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Stories behind celebrity stalkers

In a world obsessed with fame, the downside for the famous is the vulnerability that sometimes comes with it. What motivates a stalker? Why do they become so obsessed? NBC's John Larson. reports.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

The list reads like a who's who of Hollywood: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mel Gibson, Gwyneth Paltrow. All have been targets of celebrity stalkers. But increasingly, instead of running and hiding, the famous are fighting back. Tennis pro Anna Kournikova was even willing to submit to a cross-examination by her stalker, as she sought, and won a permanent restraining order against him.

What motivates a stalker? Why do they become so obsessed?

Anyone who's anyone seems to have one -- a fan who turns disturbingly fanatic. In a world obsessed with fame, the downside for the famous is the vulnerability that sometimes comes with it. Just recently, a convicted stalker was charged with plotting to kidnap David Letterman's son. He's pled not guilty.

Before that, a woman stalked Letterman for years.

Madonna, Gwynneth, Catherine, Sheryl, Brad, Halle -- all have been stalked, and now experts say for every one celebrity stalker you've hear about, there are at least 20 more that have gone unreported.

Det. Jeff Dunn heads the LAPD unit that deals with stalkers.

John Larson: “Out of all of the cases you've seen, is there any most likely target? In other words the really beautiful celebrity or somebody who's really friendly on television?”

Det. Jeff Dunn: “You know you'd be surprised. You would think that that would be the case. But literally anybody that's in the public's eye can generate this type of unwanted attention.”

In actress Rebecca Schaefer's case, one fan's obsession turned deadly. Schaefer, who starred in the sitcom “My Sister Sam,” was shot by Robert Bardo in 1989 on the front steps of her apartment building. And it's only been since her murder that law enforcement and other criminal experts have begun understanding the celebrity stalker profile, what exactly is going through their minds.

Dr. Reid Meloy: “They have criminal histories. Typically they've some involvement with drug abuse and they also have psychiatric disorders. They are multi-problemed individuals.”

Reid Meloy is a forensic psychologist who has written extensively about stalking behavior.

Meloy: ”Celebrity stalker will typically be a male, about age 39, who's had a history of failed relationships. Typically he's average or brighter than average, underemployed and has a lot of time on his hands. It takes a lot of time to stalk.”

They are often extremely self-absorbed, says Meloy, and see strong connections between themselves and their celebrity -- even when there aren't and as in the case of the man accused of stalking singer Sheryl Crow.

And this may surprise you -- often, it's not so much that the stalker is in love with the celebrity but that the stalker honestly believes the celebrity is in love with him or her.

Dunn: “How do you as a detective intervene on someone with a thought disorder? They know that to be a fact. They know that Madonna is in love with them. What can I tell them to convince otherwise?”

Larson: “And this obviously they've never met Madonna, never had a conversation with Madonna, but they're convinced?”

Dunn: “They're convinced.”

And in this fantasy, the stalkers can often feel betrayed. In Florida, a homeless man who is accused of stalking posted a note on tennis star Anna Kournikova's Web site ordering her to "drop all her current boyfriends... and spend all her time with him..." according to court documents. He was arrested after he turned up naked in her neighbor's backyard.

Sheryl Crow's accused stalker, Ambros Kappos, connects himself to her by taking the epic story of The Odyssey and becoming Odysseus rescuing his Penelope.

Though he was acquitted of all charges, he exhibited a trait that is often associated with celebrity stalkers.

Larson: “It's like he's thinking about, he's going to be the good guy. And he doesn't see that he's the stalker.

Meloy: “Absolutely. That's a great example of this rescue fantasy which I found to be very common in celebrity stalkers. And the irony is that they're the ones that are creating the threat. 

Kappos later admitted that he had been delusional when he thought he was communicating telepathically with Sheryl Crow.

There's also the stalker who is in love, but someone is getting in the way. That's believed to be the motive for the woman who stalked Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Larson: “Ironically, her stalker wasn't really after her.”

Dunn: “The focus of that particular stalker was Michael Douglas. Catherine Zeta-Jones was perceived to be an impediment to this relationship that the stalker had perceived with Michael Douglas.”

Zeta-Jones's stalker, Dawnette Knight pled guilty and the case ended without violence, but it's not always that way

Larson: “What usually tips it from I love you to I'm going to hurt you?”

Meloy: “The tipping is rejection and humiliation.”

In the case of Rebecca Shaeffer, when she played a role in this movie "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” it tipped the balance. Her stalker-murderer Robert Bardo was not happy with what he saw.

Dunn: “She did a semi-nude scene laying in bed and this individual, Mr. Bardo, didn't think that was in keeping with her ‘My Sister Sam’ character. And that raised his ire.”

Following Schaffer’s death, Los Angeles Police formed a special unit that includes mental health experts to deal with stalking. Dunn believes if they'd had back in 1989, it would have saved Schaffers life.

Dunn: “I'm 100 percent convinced that Rebecca Schaefer would still be alive today. There were a lot of red flags, there were a lot of tell tale signs about the behavior leading up to her murder that could have been intervened , intervened with.”

But with all the progress being made in understanding stalkers, prosecuting them is difficult, and sometimes things can get a little creepy. When Anna Kournikova went to court, trying once and for all to be rid of her tormentor, she was forced to answer questions from the very man she was trying to get away from -- who was representing himself.

Larson: “Anybody who watches a stalker represent himself or herself in court, and get a chance to actually talk to, interview, grill the person who he or she's been stalking, can sense that there's something wrong here.”

Meloy: “Uh-huh. Yeah. Typically a stalker of a celebrity figure, when he's in trial, this will be the closest he's ever been to his celebrity victim.”

Stalking is difficult to prove. Britney Spears got a restraining order against a Japanese man, who according to court documents, wrote her letters, showed up at her houses, and sat the in front row for dozens of her concerts.

Larson: “But he doesn't necessarily get convicted as a stalker. Why not?”

Dunn: “Well, here in California, and is in most states, you have to have a credible threat associated with this type of behavior. And as disturbing and as alarming as following her to 37 concerts and trying to approach her at, you know, three or four different residences may be, unless you have something you can hang your hat on in the way of the credible threat, you haven't satisfied the elements of stalking as far as California's concerned.”

Det. Dunn and his team came up with a creative solution for Britney, asking federal agents to put the Japanese man, who says he not a stalker, on a no-fly list, barring him from entering the United States.

And sadly, it's the most dangerous stalkers who go down in history linked forever with the object of their obsession.

Larson: “We can think of the famous stalkers, whether it was Hinkley, who shot President Reagan, or Chapman, who shot John Lennon.  I mean, these people did achieve the notoriety that maybe they were looking for.”

Meloy: “Yeah. A great irony is that you have an individual who said before he shot, President Reagan, that he wanted to be linked with Jodi Foster forever. And through this act perhaps he could do that and he did accomplish that.”

Brad Pitt recently said in an interview that living behind walls is getting to him, that he wishes he could just "sit on the [the] front lawn and watch traffic go by.” The trade off of fame is the loss of a regular life. Celebrities know that and pay for extra protection, which they need.

But as dangerous as celebrity stalkers can be, Reid Meloy says the most dangerous stalker is the one you know, usually an ex-spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend. But whether you're in the movies, or just watch them at home on TV, his advice is the same.

Meloy: “The great mistake that people make is they don't contact the police. And they think they're going to handle it themselves by reasoning with the stalker. This is not reasonable behavior. This is done by an unreasonable person. And you're not going to mange it through any kind of rational communication.”