Helen Pearson of England endured nearly five years of harassment at the hands of her neighbor Joseph Willis. After she turned him down when he asked her on a date in 2009, he began a relentless stalking campaign. He cut her tires, damaged her car, left a dead cat at her door, vandalized her neighborhood with the phrase “Die Helen,” and sent her letters that hinted at impending assaults. She reported him to the police 125 times before he stabbed her several times with a pair of scissors in 2013.
Now, the Devon and Cornwall Police, which failed to protect Pearson from her stalker, has apologized for its negligence. In a report produced after Pearson’s family filed a complaint, the police force claims that “a number of failings both from individuals and organizationally” led to Pearson’s attack, the Guardian reports, and the “investigation and victim care did not meet the high standards we expect.” Three officers involved in Pearson’s case are being investigated for misconduct. “It doesn’t do anything for me,” Pearson said of the apology and report. “I am still suffering every day because of what happened to me.” Willis was charged with attempted murder and is now serving a life sentence in prison.
Cases like Pearson’s, in which a stalker causes severe injury or death before he is brought to justice, are far too common. A 1999 survey from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere found that three-quarters of femicide victims and 85 percent of attempted-femicide victims were stalked by their attackers first. According to the results of this 10-city study, stalking is an even better predictor of future femicide than intimate partner violence. Yet law enforcement agencies rarely do enough to protect stalking targets from future victimization. The 1999 study found that more than half of femicide victims had previously reported their stalkers’ harassment, usually to the police.
In the U.S., where more than 15 percent of women say they’ve been victimized by stalkers, stalking isn’t an easy crime to prosecute. Some states require that a victim demonstrates fear of actual death or severe injury, not just emotional distress. Some states hold that for harassment to count as stalking, it would have to frighten a “reasonable person” or the victim herself. Some require a victim to prove that her harasser has a specific intent at heart. In any case, a victim must keep a detailed log of harassment, which often means waiting for several frightening threats, incidents of being followed, or evidence of internet spying before even making a claim.
Many victims may not feel safe reporting stalkers to law enforcement. In response to Donald Trump’s draconian new immigration policies, Latinas and undocumented people are reporting far fewer cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence for fear of being deported. Other people may get frustrated with a lack of action or a feeling that they’re not being taken seriously—not everyone is as willing and able as Pearson to stick it out through 125 reports. One U.S. Department of Justice report found that 3 percent of stalking victims reported their stalkers to the police in excess of 15 times. How many gave up before their 15th incident of harassment?
The DOJ study also reports that half of victims who reported their stalkers to the police felt that their situations didn’t change at all after their police reports. The others were equally as likely to find their situations worse than before as to say they improved after contacting law enforcement. Victims of cyberstalking are even less likely to find justice through traditional means. One cyberstalking expert told the Atlantic in 2014 she knew of only three or four cases in the entire country in which a target of online threats, spying, and harassment has led to a victim winning a monetary judgment in a civil case against her stalker. The Supreme Court overwhelmingly voted to overturn a conviction that year of a man whose violent Facebook posts read as threats to kill his ex-wife.
Pearson’s case is extreme; few people would have the strength and emotional capacity to doggedly document five years of abuse and file an average of two police reports a month while her stalker continued his escalating harassment. But her eventual, if inadequate, vindication should be a lesson to law enforcement officers and social service workers everywhere—a reminder that stalking is often a precursor to far greater crimes, and a victim’s fears can be a helpful indication of harm to come.