The tragic case of Rebecca Griego, shot to death by her stalker at the University of Washington, had particular resonance for me. During my last couple of years at <i>Seattle Weekly</i>, I was stalked and harassed by an unknown person.
The tragic case of Rebecca Griego, shot to death by her stalker at the University of Washington, had particular resonance for me. During my last couple of years at Seattle Weekly, I was stalked and harassed by an unknown person.
The tragic case of Rebecca Griego, shot to death by her stalker at the University of Washington Monday, April 2, had particular resonance for me. During my last couple of years at Seattle Weekly, I was stalked and harassed by an unknown person.
People in journalism are used to getting angry calls and nasty letters and e-mails. In my years at the Weekly, I collected folders of "tin-foil" mail from manic paranoids who explained to me how the world worked. Like how Morley Safer of CBS's 60 Minutes was receiving his scripts directly from inter-dimensional beings. I have even had an angry reader reeking of pot show up at my house in the middle of the night making vague threats: He was angry that I had suggested that the U.S had more pretext for invading Canada than we had for Iraq.
The humor was lost on him. Maybe it threatened his supply of B.C. bud.
The Weekly office has been cleared at least once by the bomb squad for a suspicious package (The Stranger got one too). It turned out to be some kind of voodoo art project. I think. We were never sure.
For the most part, the dangers of being a columnist are things like booze, obesity, and high blood pressure.
But one day I received a call from a Seattle police detective who was working on homeland security issues. He wanted to know if I had sent a letter to Starbucks threatening to blow the place up. Someone had, and had put my name on the return address.
Great, I thought. Some disgruntled reader has gotten me into the gulag of a homeland security database. But the m.o. of the letter sounded familiar, because we had just started receiving a series of weird letters and packages containing violent, homophobic scrawls, nasty anti-Mossback screeds, and objects like an unprotected hypodermic needle. Sometimes the letters or envelopes made reference to weapons. A return address might be the name of a gun, like a Walther PPK.
The interns who opened the mail were freaked out. Most of the mail was to me or purportedly from me, and as a police officer who examined it observed, "This guy's really got it in for you." Yeah, that's what I thought.
The mail would pour in at intervals. Sometimes silence, sometimes five or six letters in a day.
I asked a psychiatrist to look at the material. I turned it all over to the police, who wanted to track the guy down. Both shrink and cops warned that this person could increase the level of harassment, possibly showing up in person. I was advised to be careful, call the cops if anyone suspicious was hanging around. I was advised to continue my normal routines and not let on that I was disturbed by any of it.
If you don't know who the person is, there's not much you can do. If you do know, you can take steps like getting a restraining order, but there are no guarantees.
Then one day a package with familiar handwriting arrived at my home. I peeked inside and saw something that seemed weird, a metal object I couldn't identify. A bomb? I called the police who came and examined the package. No bomb, but a bullet. OK, getting that at home seemed ominous.
Throughout my career in local journalism, I have always been listed in the phone book. I was now regretting being so available, so vulnerable. My writing was putting my family at risk.
I was in the middle of preparing to move anyway, and the police officer said that was probably a good thing, but that it was almost impossible these days to get lost. One way or another, your address and phone will wind up in a database people can get their hands on. I was referred to a program for harassment victims that allows you to receive your mail through a mail drop in Olympia. That seemed like a headache and an overreaction. It's mostly used by battered women for whom safety means getting off the grid with state help. I was told I qualified for the program, but I figured I didn't need it. It seemed like defeat.
When I moved, I got an unlisted phone number for the first time. A few weeks later, Chuck Taylor, Crosscut's editor who then worked with me at Seattle Weekly, looked up my background online to see what was there. My new unlisted phone number was available on the Internet for a fee. Everyone's data is there for a fee. The problem isn't Big Brother so much as thousands of Little Brothers who can point, click, and invade your privacy with no hassle.
Last year, a familiar style of package arrived at the Weekly. Only this time, for the first time, it hadn't come through the mail. It was hand-delivered. By a fluke, no one saw who delivered it. But now the person was boldly coming into my physical space. Would my new home be next?
But my correspondent left clues this time. And after some real detective work, SPD tracked down a suspect. The letters and packages stopped coming.
Last fall, after I'd left the paper, I received a call telling me that the case was being reviewed by the prosecutor. I talked to a victim's ombudsman who said she'd keep me informed. I heard a couple of weeks ago that they had decided to charge the suspect with one count of stalking and that I will be asked to appear at the trial.
I hadn't planned on writing about this. Somehow, writing about it seemed like it would be a victory for the stalker, giving them attention, gratifying their urge to make my life miserable or uncomfortable. I didn't want them to know that yes, I had feared that a figure with a Walther PPK might step out of the shadows, come to my house and attack me or my wife.
And I was under enough pressure at work. I wanted to keep some semblance of normalcy in my life. I didn't want to give someone else any ideas, either. It's easy to spread misery in the world. All it takes is a phone call, e-mail, or a stamp.
I know my case doesn't compare with what Rebecca Griego went through. Not even close. But I do now have an inkling of what victims of harassment and stalking go through, and how angry it makes you when it's your life that gets turned upside down because someone else has a problem.
I didn't lose my life, but there was a while there when I wasn't sure if it would turn out that way.