In The Stalker's Spotlight

Stalking Growing Concern For TV Reporters

Energetic meteorologist George Kessler was the top-rated weatherman in Duluth, Minn.

"In all of our audience research, we saw George Kessler as our most popular personality," says David Jensch, KBJR-TV news director. "People felt like George Kessler was their friend."

"Live television, you can't beat it for a rush," says Kessler. "And if you're deep down inside, secretly an adrenalin junkie, it's what you want to do."

Kessler felt right at home in Duluth with his wife, Sheila, and their small children. It was a perfect fit.

"I love the city. Duluth is a great town," says Kessler. "You could drop a money clip in the middle of the street and somebody would chase after you to give it back. And so you have this wonderful sense of – it's almost childlike – the security you have here."

But for Kessler, the childlike security would turn into agony and fear, in the very town he embraced, at the same television station he loved. Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.

It all began to unravel one day in March 2000, when Kessler arrived for work. It was Monday and he noticed that the phone's message light was on. He put his stuff down and set his voicemail to playback.

"All of a sudden it just erupted," remembers Kessler. "This stream of vitriol came out of the phone."

"I'm a man, Mr. Kessler. I'm not some f------ a-- faggot homosexual, do you understand me?"

The caller was a man Kessler had never met. Shon Wayne Thorson, 42, a psychiatric patient with a reputation for violence. What became his regular threats against Kessler were laced with profanity.

Jensch said that Thorson was watching the station's weather reports and believed Kessler was saying things to him, obscene, threatening things: "He felt George was threatening him through the TV."

Thorson ignored warnings from police, even a restraining order to stop making the phone calls. For that, he spent four months in a mental institution. But after he was released, Thorson went straight back to the phone.

"Well, you're going to find out the hard way, my friend. I can definitely do something about it and God bestowed upon myself the power to do so."

Over the next year, Thorson was committed and released for mental illness two more times. Incredibly, there was nothing more Kessler or the police could do.

"The way the laws are, you can't necessarily have security in a situation like this until something really bad happens," says Kessler, who believes without a doubt that Thorson was capable of killing him.

The question, according to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, is how many stalkers does a celebrity have, not if they have any.

Dietz has spent years investigating and testifying against serial killers and stalkers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley. He says the stalking of television news personalities is an occupational hazard that few in the broadcast industry are willing to discuss.

"The illusion of intimacy is inherent in the medium," says Dietz. "It's inevitable that some viewers are going to be attracted to this."

And while Kessler's ordeal wasn't unique, stalkers more frequently target women.

"The ideal victim is a sweet, kind, gentle, pretty, accepting, approachable virgin," says Dietz. "That allows many men in the audience to have the view, 'She's meant for me.'"

Anchorwoman Melanie Moon was a rising star at WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., when she started getting dark, suggestive letters in 1996 - from not one, but several viewers.

"Letters detailing about sexual fantasies, and ultimately ending with me being drowned in a bathtub," remembers Moon, who says the letters gave her nightmares. "For months, I would take a shower with the bathroom door locked. Would be at the grocery store – if someone looked at me strangely for a second, I would think, 'Maybe that's them.'"

By the fall of 1997, the FBI was searching for Moon's stalkers. Then she began hearing from 47-year-old David Lee Duff. She said the first few letters she received from Duff were addressed to "The Goddess of Dawn."

"You and I are alone together each morning in my room. I like what you are wearing today. I know you're wearing it for me. I saw you smiling at me today. Thank you."

Duff also sent Moon an engagement ring.

But after all she had been through, Moon didn't think Duff was out to harm her. He'd only sent her what she believed were fairly innocent tokens of his affections. But on Nov. 5, 1997, Duff crossed the line and came to visit Moon at work.

The confrontation was caught on videotape. Duff was told to leave and he did so without incident. Roanoke police then warned him to stop contacting Moon, but the harassment didn't stop.

Moon says he continued to write her letters, saying things like "They can't keep us apart. I'll wear jailhouse orange if I have to."

