How Do You Stop a Stalker From Killing You?


Apr. 5, 2007 — -- They may differ in the details, but the crimes follow the same depressing pattern.

A woman is physically or verbally harassed by an ex-boyfriend, obtains a restraining order, changes her phone number and moves to another residence, but she still ends up getting killed by him.

In the last two weeks, two such killings on opposite sides of the country have made headlines for their brutality and poignancy.

And, in their tragic inevitability, such crimes raise the question: Even with a restraining order, what can you really do to stop a violent ex-lover who's determined to harm you?

The sad truth is that law enforcement officers can only do so much and that your safety rests largely in your own hands.

After months of stalking, Rebecca Griego, a 26-year-old staffer at the University of Washington, was shot and killed by her ex-beau, Jonathan Rowan, on Monday morning, before he fatally shot himself.

After months of escalating events, in which Rowan harassed her sister and threatened to kidnap her dogs, Griego obtained a restraining order to keep the man 1,000 feet away from her and her sister.

Although Griego moved, changed her cell phone number and posted his picture around her office, Rowan violated the order and verbally threatened Griego twice in the weeks before he killed her.

University of Washington police were told about the threats, but they did not put her under surveillance or provide an escort.

"Would we like to be there for every person who has a protection order? Of course," said Ray Wittmier, the deputy sheriff of the UW police. "But unless we have thousands of officers, it's not possible. In general, we don't do surveillance or provide an escort. Here in King County last year, there were 5,000 protection orders issued and I can guarantee that every one of those people was fearful of who they obtain an order against. The challenge is to pick out the person who's going to go over the edge. It's almost impossible to predict."

Unfortunately, much of the responsibility rests with the individual being harassed, Wittmier said.

"Typically, the petitioner has to change what they do, where they live, the way they commute to work. But that other person typically has some mental health issues and trying to get them to change their behavior is a lot harder."

Some women take extreme measures to avoid their harassers.

"A restraining order is nothing but a piece of paper," said Cheryl Shuman, who went underground and created her own identity, getting a false driver's license and passport, after she continued to receive threats.

"I'm alive today because of what I did," said Shuman, who works in product placement in the entertainment industry. "I really believe that I wouldn't be here if I hadn't taken the measures I had."

Shuman's advice: Keep a video journal that documents your experiences, tell as many people as possible, keep a dialogue with local reporters about what's going on, try to find a domestic violence shelter and, "Get the hell away him."

Bureaucratic incompetence may even put the petitioner in harm's way. Last month, Natasha Ramen was allegedly stabbed and killed outside her home by Hemant K. Megnath.

Although previously charged with raping her, Megnath had been released on $5,000 bail and the judge had issued an order of protection. Several months later, Megnath allegedly threatened to kill Ramen and her husband, and he was arrested on charges of aggravated harassment. Megnath remained a free man because a prosecutor failed to warn the judge in the case. He is now in police custody.

There are no definitive federal statistics on violations of restraining orders, but experts believe that such orders deter violence in 85 percent of cases. For the remaining 15 percent, which involve thousands of victims across the country, the results can be painful if not tragic.

In Massachusetts, 28,760 orders of protection were issued during the calendar year 2005. In about 15 percent of those cases -- 4,347 adults -- defendants were arraigned for violating those orders. Almost 88 percent of the violators were male.

"Studies have shown that they're pretty effective," said Kenneth J. Theisen, who runs Bay Area Legal Aid, which has served 14,000 orders since 1984.

According to an independent study of its clients, 69 percent said that violence had stopped altogether, 19 percent said that violence had decreased and 11 percent said that it had stayed the same or had increased.

"That 11 percent needs someone to help them enforce these orders -- [district attorneys] and police officers," Theisen said. "What else can they do? In those rare cases where someone is killed, most were due to some failure in the system."

Sometimes, it's difficult to actually locate the defendant to serve him or her with the protection order.

"I used to serve plenty myself," Theisen said. "Most would just accept it but you can't just go in and knock doors down. I would hear people behind the door, telling someone, 'Pretend I'm not here' and I could see the guy through the glass partition. One guy I had to chase into our subway system. He jumped on the train and I served him."