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Tracing a stalker

When a young wife and mother feels like she's being followed, investigators discover an ordinary device used in very disturbing ways.

“He's watching me,” said Sherri Peak. “I lived like a hostage.”

Everywhere she went -- along the highway to work, in the driver's seat of her SUV, even behind the locked doors of her home -- Sherri Peak was convinced that someone was watching.

Rob Stafford [Dateline Correspondent]: Do you know how this sounds? Sherri Peak: Yeah, it sounds crazy.

On the surface, Sherri Peak's story was hard to believe. She feared the kind of surveillance you'd expect on a terror suspect, not a suburban mom.

But this is a cautionary tale. It’s an old-fashioned story of a man obsessed with a beautiful woman but armed with all the high-tech tools anyone has access to today.

Peak: I think that this person believed that if I left him, that I deserved to die. I completely underestimated this man. Tremendously.

Sherri's story began in Seattle in 1994 when she met a guy who looked like the man of her dreams. His name was Rob Peak.

Peak: He was very handsome. Charming, funny, witty. He seemed successful, well-dressed, well-manicured. He looked like the ideal kind of guy. And he likes to have a good time, so it was very easy in the beginning.

Rob seemed to be successful, too, as the manager of auto repair shops across the state. The following year, they were married and soon started a family with two beautiful little girls.

Peak: We'd go to Disneyland and take the kids and go on all the rides. That's when I had imagined the family being like. That's what I had dreamed and hoped for. But come back home, it was a different reality.

Sherri says over the years another side of Rob emerged.

He had a hair-trigger temper that would explode over even little things. One time she wanted to have dinner with girlfriends and he said no. Sherri then pouted as they walked through a mall, and Rob grew very angry.

Peak: He grabbed my arm, jerked me around to face him, and said, "Don't fuck with me." And I was completely caught off-guard and frightened and disturbed that -- where did this side of him come from? Stafford:That was a different Rob Peak than you had ever seen before? Peak: Yes, yeah, yeah. I didn't like the look in his eye. Stafford:What did you see his eyes? Peak: Someone who looked scary.

Sherri says Rob became incredibly possessive and demanded she account for everything she did during the day. She recalls one confrontation when she came home from Christmas shopping.

Peak: The minute I walked in the door, I had bags in my arms. He says, "Where have you been?" I told him, "I've been shopping. I had bags." He says, "Well, I want to see the receipts." … I had to lay them out on the counter. And he says, "Well, where were you from 7 o'clock to 8:30?" And I said, "Well, I was looking for things to buy." And he started just going off on this rampage.

Sherri says she took their daughters upstairs but Rob came after Sherri and continued the fight in front of them.

Peak: And grabbed me by the shoulders and he started shaking me and he put his forearm over my neck and he said, "Who the f--- do you think you are?" And that look in his eye told me that I was in trouble with this guy.

They went into counseling for a while and Rob's behavior improved. As a mother of young children, Sherri wanted to make the marriage work, but she says Rob began to slowly regress.

Finally in July 2005, she'd had enough and told Rob to move out as she prepared to file for divorce. Still, she says her problems with Rob were far from over. In fact they were just beginning.

Peak: I had taken a new job; I hadn't told him where I was working. On the third day of the start of this new job he shows up and standing outside. Stafford: Is it possible he was just in that neighborhood? Peak: No. No, because this is an office park where you have to get off the main drag and drive up through the parking lot to get to it. Stafford:You thought you were out of this marriage and here he is in the parking lot of where you're working? Peak: Yes. Stafford: What does that feel like? Peak: It's sickening. I called him right away on the cell phone and said “You need to stay away. I don't want you here. This isn't right. I'm telling you, leave and I'm asking you to stop." Stafford:Was that the end of it? Peak: No, that was the beginning. Stafford: What happened next? Peak: Within two weeks, my sister had a birthday party and we went with friends and family to celebrate and we're in downtown Seattle. It's late; we're saying our good-byes and I turn around and there's Rob by himself walking down the street right towards us. And the minute he sees me looking at him, he ducks behind a building.

