Family of murdered teacher advocates for stricter stalking laws

By Ashley Luthern


It’s been one year since a Canfield teacher was killed by the man who stalked her.

Stacey Sutera, 40, sought every legal protection available in criminal and civil court, but it wasn’t enough to stop Robert McLaughlin, 64, from shooting her to death Feb. 8, 2012.

Now Sutera’s family and friends want to honor her memory by advocating for stricter guidelines for convicted stalkers.

Mary Ellen Welker, Sutera’s mother, said her daughter lived in fear of McLaughlin, who committed suicide within a day after the murder while police searched for him.

Two weeks before, “Stacey was talking to my other daughter yelling ‘There is no justice.’ ... ‘He’s going to kill me,’” Welker said.

Shanda Pine, a family friend who spoke to The Vindicator with Welker, said they want electronic-monitoring devices on convicted stalkers as a mandatory part of probation.

“Stacey was a very special lady, and she was gone too soon,” Pine said.

The case

McLaughlin had harassed Sutera since March 2010, scratching her car, creating a fake sexually-oriented website about her and mailing business cards to Mahoning Valley school employees stating Sutera would perform specific sexual acts.

In early 2010, McLaughlin had asked Sutera to date him, but she just wanted to remain friends. Sutera confided in McLaughlin about the harassment, not realizing he was the one behind it.

Canfield police searched McLaughlin’s home in December 2010 and found evidence, such as photos of Sutera and pornographic material, used in the criminal case against him.

He was sentenced Dec. 17, 2010, to six months in Mahoning County jail after pleading guilty in Mahoning County Area Court in Canfield to misdemeanor charges of menacing by stalking.

The following year, he pleaded guilty in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to three counts of pandering obscenity and three counts of possessing criminal tools.

Prosecutors recommended probation on the six fifth-degree felony charges that each carried a potential 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. The Ohio Adult Parole Authority’s pre-sentence investigation also recommended probation.

In November 2011, Judge Maureen A. Sweeney sentenced him to five years’ probation and 500 hours of community service and fined him $2,500. The judge also ordered McLaughlin to take anger-management classes, have no contact with Sutera and prohibited him from possessing firearms.

The conviction required McLaughlin, 64, of Marsh Lane, Painesville, to register as a Tier I Sex Offender with his county sheriff’s department annually for 15 years.

In a civil case, McLaughlin was under a civil protection order effective until Dec. 27, 2015, that barred him from having a firearm or from having any contact with Sutera.

Sutera had filed a civil lawsuit against McLaughlin seeking $1.5 million, citing intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel and invasion of privacy.

The lawsuit, filed exactly one year before her murder, noted that Sutera believed McLaughlin killed her dog in addition to other offenses.

Honoring Stacey

The harassment took a heavy toll on Sutera, her mother said.

“She had multiple sclerosis and her health got worse. She starting getting ulcers,” Welker said.

She said before it was known who was behind the harassment, McLaughlin attempted to manipulate the situation, blaming Sutera’s ex-boyfriend and trying to incite Sutera’s family to take action against him.

“My daughter was such a sweetheart. ... She always stuck up for other people,” Welker said.

Welker and Pine have offered support to other victims of stalking in the Mahoning Valley but want to see changes in law, such as mandatory electronic monitoring and registration for convicted stalkers. They’re also looking for other people to join their cause.

Under Ohio law now, a stalking or sexually-oriented offense protection order can lead to electronic monitoring, if that person’s conduct would cause a “reasonable person” to believe that the victim’s welfare was at risk.

“We’re trying to change things so no one has to go through this,” Welker said. “I don’t want another girl to walk out and feel as unprotected as Stacey did.”

Debbie Riddle of Cleveland can relate to Sutera’s family. Her sister, Peggy Klinke, 32, originally of Poland, was murdered in California a decade ago after being stalked by her ex-boyfriend. He shot Klinke and then killed himself.

“I can totally relate to [Welker] talking about laws failing. For nine months, Peggy did everything right and worked with people in the criminal justice system. She was incredibly victimized. ... Any line that was drawn in the sand, any order of protection, that didn’t matter to him,” Riddle said.

Klinke had moved to Albuquerque, N.M. where she met the boyfriend, who began stalking her when their relationship ended. He flew to her mother’s house in Poland to spray paint obscenities on the garage door when the family was at an out-of-state wedding.

“This guy even committed arson, and in her case, the police said ‘Well we don’t know who did it.’ We thought this was going to be huge, he’s going to be locked up,” Riddle said, of the blaze that destroyed the California home of her sister’s new boyfriend.

Klinke had moved to California and hid her personal information, but he hired a private investigator and found her.

“I also think if he would have been locked up for say two years, I would say he would still stalk her from in jail because they have friends and different avenues they can travel to get at their victim,” Riddle said.

The crime of stalking

Riddle said it’s important for law enforcement agencies to look at the entire picture, even if it crosses into other jurisdictions, and to network with victim advocates who can guide the victim through the process. Since her sister’s death, Riddle helped institute National Stalking Awareness Month, which was in January.

Some 6.6 million people are stalked in the U.S. each year, according to the Stalking Resource Center, part of The National Center For Victims of Crime.

One in six women and 1 in 19 men have experience stalking in which they are very fearful or believe that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed, the center reports.

Welker also supports stronger penalties for stalkers. Menacing by stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor in Ohio but a fourth-degree felony on a second or subsequent offense or under certain conditions. Fewer than one-third of states classify stalking as a felony upon first offense, according to the Stalking Resource Center.

“In Ohio, it can rise to a felony four if there’s a previous conviction or a threat of physical harm,” said Sgt. Glen Riddle, a member of the U.S. Marshals Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force and Debbie Riddle’s brother-in-law.

He said there is no registration system for convicted stalkers.

“They don’t have to register with law enforcement other than as conditions of probation or parole. I imagine they are considered ‘low-risk’ (probation or parole) because they are not considered violent unless they did something,” he said.

He said victims of stalking should report every incident to police and keep in contact with investigators, notifying them if a suspect is ignoring court orders.

Welker said she understands the current legal constraints but feels they are inadequate. That’s why she wants to explore new laws to better protect stalking victims.

“This happens over and over. They’re helpless,” she said.

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