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You don't have to be famous to be stalked

You could suffer like Madonna or Princess Anne, says Jean Ritchie

Saturday 06 January 1996 00:02 GMT

When Madonna's lawyers argued this week for her to be excused from appearing to give evidence against a man accused of stalking her, they were not just trying to protect her from losing a lucrative day's work. There was a real point - stalkers thrive on seeing their victims, on knowing they have impinged on their victims' lives. For the quarry of a determined stalker, there is no hiding place.

For famous victims such as Madonna and the Princess Royal, the risks are obvious.Showbiz stars need attention, and they need fans. The Princess Royal eschews personal publicity, but the Queen recognises that the monarchy can't distance itself from the flag-waving faithful if it is to survive. A star like Madonna receives 4,000 fan letters a month, and as many as 10 per cent will be "inappropriate", according to Gavin de Becker, the richest Hollywood security adviser.

Much of the stars' post isderanged: items sent to Hollywood celebrities include a coyote's head, dog's teeth, a bedpan, syringe of blood, half-eaten chocolate bar, and photographs of corpses with the celebrity's face pasted over the head.

The US government commissioned a 600-page report entitled Mentally Disordered Offenders in Pursuit of Celebrities and Politicians. Professor Park Dietz of the University of California studied de Becker's files of 200,000 items of mail, and analysed the behaviour patterns of a violent stalker. Anyone who sends mail from different areas is potentially very dangerous - if they are travelling in a random fashion, they are deeply disturbed. Mark Chapman, John Lennon's assassin, and John Hinckley, whose obsession with Jodie Foster led to his attempt on Ronald Reagan's life, both zigzagged across the States in the days before their attacks.

Hollywood security advisers like de Becker used the report to set up elaborate protection,often stalking the stalkers to protect the stars. One known stalker sat in the Hollywood Bowl watching "his" star without realising the seats on either side of him were occupied by de Becker's men.

When film star Michael J Fox received 5,000 letters from one fan, de Becker tracked her down, drawing up an astonishingly accurate psychological profile. She was overweight, untidy, had a clerical job, and had no successful relationship with a man. In her room, among photos and articles about Fox, police found a butcher's knife.

British stars are beginning to have the same kinds of problems as their Hollywood counterparts. Television presenters like Carol Barnes, Zeinab Badawi, Kirsty Wark, Ulrika Jonsson, Michaela Strachan and Gloria Hunniford have all been targets, as have Michael Crawford, Ben Elton, Martin Shaw, Lady Helen Taylor, Helena Bonham Carter, Kate O'Mara, Nyree Dawn Porter, Diana Rigg, Julia Sawalha, George Harrison, Rod Stewart and Sting.

But in Britain, only about 5 per cent of stalking has a celebrity prey. "Ordinary" victims cannot afford private security, and have little protection in law. Civil injunctions are costly and ineffective. The recent Criminal Justice Bill allowed police to arrest anyone for "intent to harass" another person. But "intent" is a vague concept yet to be defined in court. It is not a crime to park outside someone's house or to send them 20 letters a day - unless the letters are threatening, pornographic or libellous.

In America, many states have anti-stalking laws with heavy sentences recognising infringement of the victims' rights.

Many stalkers are obviously in need of psychiatric help, and prison is the wrong place for them. But the needs of their victims should be paramount.

Britain must follow America's example and bring in specific anti-stalking laws. Police and the courts must understand how serious the "nuisance" of being shadowed by a stalker can be.

The writer is the author of Stalkers (Harper Collins pounds 5.99)

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