Are You Sure You're Alone? - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

11/20/06

Are You Sure You're Alone?

They are at once your most basic, and yet most intimate, moments.

Walking around in your bedroom, undressing, showering, going to the bathroom. You might dance, or sing, or talk to yourself throughout these small slices of life, your daily routines.

But these routines also allow us to be alone and ourselves for a few rare moments, free from other eyes and our own insecurities.

However, what if your private moments weren't really private? What if your most intimate moments were videotaped and provided fodder for a perverted fantasy? What if you were not only being watched but also secretly taped to fulfill the dark desire of a neighbor, co-worker or even a friend?

This is called video voyeurism, the tech age's version of standing in someone's backyard, watching them through a window. Yet these modern-day Peeping Toms use much more secret and high-tech methods to watch people in places ranging from their bedroom to an office bathroom.

If you were a victim of these voyeurs, would you feel safe? Would you ever feel free or alone again?

'Raped Unknowingly'

That is how many victims of video voyeurs feel, and many more don't even realize they're being victimized.

"We were raped unknowingly at his given will whenever he wanted to stick in a tape, whenever he wanted to film us," Yvonne Goodwin told ABC News.

Goodwin and her Huntington Beach, Calif., neighbor, Meagan Rogers, say they were secretly videotaped for more than six years by their neighbor, who used to live at the end of their quiet cul-de-sac.

Little did they know that the neighbor had set up high-powered video cameras, aimed at the women's windows, catching them day and night going to the bathroom, getting ready for a night out, even dancing alone.

These women say the man even added clips from pornographic videos to the tapes of the women to enhance his fantasy.

"That's hard. That's extremely hard," Goodwin said of the discovery.

There are also the random acts, incidents involving "upskirting," the act of secretly looking or taking a picture up a woman's skirt while she is out in public.

Store surveillance tapes capture men dropping an item on the ground and snapping pictures up skirts with cell phone cameras as they bend to pick it up.

There are also "bag cameras" and "shoe cameras" these Peeping Toms use to discreetly get a view up a woman's dress while out in public.

Video voyeurism even has its own following on the Internet, where people using all sorts of camera devices post their peeping footage.

There are even pages on Web sites where people post these films and images supposedly taken specifically at churches, and sites where these voyeurs swap videos and share tricks of the peeping trade.

Widespread and Across the Spectrum

Cases like these occur across all spectrums, with unsuspecting victims from all walks of life.

A Texas superintendent was charged with hiding a video camera in an air freshener in an office bathroom, and a Chicago lawyer was accused of hiding cameras behind toilet paper and in the potpourri.

There is even a gynecologist in Idaho who is now serving prison time for secretly taping people using his home bathroom.

"It's a gross, it's a disgusting feeling, an invasive feeling. I can't even describe it," said Stephanie Voellmer, a former employee at a Martin County, Fla., mortgage brokerage firm.

Voellmer says she was shocked when she says she discovered that her boss, Rex Largent, had installed a camera underneath the vanity in the office bathroom, connected to a live video feed that displayed on a television in his office, to capture people going to the bathroom.

"Right under the vanity, affixed it with a tape and he would view the toilet area that one would use," Martin County Detective Steve Leighton told ABC News' Chris Cuomo.

"So when one would sit down and use the facility, and get back up they would be exposed," Leighton said.

According to Leighton, when Largent was arrested, he admitted that he had bought and purchased the camera, but he also insisted it was only a toy.

Largent pleaded not guilty, and his case is pending. When he was approached by Cuomo for an interview, he would not make any comment.

Victimized by Protectors of the Public

Even those who are supposed to protect the public from these predators have been found to have engaged in video voyeurism.

In Martin County, police Officer Jack Munsey was found to have made a tape of women with the camera in his patrol car.

The footage showed women in bikinis walking down a beach, or rinsing off in outdoor showers.

Munsey, law enforcement officials said, also spent time videotaping women at gas stations for more than an hour, using the camera's zoom to focus in on just the shots he wanted.

However, according to interviews with Martin County sheriffs, when Munsey's extracurricular activity was discovered, he failed to see what was wrong with it.

"He said he made a tape for himself of pretty girls. 'What man doesn't like to look at pretty girls,'" said Martin County Sheriff Jenell Atlas.

Atlas said the department didn't buy Munsey's story, and fired him. Munsey appealed, saying the punishment was too severe for filming people in public, but ultimately lost.

"We took it very seriously. That breach of the public's trust is the worse, worse thing a cop can do. Any cop will tell you that," Atlas said.

Why High-Tech Peeping Toms?

According to Dr. Fred Berlin, the founder of the Johns Hopkins University Sexual Disorders Clinic, video voyeurs partake in this practice because it is a compulsion, an intense craving to see people who are unsuspecting.

It is the fact that the other person doesn't know that they find arousing. They don't think they're hurting someone because the person doesn't know.

However, expert explanations and the light offenses these offenders receive do little to heal the victims' emotional wounds.

The voyeur who filmed Rogers and Goodwin was sentenced to only four months in jail, with no restrictions on where he lived or what he did for a living when he was released.

"He can go open a bed and breakfast. He can manage a hotel. He can work in security, if he wants to," Eric Traut, an attorney hired by Rogers, Goodwin and two other plaintiffs, told ABC News.

"I mean there ... there's nothing in the penal code that's going to preclude him, nor allow us to monitor him, or the state, or a probation officer. That's a scary prospect," Traut said.

When asked whether there was a permanent level of paranoia in her life now, Rogers said, "Absolutely."

"It's constantly on my mind. I think about it. What if this person is as sick as the person that lives next door to me? You never know," Rogers told Cuomo.

Fear Doesn't Go Away

For Heather Bradbury of Maryland, a video voyeurism incident four years ago still leaves her in tears.

"You go in the bathroom, and that's a private area. You don't expect anything else," she said. "And to have the complete opposite from someone that you know and that you trust is just the ultimate, one of the ultimate betrayals."

Bradbury was a newlywed, spending a weekend with her husband at the beachfront condo of a friend when they discovered a hidden camera under a bed, just outside the bathroom -- which had no door and a clear shower curtain.

When police investigated, they discovered that the man who had invited them, Bradbury's friend, had videotaped her as well as another women dressing and showering.

Even though the man was caught red-handed, he served no jail time because Maryland's law on peeping, like the laws in California and many other states, carries little punishment.

Bradbury brought the case to civil court, and was awarded $300,000. However, that pales in comparison to what she, like many other voyeur victims, have lost.

"I was newly married only six months and the newlywed bliss gone, because I was totally wanting to protect myself -- not be intimately touched because all I could see was me in that video," Bradbury said.

According to Bradbury, she can no longer use store dressing rooms or go on vacation without examining every nook and cranny of the hotel walls.

"It still hurts 'cause it hurt part of my spirit and my love of other people," Bradbury said. "That's gone. And I don't think that's going to come back, and that's hard."

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