Taylor Woolrich was the top story of the afternoon on FoxNews.com. She could see the homepage, with her picture, on the laptop screen propped open in an airport food court. It was a personal photo, blown up and zoomed in. The quality was grainy. Woolrich, 20, was beaming at the camera from her seat at an outdoor café. Blonde waves framed her face and tumbled to her shoulders. White letters marched across the photograph: “STALKED ...and Ivy college won’t allow her to defend herself.”
The date was Aug. 6, 2014, and Woolrich, a Dartmouth junior, realized she was in the midst of going viral.
Back when Woolrich was in high school, an older man had become fascinated with her. He was also from her hometown of El Cajon, California, a San Diego suburb. Over the course of months, then years, his fascination progressed to desire. Then infatuation studded with resentment and anger. His name was Richard Bennett, and for four years, he had not quit pursuing her in person or online. He believed he was wooing Woolrich. He was 47 years her senior.
For four years, she grew from annoyed to worried to terrified. Stalking had become one of the defining parts of her life, and keeping herself safe from him had become a top priority. Never mind classes, never mind friends. She stayed inside. Online, she pretended she was dead.
Bennett had been arrested in the beginning of that summer, 2014. Unlike the previous warnings and misdemeanors he’d racked up in pursuit of Woolrich, this time he was charged with felony stalking. That meant for the time being, he was in jail. He would remain there until his trial, which would begin in 2015, as he had been unable to pull together $30,000 in bond money.
Knowing that Bennett was finally, if temporarily, incarcerated made Woolrich feel more secure. But she knew he would be free sooner or later, depending on the outcome of the state’s criminal case against him. She didn’t allow herself to hope that after a stint behind bars, his obsession with her would have faded. No, she thought, it was best to have a plan. A way to protect herself. She decided she needed a gun. There was one problem: Dartmouth, like the overwhelming majority of American universities, banned handguns on campus. Woolrich had asked for an exception, and the administration turned her down.
The day before her story went viral, Woolrich spoke publicly for the first time about being a victim of stalking, at a conference of pro-gun student activists in Washington, D.C. Woolrich, unlike the rest of the crowd, didn't consider herself a gun activist. She was speaking at the request of others, including John Lott, an economist by trade and influential pro-gun advocate, who thought her story would send a powerful message. To her, it seemed like Lott knew what he was doing. It seemed like he'd help change Dartmouth's mind.
In the airport, Woolrich’s phone was buzzing with notifications — unread emails, new texts, missed calls in the double digits. The messages came from producers and reporters, all of them eager to snag an interview or book appearances on their shows. Over the next few days, the story and her picture would hit the cable news channels: Fox News and the Today show and MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times, conservative blogs, radio, international outlets, local news all over the country.
“Stalked student will ‘drop Dartmouth’ for not allowing her a handgun,” read one headline. “College student wants right to carry gun on campus,” said another. The stories all asked the same thing: Should Dartmouth officials allow this woman to carry a gun? Some pieces answered their own question: They should. Others ran polls that resolved overwhelmingly in Woolrich’s favor. Comments sections bloated with advice (carry a gun anyway, switch schools, sue). Dartmouth was accused of waging a liberal (arts) “war on women.”
For Woolrich, though, this wasn't a story about a gun; it was a story about stalking.
In the U.S., 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked in their lifetime. That makes about 25 million people. More than half of all stalkers are or were once intimate partners with their victims — the old girlfriend, the ex-husband. A quarter are, like Bennett, acquaintances. Others are family members, or strangers to their targets. The stalking typically ends within two years.
Since she met Bennett, Woolrich has moved coasts, quit jobs, gone to the police, to the media. Now her image was all over the news, where he'd surely see it in jail. For Woolrich, the question remained the same as it had been for four years: What could she do keep herself safe?
Pouring drinks at Coffee Masters in Lakeside, California, was a choice summer gig: free coffee, hands-off supervision, a tip jar, plus hourly pay. It was 2010, and Woolrich, a high school junior near the top of her class at the local charter school, seemed to have everything going for her. She’d soon be crowned the Mother Goose Queen, a minor win on the San Diego pageant circuit.
She was just getting the hang of the espresso machine one day when she glanced out the front window and locked eyes with a man getting out of a red SUV. She looked away, but she could swear he kept staring. The man entered. He ordered. She made his coffee.
