Friday, July 23, 2010

Q&A: Stalkers and Victims

Novelist Asks: Stalkers and Victims?

Today is set aside for questions and answers. Any question our readers want to ask about law enforcement, mystery authors, writing challenges or publishing topics.  We’ll collect these questions, do our due diligence, and then post these answers on  Hook’em and Book’em. Any topic is game.

Mystery writers: struggling over something in your plot? Trying to make it more realistic? Readers: Maybe something you read just did not make sense and you wanted to ask whether this could actually happen. Shoot your questions to this blog and I’ll do my best to answer.

One cautionary note: I'm not a lawyer or a psychiatrist (although some people think I need the services of both sometimes). My comments are not to be construed to be the letter of the law or heartily approved by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. These answers are based upon twenty-six years in law enforcement; six years covering the police beat as a journalist; and, hopefully, a tad of common sense. To risk a cliché, take my comments with a grain of salt. 

So here goes…

MARIE asks … I was wondering what is the basic process that a stranger stalker would take to establish contact with a victim, and what are some of the things that he will say or do?

MARK: Stranger stalkers are their own breed of ilk. They’ve purposefully decided to haunt a victim that they’ve randomly or specifically selected to target. Someone they came across in any number of ways—chance meeting on the subway, stood in line getting a coffee, saw them at the grocery store. Something caught the stalker’s attention, triggered this creep’s libido to focus on a particular victim.

A need to exert power often drives this pathetic individual  to terrorize others, though there are a plethora of motivations The stalker’s own life probably lack satisfaction and fulfillment. They stalk to obtain this power.  Researchers found in one study of 74 cases that stalkers exhibited erotomania (mistaken, and overwhelming belief the victim is in love with the stalker), love obsession, or they're simply obsessed with the target.  These obsessions include a need to feel a sense of power over another individual, much like those who commit domestic abuse on their spouses. They build themselves up by tearing others down. In this case, the stalker  forces the victim into a world of fear where the aggressor believes they hold the power.

In order to exert this power, the stalker needs to communicate with the victim.  This communication  happens either physically or electronically (Cyber stalking, for example). Physical communication might be letters or notes left on a car, or the stalker suddenly surfaces to make sure the victim knows they are being watched. Electronically, contact can be made by telephone, fax, harassing Internet chat rooms messages,  or other digital venues. For example, late night calls where the victim hears heavy breathing on the line. Or a faxed message at the victim's place of employment.

Communication may vary from case to case, but generally the stalker wants to create within the victim feelings of fear and powerlessness. This communication might convey the message that the stalker has specific information about the victim, thus establishing the stalker is near and capable of  watching the victim’s every move. “I like the yellow dress you wore  on the bus today. Wear that again. It pleases me.” You get the idea. Fear. Power. Control.

I found an excellent online bulletin on stalking, published by the FBI, titled Stalking the Stalker: A Profile of Offenders. This site will give great links to many other sources.

Marie further asks … Also, if the victim decides to leave and start a new life, what are some things she can do to change her identity, leaving almost all traces behind? And what are some ways that she can still be found?

MARK: First, victims do not have to flee. They can fight, and there are a number of advocacy groups and services willing to work with these victims.  

But what if the victim chooses to flee?

The victim must choose to give up their identity and all relationship-based ties—families, friends, and past acquaintances. Everything. One slip up and that person can be found. Even if all these ties are cut, there still might be ways a stalker could locate these victims if the hunter is resourceful. 

The U.S. Marshalls Service (USMS) and other agencies have developed awesome programs to hide people, like USMS’s WITSEC program. (Here is a link to the U.S. Marshall's explanation of WITSEC. Understandably, they're very generic about WITSEC and witness protection techniques). 

Victims are human, and humans error. These mistakes raise the risk factor for the victims for a number of reasons, including technological advancements that allow hunters to find their prey. Biometric scanners, RFID chips, illegal wire taps, and cellular/GPS tracking devices are just a few tricks in the hat available to resourceful trackers.

Here is a short laundry list of things the victim might need to change in order to hide: Victims would need to replace such things as identity papers, vehicles, and financial services. Forget credit cards and debit cards. The victim needs to convert to all cash, at least until a new identity can be solidly established. What about employment? They need to find employment in an entirely different field than the one they used in their old life. Once a doctor? Forget it. Now you’re a handyman. Once a plumber? Forget it. Now you're a … hairdresser? Whatever job you can grab without triggering a system set up to track peopleIRS, franchise tax, libraries, schools, social security cards, etc. And this only government tracking. Private tracking capabilities are even more invasive.

The victim would need to move in a hurry. To another city, another state, maybe even another country—although it is much harder to flee the country without identity papers. Remember The Anarchy Cookbook first printed in 1970? Buried in that book—along with a lot of illegal advice about creating civil disorder—is a section on how to obtain a new identify. Technology has improved, but some of the old ways of building a false paper trail still work today.

The problem just intensifies if there’s more than one person to relocate. Years ago when I worked narcotics, we needed to move an entire family before making arrests and rounding up a drug ring. We scooped up the family, drove across state, and set them up in a motel until further living arrangements could be made. The wife called back to the old neighborhood before we even got their bags unpacked. In a crisis, people feel the need to reach out and talk to someone they know. An old friend. A family member.

So, you’re a novelist trying to relocate your victim to safety. Sit down and try to figure out how many ways the bad guys can track you or your loved ones. Use your own life. Then figure a way to get around this. 

Or not. 

Mystery suspense is all about tension and conflict. A person on the run offers chapters of conflict for the writer. Just keep your character alive and kicking until the end of the novel. After that, well … it's in your hands.

Good luck.


  1. Wow Mark! Thank you so much for answering my questions on here. I really enjoyed reading all of that information.


  2. You're welcome, Marie. I wish you well on the novel.

    1. Stalking forums and help I ave a staler greg and terri lewis vi jealo Oh usy is a mental illness t lewis