Victim urges stiffer penalties for stalkers Bill passes Senate; goes on to House


James and Alma Balsinger met in a cute way.

But their parting, more than 20 years later, was anything but.

The last time they saw each other outside of court was in the parking lot of her apartment complex in Ellicott City in August. James Balsinger had doused his 1991 Ford Thunderbird with gasoline. He threatened to light himself and the car on fire if police did not let him speak to his wife, according to court records.

After three hours of negotiations, police subdued him without injury. Last month, he was sentenced to more than seven years after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment, harassment and telephone misuse.

His imprisonment ended a 16-month ordeal in which Balsinger repeatedly harassed, threatened and stalked his wife, according police. Mrs. Balsinger feared for her life, but felt helpless.

The law offered her few options. No felonies fit her husband's behavior. She had him charged with a couple of misdemeanors, but Balsinger pleaded guilty and received probation. "It's such an unfair system," she said. "Something needs to be changed."

Alma Balsinger now uses a different last name. She asked that her old name be used in this story to protect her new identity.

Her case is unusual but not unheard of in Howard County. Lt. Wayne Livesay, commander of special operations for the Howard County Police Department, said he has handled two other stalking cases in the past three to five years.

Lieutenant Livesay and Mrs. Balsinger said the state needs stronger legislation to address the problem and to protect victims.

L Last night, Maryland came one step closer to achieving that.

A felony anti-stalking bill was approved on a 44-0 roll call with no debate. It now goes to the House of Delegates.

The proposed legislation would make repeated forms of harassment punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The bill, known as Senate Bill 7, covers verbal and written threats. It also prohibits people from following each other. The House Judiciary Committee passed a related anti-stalking bill last Friday.

If Maryland passes anti-stalking legislation, it will become one of 33 states to have done so since 1990. States have often passed the laws after a particularly brutal crime in which a stalker killed a victim despite her legal efforts to avoid it.

In Maryland, Annapolis and Prince George's County have their own anti-stalking laws. Earlier this month, a federal anti-stalking bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Alma and James Balsinger's relationship began with a prank phone call. She was 15. While baby-sitting, she and a friend decided to make a random call. James, then 19, answered. Two years later, they were married.

Early on, Alma realized her husband was not like other guys. He wanted to be with her all the time, she said.

He also followed her.

She worked as a secretary during the day. When she stayed late for an office party once, he drove there and waited for her in the parking lot.

When she suggested that they see a marriage counselor, he locked himself in a shed and threatened suicide. Police had to ram the door to get him out, she said.

It was the first of several suicide attempts for James Balsinger, a cabinetmaker. He was diagnosed as suffering from a mood disorder, a bipolar problem and alcohol dependence, according to court records.

After his wife left him in 1991, things grew worse.

Within the next 18 months, he would be committed to a psychiatric hospital six times. When he was out, he would call her constantly, alternately cajoling her to return and threatening her if she didn't.

On September 14, 1991, he called 10 times in a half-hour, according to records. " 'I have a .45,' " she recalled him saying one time. " 'I'm coming over and . . . I'm going to get you.' "

No matter how much he frightened her, police couldn't do much.

She had him charged with disturbing the peace and telephone misuse, both misdemeanors carrying sentences of 60 days and three years, respectively. A judge gave Balsinger, now 45, probation and ordered him not to contact his wife.

Still, he persisted.

L Then came what Mrs. Balsinger calls "the gasoline incident."

A few months after she began divorce proceedings against him, he drove to her apartment complex on Town and Country Boulevard and doused his car with gas. After police arrived, he threatened to light it on fire and demanded to speak with his wife. Police refused. "I could just see him throwing the gasoline on me and 'Poof!' " said Mrs. Balsinger, 41.

After three hours of negotiations, police stormed the car and subdued Balsinger with the help of fire extinguishers. They said they found an eight-inch steak knife in his sock.

He pleaded guilty to telephone misuse, harassment and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

While the written law may have frustrated Mrs. Balsinger, she encouraged others in her shoes to work through the court system. "Even though it can be discouraging in the beginning and you feel helpless, just keep at it," she said. "Every incident, file charges. Don't give up."

Balsinger will become eligible for parole in June 1994, according to the state parole commission.

Mrs. Balsinger, who has already moved once to avoid her ex-husband, doesn't plan to wait around.

"I'm either going to have to get another job here and hide somewhere or move out of state," she said.

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