CHAPTER NINE

           

            Even in the bizarre company of celebrity stalkers, Dante Michael Soiu was singularly strange.

            In early 1999, Soiu (pronounced “saw you”), who had just turned fifty, spent his days as “Dr. Love,” applying balm to troubled hearts via the Internet from a public library computer in Columbus, Ohio. The size of Dr. Love’s on-line following is unknown, but the site was popular enough to have commercial sponsors.

 

             He also offered enlightenment to the famous and the powerful. By Soiu’s estimate, he sent the first President George Bush 3,000 personal notes on a variety of topics. President Clinton received a hundred or two. These dealt mainly with Clinton’s “sexual problems,” as Dante described it, especially Monica Lewinsky.          

            According to Soiu, he also addressed what he believed was Clinton’s sociopathy in his letters. He copied one of them to the Republican National Committee. “They must have laughed at it,” he said, “but everybody in the library said it fits him to a T.”

            Dante thought of himself as a spiritual, as well as a practical, advisor, with special access to God. Accordingly, he reached out by letter to Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Ted Turner, as well as Turner’s then-wife, Jane Fonda, plus actors Robert Urich, William Shatner and Val Kilmer.

             “Every one of these people had a specific problem that I would want to work on to solve,” he eventually explained in court. “That’s primarily the sort of gift that I would have. I would …take on their personality and pray for them, and then whatever problem they’d have they’d come out of.”

            He prayed that Urich would beat cancer, he said, and that Shatner would successfully cope with his wife Nerine’s death from drowning in the family pool. “Ted Turner,” he explained, “is a classic schizophrenic, bipolar. Because of that you have major problems.” Val Kilmer, according to Soiu, also suffered from schizophrenia.     

            Dante’s letter writing seems not to have stirred much serious concern among law enforcement agencies. He did have a lengthy arrest record -15 minor offenses such as theft and trespass - but no history of violence.

            Soiu typed away for as much as eight hours each day at the library in his cyber-guru mode, then he headed out for his evening’s work, delivering pizzas. He recalled how he’d once surprised a young female customer with a kiss on the hand, and two hours later, according to Dante, her boyfriend threatened to kill him. Eventually, the police got involved, and Soiu lost his pizza delivery job.

            His first mental problems seem to have surfaced in the late 1960s when he was a scholarship student in the Asia Studies program at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He was hospitalized at least twice for unspecified treatment.

            Soiu, whose estimated IQ is in the bright-normal range of 110-119, graduated with a 3.54 grade point average in 1971. He took a minor in theology at Xavier, too.

            From 1976 to 1978 he studied toward an MBA in accounting at the University of Cincinnati, and worked as a tax preparer. In the early 1980s, he was a student at the Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

            Intelligent and self-directed as he apparently was, Soiu was unable to get much traction in either his professional or personal life. He had no career, and later admitted that he’d never been able to sustain a long term relationship with a woman. He was faced with chronic money problems, suffered from low self esteem and worried that he was homosexual. Psychiatrists and psychologists would later diagnose him as bi-polar, delusional, schizophrenic and narcissistic.

             In March of 1999 he began to experience what he called “unusual supernatural manifestations” in and around Columbus, which soon would bring him to my attention in Los Angeles.

             As Soiu told the story, one day he happened into a movie house where Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, was playing. Movies and television were important sources of inspiration for him. “Lord,” Dante said, “if you want me to see this movie, open the door.” The door opened and “I walked in and I sat down and I saw this movie.”

            Paltrow, who played Viola de Lesseps, the Bard’s lover and the muse for Romeo and Juliet in the movie, triggered Soiu’s string of “manifestations,” most of which he described as miraculous. He heard music from the movie, for example, whenever he turned on his radio. Other times, if Dante thought of Paltrow while visiting his bank, money arrived next day in the mail.

            He prayed, he said, and took such events as a sign “that I was either connected to, or going to be connected to, Gwyneth Paltrow in some manner. What I heard from that prayer was, ‘If you love this woman totally, unconditionally, and make a commitment to her, eventually she would become your mate because she is…psychic. She does meditations… She is perfectly in tune with herself.’

            “In fact, to me she was the most perfect, pure, spiritual type woman that existed on my level. I thought that was rather unique.”

             Lucky Gwyneth.

