Inside the Mind of a Stalker

Dawnette Knight believed she was in love with Michael Douglas when she allegedly threatened to slice up his Oscar-winning wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and feed her to her dogs.

Neither Douglas nor Zeta-Jones had ever met Knight. She had become infatuated with Douglas after seeing him in movies such as Fatal Attraction. After reading about an alleged affair by Zeta-Jones in a supermarket tabloid, Knight sent the actress more than two dozen threatening letters and allegedly made repeated phone calls to her agents and hotels where the couple would stay.

Knight, who has admitted sending the letters, overdosed on barbiturates while in county jail after her arrest but a court-appointed psychiatrist found her mentally competent, and a judge ruled today she would stand trial on stalking charges. A pretrial hearing was to continue Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Experts say Knight's willingness to avenge Douglas for a supposed affair by Zeta-Jones illustrates the world celebrity stalkers often create when they believe they have a real relationship with the rich and famous.

"Celebrity stalkers tend to be psychotic," said Jack Levin, professor of criminology and director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "They often possess rich fantasy lives in which they feel personally involved [with the celebrity]. Many of the celebrity stalkers actually imagine they are having an intimate relationship with their victims."

A Reality of Their Own

Sometimes celebrities have never had any physical contact with the stalkers who pursue them. Their stalkers may know them only as the character they play on a soap opera or major motion picture and refer to them primarily by their character's name.

Experts say celebrity stalkers tend to suffer mental illness and are so disenchanted with reality, or unable to cope with reality, that they create their own. And their favorite celebrity is the center of their imagined universe.

John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 to impress actress Jodie Foster. David Letterman was stalked for years by Margaret Mary Ray until she killed herself in 1998.

At least two alleged stalkers have pursued Britney Spears over the past two years. A Canadian man was arrested twice in a three-month period earlier this year for allegedly stalking Spears when authorities found him on her family's property. Last year, a Japanese businessman was ordered to stay at least 300 yards away from the pop star after he allegedly tried to contact her at two of her homes and her parents' residence and sent several notes and photos to her.

"We don't really know an awful lot about what causes people to stalk," said Yvonne Downes, professor of criminal justice at Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y. "People who stalk celebrities tend to be so dissatisfied with their life — or are just so unable to cope with reality — that they create their own reality. The universe they tend to live in is an interesting one."

Besides hiring bodyguards and getting restraining orders, there is little that celebrities can do to protect themselves from stalkers. They have to be wary of showing too much kindness to potential stalkers, who may interpret any gesture as an affirmation of an imaginary relationship. However, ignoring stalkers or getting restraining orders can also anger them.

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