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In an effort to solve the cold-blooded murder of TV presenter Jill Dando, police have turned to a woman who may hold the key to this baffling crime – Rhonda Saunders. The world expert on stalking, she talks to woman’s own about those responsible and their victims.

By Belinda Wallis

She’s 53 years old, the mother of two children and has been married to a policeman for 23 years. She’s also the world’s leading authority on a terrifying crime — stalking. Meet Rhonda Saunders, Assistant District Attorney, Los Angeles. She’s tough, intelligent and caring. And having just named her new, prowling kitten Stalker, she has also got a sense of humour. Metropolitan Police Officers have turned to Rhonda in an attempt to solve Britain’s first suspected celebrity stalker killing – the murder of Jill Dando. Nearly 10 months on, the police are desperate. But the revelation that the TV presenter was stalked in the days before she was gunned down has opened up new doors.

Enter Rhonda Saunders. Met officers have flown to Los Angeles to meet the local police unit dedicated to stalking crimes, and to enlist the help of the woman nicknamed the Stalker Queen. Speaking to woman’s own, Rhonda revealed that the squad has a very difficult time ahead of them because they’ve now left it so late to follow this particular line of inquiry. ‘Nearly a year has passed since Jill Dando’s murder — that’s a big problem,’ says Rhonda candidly. ‘It makes catching the killer that much more difficult. ‘It’s so important in these cases to talk to a lot of people around the victim, to see if there had been anything unusual going on.‘I don’t have all the facts but this certainly could be the work of a stalker or even a deranged fan. A spokesman for New Scotland Yard confirmed that officers were seeking help from stalking experts in America, but denied that they were clutching at straws. ‘The Commissioner has stated on numerous occasions that this case is very solvable. There are many lines of inquiry to pursue and the police will do so vigorously,’ he said. It’s because of Rhonda that America now has the toughest anti-stalking laws in the world. She worked on the original laws, then totally revolutionised them after a 1992 stalking prosecution – the case that was to change her life. A woman was stalking another woman – she had a crush on her that had turned to violent obsession.

The stalker even lived underneath the victim’s house from where she monitored her every move. “Eventually she broke into this woman’s house with a loaded gun. There was a group of people there and she assaulted several women with it. She’s still in jail’ says Rhonda. ‘I’d been a prosecutor for a long time but this was a very bizarre case. When I met the victim, her whole life had been destroyed. “I wanted to do something about stalking laws to make it easier for police to do something. to be honest, it feels good to be able to help these people and maybe stop someone from getting hurt.’ But even the Stalker Queen isn’t immune. She, too, has been the victim of violent stalkers.

Not long ago she was warned by a psychiatrist that, should the female stalker she convicted in 1992 be released, her life would be in danger, Rhonda was on this woman’s hit list. And, just recently, she has had to be escorted to and from her car, protected from the menacing presence of 6ft. 3 in. stalker she’d also prosecuted. After he turned up at her Los Angeles office making violent threats, Rhonda took out a restraining order and the stalker stopped harassing her. Rhonda has helped thousands of men and women escape the threat of a stalker. Among the victims are members of Hollywood’s A-list — Steven Spielberg, Madonna, Michael J. Fox, Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone. ‘People stalk celebrities for the publicity and they usually have nothing else in their lives, she says.‘They believe that by associating themselves with George Harrison, Madonna or John Lennon, their names will go down in the history books — even if it means going to jail.’

For every celebrity case, there are hundreds involving ordinary people. And stalkers from broken relationships are the most dangerous, explains Rhonda.‘What you have here is rage, anger and ego. The stalker not only wants to terrorise the person, but also wants to hurt them.‘We’re also seeing a lot of workplace violence, stalking where the worker doesn’t get a raise or gets fired and starts taking it out on a co-worker or a supervisor.’ And the newest form of stalking now being tackled by Rhonda and her dedicated team is cyberstalking — the use of the Internet to threaten victims.

Cyberstalkers, says Rhonda, are cowards.‘They want to terrorise people but keep their anonymity. What’s dangerous is that the victim doesn’t know if the stalker’s a stranger – or the person sitting next to them. “I think we’re seeing a lot of cyberstalking because these people believe they can’t be traced, but, in a lot of cases, they can. ‘All of these people are obsessed. Stalking is their “job”.

Stalking is universal and it has been around for a long time, it just hasn’t always been called that.’ Rhonda’s total dedication has helped save the lives of many victims of stalking and changed laws around the world. She told me this story to explain why she’s so devoted: ‘When my daughter was about eight years old, I was talking about one of my cases and, out of nowhere, she said: “Mommy, you’re a hero. You put the bad guys in jail so they can’t hurt people any more.” My children are among the things that keep me going.’ Anyone with information on the murder of Jill Dando can call the incident room on 0181 246 0372 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

Stalking was first recognized as a crime in California in 1990. Britain followed with the Protection from Harassment Act in 1997, when it became a crime punishable by up to five years in jail to ‘use words or behavior, on more than one occasion, which would put the victim in fear of violence of cause the victim to be harassed, alarmed or distressed.’ During the following 12 months, 1,770 people were taken to court under the Harassment Act. Of those, 1,570 were found guilty – 214 went to jail. This legislation doesn’t apply in Scotland, where stalkers can only be prosecuted for breach of peace. When Professor Gordon Anderson stalked his secretary in Glasgow in 1998, he was find E500.