The Miami Herald Newspaper
Over-agressive paparazzi --"stalkerazzi" -- could kill, a prosecutor says, if the law doesn't stop them. Chilling stories from celebrities back her up.
BY GLENN GARVIN
LOS ANGELES - America needs fresh laws to control an aggressive new breed of news photographers who deliberately terrify celebrities to get more interesting pictures, a prosecutor here is warning.
''They don't want just the photo of the celebrity smiling or standing in front of the red carpet or whatever,'' said prosecutor Rhonda Saunders of the photographers she calls ''stalkerazzi.'' ``They want the celebrity angry. They want the celebrity scared.''
Stalkerazzi tactics range from jumping out of trees and bushes to sideswiping cars, Saunders said. In some cases, they may have gone even further: In May, police arrested a man and said he used his van to ram the car of teenage actress Lindsay Lohan near a shopping mall here. Several photographers were on the scene snapping pictures and shooting video before Lohan could even get out of her car.
''Someone's going to wind up getting killed,'' said Saunders, who has successfully prosecuted more than 1,000 stalkers, including high-profile cases with victims such as Steven Spielberg, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow.
``I envision some child standing, waiting for a bus, and the paparazzi are chasing a celebrity and lose control or the celebrity loses control and we wind up with somebody dead.''
Saunders made her comments at a gathering of North American television critics here. She appeared on a panel with several actresses who've been targeted by stalkers to promote a new Court TV special, Stalkers In The Shadows, based on Saunders' case files. The show will air Sept. 8.
The actresses formed an enthusiastic cheering section for Saunders. Tori Spelling, who starred in the 1990s teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210, recounted an incident when photographers chased her and a pregnant friend for four hours before cornering them in an alley, where her friend went into premature labor.
''I got out and I explained the situation, and it was as if I wasn't even talking,'' Spelling said. ``They didn't care. They just wanted the shot.''
Paparazzi have long been a nuisance, the actresses agreed, but they've been driven to new levels of frenzy by the insane amounts of money involved in celebrity journalism. A photo of the hottest purported celebrity couple of the moment, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, can fetch as much as $250,000, they said.
''It's the magazines, wanting to sell magazines,'' said actress Rachel Hunter, who had to fight off mobs of photographers as she took her children to school when her breakup up with singer Rod Stewart was in the headlines. ``It has nothing to do with us. They want to make money.''
Saunders, who helped write California's pioneering 1992 law against stalking, said a bill making it easier to prosecute aggressive photographers will be introduced during the next legislative session here. ''It will be an interesting fight,'' she said with a chilly smile, predicting the news media will battle the proposed legislation on First Amendment grounds.
``When they are putting people in danger and terrorizing people, then they've crossed that First Amendment line.''
For all the talk about stalkerazzi, though, the scariest stories all involved more conventional stalkers -- if the word ''conventional'' can be applied to somebody who promises to sacrifice a member of his family in your honor, as one of actress Ali Landry's stalkers did.
''I didn't know where to go. I didn't know who to call,'' recounted Landry, who said the letters from her stalker became all the more terrifying when she discovered he was in prison -- and about to be released.
The most chilling story of all came from Spelling, who was stalked by a man claiming to be her stepbrother. First she heard about him from friends; then he began showing up at parties she attended; and one day she came home to discover him working in her building.
''I'm 32 years old, I'm married now, and I still live in an apartment building,'' she said. ``I'm terrified to live in a house. . . . I'm so scared if I'm not high up [in a building] with doormen that something's going to happen.''
Stalkers almost inevitably resort to an insanity defense, said Saunders, but she doesn't buy it. ''Most of these people are extremely intelligent, and you can see it from their plans,'' she said, citing a stalker who planned to tie up Steven Spielberg's wife and force her to watch as he raped the director. That stalker rented a car identical to the wife's, hoping the guard at Spielberg's mansion would simply open the gate without paying attention to the driver.
Spielberg, she said, cooperated closely with her office. (A good thing, too; even after he was sent to prison for 25 years, guards found a map of Spielberg's home and the addresses of his children in the stalker's cell.) Other celebrities resist. Madonna, served with a subpoena to testify against a man who was stalking her, threw it to the ground, walked on it and snapped: ''I'm Madonna -- I don't go to court.'' She testified only after a judge issued a warrant for her arrest as a material witness.
''I actually understood her reasons,'' said Saunders. ``She said it was giving the stalker what he wanted -- that she'd have to sit there in court, 20 feet away from him, while he stared at her and hummed Madonna songs under his breath. . . . But he was crazy. I knew we had to put him away before he killed somebody. If it wasn't Madonna, it would have been somebody else.''
But, Saunders conceded, his place was probably taken immediately by somebody else. The information explosion of the past decade, she said, has made the work of stalkers easier than ever. They can locate their victims using tools ranging from the ludicrously low tech -- Spielberg's stalker found him through one of the 'street maps of the stars' houses'' that are sold all over Hollywood -- to sophisticated computer programs.
'You know how you get those pop-up ads on your computer, saying `Find anybody, anywhere'? They work,'' Saunders said. Trying to help a victim whose convicted stalker was about to get out of jail, Saunders recently paid $25 to see how easy it might be for the stalker to find her.
''She had changed her name, changed her address, changed her job,'' Saunders said. ``This search engine turned up her new name, Social Security number, unlisted phone number, where she lived, the names of her neighbors and the names of her family members. I mean, we wound up with a printout about a quarter of an inch thick . . . and there isn't a whole lot we can do about it.''