January is National Stalking Awareness Month and, this year, it hits home for us at WAAY 31.
You can become a victim without ever knowing why someone's targeting you or having any type of relationship with him or her.
WAAY 31 spoke with a couple of brave women whose lives were turned upside down by complete strangers, and, now, they’re hoping that, by sharing their stories, they can open other people’s eyes to just how common and how serious stalking can be.
“I go down an aisle and I look up and there he is in the store. He had followed me over there," said Donna Hyche.
Donna Hyche knows what it’s like to be followed by a stranger.
“He was in the window on the outside, just staring at me," she said. "I was just shaking and trembling.”
Donna also knows what it's like to be harassed constantly.
"He was calling me, texting me, he would show up to places where I was during the week, he would know where I was at all times, and it went on for about six months," she said.
Donna believed she was no longer in charge of her life, so she threatened to get the police involved.
“I was begging him to leave me alone," she said. "It had been enough.”
Luckily, that put an end to her stalker’s advances, but, 12 years later, she still lives with the terror.
“You’re always looking over your shoulders. You’re searching the crowd to make sure you don’t see his face. You’re scared," she said. "You just never know what they’re going to be doing next. You just never know what their mindset is. They don’t have a normal mindset.”
And Donna isn't the only one who's lived through the nightmare.
“Sick to my stomach," Storm Ewing said about her stalking experience. "It was very offputting and unsettling."
Storm told WAAY 31 she had to change her phone number multiple times because of a stranger who kept sending her unwanted messages.
“Asking me how my vacation in Florida was, and this was the last boy I would ever tell," she said.
Storm says it happened when she was in high school and that the boy kept showing up where she was.
She wanted to get police involved, but because her stalker was young and well-known, peers talked her out of it, making him the victim, and saying it would ruin his life if she tried to press charges.
But he continued to harass her on social media.
“Social media is a double-edged sword," Stephen Young said. "The technology provides people with incredible tools for communication, for messaging, for a number of things; but, unfortunately, it also provides predators with another outlet to find victims, stalk them, and torment them.”
It’s something Deputy Stephen Young sees far too often.
“Law enforcement, a lot of times, is very familiar with the individual case and what’s happened step-by-step. Unfortunately, the court system sometimes just gets a snapshot," Young said. "It makes it really difficult sometimes to capture the depth and seriousness of the case. People don’t really get to see the whole story."
And laws to protect victims aren't very strong. You can get a restraining order, but that's just a piece of paper. It doesn't protect you from anyone.
“When it comes to the laws, there have to be criteria met, and those criteria have to be objective. So, in a lot of ways, sometimes it doesn’t reflect the scale of seriousness or the toll that it takes," Young said.
And that is exactly what kept Donna Hyche from pursuing justice.
“There’s nothing ever done about any of this kind of stuff, so it’s like you try to take care of it yourself," she said. "And, to me, it’s not taken seriously enough."
It's why Donna is pushing for changes in the law.
“Predators and stalkers need to have more punishment. I think, from what I’ve seen the last few years, they just kind of slap them on the hand and move on," she said. "Someone could get killed, hurt, raped, come up missing—there could be a number of things that could happen.”
In the meantime, both Storm Ewing and Donna Hyche say they will continue to pay close attention to their surroundings and they encourage others to do the same.
“Most people’s mindset is, ‘Oh, it will never happen to me.’ It’s like a movie sometimes, but you better watch it, because it could happen to you," Donna said.
According to a study done by the Center for National Disease Control and Prevention, 15% of women and 6% of men experience stalking in their lifetime.
More than 50% of victims say the perpetrator showed up or approached them in public places.
About one in four victims report some form of cyberstalking, and more than 60% of victims worried the stalker would hurt them or a loved one.
If you believe you are a victim of stalking, you’re encouraged to reach out to local law enforcement.
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