            Soiu turned his energies to researching Paltrow’s life. He picked up from the fanzines and grocery-store tabloids that she was dating the actor, Ben Affleck, who also appeared in Shakespeare in Love. He found a movie star guide book in his local library that listed the address in Santa Monica where her parents, producer/director Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner lived, and where their daughter usually stayed when she was in Los Angeles.

            On March 21st 2000, millions of movie fans around the world, including Dante Michael Soiu, watched on television as a radiant Gwyneth Paltrow accepted the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Shakespeare in Love. (The movie took seven Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture, against competition that included Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) A few days later, a letter postmarked Columbus, Ohio, arrived for Paltrow at her parents’ house, where Gwyneth was staying as she customarily did when in Los Angeles.

            Receiving mail of any sort at the Santa Monica house was unusual for her. Although she’d lived there as a child, in the seven years since she’d first started appearing in major movies, Paltrow could recall getting maybe two other letters at the residence. She later told me that she felt guilty for attracting this stranger’s unwanted attention to the family house. But it was the content and tone of the letter that chilled her.

            Blythe Danner was at home when the letter arrived, so mother and daughter read it together in the den.

            “First,” Soiu demanded, “do not marry Ben Affleck. He’s a slob.”

            He also grandly claimed that he could make miracles happen. But what scared Paltrow was his assumed intimacy. “I am more than a fan,” he wrote. “I have formed a soul union with you.”

            Soon, letters and packages began arriving from Columbus almost daily, sometimes several a day. At first, Soiu confined himself for the most part to quoting scripture and recommending self-help books. In one that he sent her, Ten Stupid Things Men do to Mess Up Their Lives, he scribbled “Ben Affleck” next to each chapter heading.

            Typical spiritual messages included, “The Gospel of marriage is the Gospel of two people becoming one, like you and Jesus Christ!” He also shared with her a letter he’d written to then First Lady Hillary Clinton, proposing the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Love, Family and Relationships. Soiu wrote Clinton that he and his lovely wife, Gwyneth, eagerly volunteered to head up the new agency.

            Fearful at where the correspondence might lead, Paltrow decided to retain Dennis Bridwell, head of Galahad Protective Services, Inc., to deal with Soiu for her. Bridwell, a former Marine, had known Paltrow since the early days of her film career, and had provided protection for her on a number of occasions. In the past, he’d also read her fan mail for her, looking among the many letters for signs of trouble.

            What he read in the first messages from Dante Soiu concerned him. “They were for the most part pretty innocuous,” Bridwell remembers. ‘I love you,’ and so on. That’s how they all start out. With most of them, however, you can tell early on whether they’re going to take a wild turn.”

            The clues include inappropriate requests, such as asking for a face-to-face meeting, or solicitations for money, or any reference to something personal. In Soiu’s case, his claim of a direct connection to God and the ability to perform miracles set off Bridwell’s alarm. He told the Paltrows to gather the letters and packages, unopened, as they arrived, and to leave them for Galahad to sort through.

            Dennis also contacted me, which he commonly did when a client was being stalked. Over the years, we had worked many stalking and threat cases together. Just like LAPD, he was interested in knowing what the law said about a case, and in working out strategies with me for effectively dealing with a threat with a minimum of publicity.

             He explained to me what was occuring with Paltrow and Soiu, and promised to keep me posted as the case unfolded. As yet, Dante Soiu had stayed within the law. But we both knew better than to expect he’d continue to do so.

            As days passed with no response from the object of his obsession, Soiu’s messages grew more explicit, and less coherent. “If you are not obedient,” he wrote in a letter that arrived April 8th, “you will perish, and we don’t want that because the Devil likes to destroy those who are not obedient to him…but I like making babies with you.”

            Four days later, there came a package containing the cover to a book, Ordinary Women/Extraordinary Sex, together with several letters. “I am glad we’re nymphomaniacs for each other,” read one of them. “I have to eat and wash up after our messes.”

            “If your parents want to steal from us,” read another, “which is stealing from God…God will strike them. A curse is laid upon them in Malachi 4:10 for stealing from God.” Dante also wrote a frightening letter to Gwyneth, asserting that she was filled with a cancer-like sin. He said he was going to take “God’s scapel” and cut the “sin” out of her.

