Help! I've been targeted by the witch hunt!
May 2, 2007 5:20 AM   Subscribe

Today I got a vaguely threatening anonymous letter through the mail slot, and I need to know what to do about it.

The back of my house faces the sports field of a primary school. if the window is open, I can reach out and touch the fence that surrounds the field - that's how close it is. Sometimes, if I'm in the study, I might watch the kids playing, because they're cute and happy and it's fun to watch. When I say sometimes, I mean *maybe* once a week, for just a few minutes at a time. Once, a few weeks ago, a couple of little girls made monkey faces at me, and I made a monkey face back. That has been the extent of my interaction with the children who play on the field.

Today, I came home from some errands to find an unsigned note that says "Your (sic) making the kids uncomfortable with your staring and if it doesn't stop we're doing something about it". It's the last part that really worries me - it doesn't say "we're calling the police" or "we're talking to the headmaster", it just says "we're doing something about it". Scary.

The thing is, while I can't be sure, I really don't think the note was meant for me. It might be, but I am a 28-year-old woman and I just don't think I qualify for the paedo-witch hunt. I live in the middle of a long line of identical houses, and as it might be hard to tell which house is the right one from the front, I am guessing that the note was meant for my 86-year-old neighbor. (The house on the other side of me is empty, and the rest of the houses are occupied by young families or young women around my age). He is, I think, suffering from the early stages of dementia, and he's the sweetest, most gentle, doddering old man imaginable. I can totally imagine him watching the kids with a silly smile on his face that might be construed as a little threatening, especially if your parents were after you ten times a day to watch out for those scary paedophiles.

I've already decided to tell my neighbor's daughter about it the next time she comes to visit, she's a very practical, friendly kind of person and I am sure she'll do the right thing regarding her father, whatever that might be. In the meantime, what should I do? Should I contact the police? Call the school? Avoid the spare room during school hours?
posted by Wroksie to Law & Government (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're "guessing" that someone thinks your neighbor is a creep, and you're going to tell his daughter that someone thinks he harms children? You might want to step back a bit and consider the consequences of that.

Drop the note off at the police, because you feel threatened by it. Explain the situation.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:30 AM on May 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

The first thing that I would do is to call and make an appointment with the school Principal and then discuss the note with him/her. The Principal will be able to find out if the note was sent by a teacher or staff member at the school. I suspect that it was not, since there is definite protocol (a least in most places here in the US - where are you located?) for this sort of thing at public schools.

If you're really worried about getting in "trouble", then just call the police and discuss it with them. I suspect that if something really wrong was going on (like lewd behavior in one of your neighbors' windows directed towards the kids), then the police would have been involved already.
posted by Flakypastry at 5:34 AM on May 2, 2007

Best answer: Talk to the police and tell the headmaster what you've done. The issue isn't the staring (whether yours or the neighbours') it's the threatening letter. The headmaster should be in a position to redirect paranoid parents or whoevers. Especially if they can point out that the cops are now watching the school for vigilantes, which is not the desired outcome.
posted by kika at 5:35 AM on May 2, 2007

It might be a good idea to make a copy of the letter and enclose it with a letter addressed to the principal. It sounds like an employee of the school wrote the letter.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:36 AM on May 2, 2007

Best answer: Should I contact the police? Call the school?

As others have said, yes and ye. You haven't done anything even slightly wrong. And noone has any right to make you live in fear in your own hsome for looking out your own window. And do it soon.

Avoid the spare room during school hours?

No. See above.
posted by Jimbob at 5:43 AM on May 2, 2007

Ditto on talking to the headmaster with the letter in hand. I think it always helps to be friendly with your neighbors and that includes the school. These days, some parents get overly paranoid and that could be where this letter is from. Chances are that the school might be aware of parent complaints against a neighbor and this might help to clear the rabid confusion.

Don't be antagonistic with the headmaster or accusatory in any way and keep it friendly.

At this point I also don't think it is a good idea to imply to the neighbor's daughter that her father is doing anything untoward. You are just guessing and making any assumptions about the letter is going to lead to bad feelings.
posted by JJ86 at 5:48 AM on May 2, 2007

I just wanted to emphasize that you should not play detective about who you think the letter is for or from. Don't be part of the witch hunt.
posted by JJ86 at 5:51 AM on May 2, 2007

Response by poster: Saucy Intruder - I am friends with my neighbor's daughter, she trusts me to watch out for him, and I am going to show her the letter and let her draw her own conclusions. I would want someone to do the same for me in the same situation, especially since there's a small possibility that someone might try to scare or even harm her father.

