was stalking Spielberg is that he was sexually attracted to him and wanted to rape him.
Q - That is sick.
A - Oh, yeah. And when someone said what would you have done if his wife had been there, he said "I would have tied her up and made her watch." I mean, these people are brutal. Madonna's stalker got onto her property two times and tried to kill her bodyguard and told her bodyguard he wanted to slice her throat from ear to ear.
Q - Wasn't Madonna's stalker killed?
A - No. He got into a fight with the bodyguard over the bodyguard's gun and they struggled. He wound up getting shot, but three days after he was shot he was in court getting arraigned. I mean, this man was so strong, nothing phased him.
Q - Where is he now, in jail?
A - He's in a mental hospital.
Q - Is there any chance he'll get out?
A - I hope not, because he was interviewed shortly before he finished his prison term. He went to prison for ten years and we had him evaluated. He told one of the psychologists that when he got out, that he was going to get himself a gun and start shooting at the stars and didn't clarify whether he meant the stars above or the stars as in Madonna. He also said that when he attacked Madonna's bodyguard, he knew it was really Madonna in man form. So, we're hoping this man never gets out because he may not hurt her, but there's a good possibility he'll hurt somebody else.
Q - Is stalking a growing problem?
A - My take on this is, it's not a growing problem, it's something that's being recognized more.
Q - I take it you're not a prosecutor anymore.
A - No. I am. Although they transfer us around. (laughs) So, right now I'm not in the unit that I started, which was the Stalking Unit. But I still consult with police agencies, victim rights groups. So, I still have my finger on the pulse. Right now I'm doing appellate and habeas work. But, I identify myself as a Los Angeles prosecutor because I wrote the book (Whisper Of Fear: The True Story Of The Prosecutor Who Stalks The Stalkers) on my own time. The opinions are not necessarily those of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, they're my opinions and that's why I wrote the book. I wrote the book to get a message out to the victims out there that there are things we can do.
Q - We hear about the Los Angeles stars that are stalked. Does it also happen to Nashville stars?
A - Oh, absolutely, and also in New York. In fact it was just about a year ago, Conan O'Brien was stalked. Do you remember that case?
Q - I do.
A - He was being stalked by a priest in New York. Celebrities, no matter where they are, it could even be at their homes. David Letterman, his stalker, a woman, Margaret Ray, actually was stalking him at his home in Connecticut and then followed his mother around in Colorado. Eventually she wound up throwing herself in front of a moving train. So, it isn't just here in Los Angeles. We have a lot of strange people here, but it's not limited to just California or just Los Angeles.
Q - If there is such a thing as a typical stalker, what is it they're looking for or from a star? Do they want to hang out with that person? Do they want to have a sexual relationship? Do they want to kill them?
A - What they want is the notoriety of having their name linked with the celebrity. As I said, these are people who have nothing going on in their lives, the celebrity stalkers. The big difference between celebrity stalkers and domestic violence or workplace violence stalkers is that celebrity stalkers are people who want to see their names up there in the magazines and television and in the newspapers. Mark David Chapman for example. He was recently interviewed and he was bragging how whenever people think of John Lennon, they will always think of him.
Q - He's right, but what a price he paid.
A - But, he felt it was worth the price. Did you hear about the case with Paula Abdul?
Q - I did.
A - OK. In that particular case, her stalker took his own life. But in a way she got what she wanted, which is the notoriety and also the fact that Paula Abdul will never forget her. She's become a part of Paula Abdul's life, even though it took taking her own life to get there.
Q - I believe Paula Abdul is moving out of the neighborhood.
A - That's what I heard, but I don't know for sure. I'm sure it has some horrible memories, but she'll never forget about this. And that's what these stalkers want.
Q - Are there more male stalkers than female stalkers?
A - Yes, absolutely. The majority of stalkers are men. However, women can be extremely vicious or just as vicious in not more so than men. As I was saying, my very first stalking case involved a woman who was stalking another woman. But I've had other cased where you've had a woman stalking a man. I had one case where the guy went to the police and they brushed him off. They looked at him and said "C'mon, you're a big guy. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of this woman who is half your size?" She was threatening to put a bullet in his head. She put salt in his motorcycle tank. She was leaving threatening messages on his porch. He was scared to death. He went to the police department and this wasn't that long ago and they laughed at him, because he's a pretty big guy. They said "You're a big guy. Why are you scared of this woman who's half your size?" He said to them "How big does she have to be to pull the trigger?" So, there are women who stalk men, who stalk women in the workplace, on campuses. You have ex-girlfriends that are taking it out on new girlfriends. In other words, someone who's dating their ex-boyfriend and they start stalking the new girlfriend or the new wife. So you have all different types of stalking. But, the majority of cases we see are in domestic types of relationships, whether it's a marriage or a long-term dating relationship and in those cases, overwhelmingly it's the man who's stalking the woman. There's a case in the book about a man who actually hacked his wife to death, on Angeles Crest, which is one of our mountains around here. He's on death row right now.
Q - It almost seems like if you're a celebrity these days, you're going to need a bodyguard to protect yourself against these stalkers.
A - Well, in today's world they are definitely at risk out there because there's an expression - familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of these stalkers believe they have a relationship with the celebrity. It's a thing called eroto mania. With Rebecca Schaeffer, Robert Bardo was the man that killed her. He had written some fan letters and had gotten back an autographed picture of her that came obviously from her publicity department, but in his mind it came directly from her and somehow they had this psychic link, that she knew who he was. He actually came out to California and he bought a Teddy Bear and candy and showed up at the studio and was turned away. So, he started to feel outrage, rejection. He went back to Arizona and then saw her in a movie where she was doing a love scene with an actor and now he felt totally betrayed. So, when he came out to California again, he brought a gun with hollow point bullets and found out where she was living and confronted her at her own door and shot her. She died at the age of 19.