Bennett remembers almost every day at Coffee Masters with Woolrich. He describes this one, the first one, in a phone interview this April.
"I had been coming there for about two or three months before Taylor started working there," he says. The first day he saw her, she lingered at the register, talking. "After a few minutes, she says, 'I’m only 16,'" he remembers.
Bennett looked her up and down. She was pretty, he saw, and tall. Not quite his height, but close. “There’s no way you’re 16,” he remembers telling her.
“Yeah, I’m 16.”
Bennett, who was 63 at the time, says he gave her his number to call in case anyone ever bothered her. According to Woolrich, this isn’t true. According to Woolrich, most of the conversations he remembers never took place.
As the weeks passed, Bennett began spending hours at a patio table outside the front window, keeping an eye on Woolrich as he smoked and drank in the shade of the strip mall overhang. He wore the same outfit every day, she remembers: cargo shorts, tall white socks, and hiking boots. She didn’t mind the tips he left, but she hated the comments that accompanied them. “Oh, you look so beautiful today,” she mimics, rolling her eyes. “Your legs look so nice.”
When Woolrich talked about “the creepy guy from the coffee shop” at home, her parents told her not to be so dramatic, they later testified during Bennett’s trial. The Coffee Masters owner listened to her complaints but did not intervene. Her manager, Rob Clark, knew the guy by his order, a doppio espresso, and his hiking stories from Yosemite. Woolrich remembers co-workers laughing at her concerns. Wasn’t he just a retired old man, bored and lonely?
Bennett was bored and lonely. He’d been a machinist, an Army medic, a carpenter, and a truck driver before he retired when the recession hit. He had cleaned up a few times as an adult, but otherwise there was weed, and booze. “There was some meth there too,” he says. According to Woolrich, she sometimes saw him dump his flask into his coffee cup.
She was annoyed about Bennett’s attentions but believed dealing with him was her job. Then she began running into him outside of work, at public events where she appeared as a pageant winner.
Bennett remembers those encounters fondly. “I was smitten,” he says. “She was an über-teenager.” By spring 2011, he was timing his visits to match her schedule — eight-hour shifts, three or four times a week. He arrived early in the mornings so he could insist on setting up the patio furniture, over her protestations. Like a gentleman.
Valerie Ryan, the prosecutor in the 2015 stalking trial, asked Woolrich during testimony whether she was ever interested in Bennett.
“Did you flirt with him?”
“No!” Woolrich laughed and shook her head. “No.”
In court, Woolrich testified that she was as polite as she needed to be for work. To me, she says, “I was really a bitch, especially to him. I was like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? You’re old. Leave me alone.’”
Bennett says, “She was the kindest anyone’s ever been to me. When I came into the coffee shop every day, she was engaging. She was friendly. I’ve been married, and I have a daughter and a granddaughter, but nobody was ever as kind to me, and as considerate.”
Woolrich considered getting a restraining order against Bennett, but she didn’t believe she had proper grounds. Things changed in August 2011. Woolrich had started dating Clark, the café manager. One day, Bennett saw them flirting in the shop. That night, he returned to the café to confront Clark, accusing him of sexual harassment and threatening to beat him up. “She’s a good girl,” Bennett remembers saying. The fight escalated until Bennett threw a cup of coffee at the younger man. Clark told him never to return to the café.
Still, when Woolrich arrived late for her next morning shift, Bennett’s red SUV was waiting in the parking lot. Quickly, she made a plan: Don’t make eye contact. Park close, get inside quickly, lock the door behind her, and let customers in one by one until the boss arrived to help her deal with him.
The way Woolrich remembers it, she was moving toward the café’s entrance when she heard Bennett shout, “We need to talk.”
She kept walking.
“He’s not good enough for you. I was trying to protect you.”
He was moving toward her now. She kept her head turned away and continued toward the entrance. “We care about each other,” he said.
She stopped and turned.
“We do not care about each other.”
Bennett stood still. She advanced a few steps.
“You’re. Fucking. Nuts. Leave me alone. I don’t know you. We don’t care about each other.”
His face darkened. Again, he began to walk toward her. She ran back to her car, shoes slapping on the blacktop. She fumbled with the keys, got the door open, climbed inside, pulled it shut, and hit the lock as his image filled the front windshield. Her hands shook as she dialed 911. He smacked his palms on the hood, repeating the same words: "We care about each other." A customer pulled in, spooking Bennett back to his car and out of the lot.
