More sad than newsworthy

 

By Mike Kroll

 

It became a local news story when an Abingdon man escalated his threats toward Knox County State's Attorney Paul Mangieri and the story attracted national media attention when it was later learned that the same man had been cyber stalking celebrity Cheryl Tiegs. But, as Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf said Tuesday afternoon, “I'm just not sure that this whole story isn't much more sad than newsworthy.”

Steven Kilpatrick, who was arrested and charged with threatening to kill Mangieri last Tuesday, stood before Circuit Court Judge Stephen Mathers at a hearing to determine his fitness to stand trial. Mathers ruled that the 40 year-old be examined by a local psychologist before scheduling a trial date. It will most likely be mid to late September before the report comes back and most familiar with the case would only be shocked if Kilpatrick were found fit to stand trial. Threatening a public official is a felony in Illinois and if he were convicted Kilpatrick could be imprisoned for as much as five years. Alternatively, if the court rules him unfit for trial he will almost certainly be ordered to undergo evaluation and treatment by the Illinois Department of Mental Health where he could be held involuntarily until he is deemed to pose no threat to either himself or anyone else, a period likely to exceed any criminal sentence.

Kilpatrick was arrested after he sent e-mail messages to the Illinois governor's office accusing Mangieri of interfering with his relationship with Tiegs. Allegedly he threated to shoot Mangieri with a shotgun at the Knox County Courthouse unless the prosecutor ceased efforts to destroy his imagined relationship with Tiegs. According to representatives of the former model Kilpatrick has been sending e-mails to her for years but very recently they became much darker in tone and that led them to contact local police officials the day before Kilpatrick sent the precipitating e-mail message to the governor's office. Tiegs personally assured local police that she has never been in Knox County nor met Kilpatrick.

While this entire story is an apparently unique event justifying local coverage it has gained national wire service attention due to the celebrity connection. Kilpatrick has allegedly been cyberstalking Tiegs for years but due to the distance between Galesburg and Los Angles he was seen as more of a nuisance than real threat. Generally stalking, cyber or otherwise, only becomes a news story when a celebrity is involved even though Los Angles police say that less than one in four stalking complaints investigated involve “prominent targets.”  California was an early adopter of a cyberstalking law back in 1999 but Illinois' “Harassing and Obscene Communications Act” went into effect June 1st of the preceding year. Today 45 states have laws outlawing cyberstalking and a bill is pending in New Mexico with good prospects of passage.

Normally when we hear of cyberstalking in news reports it concerns pedophiles contacting children via the Internet but this is as misleading as the media induced exaggerated fear of child abduction by strangers. Just as the vast majority of missing children are either runaways or pawns in a custody dispute among relatives nearly all reported incidents of cyberstalking involve non-celebrity adults who are at least acquainted with one another. A recent article in the Orlando Sentinal quoted detective Jeff Dunn, supervisor of the LAPD Threat Management unit. “The stalking problem is pretty much what it has always been. But with computers becoming more affordable and Internet use on the rise, cyberstalking is an increasing problem. Even conventional stalking cases often involve some computer-based element, Dunn said, such as a threatening e-mail sent to the victim. But little attention is paid to stalking - cyber or otherwise - until the victim is a celebrity.”

More than 15 years ago Wired Magazine ran an article entitled “The Epidemic of Cyberstalking” in which they reported on a Justice Department report claiming hundreds of thousands of cases of adults being harassed via the still novel Internet. Today this has become a huge largely unreported problem that is every bit as terrifying as being physically watched or followed. Cyberstalkers have gone well beyond merely sending threatening e-mail messages. False or embarrassing private information has been posted on websites or blogs. In some cases people have “assumed” someone else's cyber “identity” so as to post both public and private messages that damage the victims reputation and on-line personal and business relationships. Like physical stalking this is a crime that is hard to document and prove yet can cause great pain or harm to those so victimized.

A U.S. Department of Justice report on cyberstalking observed: “The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is more benign than physical stalking. This is not necessarily true. As the Internet becomes an ever more integral part of our personal and professional lives, stalkers can take advantage of the ease of communications as well as increased access to personal information. In addition, the ease of use and non-confrontational, impersonal, and sometimes anonymous nature of Internet communications may remove disincentives to cyberstalking. Put another way, whereas a potential stalker may be unwilling or unable to confront a victim in person or on the telephone, he or she may have little hesitation sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to a victim. Finally, as with physical stalking, online harassment and threats may be a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence.”

In Illinois a person is guilty of cyberstalking if “he or she, knowingly and without lawful justification, on at least 2 separate occasions, harasses another person through the use of electronic communication and at any time transmits a threat of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint and the threat is directed towards that person or a family member of that person, or places that person or a family member of that person in reasonable apprehension of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint.” (720 ILCS 5/12-7.5)

Douglas Schweitzer, Internet security columnist for ComputerWorld has summarized some common cyberstalking techniques. “They may initially use the Internet to identify and track their victims. The anonymous nature of the Internet provides new opportunities for budding cyberstalkers. A cyberstalker's true identity can be concealed by using different Internet service providers and/or by adopting different screen names. More seasoned stalkers may even employ the use of anonymous remailers, making it all but impossible to determine the true identity or source of an e-mail message. Under the cloak of anonymity, they may send unsolicited e-mail messages, which can include hate, obscene or threatening content. ...The cyberstalker may even create postings about the victim or start rumors that spread through a bulletin board system. Another technique used by cyberstalkers is to assume the victim's persona online (such as in chat room) for the purpose of sullying the victim's reputation, posting details (whether factual or false) about the victim or soliciting unwanted contacts from others. In addition, online harassment may include sending the victim computer viruses or electronic junk mail (spamming).”

Aside from abandoning the Internet there is really relatively little one can do to prevent cyberstalking. Like so many other cyber- crimes law enforcement officials warn us against sharing any personal or financial information about ourselves on-line. Unfortunately this overreaction is just as shortsighted as the all-too-common to children that they never speak with strangers. Not only would strict adherence to such advice all but destroy the value of the Internet, it can even be counterproductive. Rather the advocating digital paranoia we need to remember that very few strangers we meet either in-person or on the Internet have any intention to do us harm. We need to be sensitive to behavioral clues that something is amiss with an on-line acquaintance and save unaltered copies of any harassing or threatening messages we receive. This can be valuable evidence if you must turn to law enforcement agencies for help.

We also need to remember that media coverage frequently leads us to presume that any crime is more prevalent than it actually is -- leading us to assume an grossly exaggerated level of personal risk.