Flakypastry - I've lived in the UK for the past six years. I am not in the least worried about "getting in trouble", at least not with police or school authorities. I've done nothing wrong. I watched some kids play chase and cricket a few times, that's all. I do, however, live in a dodgy area and I AM a little scared of drunken football hooligan/gangster dads getting drunk at the pub and deciding to show me (or my neighbor) a lesson. The idea that a "paedo" might be in their neighborhood is something that the working class people around here really get upset about. I guess I don't have much of a reason not to immediately contact the police, other than just generally feeling icky about the whole thing, and knowing that if they can't get the kids in the neighborhood to stop spraypainting my garden wall once a week, they probably can't do much about this.

LoriFLA - the handwriting, spelling errors, and dirty, wrinkled paper kind of lead me to believe that this didn't come from a school employee. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that the letter came through the slot during school hours and the fact that the oldest kids at this school are about 8 years old, I would assume a kid wrote it.
posted by Wroksie at 6:02 AM on May 2, 2007

You've got a lot hat hanging on not much hook here.

- You got an anonymous letter

Everything else in your story is conjecture. You don't really know that it refers to the field behind your house. You don't really know that the person who sent it actually observed anyone staring at any children (i.e. they might just assume it from your location or even be simply deranged). You don't know who the letter was meant for. You don't know that your elderly neighbor actually does any staring out his window.

And the best part is that you don't want to take part in a witch hunt. You might start by declining to leap to dozens of conclusions based on zero evidence.

The letter is menacing. Report it to the police. That is all.
posted by DU at 6:37 AM on May 2, 2007

Response by poster: DU, please see my above reply. I do not know (nor do I care, really) if my neighbor is or isn't staring at the kids. I DO know that there is a chance that someone, or a group of someones, may decide to scare or harm me, or my neighbor, who is not only the likely intended target of the letter, but who is vulnerable and easily confused. I received a frightening, threatening anonymous letter. I (perhaps stupidly) posted a question about it here, hoping for support and maybe a few ideas of what to do.

Dozens of conclusions were not jumped to.

Conclusion 1: The letter was written by someone connected to one or more children attending the primary school which has a playing field located behind my house.
Conclusion 2: My elderly neighbor, who is the only male in our row of small terraced houses over the age of 12, might be the intended recipient of the threatening letter, since it seems very unlikely that it was intended for me and it would be easy to confuse which house-front matches which house-back, as all of the houses are completely identical.

That's 2 extremely logical conclusions, not 12, or 24, or 36.
Your answer was rude, flippant, and condescending. It would have been better for you not to answer at all, don't you think?

Let me be as clear as possible here: THE ONLY REASON I mentioned my dear, sweet, neighbor, who I make meals for at least once a week and whom I check on at least once a day, is because he is the most likely target of this threatening letter and I don't want him to be hurt, or scared, or even bothered. If his daughter agrees with me, then she can discuss with him the importance of not opening the door to people he doesn't know, make sure that the numbers for the police are extra-visible, etc. so in case the letter WAS for him and if that someone tries to follow up on the implied threat contained therein, he can better protect himself.
posted by Wroksie at 7:20 AM on May 2, 2007

...he is the most likely target of this threatening letter...

But he's not. The letter appeared in your mail slot. YOU are the most likely target.

Based on an assumption that the sender is mentally OK (which seems doubtful based on the content and style you reported), you've tried to reverse engineer some rational intentions to the point of further assuming that your neighbor does something you've never seen him do.

But by all means make sure your neighbor is being careful, can contact the police, etc. Just don't get your friend into a tizz that her father may be an inadvertant or wrongly-suspected pedophile based on nothing.
posted by DU at 7:30 AM on May 2, 2007

Response by poster: This is ridiculous. I am not going to ring up my neighbor's daughter and say "Hey, Rebecca, watch out, your dad might be leering at the kiddies!" I'm just going to tell her what happened, share my suspicions that it MIGHT have been intended for him and she MIGHT want to make sure that he's safe just in case, and that will be it. We're really good friends - the kind of friend I would talk to about this even if we hadn't met because her father is my neighbor - so she's not going to freak out or think I am accusing her father of anything, because as is obvious to anyone, I am not.
And I think the fact that the sender might NOT be mentally OK makes this even scarier, as he or she would be less bound by the rules of rational behavior (and more likely to put the letter in the wrong door in a row of identical doors, for that matter, but that's not even really the point).
posted by Wroksie at 7:49 AM on May 2, 2007

It seems to me that it's possible that the sender is a neighborhood kid, although probably not one who attends the school. I can definitely see some 12-year-olds thinking that it would be a funny prank to pick a house adjacent to the school at random and terrorize the occupants.