When Woolrich applied for a restraining order the week after the parking lot incident, her testimony about Bennett’s actions at Coffee Masters was enough for the judge to grant it. Bennett would have to stay away from her for three years.
During the 2015 stalking trial, however, the prosecution was unable to prove Woolrich’s version of events from that August morning in the parking lot. There was no evidence beyond the 911 call log: no video footage, no acceptable eyewitness. There wasn’t even a report filed by the responding officer (“It didn’t rise to the level of a criminal matter,” Deputy Greg Greco testified), and the details in Woolrich’s old restraining order were scant. Bennett and his private defense counsel, Pamela Lacher, maintained that nothing threatening had occurred that morning.
All of the events at Coffee Masters were excluded from the trial.
Instead, Valerie Ryan urged the jury to think of that time as a “foundation for fear”: the necessary context for understanding what came next, as Bennett began stalking her online, and how Woolrich experienced it.
The question posed to the jurors wasn't only whether Woolrich experienced fear, or that any reasonable person would be afraid, but that Bennett intended to scare her. To win the case, Ryan needed to show that Bennett had made a “credible threat” against her safety or the safety of her family. The threat could be written or spoken, emailed, texted, recorded, filmed, or faxed. Crucially, it could also be implied by a course of action. Woolrich’s fear had to be genuine. She had to believe that Bennett was capable of carrying out his threat, even if he didn’t plan to do so. And Bennett couldn’t be just misguided or delusional. He had to be malicious.
Proving that a defendant intended to cause fear can make prosecuting stalking difficult under California’s current law, according to Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center, an offshoot of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Eighteen states retain “specific intent” statutes, says Elaina Roberts, the SRC’s program attorney. Due to this requirement, California laws allow perpetrators to escape responsibility by claiming they never meant to frighten their victims. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I’m doing this because I love this person,’ or ‘I care about this person,’ or ‘We’re supposed to be together,’” Garcia says. Still, because of the restraining order, Bennett couldn't claim he didn’t know he was frightening Woolrich.
He could claim that he hadn’t made a “credible threat.” Among the many states whose original simple stalking laws included a “credible threat” element, only California still hasn't eliminated that part of the law. "Credible threat" is a problem, Garcia says, because some jurors struggle to understand the threatening meaning of a stalker’s actions. What if no obvious threat is made? What if a perpetrator simply won’t leave their victim alone? Some possible stalking behaviors — such as writing flattering social media posts about a target or sending the person thoughtful messages — can seem harmless to a jury, Garcia says. But to a victim, the same actions trigger distress or fear. The crime depends, in part, upon the emotional context.
Recently misplaced what I believe is (was?) the love of my life. If I had an address. I would be their. Occupy myself in good fashion, inspite of loss, Keep in the best of spirits possible,quite naturally, certainly, seldom bored. one could call a middle class hobo. If reflecting too much, I can spiral regret, anger, loss,and loathing conversely, euphoric, large mythical potentials, exquisite realizations and possibilities
—Richard Bennett, “Introduction,” Google+ profile
If there had been no sudden rift between him and Woolrich, and no restraining order, Bennett swears with utter conviction that he would not have sought her so feverishly afterward, searching online for data and images and links and files about her and those she loved and those she knew; would not have tried to “get to the bottom of this,” as he is so fond of saying when pressed on why, why, and how could it have come to this; would not have pursued, in the following years, some kind of contact that might satisfy the nagging, gnawing, itching sensation of need and absence and desire and, yes, love.
“I was very much in love,” he tells me.
Bennett knows what love means: “I had a wife.” Thomasine. Thirteen years of marriage, followed by 23 of separation, followed by divorce and death. “I loved her.” He adds, “I thought I loved her.”
Bennett’s daughter asks to be called Stacey in this story. It’s the childhood nickname she no longer uses for herself as an adult. She was 12 when her parents separated, but it wasn’t until she was 17 that she knew for sure that something was not right with her father. He would talk about neighbors listening to him through the floorboards, she says. He drove wildly onto the mountain roads late one Friday night, terror pinning a teenage Stacey to the passenger seat as her father swore she’d be safer if he left her out in the country, alone in the dark.
Stacey fled her father, leaving California in 1990, and Bennett started harassing her mother. Stacey believes he was stalking Thomasine. Court records show a domestic violence case filed two days after Stacey’s eventual return.
