His name was Constantine Kargas. I had never met him or spoken to him. He was a complete stranger to me. And yet he believed we were soul mates, destined to be together. In fact, he was planning our wedding. In my book, Getting Real, I tell the story of my years being terrorized by a stalker whose sick attentions might have derailed my career--and ended my life.
The decision to write about Kargas was not an easy one. I was concerned that calling attention to him might re-spark his interest in me. When I learned that he had died in 2008, I felt safe enough to tell my story. I decided it was important to talk about my experience, because I knew that countless other women were enduring similar threats.
I first caught Kargas' attention when I was Miss America, but he didn't do anything until a couple of years later, when I was a newscaster in Richmond, Virginia. His first act was to show up at my parents' house in Anoka, Minnesota. He was a big man, carrying a large black garbage bag with his possessions. When my mother answered the door, he said, "I'm here to pick up your daughter Gretchen." He told her that we were leaving together to get married. Mom called Dad at work, he came home, and the police were called. They put Kargas on a bus and sent him home to Wisconsin.
When I heard about it, I didn't take it too seriously. Then I started receiving letters from Kargas at the station. He wrote about how much he loved me and how we were destined to be together. He wrote that he had everything planned for our life together. The letters were not threatening, but they were creepily intimate. He not only professed his love; he thought I loved him too. One day I happened to notice that the postmark on a letter sent to me at the TV station was Richmond. I felt pure terror. How long would it be until he found out where I lived?
Months later, the Richmond police called with a frightening story. Kargas had been walking down the street in Richmond when he was mugged. In a videotaped interview the police asked him, "Why are you in Richmond?" He said, "I'm here to pick up my friend, Gretchen Carlson. We're going away together." He told the police that he had moved to Richmond to be near me.
The police brought the videotape to my apartment, and as I watched this stranger talking about me, I started to shake. "What can I do?" I asked the officers, certain that there must be a simple legal recourse. What I learned shocked me. Unless he threatened me or harmed me, there was nothing they could do. They gave me a printout of his face from the video, which the station posted at the security desk. That was it.
I tried to go about my life and do my job, but I couldn't ignore the fear that would overtake me every time I got out of my car or when I was alone in my apartment at night. I learned the bitter lesson that fear exerts its own price. Being stalked is like being a prisoner.
Stalking is one of those persistent dangers that people don't really talk about. Millions of women are stalked every year, and in the majority of cases, the stalkers are known to their victims. But in cases like mine, having a public profile is the trigger, and the stalkers are complete strangers. In recent history alone there have been terrifying incidents reported by celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez. These ordeals are eerily similar to what I experienced over a period of years.
The year after Kargas started stalking me, I accepted a job offer with the CBS affiliate in Cincinnati, but if I thought I could leave my stalker behind, I was mistaken. When I received the first love letter at my new station, I knew there would be no escape. In fact, Kargas seemed to be getting closer to acting on his obsession. In one letter he announced that our wedding date was scheduled for June 30, 1994, and we would be traveling to Greece for our honeymoon. One day a dozen roses and a box of candy arrived for me at work, and the florist verified that the sender was Kargas. He wasn't even trying to hide his name. He later called the phone company and tried to get my home phone number. The last straw was when he sent me a diamond engagement ring at work.
Finally, law enforcement began to take notice, and eventually there was enough evidence to bring a criminal case against Kargas on the grounds of "menacing by stalking." Soon after that he was arrested. His trial was set in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and the prosecutor asked me to fly out and testify. The idea terrified me even more. I didn't want to be anywhere near this man, much less facing him in a courtroom. I was relieved when the judge granted me permission to testify by telephone. It was still hard, though. Just knowing that Kargas was in the courtroom listening to my voice gave me a chill.
I should have been relieved when Kargas was convicted on multiple counts of harassment and violating a restraining order, but I was dismayed when the bulk of his sentence of three years was reduced to probation. In all he served only 70 days in prison. What was the point? Instead of feeling secure, I had to go on with my life knowing that he could reappear one day. Although I never heard from him again, he was often in my thoughts, especially as my profile increased and after I had my children. Although he wasn't stalking me physically at that point, he had invaded my psyche--which I learned was just one more way stalkers victimize people.
I have a public platform to tell my story. But there are millions of victims who suffer in silence. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that more than 6 million stalking incidents were recorded in a one-year period. Although every state now has laws against stalking, for the victims these laws seem like weak justice. Even in the event of an arrest and conviction--a relative rarity--the meager sentences put most stalkers back on the streets within weeks or months. Victims of stalkers are left to pray for laws with more teeth so that they can live their lives without fear.
Gretchen Carlson is anchor of The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson on the Fox News channel. Her memoir, Getting Real, was published June 16.
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