Sherri says the stalking didn't end there. Three weeks later, she was driving to the airport.

Peak: I pull into the parking garage and see a familiar car behind me. It's visibly Rob's car.

In the car was an employee of Rob's.

Stafford:Did you tell Rob that you were going to the airport that day? Peak: This isn't just a coincidence. This is perfect timing. How does he know where I'm at?

Police would soon be asking that very same question. The answer would be something right out of a James Bond movie.

Stafford:Had you ever seen anyone do anything like this? Det. Liz Faith: I had not. I had never seen anything like that.

Somehow, everywhere Sherri Peak went, her estranged husband seemed to be just around the corner. How could this be happening?

Sherri was convinced he was not only stalking her, but sneaking into her home and car.

Sherri Peak: It was little things. I would come out to my car and the dome light's turned to the off position. Rob Stafford [Dateline Correspondent]: Are you sure you didn't just turn the dome light off yourself? Peak: I'm sure because I said to my sister, "Now look, I'm putting the light onto 'door'." And the next morning, sure enough it's switched off.

Sherri also noticed that someone had gone through her glove compartment.

Peak: I knew he was looking for stuff. He was leaving letters in my mailbox. He was leaving coffee in my car in the morning. I mean this is a person who spent hours thinking of ways to follow me, to find out information about what I was doing, where I was going to be.

Sherri tried to get a restraining order against him, but the judge granted a mutual order, telling both of them to stay away from each other for a year.

Stafford:Did the restraining order put an end to this? Peak: No. No, in fact -- in fact it meant nothing.

One night she heard noise just outside her window.

Peak: And I pull the blinds open and there's two figures. Two bodies standing right at my window. They leave, they run. Stafford:What is it like to be in your own home, with your kids in this house, and to look out that window and see people out there? Peak: You know, it's hard to describe how it is to live in constant fear someone is capable of doing really bad things and has threatened me for years. And that threat may be coming true. [crying]

Sherri was so scared she bought new locks for her doors and hired a man to install them.

Peak: I bought the locks on Sunday. By Thursday when the installer comes, I realize that the seals on the boxes that I bought and hid in my closet … the seals are broken and someone had opened the boxes. So I showed the installer. He opened the boxes and he says, "There's a set of keys missing." I knew it was him.

Rob seemed to know everywhere Sherri went, everything she did, every inch of her life. Then something even scarier happened. It all started when a co-worker named Adam Montgomery had an unusual encounter with a stranger who knocked at his door.

Montgomery [co-worker]: I go to answer the door and a gentleman tells me he is looking for a house in the neighborhood and he is having trouble finding it. But he also tells me his cell phone is dead and that he was asking if he could use mine. So I said, "Sure" … And so I turn around, go get the cell phone and right when I turn back around -- he's right behind me there in my house. Stafford:Inside your home? Montgomery: Yeah, and so I was kind, you know, thrown off by that a little bit. So I give him the phone and I kind of got him back outside.

Then, he says, the "gentleman" began asking questions.

Montgomery: He starts asking me about, you know, people I work with, what the women are like in my office. You know, telling me Seattle's a hard town to meet women and where do I go to meet them. Stafford:He's asking you about the women in your office? Montgomery: Yeah. He asked me if there was good looking women in the office. "What do they look like?" The questions were just odd and I couldn't wrap my brain around you know what was going on here. So that's when I said, "Okay, well I’ve got to get going."

The man was a bit strange, but Sherri's co-worker didn't think much about it until later that week.

Montgomery: So on Friday at work, I'm just at my desk working and Sherri comes up to me with a camera and says, "If you see this man on the premise, let me know." And right then it kind of sparked my memory that that was the guy that was in my house a few days before. And so when I told her that, she pretty much went pale and she was just in shock.

The picture in the digital camera was of her husband -- Rob Peak.

Stafford:Had you ever mentioned his name to Rob? Peak: Never.

She had talked to Adam on the phone when he was interested in adopting one of her dog's puppies. Somehow Rob must have found out about the call.

Peak: So I think Rob thinks. "Well, they must be dating or they must be interested in each other." And he went find out. Stafford:You think he's getting jealous? Peak: Yeah.