I think it's fine to tell your neighbor's daughter, in the spirit of keeping her informed about things going on in the neighborhood. And it's always a good idea to keep your eye out for people who might want to harm your neighbor. (As I'm sure you've considered, he's a target for robbery, if people know he's an elderly man living alone.) But I'm not convinced that it was actually aimed at him. It's a theory, but it's only one theory among many.
posted by craichead at 7:50 AM on May 2, 2007

Wroksie, I don't think anyone's doubting your intentions toward your neighbor - it's nice that you look out for him. But from an outsider's perspective, it seems strange that you're assuming he was the target of the letter when it was delivered to your house and you've interacted with some of the kids. I don't think your interaction with the kids was wrong, but who knows what they told their parents. It's quite possible that they exaggerated what happened between you and them and that the letter was indeed intended for you. If you want to mention it to your neighbor's daughter, I'd present it as something that happened to you. She can decide how worried she wants to be about her father. But I'd be pretty offended if I were her and you gave me this letter insisting that it was meant for my father when you have no evidence to support that claim. And like everyone else said, contact the police and the school.
posted by curie at 7:52 AM on May 2, 2007

Wroksie, your original post didn't make clear that you live in a dodgy neighborhood. If you have real concern about vigilante retribution, then certainly go to the police.

Here in the US (and maybe there in the UK), merely having an anonymous person accuse you of pedophilic behavior can land you in a lot of trouble and some nasty publicity. That in itself might be enough to turn the note over to the local police.

I still think that talking to the Headmaster is a good thing. That way, if the mystery surrounding your note gets cleared up (as in, some neighborhood parent says something to the Headmaster), he or she can intervene on your behalf and let you know right away.
posted by Flakypastry at 8:03 AM on May 2, 2007

Make a few copies of the letter. Take one to the Headmaster and see if he or any of the teachers know what it's about. Give one to your neighbour's daughter when you tell her about it. Keep one for yourself, and take the original to the police.


Her assumptions aren't off the ball, DU.

The children in question are most likely children from the school, since her and all her neighbours' back windows face the school's field.

She might not be the intended target of the letter because: a) all the houses look the same, b) house numbers usually aren't on the back of houses, and c) it would be easy for the author to mistake, say, the sixth house for the seventh. Plus, she's not looking/staring at the kids very often.

Her elderly neighbour may be the intended target because: a) [most?] borderline-dementia elderly people like to sit and watch the goings-on outside, and b) [most?] people would be more concerned about a man "staring" at kids than a woman doing the same thing.

Yes, these are all assumptions, but they're not unlikely or completely out of left field.

Sorry for the lengthy not-exactly-on-topic part, not intended as a derail.
posted by CKmtl at 8:43 AM on May 2, 2007

I think the plan you outlined in your original post is spot-on. (And for the record I really don't see why people are getting so uptight about you telling the gent-next-door's daughter about it; I think it's kinda bizarre that people assume that she would jump from "weird anonymous letter" to believing that her dad is a pedo.)

You seem to be well-spoken, so I don't think you're really going to have a problem with this. I'd mention it to the daughter (I'd probably just tell her the facts, not the conjecture, and let her draw her own conclusions) just to keep her in the loop, and then notify the police, and then finally notify the principal at the school, telling him that you've let the police know.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:43 AM on May 2, 2007

Best answer: Sorry to chime in again, but it occured to me that this situation is somewhat like one that I had in my neighborhood last year, and the solution in our case might help you a bit with yours. This is in reference to your concern about your elderly neighbor.

I live on a cul-de-sac - not many homes, lots of kids, pretty close-knit (or at least the parents all talk to one another regularly). Every day at about 3:30pm, the same car rides around our neighborhood. There's a a guy around my age driving, with an elderly lady passenger in the front with him.

This has gone on for at least a few years. Last year, one of my neighbors called and asked if I had ever noticed the car, since her kids had told her about it - the school bus gets in at about that time. She was nervous because she works full time, and was worried that the occupants were stalking the kids. A few days went by, and a few more people chimed in, and before you knew it, there was talk of calling the police to come down and question the driver, etc. Everyone was pretty worried.

It just seemed like overreacting to me - why not just ask the car's occupants why they drove around every day? Well, soon after, I went outside and gardened at about the time that the car came slowly driving by. I flagged down the car, and found out that the driver lived not too far away and drove his Mom, who has dementia, every day to get fresh air and see the world. Because she gets nervous easily, he knew to use the same route every day and chose our little neighborhood as part of his route because she liked the pretty landscaping at all the houses.