            Later, a vibrating penis arrived with “Because I Love You” inscribed on it. Dante also mentioned that Gwynth’s spirit had been visiting his apartment on a nightly basis and that he could hear her speaking to him from the magazine racks at the supermarket. He also referred to Ben Affleck again. “I will beat the Hell out of the guy.”

            It was as if Soiu and Marlon Pagtakhan had attended the same writing class.

Dennis Bridwell examined and cataloged the contents of each article that arrived in the mail, sparing his client the unpleasantness of dealing directly with such raunchy, distasteful and troubling material. But Bridwell was experienced enough to know that for her own safety he’d be foolish to hide what she was receiving from Ohio from Paltrow. She needed to be aware, and alert. What was more, if we were to make a case against Soiu, Gwyneth needed to have personal knowledge of his actions for me to prove she was reasonably frightened by them.

            There was slim chance that Soiu would stop. Bridwell saw him as an erotomanic stalker, convinced not only that Paltrow reciprocated his love, but that she was covertly communicating with him by codes and in supernatural ways. “I’ve never known of anybody ever being cured of this type of delusion,” he says. Neither do I.

            However, such a “profile,” as Bridwell refers to stalkers such as Soiu, sometimes will jump from one perceived love relationship to another. “He might see another actor on television,” Dennis explains, “and think Wow! She’s fascinating and she’s talking to me through the television! In that case, he might then fall off our radar.”

            Not Dante Soiu.

* * *

            On May 28, 1999, Blythe Danner was out in the front yard of the house, playing with the family dog, when a very familiar-acting stranger approached from the sidewalk. He introduced himself; she didn’t recognize his name. Then he repeated it and Danner realized that the man who’d been terrorizing her family by mail for the past two months now stood in front of her.

            “Oh, you’re Dante,” she said as she watched him reach in and out of a bag he was carrying. This scared her even more. She thought he was going to pull out a gun.

            There had been a recent mention in a periodical that her husband had cancer. Soiu told her that he’d learned directly from God that someone in the house had the disease. He was digging in his sack for bottles of vitamins from one of his website’s sponsors that he said were effective against it.

            Danner wasn’t interested in his cures or his conversation.

            “You’re frightening us,” she told him. “You’re scaring us. Please stop what you’re doing. Please stop sending the packages. Please stop sending the letters. Do you understand that?”

            “Yes.”

            “You have to stop.”

            “I’ll stop.”

            Soiu noticed a pile of letters and packages by the house, and realized they all had come from him. Danner handed him some of the articles to take back.

            “I felt almost slighted,” he later said in court. “I felt like all this effort was just going down the tubes and they weren’t even looking at it, and any inspiration, genius, work, talent, creativity was just being not even looked at. I felt kind of bad about that.

            “So I thought, Well, maybe my next step is I’ll try harder. If I fail, I always try harder because I have a positive faith about success. You just try harder, and you’ll make it.

             Danner would testify that Soiu said he understood he was scaring them, promised to stop and left. The next day, Bruce Paltrow discovered a note that Dante had written and attached to the gate. It read: “I want to thank you for forgiving me, for I have been a pain to you.” Paltrow gave the note to Bridwell’s business partner, Dan Palmer.

* * *

            The letters and packages did not stop. On June 3rd, there arrived a photo of a nude couple locked in a sexual pose. “Gwyn” was written on the female; “Dante” on the male. Soiu included extra copies of the picture with a note: “The extra copies are for your Mom. We will be having an open marriage, just between us three. A trinity relationship. Privately.”

            At about this time, Dennis Bridwell organized a meeting at the Paltrow house. I needed to see where Soiu had accosted Danner, and I wanted to gauge how close we might be to filing a case against him. To do that, as always, I needed to find out directly from Gwyneth what she knew and how it had affected her.

            I drove to their address with Ed Messenger, one of our investigators. Since Soiu now had crossed state lines and made threats through the U.S. mail, this nominally was a Federal case. So Special Agent John Davidson of the FBI joined the discussion, as did Dennis Bridwell.

            Gwyneth and her father greeted us, and showed us all inside to the dining room for our meeting. It was a pleasant, unpretentious house. They were remodeling at the time, and Bruce apologized for all the loose lumber and displaced furniture. Gwyneth offered me coffee, which I never refuse. I noticed that she went to fix it herself. The Paltrows didn’t have household help.

