'How one man stalked me for 30 years'

As MPs call for a harder line on the offence, former model Caroline Christensen tells her story

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The Independent Online

It began with a couple of weird letters from an obsessed fan and ended last week in court. But the revelation that a man has been dogging her movements and monitoring her life for 30 years has left the former page three model Caroline Christensen in shock.

Speaking to The IoS after her tormentor, 51-year-old Peter Underwood, pleaded guilty to harassment last week, the Eighties model-turned-author told how her confidence has been shattered by what she calls a "life-changing experience".

Now 50, her days as a topless model, when she would get "polite fan mail", are past. She received her first letters from Underwood in 1997, ironically the same year the Protection from Harassment Act came in, although subsequent police investigation revealed that Underwood had been obsessed by her for far longer.

"The first letter was slightly disturbing, but I ignored it, and then I received a subsequent letter which had an angrier tone that caused me to be alarmed, so I called the police. They went to his address and gave him a warning. I didn't hear from him again, so that was the end of that."

Or so she thought. Then, after years of silence, she received more letters last December. Ms Christensen had unwittingly given her stalker a way of getting to her when she published her first novel last year. Underwood sent the letters via her publisher.

Refusing to go into details of the "disturbing" letters that had a "very traumatic" effect on her, she said: "They were delusional. He indicated more self-harm than harm towards me, but that was disturbing in its own way. He went into quite a lot of details about his mental health problems for which he laid the blame on me because I wouldn't have a relationship with him."

Ms Christensen is one of 120,000 British women who are victims of stalkers; and the obsession ends in murder in at least 12 cases every year. Yet, while the coalition has indicated that it would like to tackle the problem, many insist the authorities still do not take the issue seriously enough.

This week, a group of MPs will attempt to force the Government's hand with a report on stalking, calling for a series of legal changes that would compel the police and courts to take a harder line on the offence. The all-party Justice Unions' Parliamentary Group will present 30 recommendations, including a demand for ministers to introduce a specific offence of stalking, tougher sentences for offenders, and "treatment orders" forcing stalkers to get professional help to tackle their obsession.

The group, which held a lengthy inquiry into the subject with the help of the charity Protection Against Stalking and the probation union Napo, says the justice system too often deals with an offender's latest offence and fails to identify long-term behaviour as stalking. "They pull someone in for criminal damage or assault, but don't realise it is part of a course of offending behaviour," one insider said.

The majority of women (65 per cent) who report being stalked are not satisfied with the police response, while 72 per cent are unhappy with the way in which stalking is handled by the criminal justice system, with most cases not going to court, according to a report released by Protection Against Stalking last November.

Another victim, Claire Waxman, 35, was awarded £3,500 in damages at the High Court last week after the Crown Prosecution Service was ruled to have placed her stalker's rights above her safety. "It needs to be a separate criminal offence because it is a serious crime and it needs to be dealt with seriously," said Ms Waxman, who had to move house five times and suffered a miscarriage due to the stress inflicted by her stalker, Elliot Fogel, over almost a decade.

"It has ruined my life in many ways, it's taken away the security that I had," she added. Fogel, 36, broke into her car, made hundreds of late-night phone calls to her home, and Googled her more than 40,000 times in one year. He had continued to breach a restraining order but the CPS did not prosecute – on the grounds that he was gathering material for a civil lawsuit against her.

Although Fogel was jailed for two years last month, Ms Waxman is worried her nightmare is not over. "I have to be realistic and prepare myself for the fact that he may well come out and continue to breach again ... as a victim of stalking you are left to feel very vulnerable."

Ms Christensen admits she was terrified of her stalker "turning up on my doorstep". A search of Underwood's house by the police found evidence of attempts to contact her that dated back to 1982, when, he believed, she had smiled at him at a bus stop. In the years that followed, he tried repeatedly to find her – scouring the electoral roll to seek her relatives, and trying to hire a private detective.

"He says he saw me at a bus stop in Northampton," said Ms Christensen. "But I've never been to Northampton, so it's either something he's fantasised about or mistaken identity."

Concern over her safety was such that the police put in "protective measures" for her. Not wanting to elaborate, she describes it as "a traumatic experience in its own way".

Underwood pleaded guilty to harassment at Northampton Magistrates' Court last week and was given a six-week prison sentence suspended for 18 months, as well as supervision and restraining orders.

Ms Christensen did not go to court, fearful her tormentor would interpret this as a desire to see him. Happy with the outcome, she said yesterday: "I wasn't looking to be vengeful. I want the stalking to stop, so hopefully the measures they put in place will achieve that."

She does not blame the police for not picking up on her stalker earlier: "Some reports have treated the police quite unfairly over this, intimating that they have been dragging their heels," she said. "But the police acted in an exemplary manner ... my message to other victims would be to have faith in the police."