By Dave M. Lawrence

Felicia Connally was very impressed with his knowledge and expertise with computers. Mike Dehoney's assistance probably succored her through the difficult class they took together. Long conversations over dinners flourished into a meaningful and lasting relationship. Felicia believed that she had finally met the "perfect gentleman."

However, Felicia later realized that the courtship had grown ominous and concluded the ties should be severed. Letters and phone calls continued from Mike, but the contents included threatening overtones of jealousy, rage and the overwhelming emotion of rejection. Unable to cope with the broken affiliation, Mike accosted her in the school's parking lot after a night class and stabbed her. After an extended hospital stay, Felicia pressed criminal charges. As the trial date grew near, more threats came through the mail and by phone. Claiming he would kill her if she did not drop the charges, Felicia's fear escalated beyond the point of terror.

Early one morning she routinely exited her house for the drive to work. Mike was hiding in the shrubbery and pounced on her like a lion. After the vicious attack, her blood-soaked body lay on the driveway with multiple stab wounds that punctured her chest and back. Her hands were slashed from defensive wounds. The contents of her purse and lunch bag were scattered in disarray.

Her blouse was ripped by the same knife that severed her body and soul. The mortifying experience of tasting your own blood prior to your life being terminated by a former lover was present. Never had she believed that the "perfect gentleman" would be the one to harass, threaten, lie in wait and eventually stab her to death in her own front yard.

Imagine being pursued and hunted by someone who knows your every move. Every phone call is them. You walk out of the house or place of work and they are there. You look in your rear-view mirror and they are there, too. Paranoid?

No, it's really happening. No place to run. No place to hide. You feel trapped and then you panic. The fear of all fears begins.

Stalking is like a prolonged rape. The objective is to place fear in the victim and force them to surrender. Stalkers are predatory criminals that encircle their prey and test their vulnerability. Once a stalker has selected someone, they manipulate them with fear and various control methods to achieve their power fix. Their obsession can escalate from innocence to such violent, irrational behavior that can yield the tragic loss of a life.

Unrelenting harassment can consume one's life. Knowing you were once intimate with the person responsible for our misery makes it worse. You ask yourself over and over: How could I ever have gotten involved with this person? Your emotional roller coaster takes you on the most horrifying ride of your life.

Stalkers can be the ex-boyfriend, the estranged or divorced spouse or the unknown mystery person. All of which can drain you emotionally and physically to the point of total disillusionment. Victims of extreme stalking will often do whatever it takes to get out from under the constant terror.

Whether the stalking lasts for days, weeks or years, being the target of someone's irrational and undesired attention changes your life no matter what the outcome of the situation. Such repercussions can last a lifetime among even the strongest. The victim can become so brainwashed that the stalker's delusional thinking can actually start to sound reasonable.

So many relationships start so innocent and impromptu. You want to be nice to the new guy. You don't want to hurt someone's feelings. You are actually flattered by his asking you out even when you don't want to go to begin with.

One of the unwritten rules of courtship is to let an admirer or lover down easy. The rejector usually feels guilty and doesn't know how to say "no" without hurting the pursuer. You try to lie low, be kind, in hope that the infatuation will diminish. You don't want to say "no" and they don't want to hear it. You even try to sugarcoat the rejection with conciliatory words. This extended rejection process allows the pursuer to become more emotionally involved rather than less.

Once a stalker has hold, he usually tries to make it increasingly difficult and costly for the victim to break away. With unrequited love cases, the emotional roller coaster consists of denial, bargaining, guilt, anger and sometimes acceptance. You usually play right into the situation, because the first inclination is to award the benefit of the doubt.

The situation can escalate and you appease the pursuer by meeting his demands. Being consumed by your inner conflict, you find yourself straddling the indecisive fence. Are you supposed to get away, call the police, rock the boat or give in?

The ambivalence is accentuated by feelings of being trapped. You begin to disintegrate. Your self-esteem crumbles. Your judgments and perceptions are doubted. You even start to blame yourself for what happened. The prey has been captured.

Once a stalker has selected someone he suspects won't assert themselves, they manipulate them with fear. The sense of guilt that mounted within serves as a building block of the stalker's power base. The powerful sense of control flourishes their strategy. The one thing that lies at the core of their strategy is persistence. The strong desire never to give up is more rewarding to them than even a meaningful and true relationship would be.

The stalker is unquestionably a mentally deranged individual. They can hear the words but not the message. The obsession is more about the imagination of a relationship than the relationship itself. Control over a relationship is a very important objective to the stalker. They believe that all of their behavior is excusable. They become so consumed by the obsession, tunnel vision develops and zeroes in on the victim. Any reaction from the victim confirms their impact. They want others to believe that they know everything and that they are everywhere.

Take for instance the celebrity stalker. Fame and stardom might have its rewards, but it certainly has its downfalls, as well. Celebrity status or prominence is accompanied by risk. Celebrities are exposed to the die-hard fans who want to enhance their own identities and gravitate towards stars who seem to have identity to spare. This jeopardy to public figures has seen a drastic increase over the past 20 years. Former Beatle John Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman because he saw Lennon's death as a way to prevent him from forsaking his ideals. John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Reagan just to impress Jodie Foster.

Top-seeded female tennis player Monica Seles was knifed at a 1993 match in Germany by a fan compelled to have Steffi Graff return to the number one spot. For two years, Olympic figure skater Katerina Witt received more than fifty pages of obscene and threatening letters from a man who considered her his wife from the moment he first laid eyes on her.

