In your footsteps

In your footsteps [Australian newspaper- The Age]

Complaints about stalking have risen dramatically in Victoria and the number of cases being dealt with by the courts has rocketed. William Birnbauer reports on the people making all the wrong moves.

The young Canadian soapie star, Sara Ballingall, first heard of Brian Sutcliffe in 1993 when he phoned her parents Toronto home. According to Ballingall, the Melbourne-based Sutcliffe told her mother he was a television producer and wanted the actress to audition for a new TV series in Australia. Thrilled by the news, Sally Ballingall gave Sutcliffe her daughters home address.

Sara Ballingall says Sutcliffe sent her about 30 letters over the next six years: first about his life in Australia, then about guns and then about her role in the hugely popular drama series, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High.

It was clear from his correspondence that he was obsessed with the Degrassi show and my character, Ballingall later told police in 1999. I became worried that this person was delusional and did not want him to write any further.

Ballingall was 12 years old in 1985 when she started playing Melanie Brody, a skinny schoolgirl with crooked teeth, in Degrassi Junior High. She left the series in 1990 three years before hearing from Brian Sutcliffe of Brighton, Victoria.

Sutcliffe is believed to be the first person in Australia charged with stalking someone in another country. The case illustrates again how small the world is today. As well, it exposed serious gaps in the states laws, prompting the government to tighten its stalking legislation, and bringing into public focus the increasing problem of stalking in general.

The number of stalking complaints has risen sharply. In 1995-96, there were 1391 complaints in Victoria; by 2000-01 this had jumped to 5318 an increase of 282 per cent. In 1996-97, magistrates dealt with 172 stalking cases. In 2001-02 they heard 258 cases. Twenty-five offenders were jailed, 50 were fined and 77 received community-based orders.

Stalking is broadly defined as two or more unwanted contacts or intrusions that cause or intend to cause fear. It can involve phone calls, threats, unwanted approaches or letters, or being followed and spied on. Increasingly, perpetrators are using the internet.

Paul Mullen, professor of forensic psychiatry at Monash University, was part of a team that conducted a recent survey that found that more than 23 per cent of Victorians have been stalked. The number falls to 11 per cent when the stalking period is extended to at least a month and there are multiple intrusions.

Mullen believes more people are also complaining about stalking because of a growing awareness that legal protection is available. Also, stalking is more common today because of a range of factors associated with changing lifestyles.

The Threat Management and Stalking Centre, established in Melbourne in 2001, categorises stalkers into five groups: the biggest is the rejected, comprising mainly ex-partners; the incompetent suitor includes those with poor interpersonal skills who are trying to get a date; the resentful wage campaigns against those they believe have injured them; the predator is a small group with a sexual motivation, and those classified as the intimacy seekers are persistent in their attempts at establishing a relationship with their targets.

Celebrity stalkers fall into the last group. Melbourne psychologist Rosemary Purcell, who was also one of the researchers on the survey, says they usually hound their victims out of a desire, fantasy or delusion that they are going to have a relationship with them. Some are obsessed, she says: Its their occupation, let alone preoccupation; its all they do.

Brian Sutcliffe denies being obsessed or stalking Sara Ballingall, insisting that much of what was construed as threatening was pure imagination by Ballingall and her mother.

However, all Sara Ballingall and her family could see in Sutcliffes communications was menace.

He sent books for her to sign, and a koala in an old ammunition box. My parents were so concerned about its possible contents that they would not bring it into the house, Ballingall said.

In June 1999, Ballingall discovered that Sutcliffe had set up a website in which he referred to her and another Degrassi actress. He was also writing about the series almost daily on an internet chat site. And he was sending daily emails to a former producer on the show.

Ballingall says Sutcliffes letters became increasingly threatening: He often talks about his guns and about coming up the path of our house with his hunting rifle, she told police.

He demands that I return things to him that he sent to me of his own free will. He does not seem to understand that I am not the fictional character that I portrayed on the Degrassi series and that I have no further interest in the series which ended a decade ago.

In August 1999, Brighton police searched Sutcliffes home. They found four unregistered firearms, five firearms not in proper storage, four electronic detonators and a length of detonator cord.

Brian Andrew Sutcliffe was charged with stalking and firearms offences.

Sutcliffe, an accountant who says that for the past six years he has cared for his 82-year-old mother, believed Ballingall needed some coaxing or wanted something for signing his book.

So I decided nothing makes a girl smile more than a stuffed koala bear the ones you get at those gift shops so I went and found a nice one and mailed it off to her, sent registered post with customs declaration.

But the book was not returned. Repeated requests by letter were sent. That is why I was contacting them, he told The Age earlier this month.

Sutcliffe also denies claiming to be a television producer or threatening anyone with a hunting rifle. In July 2000, Melbourne magistrate Sue Wakeling dismissed the stalking charge against Sutcliffe after finding the court lacked jurisdiction. It is an essential element of the offence, she said, that any course of conduct engaged in by the defendant actually did have the effect of arousing apprehension or fear in the victim for her personal safety. This can only have occurred in Canada.

