'Even though I know he’s in prison, I still see him': Stalking victims campaign for new laws

Brave women lead campaign to make stalking a standalone crime
'Even though I know he’s in prison, I still see him': Stalking victims campaign for new laws

Una Ring at Youghal Co Cork. “We accept that getting a new law introduced could take some time but at least we feel like we are doing something to help people." Picture: Larry Cummins.

Both women were subjected to sustained harassment and sinister stalking before the men responsible brought terror to their homes — one armed with a clawhammer, the other with a knife, rope and duct tape.

While both escaped physical harm — in one case thanks to a brave housemate, and in the other case, thanks to a phenomenal policing and surveillance operation — both believe they came close to death.

Una Ring, from Cork, and Eve McDowell, from Sligo, have now decided to use that distressing shared experience to drive a new campaign for a law that defines stalking as a standalone crime, for longer jail sentences for the offence, and for more information, support and counselling for victims of stalking.

Brave and determined, they say they want to turn the negatives of that shared and lived experience into something positive.

“God knows what else could have happened. The gardaí need the legal tools to be able to intervene in the early stages before it gets to this level.

“We accept that getting a new law introduced could take some time but at least we feel like we are doing something to help people,” Ms Ring said.

Ms McDowell said stalking shouldn’t have to reach the level of severity it did in their cases before the law can intervene.

“We both escaped death, narrowly,” she said.

“God knows what else could have happened. The gardaí need the legal tools to be able to intervene in the early stages before it gets to this level.

“A law to criminalise stalking has been introduced in England, Scotland and Wales and it’s what’s proposed in Northern Ireland.

“We think the same should happen here to protect people from a problem that’s a lot more prevalent than it appears to be.” 

While Covid-19 lockdowns dominated our lives last summer, Ms Ring and Ms McDowell were both trying to survive their own personal traumas.

 Eve McDowell was subjected to a six-month campaign of harassment and stalking. Picture: James Connolly 
Eve McDowell was subjected to a six-month campaign of harassment and stalking. Picture: James Connolly 

Ms McDowell’s stalker, Igor Lewandowski, was before the courts in Galway for sentencing last May as gardaí in Cork were assessing evidence that would lead to a surveillance operation that would ultimately lead to the arrest of James Steele, the man who had subjected Ms Ring to a six-month campaign of harassment and stalking.

Both men were charged with, among other things, harassment, under Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997.

It states that a person is guilty of an offence if they harass another, by means including by telephone, by “persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating” with another.

But both women believe this wording just isn’t prescriptive or clear enough to cover what happened to them. 

They believe that if stalking was defined as a specific standalone offence, the men who targeted them could have been charged sooner, and that circumstances may never have escalated to the point where both women feared for their lives in their own homes.

There are many disturbing similarities between their cases.

In the summer of 2019, Igor Lewandowski was a 21-year-old second-year electronic engineering student at NUI Galway at the same time Ms McDowell was studying there.

Ms McDowell said she knew Lewandowski in a group setting through mutual friends but that was the extent of their interaction.

Lewandowski, who had moved from Poland to Monasterevin with his family 10 years earlier, became obsessed with Ms McDowell and began harassing and stalking her incessantly over a 17-day period from May 10 to 27, 2019.

He followed her to and from the college campus to where she lived in nearby accommodation, he followed her to a clothing shop in Galway city centre where she worked part-time, and he followed her when she met friends for lunch or went out at night.

Ms McDowell said she and her friends didn’t take his behaviour seriously at first, but when they began to encounter him in the least expected places and tried to engage him in small-talk to gauge his intent, he just ran away.

On one occasion, Ms McDowell said she confronted him and told him that she could spot him a mile off “with that beard”.

Her uncertainty over his strange behaviour turned to genuine fear and concern a few days later when Lewandowski rang her doorbell early one morning and she noticed, as he pressed his face to the glass, that he had shaved off his hair, eyebrows and beard.

She immediately contacted gardaí, who cautioned Lewandowski to stay away from her, but days later, on May 27, 2019, he returned to her flat at 6.30am, climbed onto her balcony using a scaffolding pole from a nearby building and entered the apartment through an open door.

He was carrying a claw hammer and used it to attack Ms McDowell’s roommate as she slept on a couch in the sitting room, hitting her on the head and arms.

She fended off the blows with her duvet and raised the alarm. She was later diagnosed with PTSD.

Lewandowski fled the apartment, jumping from the balcony onto shrubbery below, spraining his ankle in the process. He was spotted by gardaí a short time later crawling along a busy road about half a kilometre away and he was arrested.

