To Catch A Stalker

Misplaced Trust Leads To Tragedy

Outside Cleveland, Ohio, mathematician Ching L. Chang found what he couldn’t in his native China – academic freedom.

He also found a culturally rich and diverse neighborhood in Shaker Heights where he and his wife, Yoon Wah, could raise their four children.

Joanne Chang, the oldest, loved growing up in Shaker Heights.

“You see children playing outside all the time,” remembers Joanne, who says her father wanted his children to have a better life in America. “It’s a comforting place to live.”

Joanne is a medical student. Sean, 24, is pursuing a masters degree in computer graphics. Warren, the youngest, is a high school junior.

And then there was Penny.

“She was the most beautiful child we had,” remembers Penny's father.

Penny’s name stood for Pennsylvania, where she was born. Growing up, her family says she was very neat, very talkative and very Americanized. Penny was a child who thrived in her adopted community. No one could have predicted what happened.

“Shaker Heights is an affluent suburb. It’s very diverse, there’s a lot of old money, and I think people don’t like to think things like this happen in places like that. But you know, we’ve learned they do,” says Mike Tobin, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Tobin says the problems began for the Chang family in 1998, when Penny had a summer job working alongside Scott Strothers, the best friend of her brother, Sean.

Strothers practically grew up at the Chang house and later went on to become Sean’s college roommate. Which is why no one was too concerned when he and Penny spent a lot of time together –- although Penny was only 15 and Strothers was 21.

But the family didn’t realize how serious his feelings were.

Strothers began a journal later that year that described his relationship with Penny.

“I think you see that in the journals where Penny, at least for the summer, was his life,” says Tobin. “In his journal, you’d see him talking about this girl, this wonderful thing and the object of his affection.”

There was only one problem. Penny didn’t feel the same way.

“It seems like he definitely read too much into it and thought she liked him,” says Joanne. “I just don’t think that was the case.”

“I think she viewed him as just her older brother’s friend who she had hit it off and was friends with,” adds Tobin. “But you know, this wasn’t the love of her life by any stretch of the imagination.”

When the summer ended, and Penny began ignoring Strothers, the Chang family phone began ringing off the hook. The family claims he called 100 times a day – and that they had to disconnect the phone.

But things got worse.

“He tried to burn down the garage,” says Joanne. “He put glue in my parents’ gas tank. He threw objects through the window, like little rocks.”

“He used a slingshot,” remembers Penny’s father, pointing to windows that had been broken at the house.

Days later, the police arrested Strothers. “He was following her,” says Shaker Heights police chief Walter Ugrinic. “He was keeping an eye on her.”

“He seemed like a shy, kind, young boy,” says Joanne, who says Penny didn’t appear scared by Strothers’ behavior because she was only 15.

Strothers was charged with telephone harassment and misdemeanor arson. But right before sentencing, he voluntarily admitted himself to the Cleveland Clinic for observation.

But did he really want help? Or was it a legal tactic to show the court he was taking steps to correct his behavior?

Whatever his motive, Strothers stayed there for five weeks. He was released in 1998, on Thankgiving Day, after doctors determined he was no longer a threat. They released him even though the journal that he began there as part of his therapy contained some very threatening entries.

“It’s scary, it’s just frightening,” says Tobin. “You see this progression, this evolution in his mind of her as the sweet little girl to this evil object that has to be made to pay.”

The tone of Strother’s writing became increasingly menacing. “I think that my actions were a way to force myself to be an important part of her life, even though it was in a negative way,” reads Tobin from Strother’s journal. “I once thought, ‘Forget about me, bitch? I will make you remember me forever.’”

“And then the one I just, to this day, can’t get over,” says Tobin, “is ‘How cool and superior will you look when I blow your brains out into the ground.’”

And five months later, in broad daylight, across the street from the police station, that's exactly what Strothers did.

From Friend To Obsession