Stalked for years by a man she met once

Harassed relentlessly by a stranger, Evonne von Heussen formed an anti- stalking group. Emma Cook reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ATTRACTING the attentions of an obsessive fan is the penalty of celebrity status that the famous most often fear. Helena Bonham-Carter, Lady Helen Windsor and Steffi Graf are a few of the well-documented cases that make the rest of us grateful fo r anonymity. Yet the majority of victims in Britain and America who are habitually followed and threatened by one pursuer, often for years at a time, are neither rich nor well-known. The law in Britain, despite some recent amendments, still provides litt le protection for them.

Evonne von Heussen, a British woman now in her early forties, was stalked from 1975 to 1991. For the first three years she received silent phone calls, envelopes with photographs of herself and her two young daughters, pornographic literature and underwear. Bouquets of dead flowers were left on her doorstep and on top of her car.

She only recognised the man responsible when he turned up at her door one Sunday afternoon in 1978. As a medical student in London, she had attended two of his psychology lectures. They had communicated once: he had bumped into her on the stairs of the college library and apologised politely.

That was the last she saw of him until he forced his way into her house three years later. In the course of an eight-hour ordeal he attempted to rape her, but failed and started choking her. Finally a neighbour heard her screams and called the police.

The final humiliation was the officers' reaction. They described her experience as a "domestic incident" and let the attacker go with a caution. And that was only the beginning. Evonne and her daughters were followed by the same man for the next 13 years. The phone calls increased and became more obscene. "It's worse than anything you can ever imagine," she says. "You don't know who or where your enemy is. All you do know is when he catches you, that'll be the end."

Evonne moved away from London but her stalker still kept in touch. To find out where she was, he told her neighbours that he was an estranged husband and showed them photographs of her to prove it. The letters and ``gifts'' continued. In 1991 she left the country to live in America for several months.

"He hasn't bothered me in the last three years," she says. "But the impact of what he did still remains. I feel angry and frustrated about what this one person has done to my life." She now has no idea where he lives nor why his attentions ceased as unexpectedly as they began.

In a bizarre twist of events her daughter, Kirstein, 21, was also stalked four years ago by a different man. He threatened her constantly for two-and-a-half years. Like her mother, she had to flee England and now lives "somewhere in Great Britain". "The

worst pain is not being able to see my own daughter at Christmas," says Evonne. "I know now that I can take it but it's different seeing a young girl's life being ruined.''

As a result of their shared experiences, mother and daughter founded the National Anti-Stalking and Harassment Support Association (Nash) in July 1993. Six months later they started a public campaign to try to change the law.

In Britain the act of stalking itself is not a crime. In cases of harassment, the Public Order Act 1986 is invoked, in particular section five, which deals with "harassment, alarm or distress". The law was amended slightly last year when the Criminal Justice Bill went through Parliament. It is now illegal for an individual to use threatening words or behaviour "with intent" to make someone believe that violence will be used against them. It is also illegal to use behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress. The fine has been increased from £1,000 and a discretionary sentence to either a six-month prison sentence, a £5,000 fine, or both.

Yet Evonne insists that this amendment has made no difference. Many perpetrators are let off with a warning and a small fine of between £50 and £1,000. "It still does not allow the police to exercise the power of arrest," she says. "Instead, the victim has to provide significant evidence of physical crime before the police can act. By then it may be too late."

Litigation lawyer Stephen Reading, who advises Nash, believes there should be a specific anti-stalking law, as in some states in America. "Stalking isn't always overt. It's an insidious thing which doesn't necessarily fit in under section five as `threatening, abusive words or behaviour'," he says. "At the moment it's very difficult for the police to arrest and prosecute an individual simply because they are following someone home or keeping an eye on their house."

Persuading the law that a case exists can be the hardest part. As one Nash member argues: ``What's the point of telling anyone when no one believes me? You lodge a complaint and it gets to court. The judge slaps him on the wrist and says `don't do it ag a in'. He fines the offender £50, with a six-month sentence suspended for a year.''

Since Nash began, more than 2,300 victims have been in touch. Only a tiny percentage of these have been celebrities and fewer than 16 have been male. According to Evonne, the two most common types of stalkers are the ``erotomaniacs'' and the ``jealous obsessives''. The erotomaniac tends to become obsessed with a well-known person and believes they are in love. They also feel their admiration should be reciprocated. Although this group receives 90 per cent of press attention, they account for only 10 percent of the problem. The jealous obsessive is far more common, usually ex-husbands or ex-partners. "When a relationship ends, their sense of self-control ends, so they terrorise their victims to recapture self-esteem,'' Evonne ex p lains.

In rare cases the perpetrators have phoned Nash for guidance. "Some of them are parents and slowly it dawns on them that what they are doing is wrong,'' says Evonne, who puts them in touch with counsellors and therapists. Many, according to her, are respectable professionals. "It annoys me that these people are always portrayed as looking and acting deranged,'' she says, citing two recent examples where the pursuers were a police officer and a judge.

Most worryingly, stalking can be a precursor to murder. Which is why it is so surprising that the law appears to be so lenient when prosecuting. Shortly before Evonne agreed to be interviewed she had just helped detectives with a murder inquiry. The vic t im was a woman who had contacted Nash early last year. ``People don't just walk out and think, `Today's a good day to murder'. No, they stalk you beforehand," she says. ``Start looking back at your serial murderers and fetish killers, and you'll see the

pattern."

Even stringent laws cannot compensate for the psychological scars of being stalked long-term. ``It's a brave step I take every time I walk out on my own,'' says Evonne, who still finds it difficult to be alone in male company. ``The law is no more able to help me in 1995 than it was when I was assaulted in 1978.

"Why should a person be allowed to ruin the life of another, wilfully and repetitively, and get away with it?''

Nash can be contacted on: 0926-334833.

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