Fearing for her safety, Sherri went to the Bellevue Police Department in suburban Seattle and met with detective Liz Faith.

Peak: I walked in her door and I said "What I have to say is pretty crazy. But you have to believe me. This is serious and if you don't do something for me, it's over. [crying] Stafford:And what did the detective say? Peak: She's like, "You know what?" She goes [sniffing], "I'm gonna help you." Det. Liz Faith: My impression was, right away, that I was hearing the truth. Sometimes people in intense relationships, intense situations, they can become paranoid, they can imagine things, and I just never believed that. I mean I really felt like I am hearing the truth.

The detective agreed that Rob seemed to know her every move and was following her. That, coupled with the fact that rob worked in the auto repair business, prompted her to search Sherri's vehicle.

Det. Liz Faith: I found nothing. I just still felt like there was something to it.

So a team of investigators combed through every inch of the SUV and found something they had never seen before.

Det. Liz Faith: They put it up on a rack and they searched the undercarriage of the car and they just systematically took the car apart, including taking every single interior panel out and it took hours. And the very last panel they took out happened to be a piece of the dash and there was the tracker in there.

A tracking device had been fashioned from something so many of us use every day -- an ordinary cell phone. The charger had been wired into the electrical system of the car.

Det. Liz Faith: So every time you started the car, the phone would charge. And it's set to auto answer so it doesn't ring. The minute it gets a signal it opens a line. It's right behind the dash, it's right by the driver, you can then hear when you call in, anything that's happening in that car.

This cell phone was equipped with a GPS. The detective believed that whoever had installed it probably had a companion computer program that could track Sherri's every move.

Stafford:It tells the caller where Sherri is, and if she's having a conversation inside the car, the caller can listen in. Det. Liz Faith: Right. And when we got the records for that phone we found one minute, one minute, one minute and then we would get these periods of 45 minutes, 60 minutes and really there was no other explanation for why that line would be held open except that a conversation was being listened to.

The total time the phone had been used was 99 hours. Records revealed it had been installed in early august 2005, soon after Sherri and Rob separated. It was discovered six months later in February 2006.

Stafford:Had you ever seen anyone do anything like this? Det. Liz Faith: I had not. I had never seen anything like that.

But if Rob was tracking Sherri's every move, he must have known by now that she was talking to the police.

Det. Liz Faith: So we really felt like Sherri was in danger and we felt like we didn't have time to set up traps. So there was an arrest team assembled and a plan made on how he was going to be taken into custody.

After Rob Peak was arrested for felony stalking, the detective talked with him in jail.

Det. Liz Faith: He says, "I know what this is about." And I said, "You do? Tell what it's about." You know and he says, "Installed the tracker in the car." And-- \Stafford:He admits to it just like that. Det. Faith: And I said, "Can I read you your rights?" [laughs] "Really fast."

When police searched Rob's home and office, they found even more incriminating evidence: the missing keys to Sherri's new locks, night-vision goggles, computer spyware, print-outs of emails Sherri wrote to other people, her bank account numbers and passwords. All that -- plus an application to carry a concealed weapon.

Peak: I had completely underestimated him. But I also realized just how dangerous this was. He could have at any time showed up and murdered me, and gotten away with it, possibly. I think if I hadn't had fought so hard, that I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today.

Rob Peak pleaded guilty to felony stalking and was sentenced to eight months in jail. He was released on parole in November.

He declined Dateline's request for an interview, but appeared remorseful in court last year, where he said “Invading her privacy is unforgivable and I am so sorry for that.”

For Sherri, the mystery of how someone she wanted out of her life could know so much about her has been solved. Police are now keeping a watch on Rob as well as Sherri's house.

Sherri Peak has a 10-year restraining order against Rob. Still, given that stalkers often don't quit -- Sherri still worries.

Stafford:Do you think this is over now? Peak: I hope so, but I think history in cases like mine tell me that it's not over. And I can't let my guard down and I don't feel safe. And I don't know that I'll ever feel safe. Ever again.

Earlier this year, Sherri Peak settled her divorce out of court.