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Posted on Sun, Aug. 01, 2004

Fame meets fear in court

Zeta-Jones stalking case a window into Hollywood security

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD – Even by Hollywood standards, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones live a life of almost unimaginable privilege and glamour, cocooned in luxury residences around the globe.

None of that was enough to block the call that came in early March to the lush oceanfront Ariel Sands Hotel in Bermuda. The caller left a menacing message: “She was going to kill my wife,” said Douglas, who co-owns the property. “The sense that someone knew where we were … made me feel extremely vulnerable.”

The phone call, taken by a hotel receptionist, marked the first time Douglas became aware of an eight-month campaign of threats and stalking directed at Zeta-Jones and carried out, according to prosecutors, by a 32-year-old woman with a romantic fixation on “Fatal Attraction” star Douglas.

The series of 26 letters and three phone calls, threatening Zeta-Jones in crude terms with murder and mutilation, are at the heart of the case against Dawnette R. Knight, arrested June 3 in Beverly Hills and described in some media accounts as a would-be child psychologist.

A preliminary hearing to determine whether Knight should stand trial in the case was suspended Friday when Knight’s attorney said she had taken an overdose of barbiturates that left her unable to participate in her defense. She was sent for a psychiatric evaluation and is due back in Los Angeles Superior Court on Aug. 16. She has pleaded not guilty to one felony count of stalking and 24 felony counts of making criminal threats.

Outside court, Deputy District Attorney Debra Archuleta expressed concern that the mental competence issue was diverting attention from the criminal allegations. Knight’s attorney, Richard Herman, countered, “What happened is this case has turned into Hollywood against Dawnette Knight, and it’s not a fair fight.”

The letters and calls central to the case touched a wide circle of Hollywood figures – among those who received threats against Zeta-Jones were onetime Fox Network President Doug Herzog, CAA agent Bryan Lourd, society hostess Dani Janssen and the actress’ famous father-in-law, Kirk Douglas. None, according to Knight’s attorney, went directly to Zeta-Jones or Michael Douglas – although the Oscar-winning couple testified last week that they nevertheless received the frightening message loud and clear.

The stars’ court appearance not only attracted a swarm of international media attention but also offered a glimpse of contemporary Hollywood security concerns in an Internet- and paparazzi-dominated age.

Douglas testified somberly that the calls to the Ariel Sands in Bermuda, where he and Zeta-Jones said they’d always felt secure and protected, were especially troubling.

While still in Bermuda, Douglas said, he received a call from family friend Janssen, the widow of actor David Janssen, who told him about the letters she had received.

“They described the hallway in our apartment building; it spoke specifically of our nanny,” Douglas said. “The proximity made us terrified.”

When Zeta-Jones took the stand later in the day, she spoke of being in Amsterdam to shoot “Ocean’s 12” this spring. By that time, she had a full-time security guard sleeping in the adjoining suite; the guard inspected her room before she would enter it, and checked that it was locked when she left. Even so, when she was there, another death-threat call came.

The actress’s assistant called a meeting with Zeta-Jones and her bodyguard. “I knew exactly what it was about,” Zeta-Jones recalled. “I was waiting for this to happen, hoped it wouldn’t happen, but it happened. This person was trying to find me in Amsterdam.”

She described the whole experience as “personal terrorism that changed my life.”

During the preliminary hearing, Zeta-Jones was near tears at times as she read from 19 of the letters, one by one.

“When we get through with her … her body will be unrecognizable, or maybe we’ll just blow her away so her head and hair look like President Kennedy’s,” Zeta-Jones read from the 14th letter, determined to keep her composure. The envelope was marked to appear as if it had been sent by Kirk Douglas to Janssen, who each year hosts an exclusive Oscar night bash.

Zeta-Jones continued reading. “You let Catherine know we follow her everywhere, and we mean everywhere, including your Oscar party.”

After the actress read each letter, Archuleta, who heads the stalking and threat assessment team of the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, asked Zeta-Jones how she felt.

“I’m starting to run out of words, I’m trying to retain my emotions for what I’m doing here,” Zeta-Jones said. “I can’t even imagine how a sane human being would have these images locked in her brain. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

Douglas and Zeta-Jones said they had never met Knight.

Speaking to reporters, Herman attempted to downplay the severity of the letters, most of which he acknowledged his client wrote.

“My client was infatuated with Michael Douglas,” Herman said. “She read the ‘tabs.’ … It led to a silly escalation. … My client would never hurt anyone.” Herman also said his client had written to the couple, apologizing for any “distress” she might have caused.

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