Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
I opened my email in February 2020 to find this message from Mary, our neighbor at our vacation cabin.
Noted the lights, at least one under your house are now infrared or red when lit, and assume you were aware workmen were there installing this past week. Green, my NC stalker, is brazen enough to go unto your property and do whatever he wants; just not sure if you are part. Since unknown objects were launched into the skies above us I have contacted the FBI and do not want to see you get caught up in this. Response not needed, nor expected.
This message was the continuation of a string of communications about the threats she perceived from a stalker whom she claimed had been pursuing her for more than two decades across multiple states.
For months, my husband and I had puzzled over how to respond to this woman whose emails suggested a clearly deteriorating mental status. We chose a path of avoidance—keeping our distance but expressing concern to law enforcement periodically when something seemed particularly concerning. Since we didn't live in the area, we had almost no interactions with other neighbors so were unaware of all going on with them.
Our vacation retreat was nestled amidst quiet rolling hills containing centuries-old farms and new developments, all lining a large lake. Weekenders like us came to enjoy the pine-scented forests, sunrises over the lake, and sailing in gentle breezes. The full-time residents, many of them retired, appeared to live tranquil lives of boating, fishing, and gazing at the lake from their decks. In nearly two decades of owning our cabin, we had chatted briefly with several neighbors, but didn't know any well. Charles Ellis, a neighbor two doors down on the other side of Mary's, stopped by our dock occasionally on his jet ski, with his two dogs in life vests, to exchange pleasantries with my husband, David, while he was working on his boat. Charles was the coordinator of some shared utility services in the neighborhood. He was a friendly, good-natured guy who had retired to the area. But, other than friendly "hellos" or waves when passing on the road, we saw little of him. We spent our limited time there enjoying the peace among the trees away from busy professional lives.
We met Mary in person only once, two years earlier. During a brief visit, we had first met her husband, Gary, in early 2018. He was chopping wood while his black lab rested nearby. His grey hair and strong, weathered hands suggested years of manual labor. We guessed he was in his 60s. He looked up when we approached and chatted briefly, noting he lived at the house full-time but his wife, Mary, was only able to come on weekends for now. He was friendly enough, but not effusive. The way he described Mary's situation seemed strained and I had a fleeting thought that perhaps she was institutionalized and only able to visit on weekend passes. I quickly dismissed this notion and, because we were then living so far away, gratefully accepted his offer to keep an eye on our place. We shared contact information and agreed to let him know when friends or family were using the cabin.
Several months later, we visited again as we prepared to move back closer to the area and spend more time at the lake. We discovered Mary was now living there, too, so we invited the two of them to come for drinks and get acquainted. They arrived bearing a plate of cheese and nuts. At the door, Mary surprised us by reaching eagerly across the threshold to hug each of us like old friends. A slightly round, well-kept woman in her 60's, she was not particularly distinctive. Gary, who had hung back by the door, put his arms out also inviting a hug saying, "It's OK, I won't hurt you."
It hadn't occurred to me he might be threatening, but something was decidedly peculiar. Maybe it was from watching too many crime shows where danger seemingly lurks everywhere. I briefly wondered if he had a violent past. But I rejected the notion just as I had dismissed my earlier thought that Mary might have been institutionalized. Still, a mild uneasiness persisted.
Mary showed particular interest in the layout of our place, so I offered to show her around. As we walked through the cabin, she commented in an oddly stilted way, "Hmm... very well appointed," and seemed unusually interested in our furnishings. Her curiosity about the provenance of our belongings compelled me to explain the cabin was furnished with a hodge-podge of furniture from assorted dead relatives. Revealing this felt quite strange.
Later, Mary accepted a glass of wine, settled gingerly into a straight firm chair, and explained she had a bad back and worked in a law office in a nearby city. The otherwise taciturn Gary spoke proudly about one of their children, but Mary suddenly interjected that none of their children had spoken with them in years. We politely steered the conversation elsewhere.
After this visit as we prepared for our move back to the area, Mary sent her first email expressing concern that lights were on at our cabin and noting we had not indicated anyone had our permission to be there. I then called the sheriff to ask for guidance.
"Hi," I said to the man who answered the phone. "I'm the homeowner at number 22 Frances Lane. I'm calling from out of state, but my neighbor at the lake just contacted me and said she saw lights at our cabin and was concerned."
An hour or so later, he called back. "Ma'am, I saw nothing amiss at the cabin. There are no lights on and none of them were hot from having been on. I walked around and checked all the doors and windows, and everything seemed to be closed up tight."
"Hmm, I wonder what she saw."
