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.

"That's why celebrities have such a hard time knowing how to respond to a stalker," said Levin. "Any small bit of sympathy, no matter how faint, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, can inspire a stalker. A psychotic stalker can take the smallest pat on the back and turn it into a major confirmation of profound love."

When Someone Can’t Let Go

Celebrities cannot look for or react to potential warnings signs because in most cases, they do not have any real relationship with their stalkers. They can only react after someone has repeatedly sent them threatening notes or tried to reach them by trespassing on their property.

However, stalking is not just a problem for the rich and famous. According to the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 8 percent of women and 2 percent of men in the United States have been stalked at some time in their lives. Many stalking cases involve breakups in which ex-boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses cannot let go of a failed relationship.

Stalking, some critics say, is rooted in the emphasis society places on relationships and marriage. Most relationship stalking cases involve men who pursue and threaten women. Approximately 78 percent of stalking victims are women, according to the National Institute of Justice, while 87 percent of stalking offenders are male.

Though men are rarely stalking victims, some people believe these cases could be under-reported and more prevalent than believed.

"You don't find many men who are stalking victims," said Downes. "Most don't like to think of themselves as victims in that way. Men are more likely to stalk women. In our society, men are raised to be aggressive, the pursuers, while women are taught to be more patient, lay back a little bit. Still, cases where women stalk men may be a bit underestimated."

Sign of True Love — or Danger?

Experts say that men who stalk their girlfriends during the relationship or after it has ended tend to be jealous, possessive and relentlessly persistent. However, it may be difficult for potential victims to recognize stalking warning signs.

They may interpret the signs as demonstrations of love and affection.

"There are warning signs early in the relationship but the problem is that the woman may not see these as negatives," Levin said. "She sees these as a confirmation of love. A very jealous, possessive boyfriend will be seen as someone who's deeply in love. And that kind of jealous reaction from a partner will be seen as a compliment, something flattering from someone who's deeply in love. That is the time when a woman should think long and hard about having a partner who simply will not take no for an answer."

In intimate stalking cases, the spurned lover or spouse cannot stand rejection and wants to maintain power over the victim. They may be trying to compensate for the lack of power they feel they have over their own lives, experts say.

"Many of these stalkers often suffered a great deal as children and because of that suffering they grow up feeling a profound sense of powerlessness," Levin said. "So later in their relationships with adults, they do everything in they can to maximize a sense of power. They can't take no for an answer, and treat everyone as instruments, possessions."

Still, partners have to balance common sense with caution in their relationships. Not every flash of jealousy is a prelude to a restraining order.

"There are signs that you can look for. But be aware and don't overreact," said Downes.

Imagined Love, Real Prison Possibility

In 1990, California passed the first anti-stalking law following the 1989 slaying of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by an obsessed fan. Today, anti-stalking laws have been passed in all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Dawnette Knight's attorney has stressed that she should not be placed in the same category as Schaeffer's killer.

Knight, her attorney Richard Sherman has said, has apologized to Zeta-Jones in a letter and was never really a danger to the actress. Authorities, he said, should not have been arrested Knight but profiled her instead.

Knight faces one stalking charge and 24 felony counts of making criminal threats for acting on an imagined relationship with Douglas. If convicted, she could face a very real sentence of up to 19 years in prison.