What Makes Stalkers Kill?

What Makes Stalkers Kill?

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Not all stalkers are killers, but most killers are stalkers. Determining the factors that differentiate the violent stalker from the nonviolent stalker is complex. Statistical data is skewed because many cases that begin as stalking escalate to more serious crimes and are then classified as such. For example, a criminal who stalked his victim for two years and then murdered them is often statistically classified as only a murderer.

While state reporting is improving in this area, it is a flaw in a lot of the statistical data that is currently available. It is thus difficult to obtain hard data as to how many murders were the end result of stalking behavior.

Another issue with the current data is that about 50 percent of stalking crimes go unreported by the victims. This is particularly true in the cases of stalking between intimate partners or when a stalker who is known to the victim. Victims who do not report being stalked often cite their reasons as fearing reprisal from the stalker or their belief that the police cannot help.

Lastly, stalkers being under-identified by the criminal justice system has added to the inaccuracies in the data. An Office of Justice Programs survey of criminal justice practitioners found that stalkers continue to be charged and sentenced under harassment, intimidation, or other related laws instead of under a state's anti-stalking statute.

Stalking Defined

Prior to 1990, there were no anti-stalking laws in the United States. California was the first state to criminalize stalking after several high-profile stalking cases including the attempted murder of actress Theresa Saldana, the 1988 mass murder at ESL Incorporated by a former employee and stalker Richard Farley, and the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by stalker Robert John Bardo. Other states were quick to follow suit and, by the end of 1993, all states had anti-stalking laws.

Stalking is largely defined by the National Institute of Justice as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear." Though recognized as a crime throughout the United States, stalking varies widely in statute definition, scope, crime classification, and penalty.

Stalker and Victim Relationship

While the criminalization of stalking is relatively new, stalking is not a new human behavior. While there are many studies performed in reference to the victims of stalkers, the research on stalkers is more limited. Why people become stalkers is complicated and multifaceted. However, recent forensic research has helped to understand different patterns of stalking behavior. This research has aided in identifying those stalkers who are likely to be the most dangerous and high risk for injuring or murdering their victims. The relationship between the stalker and the victim has proven a key factor in understanding the level of risks to the victims.

Forensic research has broken down the relationships into three groups.

  • Former intimate partners. This includes current and former husbands, cohabitants, and boyfriends and girlfriends.
  • Friends, family members, and acquaintances,
  • A private stranger which includes public figures.

The former intimate partner group is the largest category of stalking cases. It is also the group where the highest risks exist for the stalkers to become violent. Several studies have identified a significant association between intimate partner stalking and sexual assault.

Classifying Stalker Behavior

In 1993, stalker expert Paul Mullen, who was the director and chief psychiatrist at Forensicare in Victoria, Australia, performed extensive studies on the behavior of stalkers. The research was designed to help diagnose and categorize stalkers, and it included the typical triggers that cause their behavior to become more volatile. Furthermore, these studies included recommended treatment plans.

Mullen and his research team came up with five categories of stalkers:

Rejected Stalker

Rejected stalking is seen in cases where there is an unwanted breakdown of a close relationship, most often with a romantic partner, but it can include family members, friends, and work associates. The desire to seek revenge becomes an alternative when the stalker's hope for reconciliation with his victim is diminished. The stalker will characteristically use stalking as a substitute for the lost relationship. Stalking provides the opportunity for continued contact with the victim. It also allows the stalker to feel more control over the victim and provides a way to nurse the stalker's damaged self-esteem.

Intimacy Seeker

Stalkers classified as intimacy seekers are driven by loneliness and mental illness. They are delusional and often believe that they are in love with a complete stranger and that the feeling is reciprocated (erotomanic delusions). Intimacy seekers are generally socially awkward and intellectually weak. They will emulate what they believe is normal behavior for a couple in love. They will buy their "true love" flowers, send them intimate gifts and write them an excessive amount of love letters. Intimacy seekers are often unable to recognize that their attention is unwanted because of their belief that they share a special bond with their victim.

Incompetent Stalker

The incompetent stalkers and intimacy seekers share some of the same characteristics in that they both tend to be socially awkward and intellectually challenged and their targets are strangers. Unlike intimacy stalkers, incompetent stalkers are not looking for a long lasting relationship, but rather for something short term like a date or a brief sexual encounter. They recognize when their victims are rejecting them, but this only fuels their efforts to win them over. At this stage, their methods become increasingly negative and fearful to the victim. For example, a love note at this stage may say "I'm watching you" rather than "I love you."

Resentful Stalker

Resentful stalkers want revenge, not a relationship, with their victims. They often feel that they have been belittled, humiliated, or mistreated. They consider themselves the victim rather than the person they are stalking. According to Mullen, resentful stalkers suffer from paranoia and they often had fathers who were intensely controlling. They will compulsively dwell on the times in their lives when they experienced extreme distress. They act out in the present day the negative emotions that their past experiences have caused. They attach responsibility for the painful experiences they suffered in the past the victims they are targeting in the present.

Predator Stalker

Like the resentful stalker, the predator stalker does not seek a relationship with his victim, but instead finds satisfaction in feeling power and control over their victims. Research proves that the predator stalker is the most violent type of stalker in that they often fantasize about physically harming their victims, often in a sexual way. They find immense pleasure in letting their victims know that they can harm them at any time. They often collect personal information about their victims and will involve the victims' family members or professional contacts in their stalking behavior, usually in some derogatory way.

Stalking and Mental Illness

Not all stalkers have a mental disorder, but it is not uncommon. At least 50 percent of stalkers that suffer from mental disorders have often had some involvement with the criminal justice or mental health services. They suffer from disorders such as personality disorders, schizophrenia, depression, with substance abuse being the most common disorder.

Mullen's research suggests that most stalkers should not be treated as criminals but rather people who are suffering from mental disorders and who are in need of professional help.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Mohandie, Meloy, Green-McGowan, & Williams (2006). Journal of Forensic Sciences 51, 147-155)