Word got around the neighborhood, and then the kids started to wave to her every day as they rode by. Her son says that it's the highlight of her day. Yes, the kids know the safety rules about not approaching strangers, but waving to an old woman put a little kindness in their hearts for older people.

Anyway, if you are concerned that your neighbor might miss watching the kids playing, you could suggest to his daughter that she talk to the Headmaster about him. Maybe the school kids will start smiling at your neighbor, improve his life, and if he is indeed the intended recipient of the note, turn away criticism of him staying at the window.
posted by Flakypastry at 9:24 AM on May 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

Document this religiously, photocopy it, make notes of when you received it, etc. Keep your eyes open for anything strange in or around the neighborhood. Very much do inform as many people as possible about it, your neighbor('s family), the school, and certainly the police. Make sure you are very calm and collected whenever you talk to anyone about it. The message you want to send it "Hey, this is kind of strange, what do you think about it?" Keep your conjectures (valid as they sound at first blush) out of it completely. Present the (few) facts objectively and matter-of-factly, don't bring in your neighbor or the kids or any theories of the event. Don't assume anyone involved is going to react rationally. You want to make this everyone's problem, and if someone gets on the defensive, it's not their problem and now you have two.
posted by Skorgu at 10:59 AM on May 2, 2007

I do not know (nor do I care, really) if my neighbor is or isn't staring at the kids. I DO know that there is a chance that someone, or a group of someones, may decide to scare or harm me, or my neighbor, who is not only the likely intended target of the letter, but who is vulnerable and easily confused.

By this standard the responsible thing to do is inform -all- the neighbors who live along this fence line since a reactionary whacko who would harass one of you might harass any of you. But then again you don't know that they didn't all get one of these letters too.

As DU points out, the reasonable target - if there is one - is at the house they have already identified (my mis-count or not) as the problem: yours.

I really think that you should confine yourself to talking to the cops and, optionally, the school. However if you're determined to talk to the neighbor - and just the one - you should just go over there and say "Hey, someone put this in my mail slot and I just wanted to let you know there's clearly someone with some kinda whacko oversensitive streak running around here." Or ask them if they got something similar since you can't imagine why anyone would think you were a harasser or some sort.

Stop exercising all these mental gymnastics trying to figure out the original intent of Dr Kukko McCuccoPants. Attempting to concurrently reason with an irrational person is impossible. Report what you know (I got a weird letter) and what you feel (it makes me worried), nothing more.
posted by phearlez at 11:07 AM on May 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

don't handle the original letter any more than you have already - it might have latent fingerprints of its author, which can be made visible by exposure to certain gases.

ask the police if they will do a proper analysis of it, if not, you might have to engage a private eye with lab connections. if you can develop a print that matches one on file, you can sue the cowardly malefactor for a restraining order and the cost of your investigation.

oh, and buy a gun.
posted by bruce at 11:12 AM on May 2, 2007

Best answer: Some of the answers in this thread are making my mind explode. Anyway, yes, go to the principal and then the police and express your concerns. Good for you for being concerned about your neighbor. Feel free to include such conjecture when you talk to the principal and the police.

It is true that men are much more likely to be suspected of child molestation than women are. Approaching your neighbor's daughter and letting her approach or not approach her father with the issue seems like a good course of action.
posted by taliaferro at 12:46 PM on May 2, 2007

Best answer: bruce: I'm not sure the police will have any inclination to do a fingerprint test. Even if they did, I think (but am not 100% sure) that the police don't have a national fingerprint database anyway. I'm pretty sure "private eyes" don't have access to fingerprint information.

oh, and buy a gun.

*Head asplodes*
Wroksie would probably end up in jail following this advice, in this country! (thank goodness)
posted by Aloysius Bear at 1:08 PM on May 2, 2007

One very important consideration is that you may not be the only person in your street getting letters like this. People who send anonymous letters do so for all sorts of reasons. They might be deranged and get their jollies from it, in which case they're unlikely to act on the threat within; or they might be so incredibly over-paranoid that they're targeting all the houses in that row. Taking it to the police and/or headmaster might ease your mind in that if there are multiple letters floating around, they could reassure you that neither you nor your neighbour are an actual target. This person could just be flinging letters around for the fun of knowing they've had the power of affecting someone and making them uneasy.
posted by andraste at 3:45 PM on May 2, 2007

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