Investigating gardaí found a sharp knife, an empty packet of Viagra and a scaffolding pole outside Ms McDowell’s apartment but forensics couldn’t link the items to Lewandowski and he denied all knowledge of them.

He remained in custody until he appeared before Galway Circuit Criminal Court in November 2019 and pleaded guilty to harassing Ms McDowell at her student accommodation at Dun na Coiribe, Headford Road, Galway, and also at various other locations around Galway city on dates between May 10 and 27, 2019.

He also pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated burglary by breaking into her apartment at Dun na Coiribe on May 27, 2019, while in possession of a claw hammer that he used to assault her flatmate, causing her harm.

The court heard that Lewandowski had admitted that he had calculated the best vantage points in the student accommodation complex from where he could simultaneously check Ms McDowell’s movements along either of two paths leading to and from her apartment.

The hidden vantage point also afforded him a clear view through her bedroom window and the front door leading to her apartment block.

Two psychosocial reports and a probation report prepared for the court concurred that the accused had displayed no empathy for either of his victims and that he posed a risk of using similar violence in the future.

At his sentencing hearing in May 2020, Judge Rory McCabe said the probation service had described Lewandowski's conduct as “sinister”, that it had crossed “a number of moral and social boundaries”, and that there was no evidence that the defendant had “any wish to engage in rehabilitation or accept the help that he obviously needs if he is not to pose an ongoing risk to the public”.

“His conduct and attitude have shown him to be a dangerous young man,” the judge said.

He sentenced Lewandowski to three-and-a-half years for harassing Ms McDowell and he imposed a concurrent seven-year sentence for the aggravated burglary. He suspended the final two years of the seven-year sentence, with 12-month post-release supervision, and bound him to keep the peace for five years on his release — to essentially avoid all contact with Ms McDowell in that time.

Just a few weeks after Lewandowski was sentenced, James Steele, 52, the man who had been stalking Ms Ring, would be arrested outside her home in East Cork by gardaí involved in a surveillance operation.

When Steele was arrested in the early hours of July 27, 2020, he was wearing a hat and a snood. He had orange rope and duct tape in his pockets. 

He was carrying a metal crowbar. He had a dildo or prosthetic penis strapped to himself inside his trousers.

The shocking details of this case wouldn’t emerge until last February when Steele, of Reavilleen, Rosscarbery, Co Cork, was jailed at Cork Circuit Criminal Court after pleading guilty to a six-month campaign of harassment, and of attempting to break-in to commit rape at Ms Ring's home in Youghal on July 27, 2020.

The court heard that Ms Ring and Steele had been work colleagues for about 18-months and that there was no contact between them outside of work.

In February 2020, Steele had changed jobs and he contacted Ms Ring requesting her help setting up his new office.

In a genuine effort to help a former colleague, Ms Ring agreed to help him but soon realised it was a ruse to get her on her own. Steele, a married man and a father, tried to embrace her and kiss her. She told him repeatedly to stop.

Over the next few weeks, he texted her several times, some apologising for his behaviour, all of which she ignored until he sent a text on April 1, 2020, saying he was going to call to her house.

She replied with an instruction not to call, and even though the texting stopped, she decided to report them to gardaí in case anything happened to her.

Then on July 7, 2020, she awoke to find the wheels of her car had been spray-painted a bubble-gum pink. She put it down to vandalism and reported it to gardaí who took statements and photographs.

On July 13, 2020, she awoke to find Xs, Os, and the words ‘I win’ painted on her windowsill and she again reported the incident to gardaí. But she didn’t suspect Steele’s involvement.

On July 7, 2020, Una Ring awoke to find the wheels of her car had been spray-painted a bubble-gum pink.
On July 7, 2020, Una Ring awoke to find the wheels of her car had been spray-painted a bubble-gum pink.

On the advice of gardaí, she arranged for the installation of a CCTV system at her house - a move that would later prove crucial.

The next day, July 14, Ms Ring found the first of two envelopes, each containing disturbing letters, left on the windscreen of her car.

The first unsigned letter contained a message telling her to leave her back door open, it contained suggestions of a sexual nature and a warning that she was being watched. The envelope contained two condoms in sealed wrappers.

Nine days later, the CCTV system captured a masked figure, which was later identified as Steele, leaving the second disturbing letter on the windscreen.

Una Ring found Xs, Os, and the words ‘I win’ painted on her windowsill and she again reported the incident to gardaí. But she didn’t suspect James Steele’s involvement.
Una Ring found Xs, Os, and the words ‘I win’ painted on her windowsill and she again reported the incident to gardaí. But she didn’t suspect James Steele’s involvement.

