Awareness of stalking rises

This January marks the 10th anniversary of National Stalking Awareness Month. In the past decade, increased training and resources and more clearly defined laws have helped improve the safety of stalking victims but not necessarily led to fewer instances of stalking, according to local officials.

On one hand, increased education has led to a more active approach when addressing stalking, said Jackie Harris, victims’ advocate for the Marietta law director.

“I feel like officers have been educated a little more and know what to look for,” she said.

In the past, there was a sense that a person being followed did not necessarily warrant a legal action, added Robin Bozian, a managing attorney for Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.

“I can think of years ago where the response to stalking was ‘Oh he’s just following you. It’s not that big a deal,'” said Bozian.

Now police and others give more attention to stalking because the behavior has increasingly been seen to come hand in hand with more dangerous, sometimes deadly behavior, she said.

A study of stalking by the Stalking Resource Center shows that 76 percent of intimate partner femicide victims had been stalked by the perpetrator as compared to 67 percent that had been physically abused.

Bozian recalled the case of Shirley Nameth, who was gunned down in Marietta in 1999 by her estranged husband John Nameth.

“This guy drove from several states away and was stalking her,” she said.

More clearly defined legal definitions and better ways of addressing stalking have also developed over the past decade, said Harris.

Officers try to look for established patterns of behavior when addressing stalking, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.

“There has to be a pattern of conduct that causes somebody to fear for their safety,” he said.

Some calls of stalking lack this pattern of conduct and can sometimes be charged as something else, said Waite.

On Sunday, a Parkersburg man was charged with domestic violence and failure to cease and desist after following his wife in a vehicle even after being ordered to stop.

Kurt Williams, 33, allegedly followed his wife to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, was ordered to stop following her by a deputy, but continued to do so after leaving the office.

Protection order violations are another common charge, said Bozian, who has helped clients craft protection orders through SEOLS.

“We have some special funding to assist victims who wish to seek a special protection order against stalking,” she said.

Often it is easier to charge a defendant for violating a protection order than it is to charge him or her with the underlying charge, she said.

The ability to file civil and criminal protection orders in relation to stalking came around the same time as Ohio’s menacing by stalking law, which was introduced in 1992, said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram III.

The law was introduced in an effort to fill in a gap between the existing laws against menacing and aggravated menacing, he said.

“There was a hole between menacing and aggravated menacing where people could commit an offense but it wasn’t either of those cases,” he said.

Specifically, Ohio’s menacing by stalking law went beyond a threat of physical harm and included a component where defendants could be charged for causing mental distress, said Bertram.

Since its introduction more than 20 years ago, the menacing by stalking law has been updated six times.

The law now includes a provision against cyberstalking, said Waite.

“That’s a newer part of it. There’s a provision where you can’t use any electronic communication and you can’t post a message urging another person to commit a stalking violation,” he said.

According to statistics from the Stalking Resource Center, nearly eight in 10 stalkers use more than one means of approach.

Often stalking is a repetitive behavior.

According to the Stalking Resource Center, almost one-third of stalkers have stalked before.

Local statistics also indicate stalking is a pattern behavior.

Last year two cases of stalking were prosecuted in Marietta Municipal Court, both against the same defendant, according to Jason Hamilton, court administrator.

The same occurred in 2010, with one defendant charged with two stalking cases. In 2009, four defendants were charged with eight stalking violations, four of which were levied against a single defendant.

While most stalking offenses are first-degree misdemeanor violations, a second offense can elevate the crime to a felony, said Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.

“I’ve got one case pending right now that is a stalking case,” he said.

Douglas Morrison, 50, of 826 Sams Lane, Washington, W.Va., was indicted in March on seven fifth-degree felony counts of violating a protection order, at least one of which was in relation to stalking, said Schneider.

While increased response and services such as victims’ advocacy and legal services have gone a long way to making victims safer, stalking continues to be a problem, said Harris.

She suggested better mental health support as one way to combat the issue.

“If we had more mental health facilities that would get somebody the proper health care, that would do something,” she said.