Around that time, Bennett was jailed briefly for violating a restraining order that Thomasine had taken out against him, he says. According to Bennett, the pair reconciled soon after. “My lawyer says, ‘No wonder you think you can keep on doing this and have a happy ending,'” Bennett tells me. But he and Thomasine separated again quickly. They finally divorced just before she died in 2005.
Stacey has spent much of her adult life trying to forgive her father, but still she never felt safe around him. They had a falling-out after he flew into a rage at her young son, sometime in 2011. “He abandoned me,” Stacey says.
“She insists that I abandoned her,” Bennett says separately. He doesn’t understand how this could be. He’d tried contacting her after their argument about her son. Stacey says that he'd lie in wait for her at a local Starbucks where she attended a Bible study group. She tried to ignore him. According to Bennett, he showed up again and again outside her house, attempting to talk to her. Stacey hid indoors.
Stacey and Woolrich both believe they look too much alike for the similarity to be a coincidence.
After Stacey stopped speaking to her father, and after the restraining order from Woolrich, both in 2011, he turned to the internet. He began to pass his time in clicks: pageant blogs to social media profiles to photographs, which he printed and kept around his house. He used a marker to black out everything but Woolrich’s face and figure.
Why has his obsession lasted so long?
“Maybe it’s the absence,” Bennett says. “You’d think it'd trail off. I've swooned over women before and it goes away, it goes away. Over time. But it must have been the combination of the puzzlement and her beauty that fed me on and on and on and on and on and on.”
The last thing Woolrich wanted to be was the girl with the stalker at Dartmouth College, where she began in fall 2012. (I was also a student there, though I didn’t know her until I contacted her for an interview.)
To Woolrich, the college’s location in rural New Hampshire — 3,000 miles from her hometown, and from Bennett — was just one more perk. She joined the undergraduate law journal and the College Republicans. She told no one about him.
For spring break her freshman year, instead of going home, she took a trip to New York with Christian Reilly, a childhood friend whom she had begun dating. The two were climbing from a Brooklyn subway when she got an email. From: Richard Bennett. “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” She called home and notified the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.
Thirty days later, at 7:15 a.m., Bennett sent via LinkedIn: “still miss you…”
7:16 a.m.: “Taylor So looking forward to hearing from you… I’ll hang around, around, and around, study hard love. Your assistant always, Richard”
The messages continued for weeks. She reported all of them, taking screenshots and sending them back to California. Finally, in a message titled “neuro fiddled\roamburns,” Bennett asked for her mailing address. “( no ricin i promise),” he added. Woolrich wasn't sure how seriously to take it as a threat.
Bennett was convicted at least twice for violating the restraining order, a misdemeanor that netted a handful of days in jail, according to his attorney Pamela Lacher. Woolrich says a San Diego County detective, Bo Roberson, told her that they didn’t yet have a case for stalking. Roberson was compiling the examples of online contact into a stack of evidence. “The irony is, I’ve kind of been stalking her since she got the restraining order,” Bennett would later tell Roberson in an interrogation.
The timing bothered her — erratic bursts of online attention, followed by long silences. By that time, Woolrich quit social media except to check her accounts for new messages. “Every time I started to think that he was gone, he would just come back up,” she says. “It was like I relived all of it, every single time it happened, or I saw his name, or I saw a guy that looked like him, or a car that looked like his.”
At the end of 2013, Bennett was jailed briefly for another restraining order violation. The messages stopped coming. This time, after he was released, she didn’t hear from him.
Instead of being relieved, Woolrich began to experience greater anxiety, worrying about whether Bennett would come to Dartmouth in person. He’d sent her a message during the spring of her freshman year that suggested he might: “( I’d gladly drive out and see you.)... Love (Always) Richard (2 weeks and i can b there).”
She began to think about how small Dartmouth was. He could easily find her. “I remember every single morning having to coax myself out my front door before class. Just opening my door, I remember being scared.” She stopped leaving her dorm room except for lectures or meals. Sometimes not even then. Friends assumed she’d taken terms off from school because they never saw her.
If she had to go out, she’d drive and park as close as she could get to her classrooms, often illegally. A doctor, knowing she was worried about getting to class, wrote her a note about a fake ankle injury so she could use handicapped parking spaces and get rides from campus security, she says. According to Woolrich, when she called security for a lift, the operator frequently refused. They told her to stop calling so often, she says. Dartmouth Safety and Security Director Harry Kinne declined to comment on his office’s interactions with Woolrich.