"I don't know, but it all looks fine to me," and he added haltingly, "and... well, ma'am... I have been in contact with your neighbor a number of times. I ... uh... well... I think there might be some mental health issues there."
I stammered, "Oh. Uh huh... Well, OK... Thank you so much for checking and letting us know."
Now, I was sure something was amiss.
About two weeks later in early September, 2018 while on a business trip, I received this email with a subject line: "PERSONAL".
Carol, I should have discussed with you when you were here, but try to not allow my past to define me. Kindly read the following and decide if you want anything to do with me and/or Gary.
Twenty-one years ago I reported a neighbor for manufacturing explosives in PA. My realtor refused to allow him to go through our home that was for sale, so he sent a friend from NC. That NC friend has harassed and stalked me ever since through 10+ moves and 5+ states... He contracts with neighbors to harass me for vehicles, and whatever they desire. Gary Wilson welcomed them and has earned a SuperDuty Ford, a Toyota Highlander, and John Deere 4 wheeled gator type vehicle. I believe he also received a house full of furniture but cannot prove that. Charles Ellis took over where he left off using our friendship to glean personal information to hurt and injure me following (my) spine surgery and is still ongoing. To my knowledge, he got 2 cars and a truck and who knows what else. I believe both of these men and their wives may be using slander, libel and/or defamation by telling neighbors things about me (and/or Gary) that are not true so no one speaks with us. Patricia Ellis met me at the top of driveway or in front of property for 6 weeks when I left for work or we ran errands to get a car; even when I changed my departure time by 1/2 or 1 hr. I still wonder how she knew our plans - possible audio surveillance? I did file a Cease and Desist letter against her...
Mary went on to say I could check her story with law enforcement officials in all the states in which she had lived, giving names of each contact.
Stunned, I took a few days to respond. I felt I was walking on eggshells, not wanting to validate what seemed like irrational claims but at the same time, attempting not to appear insensitive. I had worked for a year after college as an intake interviewer in a psychiatric clinic and had learned to respond calmly and respectfully even when clients were making seemingly bizarre statements. I answered with a carefully worded message trying to strike a friendly, non-threatening tone.
Mary, Sorry to be slow in responding... I don't know what to say about all this other than I am sorry you have had all these troubles. I have heard nothing from anyone about you or Gary. We have appreciated your being good neighbors and watching our property when we are not there and enjoyed getting acquainted during our recent visit... Carol
Over the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019, we had a series of exchanges in which I let her know when people were coming to the cabin, and she occasionally expressed concern about someone walking on our property. Each time, I thanked her and indicated we would check on things when next there. Now that we were back and living closer, we visited the lake more often and made a point to announce our arrivals via email, but had no in-person contact. Then this message came in early April, 2019.
Carol, No need to let me know anything going forward. It was certainly a pleasure meeting you. I've had enough of the click that lives here. It's like being in high school all over again. You will note most of the neighbors in my area of Frances Lane and some, if not all of the year round neighbors on Pearl Road and one I know of has new vehicles, jet skis, ATVs, house renovations and additions at my expense and pain. They won't be happy until I'm gone or dead; I'm not leaving so it will be the latter. They tried character assassination by filing false charges against me and I was found not guilty on all.
Also know they speak poorly of you and David. That was one of the reasons we wanted to meet and offer you a friendly, sincere neighborly greeting. Best wishes, Mary
I did not respond. At the time, I was unaware this message had come shortly after other neighbors brought criminal charges against her for threatening phone calls and stalking. Though she was found not guilty, the charges seem to have aggravated her antagonism toward them.
Then, less than three weeks later, she reported seeing lights on and curtains moving at our cabin. We had no curtains, only blinds. Then in August 2019 this message arrived.
I didn't see anything else; just the round beam of a flashlight and when I stood up for closer look it turned off.
The new best friend of the year-round neighbors is my stalker who is now living at the lake. He is part of a multi-state burglary organization and I can assure you a group is in place. I am working diligently to get proof so an investigation can begin. The local Sheriff's office is well aware of everything that occurs. I strongly encourage you to take every precaution to secure your lake house, or anything of sentimental or material value...
And in August...
Carol, We are currently having a thunderstorm. I was watching TV and all of your house lights came on and went off in seconds, so I called the Sheriff's Office to do a check. Hope you don't mind. Could have been electrical or perpetrators, so I erred on the side of caution. Mary
Not quite satisfied nothing was wrong, I called the sheriff's department to ask about this.
