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The “So-Called Stalker” pleads guilty. But family members say his victim isn’t the only one who’s suffered.
The D.C. Superior Court audience had dwindled to a handful of reporters and the defendant’s father by the time Todd A. Witte entered the courtroom last Friday. The 27-year-old Witte—the subject of an anonymous author’s October Washington City Paper story chronicling her four-year history of being stalked by a man she’d hardly met—had been charged with a felony in August after making a series of death threats against the woman (“My So-Called Stalker,” 10/8). Though he’d eluded arrest for two months, Witte had turned himself in to D.C. police the morning after the story appeared.
On Friday, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of stalking and making threats.
At a nearly hourlong hearing Friday, Judge Stephen G. Milliken talked over the details of Witte’s plea agreement—which calls for a one-year suspended jail sentence, psychiatric treatment, and a five-year probationary period. During his probation, Witte would be required to take prescribed medications and check in with the court every six months.
The agreement would also require that he stay at least 10 blocks from the author and her sister, and anywhere they work or live. If the stay-away order is accepted as written, Witte may not contact the two by phone or mail.
Milliken will review both the agreement and the results of an upcoming psychiatric evaluation of Witte before deciding on a final sentence at a hearing scheduled for Dec. 17. Witte—who has been incarcerated since his arrest—will remain at the D.C. Jail until his sentencing.
At Witte’s arraignment Oct. 8, Hearing Commissioner Ronald Goodbread said that Witte’s felony case could “arguably turn into a benchmark for stalking cases in this jurisdiction.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David B. Deitch says accepting Witte’s misdemeanor plea still sends a serious message. “That’s a criminal conviction,” he says. “The bottom line is we wanted to ensure the complainant would be safe….There is a value attached to a certainty of plea.”
Channing Phillips, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, adds that although a stalking charge carries only misdemeanor weight in D.C., such a charge more accurately reflects the severity of Witte’s actions. “Threats can be a one-time incident; stalking is repeated behavior,” he says. “I think it was important, from our perspective, that we ensure a stalking conviction….It more fairly represents the nature of his conduct.”
During Friday’s session, Milliken warned that he’s not obligated to work within the confines of the agreement. “I’m in the unenviable position of having to determine whether, when one person says to another human being, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you,’ I’ve protected everyone,” he said. “You have to know that I may well reject the government’s recommendation.”
Witte’s victim was absent from Friday’s hearing. The woman—who wrote her City Paper story under the pseudonym “Theresa”—says she’s happy with the plea but hopes police and courts consider the stalking crime a serious one. “I’m pleased personally for the outcome for our safety,” she says. “But the thing I wish would have happened was that the crime of stalking be in felony territory.”
At the hearing, Deitch recited facts of the case that both sides had agreed on. Deitch read into the court record an account of letters, phone calls, and voice-mail messages Witte had left for Theresa and her sister over the last four years. One letter, Deitch recounted, included references to the 1998 shooting at the U.S. Capitol. A voice-mail message included this statement: “I’m going to do what I want to you—beat you, rape you, slap you, throw you around the room.”
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, Witte slouched in his chair as Deitch read aloud, at times holding his forehead in his hand. He talked little during the hearing, responding to the judge’s questions with terse answers, usually no more than a low, quiet “Yes, sir.” He glanced once at the audience when he entered the courtroom, but otherwise he didn’t look beyond the tabletop in front of him.
Witte’s father, who had been sitting quietly behind his son, stood to make a statement near the end of Friday’s hearing. “The family is deeply concerned about what happens to Todd and what happens to the community,” Jeffrey Witte said. He went on to explain that Todd Witte’s condition, which he has previously described as a “schizotypical personality,” is a “treatable condition” that surfaces during adolescence and can “burn itself out.” He added that substances like marijuana can “flip someone over to a psychotic state for a short period of time.”
Todd Witte’s attorney, Tom Talbott, also told the judge that, despite Witte’s having been prescribed anti-psychotic medicine, he has not been able to take his medication while in jail. Milliken responded sympathetically, saying that prison officials are not known for their service to inmates. Todd Witte cracked a smile at that—his only one during the hearing. Milliken made a phone call from the bench, promising to fax information about the medication to the jail immediately.
For Jonathan Witte, Friday’s hearing was yet another instance of seeing his little brother’s mental issues bubble to the surface. The 29-year-old middle school English teacher, who lives in Takoma Park, says he always suspected there was something amiss with his brother. The younger Witte’s conversation often turned into “rants and ramblings,” recalls Jonathan Witte. At times, Todd Witte became “paranoid,” says his brother, and worried that people were following him or plotting against him. “I’ve always known that there was something off, that he wasn’t mentally perfect,” he says.
Still, Jonathan Witte says his brother is not the monster he’s been made out to be, and that his mental problems have never translated into violence. “I’m not trying to defend my brother in terms of what he did,” he says. “But if [Theresa] had been afraid my brother would have physically attacked her, I don’t think [that fear] could have lasted for four years.”
Jonathan Witte did not attend Friday’s hearing, but he echoed his father’s concerns that prison and court officials have ignored his brother’s needs. “If someone has a sickness, it’s easy to lock him up,” he says. “I regret he couldn’t get the medication he needed. He’s sick.”
And the shortage of meds isn’t the only way Todd Witte’s been ill-served, says his brother. He sympathizes with Theresa, he says, but calls her story “sensational” and says its effect on police and courts was “a bit manipulative….I think it’s egregious the way a creative nonfiction piece was used as evidence.
“There’s a lot about this case that was fallible, on many parts,” adds Jonathan Witte. “It’s difficult to voice those iniquities without sounding callous….But it’s not about a stalker. I think it’s about someone who’s sick.”
Theresa says that, for everyone’s sake, she hopes Todd Witte gets the medical attention he needs. “I don’t want the guy to suffer,” she says. “I just want him to understand the severity of what his father’s trying to portray as youthful folly. I just want him to get better so he’ll stop bothering me.”
She says his constant threats inflicted irreparable damage on her own well-being. “Since Todd never attacked me physically, I didn’t know what he was capable of—if a confrontation would be nothing or the worst situation,” she says. “The not knowing drove me crazy.”
Todd Witte’s time in jail, Theresa adds, is only a fraction of the time she’s faced a different kind of confinement. “It’s obvious, unless he’s in jail, I can’t comfortably get along with my life,” she says. “The rest of my life I have to consider this person and his mental state and where he is in the world. I have to change my life to think about his life and how happy he is….
“I no longer have [only] myself to consider. For the rest of my life, I have to worry about people I fall in love with, people I live with, people I’m friends with….I see myself as a grandma playing in the front yard with my grandkids and having to shoo them inside for snacks every time a car drives by, wondering, Is it him?”
Like Jonathan Witte, Theresa wishes the police and court actions hadn’t stemmed from her prose. “I wish the attention I got was because of the facts of my case or because of the process,” she says. “I was pleased by the attention. But it saddened me greatly to know that I had to write a widely read article to get anything done. It makes me even more disconsolate for the people who don’t have resources or access.” CP