Internet stalking: When fan obsession goes too far (Video)

With the advent of the Internet, fans can get closer to celebrities than ever before. Photo: Kathy Bates as obsessed fan Annie Wiles and James Caan as her target in Stephen King's "Misery"

FORT WORTH, Texas, March 5, 2013 — What is wrong with people today? Why would people go out of their way to hurt someone they don’t even know and possibly cost another person his life?

Not much in our world surprises me anymore, but this takes the cake. This is fan obsession at its worst.

Johnathan Hillstrand, captain of the F/V Time Bandit on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch made a video last July asking fans for financial donations to help his friends, Tom and Tiffany Doty pay for cancer treatment for their son, Thomas, who suffered from osteosarcoma. (See video below of Captain Hillstrand talking about the issue.)

Tiffany Doty and her son Thomas

As fans responded one stood out. Thomas’ mother told ABC News, “She sent me a text and an email, saying, ‘I saw your story, and my heart breaks, and I’m going to pay for all this treatment.’”

The woman called herself “Jonnica Ellis” and offered the Dotys $250,000 to pay for not only his treatments but to help get their house out of foreclosure.

[Learn about the Thompson family who is raising money to help the Dotys and where to make donations to their fundraiser and the Dotys website.]

Ellis contacted and spoke to Tiffany Doty on several occasions, assuring the grateful mother that their worries were over. Said Doty, “They [sic] went so far as to contact the treatment center and say, ‘We’re faxing you our financial information and do you take credit cards.’ We thought, this is wonderful.”

The help never materialized.

While waiting, the Dotys received excuses, forged bank statements, certified cashier’s checks produced and altered by Ellis herself at the same time she was trying to prove she had sent it.

All the time, Thomas continued to slip away.

When the family realized they had been scammed, Seattle TV station KOMO 4 News shared Thomas’ story. The community rallied and raised enough money to get the young man to California where lifesaving therapy awaited him.

However, Thomas died on December 19, 2012, shortly after his twentieth birthday.

Doctors said the lifesaving treatment came too late. Tom and Tiffany Doty, as well as Hillstrand believe Thomas would still be here if he had received it in time.

Bedridden Thomas Doty

To make matters worse, the person calling herself “Jonnica Ellis” began stalking not only Johnathan Hillstrand but also the Dotys themselves. The captain told Tom and Tiffany that Ellis has been stalking him and won’t leave him alone, making him afraid for his life.

One night the distraught parents came home to find their front door kicked in. Other than the entrance, nothing was disturbed. Tiffany Doty doesn’t see that as a coincidence. They have also continued to receive emails from Ellis as well.

Horrifying as this is, it is not surprising. Long ago there was a huge chasm between the fan and celebrity. Strictly controlled, fans at one time could never get near their beloved stars, that is until the advent of cyberspace.

It is now possible to connect with an admired VIP via Facebook and Twitter. Fans can receive a genuine response from their favorite person. I’m no psychiatrist, but acknowledging such contact seems that it is just asking for trouble.

When we meet each other in person, all sorts of social rules and cues come into play. Think of being in an elevator, grocery store line or introduced to someone new. Most people observe and respect invisible boundaries that define relationships.

Likewise, meeting celebrities face to face brings them down to the level of human too. But there are some people for whom these rules never come into play.  

Nowadays the Internet gives us the illusion of being a star’s friend or at the very least an acquaintance. This is parasocial interaction. The parasocial interaction theory proposes that viewers form relationships with celebrities they admire through media just as they form relationships in real life.

It seems that television executives know this too. In their research, Shyness, Loneliness and Attitude Towards Celebrities Diane D. Ashe and Lynne E. McCutcheon assert that the powers-that-be actively promote parasocial relationships and that they also encourage these mock affiliations by insisting that celebrities use a conversational style in developing a pseudo-friendship with the audience. Plus it’s probably good for ratings too.

Our hearts ache for Tom and Tiffany Doty and our empathy goes to Captain Hillstrand as well. Through his celebrity status, he knew it was possible to help save Thomas, yet it didn’t happen. He should understand, however, that this is not his fault. There was no way he could have predicted this outcome.

Paul Samakow, a lawyer and author of Leading Edge Legal Advice for Everyday Matters for the Communities, spoke in an interview about what legal course of action the Dotys could take, if any.

They can definitely bring a civil suit against Ellis, called Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Samakow also said that based on the knowledge he has, a criminal charge of fraud may be brought against her as well. And that’s a felony.

Why did “Jonnica Ellis” do this? Christina Scanlon of the Watertown Daily News suggests the ordeal started with Ellis’ apparent obsession with Johnathan Hillstrand. Why she took the situation to this level is anybody’s guess.

We can only imagine the agony of a mother, who had to sit by and watch the life of her child slip away. By a miracle Tiffany Doty survived the ordeal.

Tiffany and Tom Doty are now on a quest for justice. They plan to lobby state lawmakers to put laws in place that would protect others from similar tragedies. Now if only the Washington state legislators will listen and make it so.

If you would like to help the Dotys, visit their website HealThomas.com


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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  

 

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