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Stalking Fame : Psychology: A seven-year study of letters from obsessed fans gives a Newport Beach expert some new clues into troubled minds.

October 17, 1990|SCOTT HAYS | Hays is an Orange County free-lance writer.

It looks like any other personal letter--a quick scrawl on notebook paper. But read it and a macabre sense of recognition rivets you to the page:

Dear Jodie,

There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing you this letter now . . .

The correspondence--written by John W. Hinckley Jr. to actress Jodie Foster on the day he tried to kill President Ronald Reagan--is one of 1,800 "threatening" and "inappropriate" letters examined in an exhaustive study of the delusions that lead people to target and harass public figures.

"If presumably stable people will hand a maitre d' several hundred dollars to sit close to a celebrity during dinner, it shouldn't surprise us that mentally disordered people have a preoccupation with these affairs," said Park Dietz, a Newport Beach forensic psychiatrist who recently completed the seven-year study for the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Justice Department.

Dietz dissected the letters, identifying features that might indicate whether the writer is likely to physically approach a celebrity. He considered more than 2,000 variables, including sexual content, presence of multiple postmarks, the use of lined or plain paper.

"We didn't try to do the impossible and predict who is likely to attack," Dietz explained. "We tried to predict who is likely to take that first step toward becoming a physical danger. In other words, which letter writers would 'approach.' "

Indications of a writer who is likely to approach include a request for a face-to-face meeting and telephone calls, in addition to letters. Subjects who approach also tend to send a "significantly greater" number of letters.

Contrary to what one might expect, the presence or absence of threats in a letter is not always telling. Many people who write threatening letters may be just "blowing off steam," Dietz said.

However, "there's a lot of misinformation in the law enforcement and celebrity protection fields," he added. "Threats are the key distinction on which most people operate. Even federal and state laws make that distinction. . . .. But from the standpoint of protecting people who receive odd letters, the most important lesson is not to rely on a threat as an indicator of whether a person is dangerous."

Most of the widely publicized threats and attacks on public figures started innocently--in the form of fan letters. The star of a hit television series may receive as many as 20,000 letters a week.

"Falling prey to a celebrity's seductive appeal is normal in this society," said Gavin de Becker, a Los Angeles-based security consultant to the stars. "Unfortunately, what is a mild drug for some people is poison for others."

The letters used in Dietz's study were among 140,000 gathered since 1981 by de Becker, whose collection of "nut mail" is gaining by 50,000 letters a year. These letters would strike any reader as "inappropriate." Some contained bizarre items, such as blood, hair, a bedpan, dead animal parts.

Dietz and his colleagues made broad psychiatric diagnoses based on their analysis of the letters. They found that 95% of the writers were mentally ill. Some exhibited obsessions with nonexistent love relationships with celebrities, a condition called erotomania.

"This kind of delusional thinking certainly existed long before television," said Jonathan H. Segal, a psychiatrist for the Palo Alto Medical Center who recently published an article on erotomania. "But celebrities seem more accessible these days and that encourages some people to focus on their lifestyle."

The seriously mentally ill often fail to reach the "approach" stage, Dietz said. They either become distracted or get arrested along the way. It's the "higher-functioning" mental patients who put a plan together and carry out their objective. But people obsessed with celebrities are more likely to kill themselves, a family member or a friend than the celebrity, Dietz said. "More deaths are related to this phenomenon than the few publicized celebrity murders."

Dietz, a principal consultant for the Threat Assessment Group, a national network of experts who serve to law enforcement agencies and corporations, often works as an expert witness. He testified at Hinckley's trial and before the grand jury in the Tawana Brawley case in New York.

Because of the nature of his work, Dietz has fallen prey to the same kind of threatening mail that he recently studied. In response, he has taken precautions to prevent his home address from appearing on public documents.

"I've made a few enemies," he acknowledged.

Dietz has also designed a screening process based on the information from his study. "The idea is to decide which letters should receive further investigative attention," he explained. "But the only way to improve public-figure protection is to have a centralized repository of information on people who communicate inappropriately with public figures."

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