Awareness month shines light on stalking

Stalking can be frightening and happens more often than many people might think, even in Centre County.

To draw attention to what the National Institute of Justice calls a crime of power and control, January is National Stalking Awareness Month.

Under Pennsylvania criminal law, stalking is defined as a “course of conduct” when an individual “repeatedly commits acts toward another person, including following the person without proper authority, under circumstances which demonstrate either an intent to place such other person in reasonable fear of bodily injury or to cause substantial emotional distress.”

In 2015, the Centre County Women’s Resource Center said it assisted in 146 cases involving allegations of stalking.

“Stalking is often a tactic used in domestic violence,” said Anne Ard, the center’s executive director. “It’s about a need to control the other person’s life. It’s about a need to do anything to be in the person’s life.”

Twelve stalking incidents were reported to Penn State police in 2014, the most recent data available. Two of those incidents took place in residence halls.

According to an article published by the Periodical Journal of Violence and Victims, “20 percent of college women report having been stalked or harassed by a former partner.”

One of the most recent stalking cases prosecuted by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s office involved Edwin Gegenheimer, 38, of Pine Grove Mills.

Gegenheimer was charged with stalking in May after sending a woman hundreds of threatening messages. The woman told police she left the man after an “emotionally and physically abusive relationship,” according to the criminal complaint. Gegenheimer entered a guilty plea on Dec. 7.

In June, police brought charges against Brian Keith Fisher, 49, of Bellefonte. Fisher is accused of stalking, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment and is still awaiting trial, court records show.

Fisher’s alleged victim was under an emergency protection of abuse order when he allegedly violated the court order by parking his vehicle next to hers while she was at work. But it got worse, according to the criminal complaint, when Fisher allegedly played a role in slashing the victim’s boyfriend’s tires.

Fisher also is accused of paying someone $250 to have sugar, laundry detergent and bleach poured into the victim’s gas tank, records show. This is believed to have caused the engine to fail on I-80. The victim had to pay more than $7,000 to have the vehicle repaired.

Stalking can affect victims in many ways, including socially, psychologically and even economically.

“Stalking is often a strong indicator of future physical harm and it cannot be ignored. Turning a blind eye to stalking behavior means turning a blind eye to those in need,” Parks Miller said. “Even one stalking case is one too many, and those who engage in this type of criminal behavior put the safety of our community at risk. Unfortunately, it is often the safety of the most vulnerable that is put in jeopardy by stalkers.”

According to the Stalking Resource Center, part of the National Center for Victims of Crime, “a stalker can be someone you know well, or not at all.” The resource center contends that most cases involve men stalking women, but men “do stalk men, women do stalk women, and women do stalk men.”

“Just as anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, anyone can be a victim of stalking,” Parks Miller said.

While the National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that 7.5 million people are stalked every year, some believe that number isn’t representative of the actual number of victims each year.

“Stalking cases are underreported. It’s really hard to know how many people are really being affected,” Ard said.

“The main reason crimes of all types often go unreported is fear; that fear is never more real than in the context of a stalking case,” Parks Miller said. “A victim who suspects they are being stalked may be afraid to even leave their own home, let alone report it to the authorities. It is vitally important that police know about potential cases of stalking so that they can work to stop it and ensure the safety of our community.”

The district attorney and Ard agree that National Stalking Awareness Month is important for victims and prevention of future stalking incidents.

“Stalking is often the first step a violent attacker may take in preying on an innocent victim,” Parks Miller said. “The more aware people are of the dangers of stalking, the safer we can make our community.”

“Too often people make fun of or don’t take stalking seriously,” Ard said. “Stalking has an awful impact on victims, both psychologically and emotionally.”

Jalelah Ahmed: 814-231-4631, @jalelahahmed

Where to turn

If you think you are being stalked, you should contact police and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, 234-5050.

“Save your text messages, save your phone calls, document how many times the stalker shows up at your work, your home, the more you can document the better,” resource center Executive Director Anne Ard said. “Documentation helps assure victims that something very real and scary is happening to them.”

This documentation “helps when the victim decides to talk to police and other people who can possibly then put forth a case against the stalker,” Ard said.