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       May 26, 2013 11:15 AM

 FATAL OBSESSION, the real thing


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This month I'm pleased and honored to have a guest post about stalking from Leslie Budewitz, a Montana writer and lawyer.



Her reference book for writers, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.   







FATAL OBSESSION – THE REAL THING

 

As a mystery writer, I often find myself reading the news with wide eyes, thinking "you can’t make this stuff up.” Reality can be so much stranger–and so much more tragic. But as fiction writers, it’s crucial that we read and listen to accounts of tragic cases with our hearts open, so we can portray the emotions our characters–major and minor–experience as honestly as possible.

 

An elderly Florida man, Thomas Kyros, became obsessed with a brilliant Montana teenager, Promethea Pythaitha. In 2005, Promethea – who chose her name herself – became the youngest person ever to graduate from Montana State University, at fourteen.


According to news accounts, she was awarded a scholarship two years later that spread word about her and her talents in the Greek-American community. (Promethea is part Greek, through her father.)


Kyros, also of Greek heritage, offered her and her mother money after they were injured in a car accident. They accepted $9,000. Kyros called himself her "little grandfather” – "pappoulis” in Greek – and contacted them regularly. He apparently became convinced that her mother, Georgia Smith, was holding the girl back, preventing her from going to other schools, and brainwashing her against him.


Eventually, Kyros’s contact became badgering. Smith’s attorney wrote Kyros and asked him to stop contacting the family. In January 2011, Kyros – then 81 – drove from Florida to Montana. He apparently followed Promethea, then 19, to the courthouse in Livingston where she was waiting to testify in an unrelated civil trial, and introduced himself. Because past contact had been so troublesome, she obtained a no contact order against Kyros.



Five days later, Kyros drove to the family home outside Livingston, Montana, and drove his car through the fence. (Right: Promethea stands by the gate later) Georgia Smith came out to investigate and Kryos shot her five times, reportedly calling her a "whore" and a "beast" in both Greek and English.


Promethea called 911, told Kyros to stop, then laid on top of her mother to keep him from shooting. 911 dispatchers remained on the line, listening and no doubt recording, while sheriff’s deputies sped to the scene.


 

According to news accounts, "Kyros then returned to his vehicle and tossed her a bag with $720 cash and a document that said a trust fund would pay her up to $50,000 a year for tuition to one of 10 specified colleges but only if her mother were dead.”


When sheriff’s deputies arrived, Kyros pointed his gun at them and was shot and killed.


Georgia Smith (left) was badly injured, with a paralyzed arm, bullet wounds in both legs, and intestinal injuries. Mother and daughter sued Kyros’s estate in Montana federal court for monetary damages for physical and emotional injuries, and for punitive damages.


Defense attorneys admitted the shooting and liability, but claimed Kyros was insane at the time. The judge ordered settlement talks, noting that the damages claimed exceeded the value of the estate, which was being rapidly reduced by legal fees. Earlier this year, a Florida probate judge approved a settlement with the estate.

 

(Facts drawn from articles in the Billings Gazette, which relied on interviews, testimony from an inquest, and filings in the civil and probate suits.) http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/settlement-approved-in-fatal-obsession-lawsuit/article_0cf1e370-c841-51d3-94fa-b30b9d4910ce.html


Stalking and harassment laws

 

Every state has laws prohibiting stalking and harassment. Names of the crimes vary, as do the definitions and potential sentences. Montana law defines stalking as "purposely or knowingly caus[ing]another person substantial emotional distress or reasonable apprehension of bodily injury or death by repeatedly” following the person, or by "harassing, threatening, or intimidating” her, in person or by mail, electronic methods, or other methods. The statute states that attempts to contact or follow the victim after being given actual notice that the victim does not want to be contacted or followed is evidence of purposeful or knowing action.

 

A first offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine up to $1,000, or both; a subsequent offense OR a first offense against a person with a restraining order against the stalker is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The stalker may be ordered to pay the victim’s medical, counseling, and other costs.

 

This database, from the Stalking Resource Center, part of the National Center for Victims of Crime, will help you find the laws for your state – or your story state, if you’re a fiction writer. http://www.victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center/stalking-laws/criminal-stalking-laws-by-state

Note that other criminal charges might also apply, depending on the facts.