"Hello, I am calling because my neighbor reported seeing lights in my cabin. No one should be there. She was concerned it was intruders but did note there was a thunderstorm going on. I am concerned about a lightning strike. But I also know she has had a lot of concerns in the past that were not justified."
The officer confirmed the heavy thunderstorm in progress and offered, with clear reluctance, to drive out and have a look, pointing out if there had been a lightning strike, he would likely have heard about it from multiple neighbors. He again noted he thought our neighbor had some mental health issues. I accepted his explanation and told him there was no need to investigate further. But the sheriff's continuing statements about mental health problems confirmed our conclusions. We relayed stories to our friends and family about these strange communications and what, if anything, they thought we might do. No one had any suggestions except possibly talking to Gary. That seemed uncomfortable and potentially risky as we were unsure if he shared her views, and her earlier email asking if we had heard things about both Gary and her that weren't true made me wonder further about his history. I considered doing criminal background checks, but decided against it, not knowing if he would be notified and unsure if I really wanted to know.
Over the next six months, Mary sent multiple emails about possible concerns at the house and complaints about misbehavior by other neighbors. Then, a February message referred to lasers being shined from our cabin and unknown flying objects circling her house. Her messages followed with many more details of presumed complicity of various neighbors with her alleged stalker. She even claimed "DeBlasio" (presumably referring to the mayor of New York) had flown a drone over her house. She told how her daughter had been confronted in California and how these several neighbors were part of a multi-state burglary group. Amidst these charges, she claimed she was telling me she was trying to be "a good, honest and dependable neighbor."
She wrote again in early February 2020...
I have wondered for 20 years what is being said about me to cause total strangers to harass, bully and torture me. If you can't or won't share that information with me, please share with the sheriff.
There will be no further contact, and no further calls to the police about your lake house unless I can have someone arrested... Harassment began shortly after moving in October 2015. Physical torture began October 2017 and has continued to date...
She went on to list nearly a dozen specific individuals whom she claimed had received cars, trucks, appliances, or home improvements to facilitate the stalker's efforts to harass her.
By this time, I was not surprised to receive strange and accusatory emails from Mary. But this most recent set were especially concerning. She claimed Ellis was an "SOB" and "white supremacist" who was harboring her long-time stalker at his house two doors down from hers.
While this message, and several more like it were, on the one hand, laughable, I was increasingly troubled by the content and tone of her accusations. We maintained our posture of friendly replies and kept our distance. While concerned about her mental health, we were not physically afraid of her, knowing, as health professionals, most mentally ill individuals are not violent. Besides, the sheriff had never indicated we should be concerned for our safety or that of others. Periodically, David and I would wonder whether there could there be any morsels of truth in what she was saying, keeping in mind the adage that even paranoid people are sometimes chased by bad guys. But we were convinced Mary clearly had serious mental health problems.
We ignored her statements about the misdeeds of other neighbors but did begin to wonder if she was sending similar messages to them or to law enforcement accusing us of creating problems for her or accepting bribes. She wrote she was disappointed by neighbors she held in high regard. Was that me? I recalled her comment about our "well-appointed" furnishings. We had so far maintained what seemed a courteous, albeit weird, relationship so I chose to believe she was not suspicious of me. But I really didn't know. Whenever I saw her name appear on a message in my in-box, I was both curious and apprehensive.
Several months passed during which I was relieved to receive no messages from Mary. Then, in September 2020, this one arrived.
Carol, Did you give Green permission to put one of those God awful lights on your property in the ravine just across the creek? When I was walking tonight on the road I looked down and saw one of those lights, facing the road, either on the line of our properties, or on yours. Mary
"Mary,we put up no lights and authorized no lights on our property. Who is Green? Carol
Then back from Mary...
It was one of the lights identical to those across the lake. Green is my NC stalker of 21 years that has ingratiated himself with all of the neighbors and lives with Ellis... He was on your property tonight when I was outside, but I never see him; only hear him. There's a worn path ... across your property and along the creek on our property. Who knows what they do, but it can't be good.
It's pretty sad when you know most of the Sheriffs by first name. They asked if you would give permission, and I said I did not think so... Sorry to trouble you. Hope you have a wonderful visit.
About this time, we ran into a group of other neighbors while out walking. One told us how Mary had tried to run Charles Ellis off the road with her car and she had brandished a gun, shooting in the general direction of a group of neighbors walking together. One neighbor revealed several others had obtained restraining orders. We explained we had been concerned about Mary's mental health based on the emails she sent to us over the last two years. Our neighbors were surprised she was in communication with us, but not surprised by the nature of her accusations.