The Director of Public Prosecutions appealed and in March 2001 the Supreme Court found the Melbourne Magistrates Court did have jurisdiction to hear the charge.

Sutcliffe went to the Court of Appeal, but earlier this month it refused to grant leave for the appeal to be heard. It said Sutcliffes guilt or innocence should be determined by a magistrate first before the matter went to a higher court.

Last month, the State Government introduced several reforms to its stalking laws, including one that does away with the requirement that victims need to be physically or mentally harmed or even fear for their safety.

Rosemary Purcell says that before the amendments were introduced, victims had to prove they had suffered before stalking charges could be laid. This meant that victims who were more resilient or proactive in their responses could not legally claim to have been stalked.

The amendment goes to the core of the magistrates finding that Ballingall could not have suffered apprehension or fear . . . for her personal safety because she was in Canada and Sutcliffe was in Brighton at the time of the alleged offences.

Introducing the legislation, Attorney General Rob Hulls, said: The offence of stalking should focus on the behaviour of the offender rather than the response of the victim. The evil in the offence is in the actual stalking.

Purcell welcomes the change. Its basically saying we shouldnt have to wait until the person is wholly compromised.

The legislation also provides 10-year jail sentences for cyber stalking an Australian first. It is widely recognised that the development of new technologies, particularly the internet, provide new ways for stalkers to locate, contact and potentially harm their victims, Hulls said.

The point was taken up by Supreme Court judge William Gillard in his ruling on the Sutcliffe appeal: . . . in the past 100 years crimes have ceased to be confined to single locations, he said.

Technology has reached the point where communications can be made around the world in less than a second. The internet provides a speedy, relatively inexpensive means of communication between persons who have access to a computer and a telephone line. The law must move with these changes.

Paul Mullen believes that cyber stalking is an increasing problem and can be very frightening.

Cyber stalkers send victims offensive emails often flooding their systems with hundreds or thousands of messages misrepresent them on websites, and impersonate them.

In one case a Melbourne lecturers computer was totally disabled by hundreds of threatening emails. In the United States, a vindictive security guard impersonated on the internet a woman who had rejected his advances. He said she had a rape fantasy and he posted her personal details on the net.

In another case, a womans face was cropped onto a pornographic models body.

But not everybody is happy with the Victorian Governments legislation, with critics saying it will limit free speech.

Greg Connellan, president of Liberty Victoria, believes the provisions are too broad and include journalists and publishers going about their normal jobs.

Media law expert and The Ages defamation lawyer Peter Bartlett wants journalists and publishers specifically exempted. Online versions of articles in mainstream media could be swept up in the anti-stalking provisions, he says.

The government denies free speech is at risk.

Two years ago, the survey of 3700 Victorians found that stalking was twice as common in the 18 to 35 age group as it was among those aged 56 and over.

According to researchers Purcell, Mullen and consultant forensic psychiatrist Michele Pathe, this shows there has been a real increase in stalking over the past 20 to 30 years.

They attribute the rise to relationship breakdowns, changes in traditional courtship practices, increased job insecurity and workplace violence.

The more broken relationships you have, the more chances one or the other of the parties is not going to accept the end of the relationship and is going to resort to things like stalking, Mullen says.

Meanwhile, changes in dating practices, says Purcell, mean that couples are not so often introduced by adults or friends as they were 20 or 30 years ago.

That leaves a lot of people lurching out there trying to find intimacy. For those people who maybe arent as socially adept, they do fall into these patterns of just stalking to get a relationship going.

Purcell says the idea that persistence pays off is reinforced by the popular media. Weve got a lot of people in that group who tend to be very socially isolated. They dont have friends or family saying this isnt the best way to go. So they just keep it up. Once theyve been frustrated for so long it starts to develop into a more vindictive pattern.

Mullen says social isolation is increasing because many of the mechanisms that once brought people together no longer exist.

In the old days people lived in neighbourhoods, everyone would know everyone else, youd grow up knowing people of the same age, thered be a whole lot of formal and informal ways in which people were brought together.

Those things dont exist any more. You need a lot more social skills to pick up someone at a club than you need to start a relationship with someone down the street who youve known since you were two years old.

Threats involving violence, kidnapping a loved one or destroying a persons reputation occurred in about 30 per cent of stalking cases, according to the survey. Assaults were reported by about one in five stalking victims.

It should be emphasised, says the study, that while victims are often at risk of being assaulted, stalking in itself is a form of violence.

Irrespective of whether threats and assault accompanied the stalking behaviours, all victims in this study were rendered fearful by the conduct, and the majority altered their lifestyle in response to the intrusions.

Sara Ballingall says the experience changed her life. Mr Sutcliffe has caused us fear in our own home and daily lives, something which he has no right to have done. My family and I feel that we have lost our privacy and have lost our ability to live our lives as normal citizens and go about our normal lives without fear.

Sutcliffe maintains the whole issue is a case of someone being persistent in following up a book-signing request. I was not obsessed or infatuated with her.

It is expected he will be charged again with stalking and that the case will be heard in the Magistrates Court. Meanwhile, he is considering taking the Court of Appeal decision to the High Court.

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