College students are especially vulnerable to stalking; people between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the greatest risk. As of this July, colleges are required to report incidents and educate students about stalking, according to an amendment to the Jeanne Clery Act, which governs how colleges disclose policies and data about crime on campus. (Dartmouth is currently under federal investigations related to its reporting and handling of sexual violence under the Clery Act and Title IX.)
For Woolrich, in her dorm, the fear made sleep elusive: two hours at night, two hours during the day on her worst weeks. Her grades plummeted, drawing the attention of her dean. When she called Reilly, the boyfriend to whom she was now engaged, she’d just cry on the phone. She wasn’t sure how much of her depression to attribute to Bennett. “I knew that especially now, after Richard had stopped sending messages, it wasn’t the time to be scared,” she says. “It didn’t make any sense.”
She began to think it was her own problem. “Maybe they’re actually right. Maybe he’s moved on. I’m ruining my life by being scared.” Even when Woolrich started taking meds that lifted her mood, the fear remained constant. This realization, more than anything else, convinced her to pack up her room and take a leave from Dartmouth. She was determined to go home, get counseling for her Bennett issues, and get over it. “I didn’t just think that I failed at school,” she says. “I failed at myself.”
Woolrich’s stepfather, Steven Lincoln, picked her up from the San Diego airport. They bought burritos and drove to the house in Ramona, about an hour northeast of the city, where he lived with Woolrich's mother, Jessica Lincoln, and younger sisters. The family had moved to Ramona from El Cajon, choosing the location in part because of its distance from Bennett.
Less than eight hours after arriving home, the morning of June 6, 2014, Woolrich awoke to the sound of a knock and voices. His voice. She listened, her heart pounding. Nothing. Just another nightmare. She chided herself. You’re a nut. God, Taylor, she thought. She laid her head back down on the sheets.
In her testimony, Jessica couldn’t remember whether she recognized the man outside their house as she approached the screen door that morning, quieting her baby daughter in her arms. Maybe she did, and his appearance there simply shocked her. She might have pretended not to recognize him. Or she might not have trusted her senses.
Bennett introduced himself as a landscaper and handed Jessica a card. She looked down to take it.
Then she screamed for her husband.
“I’ve tried to picture that moment over and over, and I just remember seeing those boots and laces and thinking I was in trouble,” Jessica testified.
In the front bedroom, Woolrich was on her feet. Every nerve in her body screamed to get out. What did she need? How should she go? Between them: a few feet and two layers of drywall. There was a window, a semi-sheer curtain. If he turned his head, he might see her. She dropped to the floor, pressing herself deep into the shadow of the bed.
Steven’s footsteps pounded from the back of the house. She listened to the exchange, her stepfather kicking Bennett off the property, shouting in the yard. The door to the bedroom opened and Jessica was there, pushing the baby into her arms. Woolrich remembers her words: “Take your sister, hide. Get away from the window. Yes, you’re right. Richard’s here.”
Steven, a San Diego police detective, tailed Bennett’s car until other officers arrived. They pulled Bennett over, searched his SUV, and took him into custody.
Roberson, the detective, was listening to his scanner when the call about Bennett’s arrest came in. Roberson offered to take over the case. Finally, instead of just restraining order violations, maybe they had something to nail a felony stalking conviction.
In the hours after the arrest, Woolrich’s relief was stronger than her horror. She’d been right all along. “It allowed me to trust myself again,” she says.
As days passed and Bennett remained in jail, it also became clear that he was not going to scrounge up the money to post bond. He would remain incarcerated until the trial.
It was early summer, and Woolrich would be home until she returned to school for the fall 2014 term. She lived with the question “Now what?” She found herself driving for hours, going nowhere, but fast. Hills accumulated behind her taillights. In the car, there were no footsteps to listen for, no shadows to make her jump before she reminded herself that Bennett was locked up for the time being. No windows or doors to watch, nor the pressure of talk. Just speed. The space to expand.
Woolrich didn’t know that Bennett had spent the week before the June 6 arrest keeping tabs on her family, hiking the landscape around their house, watching for her. On the phone with me, he admits this.
She didn’t know that during those months of silence, while her fear and self-doubt were growing, he was seeking a way to travel cross-country to Dartmouth. He wrote on Zimride, a ride-sharing website, that he was planning a “one-way trip” east and north to New Hampshire, before canceling.