At this point, I sought counsel from a friend who had previously practiced as a therapist nearby. She indicated there was little I could do and that local law enforcement would be unlikely to take action until a crime had been committed. I accepted this at face value. It also was the path of least resistance. But now I wonder if I should have done more. But what?
On another visit a month or so later, I was reading on our deck and heard two gun shots coming from the direction of Mary's house, situated about 200 yards through the woods. I turned to David and asked, "Do you think we should call the sheriff?"
He suggested, "Someone is probably just chasing away deer or squirrels."
In a matter of minutes, we could make out Gary through the trees appearing to be power washing his deck, prompting me turn to David with a macabre crack, "Well, maybe he finally did her in and is cleaning up the blood."
Despite this joking, we were seriously concerned and now regularly referred to Mary as "our crazy neighbor." Keeping at a safe distance seemed preferable, though a bit cowardly. I did send copies of the particularly worrisome emails to my brother and son, keeping them informed of what we were experiencing partly for their advice and partly so someone else was aware. While I still was not frightened of Mary and Gary, I was growing increasingly uneasy.
A week or so later, in September, this exchange followed.
Carol, May I have your permission to walk the old roadway to look for the laser Green is using to hurt me?
Mary, Ok to take a look or we can look when we get there this afternoon. Carol
Back from Mary in a matter of minutes...
No, Carol. Unlike most of the neighbors, I would never enter someone else's property unless given permission. I would truly like to investigate further though... I truly believe your electric on the lower level was tapped into and is run down over the bank to the cove... There are a lot of UFOs flying around my house (small cylindrical objects) that have been caught on camera and provided to police for identification. There are also UFOs flying in the sky over the lake that have also been caught on my cameras.
She asked if an electrician could visit our house to check for connections that were powering the lights she was reporting. We expressed willingness only if we were there, at which point she suggested Gary was skilled in electrical work and would be willing to check.
Following this series of exchanges, David and I called the sheriff's office again, explaining her claims about a laser situated at our cabin and pointed at her house and her request to investigate. We needed to respond to her but were very uncomfortable being dragged into this drama.
" I am concerned about my neighbor," I explained. "She seems to think there are stalkers using our house to shine lasers into her house."
"Uh huh," the sheriff replied blandly.
"She wants to send an electrician to check our house—but we are not really comfortable with that unless we are there. It is all pretty concerning. I worry she is having some sort of a mental health problem."
"I understand. Well, yes... you can say that. I can't," he cautiously answered.
"I could share with you a number of pretty strange emails I have gotten from her."
"Oh, you don't need to do that. I get 30-40 emails from her every week and I've been out to her house many times."
"Does her husband share these beliefs?"
"I don't think so. He doesn't say much and acts like sort of buffer. I think having him come over would be fine," the officer replied.
"Well, I'm also concerned she seems so unstable and I know she has a gun," I added.
"Yes, I understand, but there is nothing in this state we can do about that. She has a right to have a gun."
"Well, it does worry me as I have been told she has threatened other neighbors. We have always maintained a good relationship with her and Gary, I think."
"That sounds good. I would encourage you to keep it that way."
Soon after, we arranged a time for Gary to come over to inspect the electrical outlets under our deck. While they looked, Gary told David in his quiet manner that he had not seen the lasers—only Mary had.
While I said hello as he passed by the porch, I was tempted to ask if he was aware of her multiple messages to me about stalkers, being curious as to whether he was aware of her delusions and if she was getting care. Never having been totally comfortable with him either, I didn't ask. Despite Gary's finding no tampering with our power, her messages continued.
Knowing she was so vigilant, I started sending notes again about when we were coming to the cabin. Once when I had neglected to alert her of our arrival, she sent me a note about a man shoveling in our driveway and offered to share video taken from a camera installed on the side of her house. I declined, explaining it was David whom she had seen.
In mid-November 2020 these two messages arrived about ten days apart. The first came in response to a note telling her we were there.
Carol, Saw lights last night, so assumed. Hope everything is OK.
Thanks, Carol, for being amicable. I hate the person I've become living here. David's sailboat looked beautiful as it passed by. Saw an otter who appears to be living on your point. It was so pretty. Mary
A few minutes after my response, she continued with two brief messages, one promising to photograph the otter if she saw it again. The second apologized for the "hideous" color of the boat cover she purchased for a new boat to tow the grandchildren. The reference to her grandchildren puzzled me given what she had previously said about being estranged from her children. Maybe things were on the mend in her family? Were these relatively normal messages signs of hope?
