Yesterday, I discovered that my stalker died. Three years ago.
I have never written or spoken publicly about the episode, for the simple reason that I knew he was still out there somewhere, and I had no interest in provoking him. But now that he is gone, I finally feel free to write about it.
Which feels pretty good, actually.
It all started in late summer of 1997. I was living in Phoenix, and we were taping my Real Love Video Series. On my way to the studio one day, I stopped to pick up my mail. Among the random bills and letters, there was a somewhat larger package. Opening it, I found a hand-written note taped to the top: “Warning: Explicit Materials.” What followed was a 40 page marriage proposal and a 40 page packet of pornography. Kind of an “illustrated honeymoon”, apparently.
The letter-writer, a man named Ray, informed me that he was God, and had “the fingerprints and the DNA to prove it.” He even had personalized stationery that said “Supreme Lord and Ruler” with his name and a rainbow over it. He had seen me on television and God had told him that he was to marry me. Confusing, I know, since he said he was God. But apparently details like this didn’t deter him. I was given a deadline within which I was to respond and to consent to holy matrimony.
I wasn’t stupid enough to look at the porn. I was, however, stupid enough to give the packet to the crew at the studio, and asked them if they thought I should call the police.
After inspecting to materials, they informed me that the situation definitely merited monitoring.
I had learned long before that responding to letters from unstable or unreasonable people only encouraged them. So I tucked the letter away and ignored it. It wasn’t long before the next one arrived. And the next. And the next. My lack of response was not pleasing to His Lordship, who was increasingly insistent that I marry him and “assume the fertilization position”, as he so delicately put it. The letters were all long and rambling and didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But as the months passed, the tone became increasingly threatening.
So it is time for you to return to Denver, take up your cross, carry it, suffer under it, be nailed naked to it, be crucified to death and die on it in public, be resurrected from the dead. It is time you made your Lady’s Supreme Sacrifice and be Married to your Lord and God making your Lord’s Supreme Sacrifice forever until the end of time and this Universe, this is your last clear chance to do it, and if you are not or don’t do it now, you are Finally and Irreversibly Damned by God to Hell and Hell is on earth for the rest of your life on earth to Hell at your death and as Hell is at death AND to the Hell of Fire after you die on earth forever until the end of time and this Universe as a Final and Irreversible Certainty and this is not a metaphor.”
He then, apparently without a trace of irony, signed it “Love, Ray.”
I think it was around this time that the FBI got involved.
The truly horrible luck of the whole thing was that Ray lived in Denver. My home town. Those were the early days of the internet, before social media made it easy to track a person’s every move. But he nonetheless seemed to know quite a lot about my whereabouts, and always seemed to surmise when I had been in Colorado. And so the following summer, when I was scheduled to speak at a Steubenville conference in Denver, there was great concern among the conference organizers and the FBI agents. After all, my presence at the conference would be advertised throughout the state. The decision was made that I would have a bodyguard throughout the weekend.
Have you ever had a bodyguard? Weirdest experience ever. Anywhere you go, you are making someone else go with you. I walked across the room, he walked across the room. I gave my talk, he stood at the foot of the stage. I left the stage to autograph books, he stood behind my chair. I ran to the bathroom, guess who ran to the bathroom with me? I had never really realized before how much I walked around in a day. It was like having a human FitBit.
I had still not told my Dad what was going on, because I didn’t want to worry him. So at the talk, I just introduced my bodyguard to him as “Doug.” Driving home that night, he told my Mom, “That Doug guy was sure helpful!”
To my knowledge, Ray didn’t show up at the conference. But during that trip, Archbishop Chaput asked me to move back to Colorado — reinforcing a call I already felt. Great things were happening in the archdiocese. Plus, I wanted to be close to my family. My sister had just married, and was planning to start a family. My parents were getting older. I wanted to be home again.
But there was the problem of Ray, whose letters were still coming. Not just letters to me. He was copying me on his copious correspondence to others. He wrote to Pope John Paul II, asking him to order me to marry him, and to proclaim publicly on the question of whether Ray was God, because “your silence on this matter has been very hurtful.” He also wrote to Archbishop Chaput, telling him that “I’m God and you’re not, and I’m not taking this sh*t any more.” He would also occasionally reference various court cases and docket numbers. I gathered I was not the only one who had been on the receiving end of his “affections.”