In this letter, Steele gave Ms Ring the choice of having consensual sex with him or else he would rape both her and her daughter.

Following a detailed risk assessment, gardaí set up an extensive surveillance operation, which involved two officers sitting in an unmarked car close to Ms Ring’s home from midnight until 5am nightly.

At around 3.45am on July 27, the undercover gardaí who were on duty nearby spotted a masked man approaching Ms Ring’s house. Garda James Heffernan intercepted the man and arrested him in the driveway of the house.

Steele remained in custody until his sentencing last February to seven years, with the last two suspended - a similar sentence to Lewandowski. He was told to avoid contacting Ms Ring for life.

Ms Ring said at the time that she was so terrified in the weeks before his arrest that she had considered getting a tattoo with her name, her town name and date of birth so that if she was abducted and killed, her body would be easily and quickly identified.

Ms Ring and Ms McDowell said in both their cases, the harassment escalated to stalking and then to a point where both men arrived at their homes.

“We felt that the two guys in our cases were prosecuted under the broad umbrella of harassment when in actual fact what they did went far beyond what you’d consider harassment - when harassment moved to more sinister stalking,” Ms Ring said.

“It can be tricky when you are considering what constitutes harassment and what constitutes stalking. But there is a very big difference, in my eyes, between harassing someone and stalking someone.

"Harassment doesn’t always escalate to the level of stalking and we both had stalking in our cases.

“Calling it harassment almost belittles what we went through. The law as it stands almost belittles the behaviour, and the fear you go through. The law needs to change because, at the moment, the law on harassment is very wishy and washy.

“At the very least, the law needs clarification. We both agree that we want a clear law on stalking. In my case, I had six weeks of messages. In my view, that was harassment. But then came the stalking, he made a four-hour round trip from West Cork to my house to paint the wheels of my car, to paint the windowsill, to leave the letters.

“Then to come to my house and to try and break in and rape you - that’s very serious.” Ms McDowell said while she was concerned enough with Lewandowski’s behaviour to contact gardaí about it, she didn’t recognise it as stalking.

“Gardaí came to the house and looked around, and advised me not to walk anywhere on my own,” she said.

“They said they would talk to him and I got a call from them later to say he had been cautioned and that he had told them that he wouldn’t bother me again. But I felt there was more to come.” She recalls being in hysterics after contacting a friend at the time, and asking “why nothing could happen until something happens” and being told, “unfortunately that’s just how it is”.

She said she spent one of her days off during that incredibly difficult time in May sitting at home on her own, afraid to walk to the shops alone to buy food.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to go out,” she said.

And she recalls seeing Lewandowski near her home the day before the break-in and said: “I felt like a sitting duck.” In Scotland, stalking was made an offence in 2010. In England, two new offences of stalking, and stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm and distress, were introduced in 2012 as amendments to the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act. The amendments set out new police powers to enter and search premises on provision of a warrant.

Dr Catherine O’Sullivan, a lecturer in the School of Law at University College Cork, whose main teaching and research interests are in the areas of criminal law and criminology, said while the section on harassment in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 here was intended to capture stalking, clarification is certainly required.

She said the Supreme Court has pointed to the ambiguity around the meaning of the word ‘besetting’ in section 10, for example, and she pointed to the Law Reform Commission’s 2016 report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety.

It recommended the enactment of two new criminal offences to deal with posting online of intimate images without consent - one to deal with so-called “revenge porn” and one to deal with the type of voyeurism known as “upskirting” or “down-blousing”. 

Both have recently been enacted.

But the same report also recommended a separate offence of stalking, which it described as “an aggravated form of harassment”.

Dr O’Sullivan said while legal reform in this area is moving in the right direction, it is piecemeal.

“It is so important to have people like Una and Eve taking on and leading an initiative like this,” she said.

“We know how important it is to have the victim’s voice heard. That can encourage change.” 

Ms Ring and Ms McDowell also want longer sentences for those convicted of stalking and more support for victims. They said they didn’t know who to turn to for advice, guidance or support.

Ms Ring said: “I Googled ‘stalking’ and ‘Ireland’ and there was nothing, no information, no help.

“I felt half the time that I might be imagining this. And it’s natural to feel confused and to feel like you’re losing your mind.

“Hopefully our new website will offer help to someone who is in the situation we were in, as well as advice on how to report it and how to broach the subject with other people. We will also be pushing for mental health support and counselling for the victims in such cases.

