Making the City a Safer Place

02/02/05
A USC alumna and tenacious Los Angeles deputy D.A. gives victims their lives back by fighting for tougher penalties against stalkers.
By Rizza Barnes
“Many people think stalking only involves celebrities because that’s what the media covers, but the majority of domestic-violence situations actually evolve into stalking behavior,” said Saunders.

Photo/Felipe Dupouy
Her work has benefited some of the most recognizable names in the entertainment industry: Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow.

But the vast majority of cases that weave their way to USC alumna Rhonda Saunders criminal prosecutor and internationally recognized expert in the areas of stalking and threat assessment involve ordinary people.

“Anybody can be a stalker, and anybody can be a stalking victim,” said Saunders, a deputy district attorney with Los Angeles County who has prosecuted hundreds of stalking cases and handled at least a thousand others.

“Many people think stalking only involves celebrities because that’s what the media covers, but the majority of domestic-violence situations actually evolve into stalking behavior,” she said.

Reason enough for Saunders to be tenacious not only in court but also in Sacramento.

In 1991, following the doorstep killing of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker, California enacted the first law on stalking, making the act a misdemeanor.

But Saunders wanted to make the crime a felony. She wanted to extend the law to protect the victim’s family. She wanted better sentencing. So in 1992, Saunders appeared before the California Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I went up there and got kicked out,” Saunders said. “One person asked me, ‘Why should we put someone in prison for being a pest?’ ”

Undaunted, Saunders returned. During her second visit scheduled after a series of stalking-related crimes swept over Sacramento her ideas sailed through. Today, the groundbreaking stalking laws she helped to write are emulated worldwide.

In 1994, she revised California’s stalking law so that a trial court could grant victims a 10-year restraining order (vs. three with a civil RO). She also helped eliminate incarceration as a defense. In 1997, she wrote a new law to facilitate emergency ROs in stalking and workplace-violence cases. In 2000, she increased the penalties for aggravated stalking.

“When you see the damage stalking can do when you talk to victims and their children and realize that some people truly have given up the hope of ever having a safe life … That’s why I do this,” Saunders said.

The New York native also is a relentless educator, training professionals at the Los Angeles Police Department and through the Secret Service’s training division.

She recently launched an informational Web site at http://www.stalkingalert.com, and she’s currently working with Court TV to tape a series of three documentaries, titled “Reasonable Fear,” based on her past stalking cases.

“Rhonda really cares about the victims she wants to give them their life back,” said Sergeant Alex Vargas, who worked closely with Saunders for years as a detective with the LAPD threat management unit.

“We handled a lot of high-profile and a lot of regular, domestic-violence cases, and she puts the same amount of effort into both,” Vargas said. “That kind of commitment is rare.”