 

Kyros died in the attack, so no criminal charges were possible. Had he lived, he would likely have been charged with aggravated assault (in other states, this might be called assault with a deadly weapon) for shooting Smith, criminal trespass for driving through the fence, assault on a police officer, and stalking. In some states, violating the protective order might be a separate crime; Montana treats it as an aggravated form of stalking.


Restraining or protective orders


Promethea had obtained a restraining order barring Kyros from contacting her or her mother. I’ve written about protective orders on my own blog http://www.lawandfiction.com/blog/?p=154


Obviously, they don’t stop all assaults. But as my blog post notes, studies report a significant decrease – in one Texas study, a drop in physical abuse from 68 to 23 percent over a two year period IF the victims maintain the orders. That last statistic highlights another problem in the complicated relationships between victims and abusers: victims often continue or initiate contact themselves, despite having obtained protective orders. The reasons are complicated and far beyond the scope of this post, but can make a thorny situation even more difficult.

Another benefit of protective orders: they make it easier for law enforcement officers to follow up on reports of abuse, and for prosecutors to successfully prosecute a violator. As this case demonstrates, when incidents recur, a prior request for no contact or a restraining order makes later contact far more serious.

What’s the role of civil claims?


Because Kyros died in the attack, no criminal charges were possible. But civil claims can be made against an estate, as they were here. Briefly, criminal actions assert offenses against the peace and order of society–not just the individual victim–while civil actions assert private rights. Civil claims seek monetary damages–making them particularly useful where physical injuries have occurred. (For more on the difference between criminal and civil actions, and the roles of state and federal courts, see the "Trial and Error” section of Books, Crooks & Counselors.)

 

The civil claims were properly brought in Montana, because Kyros came here and committed his actions here. But because he lived in Florida, and the estate was probated there, mother and daughter would have had to assert their Montana claims in the Florida probate proceeding. That gave two judges jurisdiction over various aspects of the case.


I haven’t read the civil complaint and don’t know the specific actions alleged, but most likely it asserts civil assault and resulting injuries. News accounts say the estate admitted that Kyros committed the shooting and caused injuries, but asserted that he was insane at the time. (The criminal definitions of insanity are discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors.)


But insanity is not a common defense to a civil claim, where a person can be held liable for negligence–meaning that he breached a duty to another person. Intent to harm, or knowledge that he was doing so, is not necessarily an element of the claim. I can only imagine how Kyros’s children feel, knowing that their father was capable of causing such harm. We don’t know whether they knew of his obsession, or what mental treatment he may have had.

 

Although the issue was not decided, I think it would have been a tough defense to establish – no matter what the evidence of Kyros’s mental state. In short, the estate was wise to settle.


Responding to stalking

 

The Stalking Center http://www.victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center has resources, including tips for victims, prosecutors, judges, and more. If you or someone you know is at risk of stalking or harassment – within a relationship or family or from outside – urge them to seek a protective order, break off all contact, report violations, and obtain any other assistance needed to keep themselves and their families safe.

 

If you write fiction, as I do, I hope this story helps you understand some of the legal aspects of stalking – what it is, what it isn’t, how to respond, and how it’s prosecuted. But more importantly, I hope you glean a sense of the human consequences.


Thank you, Leslie, for explaining the legalities related to this horrifying stalking case. Read an excerpt from Leslie's book and more articles for writers at www.LawandFiction.com She blogs about ways writers can use the law in their fiction at www.LawandFiction.com/blog


Leslie writes The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries (Berkley Prime Crime) The first book, Death al Dente, will be published in August, 2013. Set in Jewel Bay, Montana, the books feature Erin Murphy, proprietor of The Merc, a market specializing in regional foods, in her family’s century-old former grocery. Erin’s passion for pasta, retail, and huckleberry chocolates leads to an unexpected talent for solving murder. Recipes included. New York Times bestseller Laura Childs says "Small town charm and big time chills.”



For more details on this case see DARK DEEDS, Volume Two: Serial killers, stalkers and domestic homicides


As always, I invite you to leave a comment and let us know what you think about this complicated case.


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posted by SUSAN FLEET   May 26, 2013 11:15 AM  Stalkers 



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