            I remember walking into the kitchen with her to get something, and noticing Steven Spielbeg’s photo on the refrigerator. Gwyneth told me Spielberg was her godfather. I was vaguely aware that she and Madonna were also good friends, but that coincidence wouldn’t really hit me until trial time.

            During a short interlude of small talk, I mentioned for some reason that my background was the musical stage. This led to a discussion of live theatre – both Gwyneth and her mother did a lot of it, particularly at the annual summer Williamstown Festival at Williams College in western Massachusetts – and then the realization that we three had all known and worked with the late Nikos Psacharopoulos.

             Nikos was a co-founder of the Williamstown Festival, and one of its guiding lights for many years. He had directed both Blythe and Gwyneth in a number of plays there. I knew him from the New York City Opera, where he had directed me in a production of the Poulenc opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. I loved talking about my days in the theater, and Nikos gave us a somewhat more life-affirming bond than did Dante Soiu.

            None of us gathered in the Paltrow dining room that day were surprised to hear from Gwyneth that although she was frightened of Soiu she was not as yet prepared to prosecute him. She knew that the moment a case was filed some reporter would ferret it out of the courthouse.

            Like all celebrities, particularly those in the entertainment business, Paltrow did not want her problem to become a media event, which it likely would. I told her that Soiu was not going to go away, and that the harassment almost assuredly would escalate. I also told her that I was ready, willing and able to file against him right away. She wasn’t, but I knew it was only a matter of time.

            After the meeting, I contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbus to inform them of the pornography Soiu was sending through the mail. The Federal test for pornography is the local standard of morality at the receiving, or consuming, end. What offends community standards in Topeka, Kansas, will not be the same as Baltimore, Maryland. The Los Angeles standard is considered pretty low; the type of photographs Soiu was sending could be found on any Los Angeles street corner newspaper rack. Therefore, the pictures Paltrow was receiving did not meet the Feds’ criteria for filing. I couldn’t argue with that logic.

            We also arranged via Davidson for his Bureau colleagues in Columbus to pay a call on Soiu. The objective was similar to Kevin Sleeth’s when he visited Marlon Pagtakhan at home in San Francisco. We wanted to gather whatever information we could, and also make it explicitly clear to Dante, again, that he was scaring Gwyneth and her family. In this way, we’d preclude any possibility of the defendant later claiming in court that he had no idea he was scaring anyone.

            Bruce Paltrow asked Dennis if the FBI’s entry into the case might persuade Soiu to stop altogether.

            “No, Bruce,” Dennis said. “I’m sorry to tell you that it’s not going to be over.”

            “What do you mean?” Gwyneth’s father replied.

            Soiu believes he’s ordained by God to be your daughter’s husband. Anyone that delusional believes the FBI has no power over God.”

            Paltrow was incredulous. “If the FBI knocked on my door,” he said, “I’d stop what I was doing.”

            “Yeah,” Dennis answered, “you and I both would. But he won’t. He might for a short time, but then he’ll continue.”

            “We’ll see,” Paltrow said after a brief pause. Then he added with a smile that they could always dispose of Soiu in the way such problems were handled in his old Brooklyn neighborhood.

            “I don’t particularly want to go to jail, thanks,” said Bridwell.

            They left it at that.

            After consulting with Agent Davidson, Dennis also contacted FBI Agent Tom Ingram in Columbus, who’d be visiting Soiu on June 29th. Bridwell wanted to brief the FBI man on his subject. From what he knew of erotomanics and from the profile’s correspondence, Bridwell told Ingram to expect posters of Paltrow on the walls, a shrine to her somewhere in the apartment, and probably some item Dante considered special on his night stand. There would also be a crucifix above his bed.

            “Holy shit!” Ingram reported by telephone to Bridwell after the visit. “You were right down to the letter with all this stuff and how it was situated.”

            Ingram had great news to report, too. When he and his partner had arrived at Soiu’s apartment, they’d found a note on the door announcing Dante’s wedding to Gwyneth Paltrow. Dante answered their knock, and asked them in with the air of a man who was flattered to have been brought to the attention of the FBI.

            Ingram, who audio-taped the interview, handled it brilliantly. Instead of saying, “We’re here because you’re scaring Gwyneth Paltrow,” he asked, “Do you know why we’re here?”

