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The Long Shadow of a Relentless Stalker

In many respects, Melissa (one of the many aliases she has used in the last two years) had landed the ideal job.

The money wasn’t terrific but she got to live and work with people who needed her at a training center for the developmentally disabled in the rugged hills near Agoura. She loved it, and in her few months on the job received a commendation for her efforts.

That is why she was shocked when orders came from the group’s Pasadena headquarters to fire her. The reason, as outlined in the clipped language of an Employee Separation Report: "(Melissa) was victim of stalker who had history of violence toward her and was actively stalking her. This was deemed to pose a risk to clients.”

The man had made her life hell for 14 months. She had lived like a nomad, changed her name several times, fled the state, peered out at the world from behind the living-room curtains of a shelter for battered women. She had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, hospitalized, and placed on medication.

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With her new job she was reassembling her life, but her stalker cast a long shadow; never showing up at work or even contacting her there, he still got her fired.

“I died when they told me,” said Melissa, who now lives in Thousand Oaks. “I couldn’t say anything.”

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They had dated for only three months but, for Melissa, that was enough. The man was jealous and had a temper. He had a way of engulfing her with his fury, his penitence and even the larger-than-life thing he called his love.

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The day after one of their frequent arguments, he phoned her more than 50 times at the San Fernando Valley store where she sold lingerie. When she had a lunch date with another man, he hopped into his truck and chased the couple through the streets. Finally, he had a heart-to-heart with Melissa’s would-be date: Give me six months to win her back. If you don’t, I’ll kill you. The date never called Melissa again.

Melissa is a smart, articulate woman in her mid-30s. She’s been around but she’s also made some bad errors of judgment. One of them was to retrieve a few of her things from the man’s apartment weeks after their breakup. She came away with a dislocated jaw.

Despite two restraining orders, frightening things started happening to Melissa. Her car was vandalized. Someone posing as her husband approached her bank for information on her account.

She was being watched. The man once left a message telling her the kind of yogurt she’d eaten and which videos she’d viewed the night before. He also told her who else had left messages on her voice mail. Finally, he showed up late at night at her new boyfriend’s apartment complex. When police searched him, they discovered the keys to Melissa’s car and apartment.

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The man was jailed for violating the terms of his probation in an old drunk-driving case. By then, Melissa was in an Antelope Valley safe house. She was being treated for her stress problems at a Simi Valley hospital. And she was desperate for a job.

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Rancho de los Robles was the perfect spot. Melissa had worked at the ranch from 1991 to 1993 and enjoyed helping the mentally retarded adults who lived there and those who were brought in for day programs. She also thought the world of Villa Esperanza, the Pasadena-based nonprofit that ran it. On top of that, the ranch is tucked into the chaparral-covered hills; Melissa saw the isolation as a bonus, given that time served for probation violations is measured in months rather than years.

From Sept. 1 until Feb. 16--minus two months’ leave after a bout with severe food poisoning--Melissa worked for Villa Esperanza. Her tormentor had been released from jail in late October. A couple of months later, a man who wouldn’t identify himself telephoned Melissa’s boyfriend in Thousand Oaks, pressing him for information about her whereabouts. Then in early February Melissa received two packets at her Ventura County postal drop.

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One was a notice that the man intended to seek a restraining order against her--a request that was immediately rejected by a Los Angeles judge. The other was a rambling lament about their relationship not working out.

Melissa was alarmed. While she carries a special emergency pager provided by Ventura County victims assistance officials, she worried about encountering the man during trips to town with her charges from the ranch.

“I told my boss I didn’t feel confident about going out into the community because my stalker had made contact with me by mail,” she said.

She even suggested an unpaid leave until her stalker could be convicted. Her supervisor, who had earlier commended her for coming up with a new job-skills program, passed Melissa’s proposal up to his bosses in Pasadena.

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Within days, she was fired.

“They tossed me out like Thursday night’s trash,” she said.

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Dottie Nelson, executive director of Villa Esperanza, said the agency had no choice. The ranch has no guard or security gates, she pointed out. Only two staff members--one of whom was Melissa--spend all night there.

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“We feel really bad about it,” she said. “It has nothing to do with her as an employee and everything to do with the situation she was in.”

While the stalker had never appeared on the grounds, the agency couldn’t risk harm to its staff or clients, Nelson said.

“We’re there for one reason--to do what’s best for people who can’t make decisions for themselves,” she said. “They can’t say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to take that risk’ or ‘No, I’m not willing.’ ”

As for granting Melissa an unpaid leave, Nelson was skeptical.

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“All that would do is put off a decision,” she said. “I assume that if he’s already been in jail for short periods, he could get out again in a short period.”

Officials from the district attorney’s victims’ assistance unit had offered to come to the ranch and talk about precautions. But, they said, the session was canceled after Melissa’s dismissal.

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These days, Melissa is looking for full-time work. She talks frequently with people at the victim’s assistance office and with Ventura County sheriff’s detectives. She has nothing but high praise for both.

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Meanwhile, she does the things dismally familiar to a legion of women in her shoes. She’s filling out paperwork to have her Social Security number changed. She’s preparing to move again. And she’s talking to lawyers who haven’t been encouraging. Despite legislative efforts, no law keeps employers from firing a woman because she’s a batterer’s punching bag or a stalker’s prey.

“So what am I supposed to do?” Melissa asks. “Will this be glued to me forever?”

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Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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