Dangerous Admirers: How to Protect Public Figures From Harassers As Legal Protections Are in Jeopardy
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Ben West
In 2010, country-music singer Coles Whalen began receiving messages from a fan on her Facebook account.
While Ms. Whalen ignored the relatively benign messages at first, the fan kept sending her messages—thousands over the course of several years.
The fan praised her talents but also alluded to following her and knowing the whereabouts of her family.
When Ms. Whalen didn’t respond, the fan criticized her, messaging her on at least one occasion, “Die, don’t need you.”
The online harassment got so bad that Ms. Whalen had to change homes and cancel performances, eventually undermining her music career.
In 2016 a Colorado county court decided that her fan was guilty of stalking and sentenced him to several years in prison.
He was released in 2020.
Counterman v. Colorado
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up an appeal by Whalen’s stalker and last month heard oral arguments arguing that his communications to her should have been protected under the first amendment.
Ms. Whalen, and her lawyers, continue to argue that his communications, and the communications of hundreds of other obsessed fans like him, are not protected by the Constitution due to their threatening nature.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision on the case this summer.
The consequences of the decision have the potential to weaken state and local laws protecting victims of stalking and increase the threshold of establishing “true threats”—especially regarding online harassment.
(For more information on dealing with stalkers, see TorchStone’s 2020 article Understanding and Countering Stalkers.)
Regardless of the court’s decision, Ms. Whalen and other public figures in her circumstances are important case studies for executive protection teams dealing with obsessive fans and resentful admirers.
Very Real Threat to Fans
The threat to Ms. Whalen, and the threat that hundreds of other public figures continue to face, is not theoretical.
Waiting for an obsessed fan or fixated individual to make physical contact to determine a threat often means waiting until it’s too late.
There is a well-established history of fans causing serious physical injury and death to their idols.
In June 2016, the 22-year-old singer was signing autographs after a performance in Orlando, FL.
One of her fans, who had developed an unhealthy, romantic fixation on Ms. Grimmie, shot her four times before taking his own life.
While there is no indication that Ms. Grimmie’s shooter had confronted her online or in person before the attack, people who knew the shooter said that he had indicated his obsession with her on multiple occasions.
In May 2016, a fan of the Japanese singer assaulted her and stabbed her over 20 times outside a venue in Tokyo where she was scheduled to perform.
The attacker told police that he stabbed Tomita because she rejected a gift he tried to give her.
Tomita survived the attack and later sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Police for dismissing concerns she had previously raised over the attacker’s repeated attempts to contact her and his demonstrated fixation through social media mentions.
In December 2004, a fan obsessed with the former Pantera guitarist shot and killed Abbot while he was performing with his new band in Columbus, Ohio.
A club manager had noticed the killer lingering outside the venue before the show and one of the technicians had previously asked him to leave after the killer sought to speak to members of the band.
Apparently angry over the break-up of Pantera, the killer jumped a fence around the venue and rushed the stage as Abbot was performing.
Despite the warning signs, security did not get involved until after Abbot was critically injured.
Friends of the killer later remarked that they had noticed a stark change in him over the month prior to the shooting, including erratic behavior and the development of a delusional grievance that Pantera had stolen his songs.
In 1997, a man who claimed to be friends with the fashion designer shot and killed Versace as he was walking to his Miami residence.
The shooter had previously killed five other men across the country before killing Versace and then taking his own life.
In 1989, a teenager obsessed with the Schaeffer was able to obtain her LA residential address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The fan wrote letters to the actress and tried to arrange visits for about two years before he finally traveled to Los Angeles and knocked on her door.
When she answered, he shot and killed her.
Threats are Ongoing
Over the past two years, many more celebrities have had to deal with admirers who made inappropriate physical approaches to their residences, typically seeking some sort of romantic relationship.
In the cases of singers Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, and actor/director Olivia Wilde, the physical approaches to their homes provided enough evidence to support restraining orders.
As imperfect as they are, restraining orders at least provide security teams tools to deal with threatening individuals.
But when a fan or admirer limits their interaction to online platforms, legal protections are less certain and could become even weaker if the U.S. Supreme Court decides that Ms. Whalen’s stalker’s communications were protected by free speech.
While the growth in social media platforms means fans and admirers have more opportunities to harass the objects of their affection, it also provides security teams more capabilities for tracking and getting ahead of the threat.
For protection teams and individuals dealing with potentially obsessive fans or inappropriate admirers, the importance of monitoring online harassment and assessing the threat is more important (and possible) than ever.