Some celebrity stalkers see public figures as a means to live out the dream of stardom. Many believe that they share a special communication with their targets. They are seeking a union with the person they stalk, but if that fails, second best is a tortured relationship because it is better than no relationship at all.

David Letterman has been plagued since 1988 by a woman who claims to be Mrs. Letterman. She has been arrested eight times for breaking into his Connecticut home. One arrest came only three days after her release from serving a nine-month jail sentence. While Vanna White was conducting a pre-show warm-up for the Wheel of Fortune, an audience member who believed he was going to marry her jumped up and shouted that her boyfriend was a dangerous man with Mafia affiliations, and that he would protect her.

Celebrity stalkers will often go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their objectives. One man spent $9,000 to hire a private investigator to track the star of his fixation. Many have managed to get jobs with utility and telephone companies in order to obtain unlisted numbers and addresses. Some have even landed security jobs guarding the person they are stalking.

The personality types of these obsessed fans are difficult to categorize, but the themes behind their delusions are basically the same. The most common these is that a special relationship exists between the stalkers and their prey.

They feel that their targets are sending them a special communication either via their songs, movies or personal appearances. Some stalkers actually believe they are messengers of God on a special mission.

Recent studies have revealed that approximately 90 percent of those who stalk public figures suffer from some sort of mental disorder ranging from borderline personality disorders to psychosis. This creates problems for mental health agencies, law enforcement and the legal system in general. It becomes a major task in determining whether to properly treat them or punish them.

You don't have to proclaim celebrity status to attract a stalker. Mental disturbance can also play a role with a romantically obsessed person drawn to a non-famous stranger or one who is unable to let go of a relationship that's ended. Severely disturbed stalkers portray the same actions and delusions regardless of who the victim might be. The stalker could be the bag boy after the cashier, the estranged or ex-spouse harassing the former spouse, the personnel manager pursuing the secretary, or the student obsessed with another student. There are documented cases that reveal victims can be of any race or sex. Everyone is subject to this annoying and horrifying experience, but few realize how vulnerable we are.

The National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association estimate that during any year, more than one-fourth of all Americans suffer from some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. Yet research indicated that only one in five gets any kind of treatment. A three-year study of mentally ill subjects deemed dangerous by police and placed on a psychiatric hold revealed that over 65 percent had previously been committed for observation, 35 percent of them ten times or more. Furthermore, 84 percent received no mental health follow-up care once the observations period was completed.

One problem in the law enforcement arena is the lack of sufficient laws dealing with stalking. In general, some statutes state that a person has to be willfully, maliciously and repeatedly followed and harassed by another.

Additionally, the pattern of conduct has to be followed by a credible threat of violence against the victim. The definition of a credible threat varies in different states. Some require specific words and others require that a threat actually be accompanied by related conduct.

Until recently, the problem of stalking was virtually overlooked. Protecting victims has to become the first priority. Reacting to a crime that's been committed rather than trying to prevent one does little to help a terrified victim.

Putting someone's life in fear from verbal threats or overt actions should be a crime itself. Victims need protection from their stalkers whether the person is incarcerated or not.

The legal system and law enforcement can't be a savior for everyone's problems. Individuals are the ones to best protect themselves. There are several items that you need to know if you become a target of an obsessive individual:

If you don't want to pursue a relationship, make it very clear immediately.

Learn to say "no." Letting someone down easy only prolongs the rejection process. The earlier the better for you and the pursuer.

No means no. "Not yet" could mean, "I'm changing my mind." "Give me time" is telling the stalker to keep the pressure on. "I'm not ready for a relationship" could be interpreted to mean that you really want to but just can't right now. Saying "I have a husband" or "I have a boyfriend" could indicate to the stalker that your mate is standing in the way. The word "maybe" prompts the stalker to prove just how much he loves you.

Don't waver. Be concise, diplomatic and firm, but allow the individual to maintain his dignity. You don't have to be harsh or rude. Indicate to the pursuer that you expect a reasonable response.

Screen prospective mates or casual acquaintances more. Ask them about their background as well as their family. Discuss the male and female roles in relationships.

Listen to what is being said and not what you want to hear. Keep your internal radar tuned to the warning signals.

When someone is being overly persistent, take the matter seriously.

Persistence does not prove love; it only proves persistence.

Limit your accessibility to an unwanted pursuer. That includes all pertinent information as well as physical presence.

Utilize post office box addresses for all correspondence. File change of address forms with telephone, utility and credit companies and advise them to remove your home address from all records.

Register your driver's license and vehicles to addresses other than your home.

Remove home address from personal checks and business or personal correspondence.

Rent an outside office if you are self-employed and your business requires visits to your home.

Get an unlisted phone number. If that is detected, get a second one. Keep the old number operable and attach an answering machine to it. The stalker will continue to call and leave messages. These taped recordings and their origin could be used for any future legal action. They will get the message that you can resist their harassment.

Call your local phone company to inquire about services like call tracing, caller identification and call back capability.

Make sure the phone lines that enter your home are inaccessible. Remember that cordless phones and baby monitors can be detected by scanners.

Vary the routes you take in your car or on foot. Don't fall into a routine rut.

While your physical safety is important, so is your emotional well-being.

You may feel alone, but there are others who have been there and can help.

Therapy helps us move on an beyond times of trouble. Support groups are a place to relate to others who truly understand your dilemma and provide valuable services. The following organizations will assist you in contacting local support groups in your area:

National Victim Center 1-800-394-2255

National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) 1-800-879-6682

American Self-Help Clearinghouse (201)625-7101

National Self-Help Clearinghouse (212) 642-2944