Q - Did Rebecca Schaeffer actually sign that photo that was sent to Robert Bardo?
A - No, no. Not at all. They have their media people. They have a stamp with a signature on it for answering fan letters. Very rarely does a celebrity actually answer their own fan mail. But you ask what celebrities need to do; part of the problem I have as a prosecutor is a lot of times these celebrities have dangerous stalkers, people who have made threats against them, traveled to California, are showing up around the house and the people around the celebrity, whether they're security people, agents, managers, lawyers, they don't tell the celebrity there's a danger because they don't want to upset them. What they're doing is putting that celebrity in even more danger 'cause celebrities don't always have their bodyguards around. They go shopping. They take their kids to school. If they don't know there is a threat out there, they don't know what this person looks like. That person can approach them just as what happened with John Lennon. The next thing you know they're blown away. So my big gripe with celebrity type stalking cases is, often times I'll have to ask the person who's calling me, if it's their security person, does the celebrity know about this? For example, in Spielberg's case his stalker had been trying to get into his compound for over a month. Spielberg was out of the country at the time, but nobody bothered to tell him that this man who obviously had mental problems but also was very clever, had tried to back his car into the gate of the house, trying to get access. Had gone out and rented a car that was identical to Spielberg's wife's car, the same model, the same year, the same color. Nobody bothered to tell Speilberg and even after the final time when he...he wasn't arrested. They picked him up and put him in a mental hospital on a 72 hour hold. He had shown up at Spielberg's house with duct tape, a razor blade knife and three sets of handcuffs. And even then, nobody bothered to tell Spielberg. They just wanted me to take came of the problem and make it go away. I said in order to prove stalking, we have to show that the victim is award of it and that the victim is reasonably in fear, in fear for their safety. So, it took them another few days before they actually told Spielberg that, hey, there's this dangerous stalker out there who wants to rape you.
Q - He was probably not told because it was thought it would interfere with his work.
A - Well, either his work or their work. It's also possible that in their minds they're thinking that if they tell him the stalker has gotten this far with stalking him, maybe they're not doing their jobs right.
Q - What is the job of the Stalking And Threat Assessment Team?
A - There are two different teams. One is L.A.P.D.'s; that's called the Threats Management Unit. And then with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office there's the Stalking And Threat Assessment Team. Both L.A.P.D. and the DA's office handle stalking cases. It's called vertical prosecuting. Ordinarily as a prosecutor you're handling all different types of cases, primarily a lot of drug cases, murder cases, theft cases. But stalking cases are really unique because it isn't just a one time incident. Stalking is a pattern of conduct that takes place sometimes over months, sometimes over years. So you might have boxes filled with police reports and you might have fifty witnesses as opposed to let's say a robbery where you may have two witnesses and a crime that occurred within five minutes. So, the resources of both the Stalking And Threat Assessment Team and the Threat Management Unit are devoted solely to stalking cases. A prosecutor who's assigned to the Stalking And Threat Assessment Team, only does stalking or threat type cases.
Q - And how about the L.A. Stalking Task Force.
A - That was something I started because there's an organization called ATAP, Association Of Threat Assessment Professionals. It's made up of not only law enforcement, but private security, security for the studios, huge corporations, etc. What I wanted to do is get law enforcement solely together with prosecutors, probation officers, parole, where we could discuss ongoing stalking cases. The reason being, a lot of times these stalkers, especially celebrity stalkers, even other types, stalk more than one person. We would get together and let's say the Sheriff's Department would say "We're working a case with John Doe. We're looking into his background" and somebody from L.A.P.D. or Glendale P.D. would go "Wait a minute. I know that guy. We've had him last year stalking another woman" or Probation or Parole will chime in and say "Wait a minute. We have him on parole right now." So, it was an organization to get law enforcement together to expedite these stalking cases because there is no main bank for stalkers. In other words, someone in a police agency can just go on the computer and find out whether or not this person had been arrested, has been a suspect in other types of stalking cases. It gives you more ammunition to go in and actually prosecute these cases.
Q - Have you ever been stalked by the stalkers?
A - Generally, after the case is over or while the case is ongoing, that's happened.
Q - What do you do about it?
A - I take the same precautions that I recommend to other victims. Fortunately I do work with investigators, police agencies. When my children were younger, when a situation arose that there really was a dangerous stalker such as the woman who was in the crawl space under the victim's house. After she did her prison term, she got out and she started leaving lengthy voice messages on my voice mail at work. Very angry messages. This went on actually up until two years ago (2006) when she got arrested for trying to kill two police officers. But one of the things that I did; I obtained a picture of her. I made sure my children knew what she looked like, so that if they were to answer the door and they saw anyone that looked like her hanging out, they would immediately call 911 or call our investigators. Defense classes are important. It helps to empower you. Just keeping looking over your shoulder. It does happen. It goes with the territory. It doesn't deter me. It makes you feel good knowing you may be saving someone's life or saving someone from serious injury, doing what I'm doing. I actually had a victim, after I prosecuted her stalker, put the stalker in prison, thank me for giving her back her life. You don't get that in other professions. So, yeah, it can be dangerous. The book actually details some of the threats I've had. There was another guy I had prosecuted who couldn't make up his mind if I was his second mother or he wanted to take me out with an assault rifle.
Q - Oh, boy.
A - And, had me on a list actually. He had told his doctor this after he had gotten out of prison and a few years had passed, that people had been very mean to him and he gave the doctor a list of twenty-eight names, one of which was mine. He told the doctor he was going to take those evil people out with an assault rifle. I looked and I was number twenty-seven. So, I figured, well, hopefully, if he tries, I'll at least have some forewarning about it. But it happens. You deal with it.