At some level, she was able to acknowledge she was troubled while also wanting to maintain a sense of normalcy and friendliness with me, for which I was grateful. I continued trying to maintain a cordial relationship with her. I recognized, during the COVID pandemic, many people were extra stressed. Being supportive of friends and neighbors was important.
Then, two weeks later, as we were finishing our dinner one evening, David's cell phone rang.
"Oh my god!" I heard him gasp.
"What happened? Wait—let me put you on speaker; Carol's here, too."
I assumed something terrible had happened to a family member. But, it was Ellen, a full-time resident at the lake. "I wasn't sure if you had heard about your next-door neighbor, she asked."
"No, we haven't been to the lake for a few weeks."
"Well, I just told David, she shot and killed Charles Ellis on Friday evening.
"Oh no! Oh my god." I cried as snippets of our email exchanges raced through my brain.
"She waited in her car for him while he was walking his dogs. As he turned the corner, she shot him. Then, she called 911 and reported having killed someone. She drove home and shot herself. Her husband called 911, but she died soon after the ambulance arrived."
After regaining my composure, I told Ellen about my call to the sheriff and how I wondered if I could have done something more to prevent this. She noted many others in the neighborhood had called the sheriff expressing concern multiple times.
I have experienced sadness, bewilderment, and chagrin that I had been unable to intervene to prevent this tragedy. I've revisited my correspondence with Mary and our friendly exchanges with Charles, whose obituary declared him "the unofficial mayor" of the neighborhood—a fine and generous man. As his former neighbor, it devastates me. Still, I can't turn off what I knew as a professional.
As a scientist who has studied and taught about gun violence as a public health issue, I knew then that in the US, guns kill more than 40,000 people annually, the majority suicides. The evidence was clear, having guns in the home increases risks for both homicide and suicide. I also knew states with stronger gun laws have fewer gun-related deaths. I was knowledgeable about the passage in many states of Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ERPO's (also called red flag laws), permitting removal of firearms from someone who is a threat to themselves or others. I was aware these orders had been shown to be effective in reducing violence by disturbed individuals. My own research on suicide prevention had revealed health care professionals do poorly in discussing gun safety with patients, but most local law enforcement and gun retailers are willing to help by storing guns on a temporary basis when asked. The challenge often lies in deciding who is safe to get their gun back and when the evidence is sufficient for removal.
As I think about my research and this personal experience, I am horrified I had maintained a friendly relationship with a killer and found no way to help her or stop her despite increasingly obvious signs of her illness. Mary clearly had serious mental health issues and a weapon.
Despite my professional knowledge, myriad questions about what I could have done differently plague me. Was I nothing more than a coward who didn't want to get involved? Should I have tried to talk with her husband and offer to help them find mental health services? Did he see the danger she posed? Had he tried to intervene? Should I have sought guidance from additional mental health or legal professionals? Should I have engaged with other neighbors to talk about safety? Was there any way to do these things in the spirit of helpfulness without also becoming a target of her paranoia? Should I have gone up the chain of command in the law enforcement agency to insist on action? Could I have helped save these two lives and gotten this seriously ill woman some care? As I learned from news reports of the events, several neighbors who were directly threatened did try to work through the justice system and failed. Why didn't the system work? Why didn't the sheriff's office—knowing of her mental instability—take her gun away? The state had an ERPO law that would have allowed that action. Why couldn't law enforcement and mental health care providers coordinate sufficiently to prevent this tragedy?
As the nation experiences a massive increase in gun ownership and the more frequent interpersonal and self-directed violence that inevitably come with it, many challenges remain. The courts have upheld the right to own guns under the Second Amendment, but this does not give anyone the right to take another person's life except in self-defense or to keep others from imminent harm. When shootings occur, pundits often debate how the signs of mental illness could have been recognized and how we need to be more vigilant about noticing troubling behavior, the perspective on which ERPO laws are built. But, in other areas of public health we rely on environmental, system level change to offer protection. Rather than suggesting each family test and boil their water, public health assumes the responsibility of assuring safe water is delivered to homes. Similarly, we require cars are manufactured to safe standards, that they be registered and inspected, and only licensed drivers have the privilege to drive, with reckless driving resulting in sanctions. Why can't we muster the courage to require the same for guns?
Over the past two years, our lake community has outwardly returned to its peaceful state, but the memory of the horror surely lingers. Some neighbors moved away precipitously; others remain. I remain troubled by my inaction and wonder how many more Mary's are out there in need of help and how many more, like Charles, are trying to secure protection without effective assistance from the system. We must find a way to do better.
Though all these events are true, the names of all individuals and specific locations have been changed to protect privacy.