San Diego It was one of the worst shootings in Michigan for a long time. On November 14, 1996, Gerald Atkins, a 29-year old ex-soldier and glassmaker, shot his way into a Ford auto plant in Wixom, Michigan, and terrorized employees for five hours. He fired hundreds of rounds, killed a supervisor in cold blood, and wounded three other people, including two sheriff's deputies.
He said he did it for the love of a Ford assembly-line worker, Debra Myers. "I wanted her to know that...I will not let anybody infringe on her rights," he told cops afterwards. "She was afraid of [the] rank and file and Fords and the political action committees and all those little committees...that President Clinton has got full control over."
For J. Herbert Larson, Atkins's defense attorney, that speech was the one hope in a nightmare case. With eyewitnesses galore, a two-hour taped confession, a past full of violent, antisocial behavior, Gerald Atkins's only hope lay in a plea of insanity.
Then, just 12 days before the trial, Larson heard the magic words "delusional erotomania." The psychological condition pointed the way to a link between Atkins's deluded love for a woman he didn't know and his appalling massacre at Ford. Larson knew San Diego psychologist J. Reid Meloy was the only man for the job.
Meloy, a forensic psychologist, probably knows as much about stalking and "delusional erotomania" as anybody in the world. He has written scholarly pieces with such titles as "Unrequited Love and the Wish to Kill," a 1992 book on erotomania called Violent Attachments, and has recently edited The Psychology of Stalking, due out next month and believed to be the first-ever scholarly book on stalking.
Larson put in a call to Meloy. He wanted to know if Gerald Atkins's obsession with Debra Myers might fit the diagnosis of "delusional erotomania." Meloy agreed to testify as an expert witness.
"Dr. Meloy was absolutely critical to making this case," says Larson.
Meloy, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD, says psychologists' ethics prevent him from talking specifically about Gerald Atkins. But news reports of his expert testimony confirm Meloy believed Atkins truly fit the profile of an erotomanic, thus opening the possibility of the jury declaring Atkins "not guilty by reason of insanity."
Just what is delusional erotomania?
"Erotomania is a delusional belief that you are loved by another," says Meloy. "The first documented case came from Hippocrates [around the third century B.C.]. It has been diagnosed clinically [in Europe] since 1921. But it wasn't an official diagnosis in American psychiatry until 1987."
Meloy says it is part of the stalking syndrome.
"Stalking is a new crime," he says. "California created the world's first laws against it in 1990. But it is an old behavior."
It's also a serious problem. Meloy quotes figures from a study by the Center for Policy Research in Denver: 8 percent of adult American women and 2 percent of adult men have been stalked sometime in their lives; an estimated 1 million women and 400,000 men are stalked every year in the United States.
In most cases, Meloy says, victims don't find help. Here in San Diego County, with an adult female population of one million, at an estimated nationwide rate of 1 percent being stalked, 10,000 women are stalked annually. Yet there were only 45 cases of stalking prosecuted by the district attorney in 1996. Less than half a percent of perpetrators faced prosecution.
There is violence in 25 to 35 percent of stalking cases, according to Meloy. "Less than" 2 percent result in homicide.
"Typically individuals that stalk are males in their 30s," says Meloy, "and they typically are unemployed, or underemployed. They have a prior criminal, psychiatric, and drug-use history, and they are stalking a woman that they have had a prior intimate relationship with. That's the most frequent stalker profile."
Delusional erotomania motivates 10 percent of stalkers, Meloy says.
"Believing the other party loves you is a key to erotomania. Otherwise it's just a misguided romance. You have to actually believe in the face of evidence to the contrary that you are loved by the other. You have to be delusional to believe it [despite] a tremendous amount of data to the contrary."
What Meloy calls "triangulation" often happens. "A third party is brought into the situation, typically by the stalker or by the erotomanic. And that third party could range from a co-worker to a husband to another lover to a supervisor at work to a psychotherapist, an attorney, whomever, but there are three people, therefore the triangle.
"Typically an erotomanic triangulates as part of his paranoid thinking. The third party is viewed as impeding access to the object of his pursuit. So, for instance, in the Madonna case, Robert Hoskins, the stalker, believed that the bodyguard was impeding access to her. And, in fact, he was."
Testifying as Larson's expert witness in Pontiac, Michigan, Meloy told the court that the "third party" Gerald Atkins took revenge on was the Ford Motor Company. Atkins somehow felt Ford was blocking him from proposing to the woman, Debra Myers. He was sure she loved him despite the fact he hardly knew her and that she had spurned his advances. Classic triangulation, Meloy told the jury.
In The Psychology of Stalking, Meloy cites John Hinckley Jr.'s stalking of Jodie Foster, showing how a stalker believes a "crazy act" against a third party can somehow restore the fantasy bubble of being loved -- or at least linked to the object of desire. A "narcissistic linking fantasy."
"Following [Hinckley's] repeated and unsuccessful attempts to court [Foster]," Meloy writes, "he resorted to what rational minds would call a 'crazy' act: He would assassinate a public figure [President Reagan] to win her affection. 'To link myself with her for almost the rest of history.' "
At least in that daft sense, Meloy writes, Hinckley succeeded.
Hinckley's latest custody hearing is just one of many recent high-profile trials involving Meloy.
"I was retained by the defense in the Polly Klaus murder trial. I was also the forensic psychologist for the prosecution in the Oklahoma City bombing cases. I worked on the McVeigh trial and also the Nichols trial for the federal government. I was the forensic psychologist for the prosecution in the Madonna stalking case a couple of years ago. I was retained by the defense on the Susan Smith case to look at all the psychological testing. And I was contacted by the prosecution on the O.J. Simpson case. They asked me if I would evaluate Simpson if the opportunity arose. And I said I would. But he never entered any mental disability issues."