Psychiatrist Recounts Haunting Ordeal With an Anonymous Stalker

Doug Brunk

February 11, 2021

Looking back on his experience of being stalked by a former patient for nearly 1 year, William J. Newman, MD, regrets not reaching out to colleagues about the patient boundary violations earlier than he did.

Dr William Newman

"My mindset was: 'Maybe I did something wrong that created this,' " Newman, professor and interim chair of psychiatry at Saint Louis University, said during an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. "That's a common theme among victims of stalking, being kind of embarrassed and not wanting to share it with other people."

Newman's ordeal began in August 2014, when the first of several threatening emails messages were sent to his account at the University of California, Davis, where he held a faculty post and worked on the teaching service at the Sacramento Mental Health Treatment Center, a county hospital that serves mainly uninsured or underinsured populations. The messages always contained a nonspecific email recipient name and the first wasn't terribly worrisome, Newman said. It basically read (profanities excluded): "What is wrong with you? Leave me alone. All I want is some privacy."

About 3 months later, he received another message in a similar writing pattern, but the name of the sender was "god devil," which raised a red flag to him. "Once you start to get religious concepts, people are compelled to commit acts when they believe they're doing so beyond the laws of the land and are doing so for a religious purpose," said Newman, who is immediate past president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

The content of the message contained the first name of a coworker and phrasing inferring suicide, which gave Newman a hint that it was someone he had cared for at the mental health treatment center, "but as anybody who has worked on a busy inpatient service can tell you, you encounter several suicidal patients, and this didn't really narrow it down," he said. "This told me the person had presented after a suicide attempt. In some ways, that made me a little more concerned, because when you're looking at risk assessment, people who are at or past the breaking point are incredibly dangerous, because they don't really worry about the consequences of being shot by law enforcement or dying in an attack."

Newman contacted the university's information technology team, which was able to trace all messages to an IP address from a computer located at a downtown branch of the public library, which had surveillance video. Armed with this information, he contacted the Sacramento Police Department to see if they would help. He had "what I can only describe as an unsatisfying and somewhat condescending conversation with an officer, who said: 'Sir, we can't just go around asking people questions without knowing they did something wrong. There's nothing we're going to do.' "

Between November 2014 and May 2015, Newman continued to receive periodic messages from the individual of varied length and intensity.

"Some messages were more disorganized and difficult to follow, while others were very intense and pointed about my imminent death," he recalled. "I started to ignore these messages as much as possible, tried to put my head in the sand and move forward."

However, one phrase contained in a message read "you won't even recognize me," which gave Newman pause. "It highlighted the idea that because I don't know who this is, they could walk up to me on the sidewalk, and I would have no idea, which in its own right is somewhat terrorizing."

At this point, he contacted the police again, telling them he was fearful for his imminent safety. He also met with his department chair and administrators, who helped Newman develop a plan to enter and exit the hospital at different times. Then, in May 2015, the stalker sent Newman another email message threatening not only his life, but the lives of his colleagues at the hospital.

"This was viewed as a terroristic threat, because [it inferred that] other people were going to be shot other than just me," he said.

After this, Newman's administrators contacted the police about the threat, who identified the individual through video surveillance footage at the public library and began to search for him. It was a patient who had been on testosterone and previously had sent similar messages to another mental health provider in town and wound up showing up at that person's office with a loaded firearm.

"At that point, the police were called to the scene, picked the individual up, and took him to a local emergency room where he was placed on an involuntary 5150 psychiatric hold," he said. "It was frustrating to me that this was very much minimized and kind of put to the side."

Once he learned the stalker's name, Newman had no recollection of the individual. "The patient had presented after a carbon monoxide overdose, had been sent to a local emergency room and came to my service," he said. "It was a very nonconfrontational hospitalization, nothing out of the ordinary."

At this point, the stalker was still at large, so Newman wrote farewell notes to his wife, children, and loved ones, "just in case," he said. "I had those tucked away. That wasn't an overly pleasant experience." He also lived away from his family outside of Sacramento while police searched for his stalker.

In late May 2015, police located and arrested the individual, and Newman began a series of conversations with the District Attorney's office. "They told me there were seven terroristic threat charges that had been levied. They said they were taking this very seriously and [that the case] would be going to trial." About 1 year later, after Newman's move to Missouri, the District Attorney indicated that there would be a court trial and that Newman would be asked to serve as a fact witness. "I gave them all the information I had, talked to investigators, and the process was moving along for about a year to the point that they had an anticipated trial date," he said. About 1 year later, he received an automated phone message which stated that the individual had been released from jail. He called the District Attorney to ask what happened.

"He said the judge didn't really want to deal with this [case] anymore, and accepted a plea with time served and released him," Newman said. "That was the outcome of the situation."

According to a 1997 study of 100 stalking victims, 94% made major lifestyle changes after their ordeal, 82% modified usual activities, 73% increased security measures, 70% curtailed social outings, 53% decreased/stopped work or school, and 39% relocated. "You do change a lot of what you do and how you do it in your life when you've had this experience, especially when it's been a chronic experience for months or years," said Newman, who is also medical director of adult psychiatric inpatient services for Saint Louis University. "To this day I get antsy any time I think about the story or prepare to talk about it. It remains uncomfortable even 6 years later, even without an ongoing direct threat at this point."

The physiological impact of chronic stalking also takes its toll. The body releases adrenaline and cortisol as part of the fight or flight response, while chronic stress "is when you feel an increased stress response and have adrenaline and cortisol elevated for an extended period of time," he said. "There are negative impacts in terms of increased inflammation in the body and in the brain. I have spoken to several professionals who have been stalked by former patients. Commonly, they have been diagnosed in the period after that with an autoimmune illness or a cancer. Less than a year after my stalking situation ended, I was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer and had to start chemotherapy. I would not at all be surprised that those things are highly related to one another."

When patient boundary violations start to become problematic or worrisome, Newman advised reaching out to colleagues and law enforcement for help. "Don't let it go on insidiously for an extended period of time," he said. "I think that was the biggest lesson I learned."

He reported having no financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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