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True crime and thriller fans alike probably took notice of the release of Ryan Murphy's "The Watcher" on Netflix earlier this fall. The limited series is fiction, but many of the most chilling details are based on the real story of a family who faced harassment before even moving into their new home.
The real "Watcher" story caught national attention in 2018 when a New York Magazine piece by Reeves Wideman chronicled a New Jersey family's experience receiving mysterious letters at their new house. Derek and Maria Broaddus bought their dream home in 2014 and were getting ready to move in with their three children when they began finding strange letters in their mailbox.
"Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard," the first letter began, "Allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood." But it soon took an unsettling turn:
657 Boulevard has been the subject of my family for decades now ... My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my turn.
The author signed the letters as "The Watcher" and continued to leave the Broaddus family chilling notes. It seemed they were watching the house, commenting on the comings and goings of contractors and the number of children the Broaddus's had.
Local police interviewed one neighbor, but unfortunately, there wasn't much they could do without physical evidence or an admission. The Broaddus's hired a private investigator, set up security cameras, and even reached out to a former FBI agent for help.
After six months of more disturbing letters, the Broaddus's decided to sell the house. But word had gotten around about the letters, and the offers that came in were well below the asking price. The house became an urban legend, and many speculated that the letters were a hoax. Eventually, the Broaddus's found a family willing to rent the home.
Another letter arrived two weeks later, and The Watcher claimed they would have their revenge, one way or another:
Maybe a car accident. Maybe a fire. Maybe something as simple as a mild illness that never seems to go away but makes you feel sick day after day after day after day after day. Maybe the mysterious death of a pet. Loved ones suddenly die. Planes and cars and bicycles crash. Bones break.
Despite a continued investigation by the Westfield police, The Watcher has never been identified.
The Watcher story is an extreme case, but at its heart is a legal issue that anyone could face: What can you do about a stalker?
Stalking wasn't an independent criminal offense in many states until fairly recently. It is generally defined as the "unwanted pursuit of another person" and includes being followed, harassing phone calls, vandalism, and, you guessed it — written notes.
In most states, prosecutors must show a clear pattern of conduct that puts a person in fear for their safety to succeed on a stalking charge. But criminal charges aren't the only option for someone dealing with a stalker.
A judge can also issue a protective order (sometimes called a restraining order) against someone suspected of stalking. Protective orders ban a person from contacting the victim and usually require them to remain a certain distance away. However, protective orders are generally temporary.
In many cases, the identity of a stalker is much easier to ascertain than it was in "The Watcher." In fact, they're most often a former romantic partner or someone else close to you. If you're being harassed or stalked, a domestic violence attorney can help.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.