Bennett had also been sending her more messages — she just hadn’t received them. They sat unread in her spam inbox on Facebook from fall 2013 until she discovered them a few days after the arrest. The messages invited her on dates, explained his methods of searching for her, evoked other women, reminisced, speculated over her silence, described his encounters with law enforcement, and blamed her for rejecting him.
One of them, sent Oct. 28, 2013, called her “so animated, and haute, so charming, so captivating, so sprite, you sweet thing.” Later that night, he’d written, “How could you spit on me so easily and dismiss my life like I was too much dirt at your door. You brought a lot of misery on me. a can’t even bring yourselfto say your sorry.”
Then, several days after the arrest, local 10News reporter Matt Mendes found out about Bennett while looking for story leads in a stack of warrants executed by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Mendes says. He found a search warrant for Bennett’s property that contained the phrase “possible rape kit.”
“Rape kit” usually refers to a medical exam given to survivors of sexual assault, but the sheriff’s deputies were using it to describe the contents of Bennett’s SUV as a kind of toolbox for abduction and rape: a flashlight, gloves, binoculars, slip noose, and Cal Fire sweatshirt, which could be used as a disguise. The items had been found bundled together in a milk crate.
Mendes called Woolrich, wanting to interview her about Bennett. Woolrich says he asked her about Bennett’s “rape kit.” (Mendes does not recall the specifics of their conversation.) When she heard the phrase, she cut off the interview and hung up. She hadn’t known what was in his car. She hadn’t known that’s what they were calling it. To Woolrich, the conclusion was obvious: Bennett had intended to kidnap her. What if, on the night she arrived home, she had driven alone and parked on the street? “I would be gone,” she says. It was a nightmare, yes, the one that came to her most readily. “That is not happening to me,” she decided. “I will die fighting him.”
It was then she decided she needed a gun.
At first, the Dartmouth Department of Safety and Security brushed her off, she says: All handguns were against policy, no exceptions. Despite her repeated requests, Woolrich says Kinne, the director, never spoke to her during that time. “I don’t want to have to carry a gun,” she complains.
According to Woolrich, when she asked law enforcement officers about using a gun for protection against Bennett, they encouraged her to buy one and learn to use it. One officer, she says, even joked with her about shooting him. Other people have told her not to feel bad if she does have to kill Bennett — she should be proud of acting in self-defense. “I don’t think I’d shoot him to kill him, if I was close enough,” she says, sounding uncertain. It’s not something she enjoys thinking about, the idea that death could be the only way to end Bennett’s fascination.
“It’s a terrible thing to be told you have to kill someone,” she says.
By early July 2014, Woolrich was ready to give up on getting Dartmouth to let her have a gun. After Safety and Security turned her away once again on the phone, she retreated to her car, reclined the seat, and cried. Then she took out her phone and scrolled through her email inbox as she deliberated. Should she follow the law, or should she carry a gun anyway? “I was trying to do my absolute best to do everything right,” she says. But a part of her, a strong part, was saying that to follow the rules would endanger her life.
On the phone screen, an email caught her eye. Usually she ignored advertisements from the right-wing lists she was subscribed to as a College Republican. But an email said that a national organization called Students for Concealed Carry was planning a convention. The meetup, for student activists and anyone interested in carrying guns on campus, would take place at the National Press Club in Washington in August. The timing was perfect. The organizers offered to fly students in and put them up at a local hotel if they were interested.
Woolrich replied right away. “I’m feeling a bit hopeless at this point and have even debated transferring colleges simply because I am NOT safe unarmed once this man is released,” Woolrich wrote to a conference organizer and former SCC president, Michael Guzman. But if she did leave Dartmouth, where would she go? Only a handful of colleges allow concealed guns on campus. “I'm upset, confused, and feel that I've run out of options.”
“We are always looking for students with a compelling story,” Guzman says. SCC, a national group with about 500 chapters, uses legislative lobbying and civil suits to press for concealed carry on campuses.
When he received Woolrich’s email, Guzman contacted John Lott, who was helping SCC with promoting and funding the conference, to tell him about Woolrich and her potential. Lott called her that day.