Identifying obsessive or otherwise concerning behavior early on can help security teams prioritize individuals to watch out for in case they decide to attempt a physical approach.
Strategies for Dealing with Online Harassment
Any intelligence team supporting security for a public figure is going to focus on and identify overt threats.
Threats of violence are not covered by the First Amendment and, depending on the seriousness of the threats, will often justify law enforcement intervention.
However, as demonstrated in the cases listed above, lethal threats do not always come from critics or opponents of a public figure.
The first step to monitoring threats from fans or admirers is to identify individuals of concern.
Two key factors in identifying individuals of concern are the content of their comments and their persistence.
For content, comments that indicate a level of impropriety or delusion should be of utmost concern.
These often come in the form of imagined relationships with the public figure, romantic or otherwise.
For persistence, security professionals should consider how often and how long the individual of concern imagines the relationship.
A one-off comment can likely be ignored, but multiple comments on the imagined relationship and persistence over the course of weeks or months should indicate that the fantasy is not just a passing phase.
Individuals who fit these descriptions should be filtered out and monitored.
Another type of concerning behavior that TorchStone analysts have noted in the past is fans or admirers of a public figure expressing concern over their safety.
For example, we recently had a case in which a mentally unstable individual attempted to enter the residence of one of our protectees in a misguided attempt to “save” them from their spouse.
This unstable individual believed the protectee’s spouse was “evil” and posed a threat to the protectee.
Once a concerning fan or admirer of the principal has been identified, it is important to monitor the individual for changes in behavior or indications that they will try physically to approach the protectee.
Depending on the protectee’s public profile, this could require significant resources.
TorchStone has utilized the Ontic platform with success in both identifying and monitoring individuals of concern for our clients.
Ontic automates much of the process, and allows analysts to quickly create metrics on concerning individuals, conduct research on them, and quickly alert members of the team to individuals of concern.
However, a Word document or Excel sheet can also suffice, along with a curated Tweet deck or accounts on other relevant social media sites to track the individual’s activity.
Monitoring is also crucial to providing protection to a protectee during travel.
While a person of concern may not be dedicated enough to travel to the protectee’s residence, they may feel more emboldened if the protectee travels to their hometown.
Intelligence teams can assist protection agents by alerting them to the proximity of individuals of concern during protectee travel.
Most people of concern pass quickly through a phase of infatuation before dropping the fantasy or moving on to someone else.
However, in some cases, individuals of concern can escalate the infatuation to something more dangerous.
The most common escalation is resentment which typically comes when an admirer realizes that their idol is not responding to their outreach or does not reciprocate their feelings.
This is what appears to have happened in the case of Ms. Whalen laid out above.
Resentment can quickly lead to threats or accusations of wrongdoing, such as in the case of Darrell Abbot’s killer who thought Abbot’s band was stealing his work.
While a negative response or outright rejection of the subject’s communication can often lead to escalation, we generally advise clients to refrain from any contact with an obsessive subject.
In many cases, these individuals will shift to another target if they are ignored, but a communication, even an innocuous one, can serve to deepen their perceived “connection” with the target of their affection.
Other forms of escalation include seeking more personal interactions through phone calls, postal mail, or even physical encounters, as in the case of Rebecca Shaeffer’s killer.
Once a person of interest escalates from romantic fantasies to angry resentment or more aggressive forms of outreach, a security team should be briefed on the individual and notified to be on the lookout.
This can be helpful to protection agents who can more quickly distinguish potential threats from innocent fans, especially during public appearances.
Finally, if a fan or admirer escalates their grievance and gets on a pathway to violence, a security team can be ready to act if they do start to issue “true threats” that justify law enforcement involvement.
By identifying and monitoring persons of concern early on, security teams can assist in a law enforcement investigation of a true threat by providing basic details about the individuals such as name, address, phone number, employment, etc.
rather than just the social media handle that issued the threat.
It also saves the investigation time by not having to scramble to collect all of that information while an active threat is in progress.
The security team can also provide valuable evidence by documenting the escalation of a subject of concern, potentially helping to prove that a threat was pre-meditated.
Importance of Security Teams
Public figures face a barrage of threats that security teams need to track and act on at a moment’s notice.
Historically, many public figures may face the most lethal threats from their most supportive audience: their fans.
It is crucial that security teams accept that counter-intuitive fact and work to identify fans and admirers who could potentially pose a physical threat.
Finally, ongoing legal challenges could increase the threshold for proving “true threats”, especially when it comes to online harassment.
It is more important than ever for security teams to monitor those threats and prepare for them in case law enforcement cannot help.