I felt sorry for my ex when we split. Now I live in constant fear and carry alarms because he stalked me in revenge
After years of being harassed by an obsessed former boyfriend who threatened to kill her, Vicky Clarke is fighting for new laws to tackle such terror, writes Stephanie Bell
A Bangor woman who has been stalked by an obsessed former boyfriend during a four-year campaign of terror is bravely battling for an urgent change in the law to protect other people who have found themselves in her terrible position.
Vicky Clarke (49) fears that just speaking out about her ordeal in this newspaper today could put her safety at risk.
But after four years of looking over her shoulder and being consumed with fear, she believes it is a risk worth taking in the hope that it will help highlight the need for new laws to protect victims of stalkers.
Her experience makes for horrifying reading. The mum of two teenagers lives in constant fear after her tormentor threatened to shoot her in 2012.
Vicky, who works in mental health, is bravely sharing her story because she feels the law needs to be changed to protect victims.
"Silence feeds crime and allows it to continue, so I am willing to share my own personal experience to help others, even though I know I am risking my safety to do it," she says.
The mum has launched an online support group for victims - stalkingni.com - and has met MLAs to share her ordeal in the hope of getting new measures, including a register of stalkers and a register of domestic abusers, put in place to support victims.
She has been forced to take drastic steps to protect herself, including moving houses, changing jobs and her car to try and protect herself and her family, since her ex started stalking her in early 2012.
Vicky carries an alarm in every jacket pocket, parks under CCTV cameras, avoids certain parts of the town she grew up in and is constantly watching and scanning for fear that her stalker could be following her. Her home and work is alarmed and also fitted with CCTV cameras. In short, her life has changed beyond recognition.
In March, Vicky finally succeeded in obtaining a court order to prevent her tormentor from approaching her, but it has done little to allay her fears.
The police also appear powerless to act. At one stage, a PSNI officer told her: "Unless he strikes you, there is little we can do."
Over the years Vicky reported incidents to the police, but she was told that without a direct crime being committed, there was little they could do.
"For years I have been followed, chased on dual carriageways, cyber-stalked on the internet, defamed to anyone who would listen and have had my livelihood attacked on Facebook," she explains.
"He has frightened my children and it has resulted in me living a fearful existence where I have to scan everywhere I go when out in my local town.
"He is a believable character. When we split up, he tried to convince anyone who would listen that I was abusing people's trust in my job and that I was a psychopath. He even called my boss to try and get me the sack.
"He made a death threat, and that made me see him for what he truly was. When he knew I was never going to go back with him, he became very nasty and upped his campaign, ultimately trying to reverse the victimhood."
Vicky's nightmare began when after just five months of dating the man, who is 49, unemployed and lives in her home town, Bangor, she decided to end the relationship.
"At first, he appeared heartbroken and begged me to go back," she says. "I felt sorry for him, but after a few months, when he saw there was no future in the relationship, it turned nasty.
"He constantly tried to contact me, sometimes texting me up to 30 times a day, and went to extraordinary lengths to frighten me. This included following me to work, appearing suddenly behind me, chasing me in my car, hiding in gardens when I was at friends' houses, creating Facebook characters, and stalking my friends. His revenge for my rejection was a lesson I will never forget.
"When someone is that obsessed, how do you know when they have reached far enough? Why, if he does not conform to normal adult behaviour, would he not follow out his threat?
"I did not ask for this. I did not know it existed, so I could not watch out for myself when we got involved. Well-meaning friends have said to me that if I ignore him, he will go away, but years later it was the same.
"I was told that he had done this to other women, but no one would warn me or tell me at the time.
"That's why I believe there should be a stalker register and a domestic abuse register, and I plan to do all I can to campaign to ensure these are set up."
Vicky is determined to do all she can to bring about a change in the law. She wants new legislation introduced, but in the meantime believes that the police should be given new powers to act.
"The justice system is failing the people of Northern Ireland who live in fear from threatening, intimidating, controlling behaviour from another," the mother-of-two says.
"There are no stalking laws here, and the PSNI don't have the powers to stop it from the onset. As time progresses, and while waiting on court cases, is when the damage happens.
"Constant hyper-vigilance and alertness is very draining and could be prevented. Worryingly, there are few criminal prosecutions. This means that the legal system is wide open to abuse from counter-allegations and use of Legal Aid because the civil system is the only route available.
"Having reported many incidents and having given evidence on numerous occasions, I was always told by the police that there still wasn't enough for a criminal prosecution.
"I was also told by the police that he had to strike me for them to be able to act, and that I was to gather my own evidence. This means taking a video and pictures when he is or was near me, even though I was in a panic and in natural fight or flight response mode.
"The policymakers have clearly never been in this position to know it's not natural to record the danger you see approaching you.
"A normal response to danger is to run, and I was in danger because he had threatened to kill me and he did not behave as a normal person."
At one stage her tormentor tried to turn the tables on Vicky, claiming that he was being harassed by her.
She was stunned to be served with an ex parte injunction applied for by her stalker. These are given automatically when requested by a solicitor prior to a court trial or a hearing.
As he is unemployed, he was entitled to Legal Aid while trying to use the law to further harass his victim. It backfired when Vicky instead secured a full order against him in March of this year.
She remains convinced that he thought she would be too frightened to challenge him.
"I didn't see it as a victory for me as I should never have been there in the first place," Vicky says. "I was traumatised by the whole court experience, which took over a week to recover from.
"I felt unsafe that day not just because of my stalker but also because of an unfair, loopholed legal system which he could abuse so easily and without hard evidence. It is wrong how I was so easily dragged into this based on lies.
"I was secondarily victimised by the legal system, and I had no option but to pay for my own defence while taxpayers' money was used by him to instigate it.
"Afterwards people said, 'Well done, you've won'. But the truth is that I won nothing, having had four years of my life on the edge, living a financially draining and hyper-vigilant existence, trying to balance my everyday roles, and because he doesn't work I got to pay my own legal bill.
"This cost, alongside house moves, car changes, job changes, and CCTV and surveillance equipment, all adds up. This money would have been better spent on my children's upbringing and essential needs."
Before the court case, Vicky was given an SOS device by the PSNI which, at the touch of a button, would alert police to her location by satellite if she was in danger.
"Leaving the house is like a military operation," she says, "checking that I have my SOS device, my camera to gather evidence, one of my personal alarms, and having to keep a look out for his vehicle.
"I have a life with CCTVs, dash cams, alarms, phone camera at the ready, and an automatic scan everywhere I go in my local town.
"My neighbourhood safety officer also equipped me last year with some alarmed sensors for my windows and doors, and personal alarms. And throughout it all, I kept saying to myself, 'This is not right'.
"As much as I am grateful for all this equipment, would it not be much better if the Government could equip the PSNI with tougher laws so that they can apply their motto - keeping people safe - to me and others who need them in this situation?
"I wasn't attacked, but I lived with the fear of it happening because I was threatened and he kept going out of his way to intimidate me and my friends.
"Tougher laws would have saved a lot of unnecessary fear and PSNI time because I know the only thing that he fears is incarceration.
"This would have deterred his behaviour, once it was shown that the police meant business."
The ordeal has left Vicky wary of trusting others because, understandably, she feels that her sense of freedom has been taken away.
Having to live always on alert has drained her of her entitlement to safety. She now turns her head for fear of unwanted attention when near men because, to her, everyone is a potential stalker.
"The frightening thing is he is still out there, and may be looking for his next victim," Vicky says.
"There will be one because he feeds on this need for drama, taunting the law, causing misery and creating a story to twist and tell because this is his only way of making himself important."