Lott is a household name among politically minded gun owners, and not only for his regular columns on FoxNews.com. An economist with a prestigious CV — he’s done stints at the University of Chicago, Rice, Stanford, Wharton, and Yale — Lott is best known for a 1997 study with David Mustard that showed that allowing people to carry concealed guns correlated with decreased rates of violent crime. It would become the title of Lott’s breakout book: More Guns, Less Crime. The findings are much-disputed among researchers. They also underpin some of the gun lobby’s most fundamental claims about how firearms make people, especially women, safer.
A few years after the study, outlets across the ideological spectrum published allegations of ethical and professional faults in Lott’s work, including claims that he fabricated a survey and massaged statistics. In early 2003, Lott admitted to using a fake persona in online forums and comments sections where his work was attacked. Behind the pseudonym “Mary Rosh” — allegedly a young, female former student of Lott’s — was really the embattled professor, using a fake name and voice to praise himself online and defend himself from criticism. (Around this time, Lott also sued eventual BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti for impersonating him online. The two subsequently settled out of court and Peretti apologized.)
For around a decade, Lott largely fell out of the public eye. Then, in late 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children and six adults dead, along with the killer and his mother. Lott was back, game for network TV appearances, quotes, and more op-eds putting a pro-gun perspective on the shooting and others that followed it. In 2013, he founded the nonprofit Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) and became its president.
To Woolrich, talking to Lott made her feel as if someone finally understood her needs, her fears, her desire to protect herself. She thought, Thank god someone gets it. In an interview over email, Lott calls Woolrich’s story “amazing and disturbing.”
Then he asked her if she would speak on the SCC conference’s first panel, “Women Victims and Gun-Free Zones on College Campuses.”
“I’m not, like, part of this,” Woolrich remembers telling him. She meant the pro-gun political cause. She was mostly interested in how it might help her as a victim of stalking.
“It is often very hard for women who have been victims of sexual type crimes to publicly discuss what has happened to them,” Lott would later write about Woolrich in one of his Fox News op-eds. Privately, he urged her to speak to Nicole Goeser, a gun advocate whose husband was killed by her stalker.
Talking to Goeser, Woolrich was moved. If I could make something positive out of the situation, it could help me to start healing, she began to think. Against the will of her family, but with the support of Reilly and her therapist, she said yes to the panel, and yes to helping promote the convention.
Woolrich was the kind of victim they needed. She was articulate and an Ivy League student. She was, as Bennett says, “a good girl.” Emphasis on girl: Posing guns as a way to fight sexual and gender-based violence puts progressive ideology in conflict with itself. Her story packed an emotional punch, as well as an urgency the convention’s other speakers lacked. And the age difference with Bennett ensured that no one would question her innocence.
Lott and the CPRC paid for her trip to Washington. Lott also talked to her about co-writing an op-ed with him. She agreed, sending him notes on her experience with stalking. Lott wrote the piece, weaving her story together with his talking points. She corrected a couple of mistakes in his draft. She also allowed him to add her name as co-author, so the piece would appear “more reputable,” she says. Fox News initially rejected the op-ed — leading Lott to publish it instead on the Daily Caller, a smaller conservative site, on the day Woolrich opened the conference.
When Woolrich saw the National Press Club ballroom before her speech, she nearly backed out. She did not fit in with the gun activists in the audience, she thought. “I’m not here to stand before you because I’m advocating for something I believe in,” she said in the opening of her speech. “Do I own a gun right now? No. Do I need one to protect myself from him? Potentially.”
Lott and Rebekah Riley, who was CPRC’s director of communications at the time but no longer works there, had encouraged Woolrich to tell her story to journalists — but, they say, warned her of the implications of telling it. On the day of the conference, Woolrich also booked an interview on her own with a reporter from the BBC. Later, when she told Lott about the BBC, he became “extremely, inappropriately pushy,” she says, “controlling and kind of snappy.” Woolrich chalked it up to Lott disagreeing with the BBC’s political leaning. (Lott denies this and says he would have been “extremely happy” for Woolrich to get such a “big hit” as the BBC.) Taylor decided that when she returned to California, she would cut off contact with him.
Then Fox News decided to publish the op-ed after all, but only, according to Lott, if it came directly from Woolrich. They needed it immediately. When she said she didn’t have time to write a new piece from her first-person perspective, Lott offered to do it instead and Woolrich agreed. “I don’t know if I should just say yes and not piss him off,” she remembers worrying.