It almost came to that. In March 1998, Moon saw her stalker for the first time - at the Roanoke City Courthouse.

"This takes away even more of your feeling secure and safe," says Moon.

Duff was convicted of stalking, but all he got was a six-month suspended sentence. Moon decided to leave Roanoke, taking a new job in another city -where she's better prepared for unwelcome attention. Now, she carries tear gas on her keychain and has a stun gun in her purse.

Dietz says he understands why she has them.

"Nobody knows right now how many anchors on the news get stalked each year," says Dietz. "The likelihood for good-looking females on the news nightly is 100 percent."

It's a warning, Dietz says, that television anchors are not taking seriously enough.

On Jan. 22, 1998, at 8:30 a.m., Michael Goodman calls 911 in Temple, Texas. He says he heard a lot of loud thumping coming from the apartment above him.

Minutes later, police arrive at the Wildwood Apartments and make a horrifying discovery. Popular local TV reporter Kathryn Dettman's nude body is on the floor of her bedroom.

Dettman, 36, had been on the verge of an important career move. She was taking a new job at a much larger TV station in Dallas. This would have been her last day of small-town life in Texas.

"It was common for her in the morning to get up and leave the door slightly ajar, so that the cat could come in and out while she went about making coffee, getting ready to go to work," says assistant district attorney Murph Bledsoe.

"The evidence appeared that she had come out of the shower. She may have heard a noise and come out in a robe or a towel, and there was a confrontation."

"It was an extremely violent attack," says Temple Police Sgt. Keith Reed. "She had 15-16 stab wounds."

The suspect was 21-year-old Anthony Gary Silvestri whom police found hiding in Dettman's bedroom.

"His clothes were covered in blood," says Reed. "And he had blood on his fingers, in his hands."

Dettman's friends knew that Silvestri had been stalking her. One coworker said Dettman had complained to him that Silvestri was following her at the apartment complex and showing up at her car when she came and left home. Another coworker remembered hearing Silvestri's name.

"She told me about this young guy asking her out in her apartment complex when she had gone to check the mail," remembers Yolanda Johnson, a close friend and receptionist at the station where Dettman worked.

Johnson says Dettman told her Silvestri had been very flattering. "She said he had told her that he had seen her on TV and everything. And said he thought she was a very beautiful lady."

Paula Brown considered Dettman her best friend. She says Dettman was a trusting person, and just didn't recognize Silvestri's interest as potentially dangerous.

"She would have said something," says Brown. "She would call when her stomach hurt. It someone were after her, we would have known that."

Dettman's naiveté doesn't surprise Dietz, who says many on-air personalities aren't even aware they're being stalked.

"Most station managers don't even give the news anchors all their mail or their email," says Dietz. "Very few stations have adequate screening of who gets on the premises or do the things for their talent that can help protect them."

Silvestri pled guilty to the murder of Dettman and is serving a sentence of 40 years to life.

"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," remembers Silvestri. "I got mad and I lost my temper."

Police searched Silvestri's apartment and found a pair of binoculars, which they believe he used to spy on Dettman. A friend of Silvestri's also told authorities that Silvestri had been watching her from his apartment.

Could Dettman have stopped the attack from happening?

"I don't know," says Silvestri. "I've never blew up like that before, went off on anybody like that. Maybe she could've left the door closed. Maybe she could've screamed at me. She could've hit me. She could've done something but she didn't."

"She really believed that if she was kind and accepting that people would treat her well," says Brown. "I think that was her desire, and I think that was her belief. And her mistake."

In Duluth, Kessler heard about what happened to Dettman. And after enduring nearly a year of Thorson's menacing phone calls, he made a drastic decision. He quit his job and no longer works in TV.

"I said, 'You know, this is not something that's going away,'" says Kessler, who admits that in his own twisted way, Thorson wanted him to walk away from his job.

"You have to understand, he wasn't doing it out of malice." But Kessler admits that in the end, that Thorson won.

A journalism scholarship in memory of Kathryn Dettman has been established by the Associated Press Television-Radio Association.