            “Uh, either to stop sending letters,” Soiu blurted in reply, “or they feel hyper, they feel fearful, they feel, uh, bad with relationship to the Paltrows. ”      

            “No,” Ingram said. “The family feels pretty threatened, okay?”

            “Oh-oh, big.”

            “We’re here to tell you to stop. They feel threatened and not to do it.”

            “Okay.”

            He made my case for me in that single first sentence. It showed that Soiu was totally aware of what he was doing. He was conscious that he was frightening the Paltrows, and he was not going to stop. We could have arrested him on the spot but Gwyneth wasn’t yet ready to go forward with the prosecution. She and her parents were still hoping that Soiu would simply go away.

            Ingram contacted Soiu once again a month later, and also spoke with him by telephone. By then Dante had set up an e-mail account - mylovemywife@yahoo.com - to which he posted his messages – there would be in excess of 1200 in all, all counted and cataloged by Dennis Bridwell - and invited Paltrow to do the same. He admitted to Ingram that he’d opened the e-mail account, and also that he still was sending packages, even though he’d been told not to, and knew it was wrong.

* * *

 

            Over the coming months, Soiu sent Paltrow everything imaginable, from pizzas to undergarments from Victoria’s Secret, to investment ideas, poetry, an engagement ring, a fiber optic angel, books and articles on various types of businesses, sex toys including a “Venus Penis” and “Vibro Balls,” lots of pornography, articles on travel, chocolates, flowers and a number of wedding-theme CDs, including “Great Wedding Songs,” “The Classic Wedding Album,” and “Your Perfect Wedding.”

            In one letter, he explained how she could give up her silly career in acting and get rich with him instead, running a Kinko’s franchise. He also proposed a couple of partnership ideas to Bruce Paltrow, later explaining, “I thought if I acted like maybe a good son-in-law or close to a good son-in-law…that would make them feel like this guy could be suitable for their family or suitable to be involved with them.” Before he finally was stopped, the material Soiu mailed to the Paltrows would fill a whole room at Bridwell’s office in the San Fernando Valley, floor to ceiling.

* * *

            In early May 2000, Soiu wrote Paltrow that he’d received a sign from a billboard as he was driving in Columbus. It was time, the billboard told him. He was coming back to California for her. Although he’d often mentioned such a return trip in his letters, Dennis Bridwell believed that this time Soiu really was on his way.

            Dennis alerted the Paltrows – their daughter was not in Los Angeles – as well as me, Ed Messenger, Jim Davidson and the Santa Monica police department to expect Soiu at any time. His plan was to wait for Soiu outside the Paltrows’ house, and make a citizen’s arrest when he appeared.

            Soiu showed up as Bridwell expected on Saturday afternoon, May 13th. He rang their intercom. Bruce Paltrow saw him through the window, and ordered him via the intercom to leave. Blythe Danner excitedly telephoned Bridwell with the news that Soiu was in town. Danner also gave Bridwell a telephone phone number that Soiu thoughtfully left at the door should any member of the family wish to call him.          

            Dennis headed for Santa Monica, an unincorporated city within Los Angeles County. Along the way he dialed the number. He wanted to make sure that Soiu hadn’t been scared off.

            “Hello,” a male voice answered.

            “Dante?” Bridwell asked

            “Yes.”

            “Where are you?”

            Los Angeles.”

            Click.

            That was good news. Soiu was still in town and undoubtedly planning another excursion to the Paltrow house. Bridwell would be there and the ugly, 14-month saga at last would be ended.

            When he arrived, Dennis suggested that Bruce and Blythe go out to dinner. Both were happy to oblige. A couple hours later, around 10:00 that night, Soiu arrived on foot, carrying a bag, and walked up to the door.

            Bridwell walked up behind him, identified himself, informed Dante he was under citizen’s arrest for stalking, and put a pair of handcuffs on him. It was over in a moment. Soiu didn’t physically resist, but he did argue that he was visiting the Paltrows by invitation. The bag Dante was carrying contained books. Bridwell summoned the Santa Monica police, and five minutes later Dante Soiu was on his way to jail.

            When he was frisked for weapons, a small pocket knife was found, along with a cell phone and a little blonde Barbie doll from McDonalds that bore a resemblance to Gwyneth. When the Santa Monica police went to his hotel room the next day, they found a copy of Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex and a box of condoms.