“People don’t really talk about it because, like I did, you wonder will people think I was looking for attention. 

"I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but you still go back through your conversations and interactions with the individual to see if there was anything there that could have been picked up wrong.

'Every time I walk past certain places, I get a constant reminder of what happened.'

“Even now, after speaking to male neighbours, male friends or male colleagues, I dissect how I interacted with them. I doubt every interaction. And even though I know he’s in prison, I still see him, James Steele, out and about when I see a man with a similar body shape or hair colour. I get a fright, I get a start.” 

Ms Ring also speaks openly about how counselling and medication have been vital in her recovery and says there should be no shame attached to the taking of medication to help with mental health issues.

“If you have a chest infection, you’ll take antibiotics and not think twice about it. There is still such a stigma attached to mental health issues,” she said.

She also revealed that he had considered leaving her home in East Cork before Steele is released but has decided to stay.

“I can’t move, I don’t want to move. I won’t move. This is my home,” she said.

While Ms McDowell is also getting on with her life, there are lasting effects.

“Never in a million years did I think this could happen to me. It did take a long time for me to feel safe from him,” she said.

“It took me a while to get used to the fact that he is in prison but from time to time, you’d hear rumours that he is out, or that people have spotted him around Galway.

“They’re not true but your head starts going to strange places and you wonder was he working with someone else?

"Every time I walk past certain places, I get a constant reminder of what happened."

Having lived in and loved Galway since 2017, Ms McDowell is now making plans to leave before Lewandowski’s release from prison.

“I want to stay in Galway. I’ve lived in Galway since after my leaving cert. But it’s just too small a city. I just wouldn’t feel safe,” she said.

The Department of Justice told the Irish Examiner that the creation of a distinct offence of stalking was examined by the department in the context of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020.

“Following consultations with various stakeholders and an in-depth examination of the current offence of harassment, it was clear that stalking behaviour is already encompassed in the current offence of harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997,” a spokesman said.

“Instead of introducing a distinct offence of stalking, section 10 of the 1997 Act was amended to increase the maximum penalty for harassment to 10 years’ imprisonment to reflect the harm caused by those who engage in the most serious forms of harassment.” 

Ms Ring and Ms McDowell said the department’s response is disappointing and it’s clear they have some convincing to do but they both said they’re ready for the campaign.

'Big difference between harassment and stalking', says CEO of Cork Sexual Violence Centre 

Mary Crilly, Cork Sexual Violence Centre, said time is right for a new law to make stalking a standalone offence. Picture:  Larry Cummins
Mary Crilly, Cork Sexual Violence Centre, said time is right for a new law to make stalking a standalone offence. Picture:  Larry Cummins

The time is right for a new law to make stalking a standalone offence, one of Ireland’s leading campaigners believes.

Mary Crilly, the long-serving CEO of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, said she and her team are honoured and humbled to support the new campaign for legal reform in the area which has been launched by Una Ring and Eve McDowell.

“It is so inspiring for the two women to come forward like this, women who have the capacity and energy to take this on,” Ms Crilly said.

“We hope that it will get a discussion going and raise awareness about the issue and ensure that legislation is brought in because there is a big difference between harassment and stalking,” Ms Crilly said.

“What has happened in the cases affecting Una and Eve clearly shows that.” On the rare occasion that stalking is prosecuted in Ireland, it is prosecuted under harassment laws. The terms ‘stalking’ and ‘harassment’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but they can be significantly different.

Harassment is unwanted behaviour from someone else that makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened.

Stalking, however, is more intense, sinister and distressing, Ms Crilly said.

Stalking is a pattern of fixated, obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent and intrusive.

It causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim.

And victims of stalking are often at risk of violence from their stalker.

Ms Crilly said people should remember that rape within a marriage wasn’t considered a crime until the early 90s.

“Our centre was founded as the Cork Rape Crisis Centre in 1983 and it took a decade before legislation to criminalise rape within a marriage was introduced,” she said.

“I think we can get this new law on stalking introduced in a much faster timeframe. I think the time is right for this to happen now.” The Cork Sexual Violence Centre has launched a petition calling for new legislation, which has been signed by some 500 people in just a few days, and it will host a webinar on the issues involved at 7pm on May 6, featuring contributions from Ms Ring, Ms McDowell, who will talk about the lived experience of stalking, as well as from Ms Crilly, from UCC law lecturer, Dr Catherine O’Sullivan, Rebecca Coen, head of research with the Law Reform Commission, and Detective Chief Superintendent, Delcan Daly, of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau.

You can register for the webinar by emailing webinar@stalking.ie.

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