I think I saw my stalker on the railway platform

He used to follow me around in high school, but I thought he'd disappeared.

Published April 6, 2005 8:49PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Once upon a time, I lived in a town about an hour and a half drive away from where I live now. During my freshman year in high school there, I made friends with someone who, before too long, turned into a stalker. I never knew when the phone call would come with him saying something like, "You were at Best Buy today. You were with another girl. The two of you looked at computers and TVs. Then you looked at the CDs by yourself for a while before meeting up with her again back by the computers. After you left, you went to Circuit City ..."

Besides covertly watching me and reliving it over the phone to me later, he'd also show up in odd places where he shouldn't know I was, like the emergency room or a new dorm that I hadn't given the address of to anyone yet. He'd sit outside my house in his car. He'd show up someplace I was shopping.

He made sure it was clear what a tough guy he was, going on about his black belt training and fights he'd been in. And I knew he'd been suspended from high school for abusing a girlfriend and for throwing desks around a classroom. So although he never said anything overtly threatening to me, I was scared of him, but I couldn't get the police involved because technically he wasn't breaking any laws.

Sometimes he'd disappear for months. No phone calls. No visits. No spontaneous run-ins at local restaurants. I'd start to relax a little. And then suddenly he'd be back. During the bad spells, I used to lie awake at night jumping at every sound and peering out the window every time I heard a car. Some years into the situation, I found out from a friend that during the absences he was doing the same things to another woman she knew.

Anyway, about eight years ago I moved away from my hometown to someplace with better job opportunities. One side effect of the move that I was looking forward to was being away from this stalker, whom I guess I'll call BlackBelt. I gave strict instructions to the few people I entrusted with my forwarding information to never under any circumstances give out my address or phone number to anyone without talking to me first. It wasn't as foolproof a plan as disappearing in the middle of the night and telling nobody about it, but I felt pretty sure I'd finally be free.

Well, yesterday on my way to the doctor after work, I saw BlackBelt. I was standing on the platform watching for the train, and suddenly I noticed him just a few yards away from me. It took me a moment before I realized I was staring at him; I was praying to find something different about this man from the one I know. However, everything was the same: the height, the skin texture and color, the hair, the lips, the eyes. I've seen people who reminded me of BlackBelt many times, but this guy really looked like the real deal. I'm about 85 percent sure it was him. I know it's impossible to think I'd have a chance encounter with the asshole in the middle of a large city after moving away from my hometown and essentially leaving no forwarding address, but having seen that man on the platform, I'm not so sure it's impossible at all.

Anyway, as soon as I realized I was staring, I turned my face fully away from him. I didn't want him to notice me. Sure, he might not recognize me with my hair cut short and with all the weight I've gained (and even if he did, those changes might make me undesirable to him), but why risk it.

I spent the rest of the evening and all day today feeling jumpy. I was on the Internet for hours last night trying to find a trace of him, any little thing to make me feel like he was anywhere rather than here. I ended up with mixed signals: His name is still listed as a member of a club back home, but someone with his first initial and last name lives just a few miles from me (and he has an uncommon name -- there are only 10 listed in the whole state). The address is in an area that just happens to be serviced by one of the trains that stops at the platform I saw him on.

How can I find out if he's living in this area? Are those people-search Web sites legitimate or a waste of money? How am I going to feel safe unless I find out? I have health issues that keep me from being able to take self-defense classes and money issues that keep me from going to therapy to deal with the obvious emotional impact this has had on me.


Dear Stalked,

You are faced with a set of facts that, seen one way, represent an elusive, mysterious, plausibly deniable but possibly deadly threat. As in a well-crafted tale of terror, this economical set of facts greatly tempts the mind to contemplate awful ends. Seen another way, these facts might represent nothing but the random throwing of the world's dice.

So it's important how you respond. You need to take some simple steps. Writing this letter was a step in the right direction. Some people might think themselves crazy for even imagining that this man may have followed them. But the world is full of crazy people. You read about them all the time in the paper.

There is one thing you can determine for sure, and rather easily: Either the man who stalked you in high school lives nearby or he doesn't. That is the question I think you should focus on. I suggest you at least contact three private investigators and find out how much it would cost to determine the whereabouts of this man. It might be relatively inexpensive; if he can be quickly located through a computer search of public records, it might only take an investigator's trained assistant 15 minutes or half an hour, which at an hourly rate of, say, $100 an hour might cost around $25 to $50. I'm just guessing. It might take much more, especially if he has deliberately concealed his whereabouts, or if the investigator has to actually leave his office.

If you can't afford the services of an investigator, you can do some investigative work yourself. If he owns the house at the address you located, then the city tax assessor's office should have real estate records that contain his full name. Even if the name matches, however, you would still want to be sure it's who you think it is. Enlist the aid of a friend or relative from your town, someone who knew this man and remembers him, or at least can act a plausible part. There are any number of possible scenarios. One would be for your friend to pose as someone from high school trying to track down former classmates for a reunion or for an alumni association. Another would be to call and ask for information about a mutual acquaintance.

If it is who you think it is, next you should determine if he has a criminal record. Most criminal records are public. You can do it yourself by contacting various government agencies, or take advantage of one of the many inexpensive Web searches.

If it is the guy and he has a criminal record, I think you have reason to be concerned. At that point, it would make sense to contact the local police.

Meanwhile, no matter what the facts turn out to be, I would suggest that you try to look at your overall situation in slightly different way. For instance, though you may not have as much money as you would like, you do have certain economic resources. You do have a job. You probably have some credit and some cash flow. So rather than saying that you have "money issues that keep me from going to therapy," try saying, for instance, that if you went to therapy you would have to make it work for you somehow; that might mean borrowing the money, or finding therapy that is free or offered on a sliding scale, or finding support groups that charge nothing but offer much in the way of practical knowledge and emotional support. Likewise regarding self-defense: You may not be able right now to participate in rigorous physical training, but you could research self-defense and security techniques that do not require physical combat: weapons you can carry, for instance, security devices for your home, and attitudes and precautions you can adopt that will make you marginally safer in your home and on the streets.

In a general sense, how you frame the issue will affect how you feel about it, which will in turn affect your ability to deal with it. Please write back and let me know what you find out. I will try to help you figure out what to do next.

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