07.16.12

Rock Star Shirley Manson From Garbage Battles a Cyberstalker

Shirley Manson, frontwoman for the rock band Garbage, is being barraged with death threats and hate tweets by a fan on Twitter. Christine Pelisek and Chris Lee examine the phenomenon of celebrity cyberstalking.

The furious outpouring of Twitter venom first appeared on an account belonging to someone operating under the name @Gunn2urhead on May 16, just one day after the multiplatinum-selling alterna-rock group Garbage released its new album, Not Your Kind of People

Of the 273 tweets @Gunn2urhead posted that day, the overwhelming majority were diatribes directed at Garbage’s official Twitter account, a timeline shared by all four band mates. And almost every posting takes issue in some ugly way with the group’s lead singer Shirley Manson, a flame-haired Valkyrie ranked on VH1’s “30 Sexiest Rock Frontwomen” list. Among the Scottish vocalist’s perceived trespasses: cheating on her husband, being “evil,” lying and exerting some kind of mental stranglehold over @Gunn2urhead by using “brain frequencies” and telepathy.

“EVERY NIGHT AND DAY SHE’S MESSING WITH ME!!! CAN’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER!!!” @Gunn2urhead tweeted. “SO YOU WANT ME TO KILL YOU OR MYSELF?”

Later, the individual behind the account tweeted: “IM GONNA KILL U BITCH!!!!!!!”

Days later, Garbage’s manager Paul Kremen contacted police, prompting an investigation by detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood division. On May 30 a Los Angeles Superior Court judge signed a search warrant—obtained by The Daily Beast—compelling Twitter executives to surrender information to the LAPD revealing @Gunn2urhead’s identity and location.

The warrant shines a spotlight on the new rules of engagement for both celebrities and their stalkers in the Information Age. Nowadays, law-enforcement officials are scrambling to keep up with the quickly evolving threat at a time when the personal barrier between famous people and their sometimes fanatical followers becomes ever more porous, and the sheer number of celebrity cyberstalking cases has skyrocketed.

“The Internet makes it so much easier for stalkers,” says Rhonda Saunders, a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “They aren’t fans, they are fanatics—someone can send 1,000 emails in one hour. It makes it so much easier for them.”

Kremen and a publicist representing Garbage did not respond to interview requests. But Manson spoke to an LAPD detective in May, stating that she had received upwards of 60 messages a day for the last two weeks. “She stated that she is in great fear for her and her family’s safety due to the nature of the threats, the sheer volume of them, and the ‘crazy’ sounding messages being posted towards her,” the warrant says. “She stated she has never had anything like this on this level occur to her and she is very frightened and wants the threats to be investigated fully.”

Video screenshot

Shirley Manson talks about coming out of retirement with Chelsea Lately.

Detective Kevin Becker, supervisor of the threat unit of the LAPD’s Hollywood division, which is overseeing Manson’s cyberstalking case, explains that officers on the case are looking to charge @Gunn2urhead with a felony. “If I send a message that I am going to kill you, it raises the threat level,” Becker says. “It is a criminal threat.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that celebrity cyberstalking is spreading with viral speed. In March 26-year-old model and online personality Kourtney Reppert, who achieved a kind of quasi celebrity for posting photos of herself scantily clad online, allegedly received hundreds of ugly emails from 47-year-old Luis Plascencia, a Chicago man who used a library computer and 12 different names to threaten to kill her and her parents and rape her brother. One of his email diatribes reads: “I’m going to stab you in the f--king heart and cut your f--king head off. I will kill your parents, cut them to pieces with a handsaw, do you f--king understand me? Don’t f--k with me or make me mad.” Plascencia has been charged with interstate stalking; he pleaded not guilty.

“Back in the ’90s stalking was a little-known phenomena, so celebrities were reluctant to come forward because of negative publicity and it getting into the tabloids,” says Jeff Dunn, the officer in charge of the LAPD’s threat management unit. Now, because of the commonality of the problem, he says, celebrities “are more apt to come forward and report these cases.”

Actor Alec Baldwin took to Twitter to confront his alleged stalker Genevieve Sabourin, who bombarded the 30 Rock actor with emails and text messages professing her love and desire to have his baby. In April, shortly after a judge ordered the Canadian actress to keep away from Baldwin, the actor tweeted: “Isn’t it odd when an accused stalker is in handcuffs, being taken away by the cops, yet smiles for the cameras?”