By the fall of 1998, I had decided to move back to Denver. I even put my house on the market. The same day I received an offer to buy it, I received a call from the FBI. Their profilers had been studying the letters. They concluded that Ray indeed constituted a grave threat to my safety, and were “strongly urging” me not to move to Denver.
And so I removed my house from the market. And continued to sleep in it every night. Alone. In my first floor bedroom, with a window literally two feet off the ground. I used to lie there and think about how easy it would be for Ray, or anybody else, to pop out that windowpane. The alarm system didn’t seem like much of a deterrent to a guy who fancies himself to be God. Nor did the relatively short drive from Denver to Phoenix.
I was scared — really scared.
In February of 1999, the FBI finally made their long awaited visit to Ray’s residence in Denver. A few days later, they came to my house in Phoenix to report their findings to me.
“This is confidential information, but there may be some mental illness involved.”
And I thought, “Well, duh.”
They had warned him that, if he ever attempted to contact me again, he would be in a world of hurt. I wasn’t sure whether this “god” would respect the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but at least it was a start.
So I waited. One week, no letter. Two weeks, no letter. Weeks turned into months, and Ray remained silent.
That April, I heard news of the horrific massacre at Columbine High School, just a few miles from where I grew up. I jumped on the first flight and came back to Denver to help my friends Jim Beckman and Steve Angrisano deal with the fallout, and minister to the survivors at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton.
While I was there, I decided that enough was enough. “Ray isn’t calling the shots any more.” Nor, apparently, was the FBI. I flew back to Phoenix, listed my house, packed my car and moved back to Denver.
I was home, but I still didn’t feel safe. I didn’t know how he would react if he knew I had indeed “returned to Denver.” So I tried to keep my move a secret. I maintained my Arizona mailing address. I avoided posting my whereabouts on my speaking web site, or in the new world of social media. Even nine years later, when I finally joined Facebook, I did so as “M.B. Bonacci”, thinking in my internet innocence that if he searched my name, that variation wouldn’t come up.
I was also more than a little freaked out about the larger risks of being alone and well-known. I was apparently famous enough to attract the attention of crazy people, but not wealthy enough to have “people” to protect me. Over time, I realized that the FBI’s threats had stuck, and I was no longer worried about Ray. (Years later, I figured out that his house was just a few miles from my real estate office.) But I still felt exposed and vulnerable. I read Gavin DeBecker’s book The Gift of Fear, and saw what real celebrities and their security people go through in dealing with stalkers and other random crazy people.
I wanted no part of it.
It might have been different if I had been married, if I had at least felt like there was someone - preferably stronger than I — who took some level of proactive interest in my safety. But there was no one.
And when it came to finding someone to marry — well, Ray cast a shadow there, too. I joined online dating services, but then I would wonder “which ones are crazy?” I didn’t like going out with men I didn’t know, or that nobody I knew could vouch for. I didn’t want to have to extract myself from another difficult “situation.”
All of this entered into my decision in 2005 to step back from full-time speaking. It was true that life on the road had taken a pretty serious toll on my health — not to mention my social life. But I also wanted to be just a little bit more anonymous, to feel just a little bit less vulnerable. Looking back, I see that perhaps it was an overreaction on my part. After all, how many Catholic speakers have been gunned down in cold blood so far?
But it felt very real at the time.
And so I backed off. I started selling real estate, built a house across the street from my parents, put down some roots and took time to rest and recover. It was good, and probably necessary.
And brought about in no small part by the letters of a stranger who was profoundly mentally ill.
Looking back, I feel no anger toward him. He didn’t have sufficient grasp of reality to be responsible for anything he did or said. He lived in a very different world, all inside his head. Now that I know he is gone, I pray for the repose of His soul. I hope that he found the peace in the next life that clearly eluded him here.
And I wonder what it was like for him when — clear-minded at last — the petty, impotent “Lord Ray” finally met the real Lord of the Universe.
I bet it was beautiful.