However, Saunders, who has spent 25 years prosecuting some of Hollywood’s most high-profile stalking cases, says that celebrities should never engage with their stalkers. “It is like raising the flag in front of the bull,” she says. “I think celebrities should give up Twitter unless they put up basic information and don’t talk about their kids or personal things. All they are doing is giving the stalker information.”

And she should know, having brought convictions against the likes of Robert Hoskins, a homeless man described by authorities as “highly psychotic” who served a 10-year sentence for threatening to kill Madonna and later stalking Halle Berry; Jonathan Norman, a former model who attempted to break into the home of director Steven Spielberg, armed with a “rape kit”; and Dante Soiu, the deranged pizza-delivery man who was found guilty of stalking after sending actress Gwyneth Paltrow letters, emails, and packages of pornography and dildos to her parents’ house in March 1999. “At the end he set up a website for her in her name,” Saunders says. “‘I am your fiancé I want you to give up acting. I will open up a Kinko’s chain and we well get rich and you will marry me.’” Soui was convicted of stalking Paltrow and was sentenced to a high-security psychiatric facility.

Saunders says many of the stalkers suffer from a condition called “erotomania”—a delusional disorder in which the stalker believes that the celebrity is in love with him or her.

“Even though they claim ‘I am totally insane and have mental issues,’ these stalkers are extremely savvy,” she says. “They understand what it is they are doing to their victims.”

Exhibit A: Marlon Pagtakhan, who hid behind a number of different computer aliases when he stalked former Star Trek: Voyager star Jeri Ryan. “He sent her so many emails at Paramount, it crashed the system,” Saunders says. “Paramount was getting scared because of the content. He was threatening her and her boyfriend. He was going to ‘crash his cranium in.’”

Pagtakhan was later convicted of stalking the star in 2001 and spent time behind bars, but six years later he was out and accused of cyberstalking a professional wrestler in Illinois, as well as members of a wrestling club. Pagtakhan is currently at a state mental hospital in Napa, Calif., and a judge ruled recently that because of his illness he is incapable of standing trial.  

In 1990 the Los Angeles Police Department created the threat management unit following the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress killed by obsessed fan Robert Bardo, who had been stalking her for three years. Bardo is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Today the unit handles 250 stalking cases annually. Of those, 15 percent involve a well-known celebrity. To hear it from the unit’s Dunn, the majority of those cases include the use of social media.

“[Celebrity cyberstalking] occurs far more than what appears in the newspaper,” Dunn says. “You are highly visible whether you are a celebrity or a CEO, and you will most likely generate some unwanted attention from someone. If there are millions of people looking at you, at some point you will most likely come into contact with someone you don’t want to have contact with.”

Detectives in Dunn’s unit are each assigned to a Hollywood movie studio, where they work with the studio heads of security so that if a problem arises, they are just a phone call away. Dunn says his unit also provides educational training for actors and actresses so they don’t become victims of stalkers. Dunn says detectives try to warn young stars and starlets to keep their personal information offline.

“A lot of times when they are up-and-coming, they want to put their information out there to market themselves, but that very same information is working against them,” Dunn says. “You are providing background information they can build on. Facebook has created a lot of problems for us. They are putting everything about themselves out there and sometimes posting risqué photos, and it is a stalker’s dream.”

In 2009 Dunn’s office handled the case of Robert O’Ryan, a mentally ill Florida man who drove to California intent on kidnapping Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson from the set of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.

“The day he was convicted and the day she [Johnson] had to testify, she was tweeting that she was going to have lunch with her mother,” Dunn marvels. “She had a near miss, but she still was putting her whereabouts on her Twitter page. That is part of the problem.”

Detective Becker says authorities are taking tweets by @Gunn2urhead—such as “WHY IS SHIRLEY UP ALL NIGHT? SHE KEEPS LOOKING FOR ME” “IM FUCKING DIZZY!!!, IN MY SLEEP!!! KILL U!!! FUCK OFF, I THINK I’LL KILL YOU, I’M GONNA HURT YOU”—very seriously and may charge the responsible party with a felony.

“These people, sometimes they have mental issues, and we don’t want them to hurt themselves or the celebrity,” Becker says. “People get fixated on [celebrities], and on some occasions it turns into something more serious. We have to get him before he takes it to the next level.”