The piece incorporated elements of her talk at the conference, but otherwise it was the essentially the same article written by Lott, which is still online at the Daily Caller. “It’s his op-ed,” she says. “Word for word, except the chunks that match what’s said in my speech.” The references to Lott’s disputed research? Not hers. The link to the Amazon sales page for his book? Not hers. The headline? “Dear Dartmouth, I am one of your students, I am being stalked, please let me carry a gun to protect myself.”
“I think his first priority was his cause,” she says. “He saw me as a really great asset.”
So did Fox News. “THANK YOU for putting this in the first person,” wrote a Fox editor to Lott. “Here’s hoping this piece might go viral.”
“It was actually easier for me to write this in the first person for her than the way I had originally written it,” Lott wrote back.
Woolrich was stunned by how fast her story spread. Within a few days, a 10News article from San Diego hit the #1 spot on Reddit’s hot news section, and #10 on the overall site. The Fox News homepage piece reached 6,988 Facebook shares and 5,174 comments. But the articles were taking a political spin, turning her story into a pro-gun parable and blaming Dartmouth, not Bennett, for her problems. “I was vulnerable,” she says, thinking back to that summer with regret. “I wasn’t thinking through the implications of what it meant for them and how I should be careful because they could really profit off of my uncomfortable situation.”
When asked for comment, Fox News Executive Vice President and Executive Editor John Moody responded that they “published what was characterized to us as a first person account of Ms. Woolrich’s experiences.” When I asked Lott for a response, Riley replied instead. “I sincerely regret if Taylor feels she was taken advantage of in any way throughout this process,” she wrote. “From all our correspondence and conversations she seemed happy and excited to share her story and was completely agreeable about any potential media opportunities.”
“It’s not like John Lott held a gun to my head and told me to talk to the media,” Woolrich says. “I wanted to talk to the media, if it could mean something positive. But I wanted to talk to the media about stalking.” In response to the flurry of interview requests, she changed her number and did not return Lott's or Riley’s messages.
“It is hard to figure out why any one story goes viral,” Lott says in an email. “Taylor's tragic story and what she had to endure understandably outraged people. That this young student had to spend so much time locked in her dorm room because the university was unable to protect her.”
“I thought I was doing something good, and I thought it would be good for other girls,” Woolrich says. “I was trying to be brave and just speak up. I didn’t realize I was being turned into an NRA puppet.”
Woolrich returned to Dartmouth in fall 2014 to find that almost everyone knew her story. Friends didn’t know what to say. Classmates asked if she was carrying. (No.) Administrators were more responsive to her needs, granting her a more secure dorm room in a busy part of campus and a nearby parking space.
Halfway through the 2015 winter term, she took another leave from school, feeling unable to handle the stress of Bennett’s upcoming trial.
It took place over spring break. For two days, Woolrich fielded questions from Lacher, the defense counsel who sought to discredit her, and Ryan, the prosecutor who needed to portray her as raw and damaged to the jury.
From the defense table, Bennett watched and listened. Occasionally, he laughed.
“Do you feel safe as you sit here in court?” Ryan asked Woolrich.
“No—” her voice cracked. “I don’t.”
“Maybe I’ll be safe for a year, maybe for six months, maybe for four years. It doesn’t matter. It’s coming.”
On March 30, 2015, after a weeklong trial, and eight months after the op-ed appeared on Fox News, Bennett was convicted of felony stalking. The jury’s brief deliberation centered on the ethics of convicting a man who appeared mentally unsound, according to juror Floyd Rainey.
Bennett received a sentence of three years — not the maximum, but almost, because he stalked Woolrich while her restraining order was in effect. His attorney has filed an appeal questioning the legal definition of a credible threat. Regardless of the appeal’s outcome, Bennett will serve exactly a year and a half and be released on parole this Dec. 6.
The recidivism rate for stalking is around 60%. Some stalkers are stopped by treating an underlying mental disorder, if that illness is a contributing factor to their behavior. Otherwise, they’re left to state supervision. If Bennett has been diagnosed, he’s not disclosing it.
“Obviously I’m going to do whatever I have to do to stay alive,” Woolrich says. How? She’s been to court. She won. She doesn’t believe the verdict will keep her safe in the long term. Maybe his parole will keep him from attempting contact for a while, she thinks. “Maybe he genuinely means it right now, that he’s done. But as soon as he gets out, he gets bored, he gets drunk, or he gets high, then everything snaps back.”
Now there are two people to protect — Woolrich and Reilly got married this summer. She plays out possible scenarios in her head. “Him stalking me, I can maybe see coming,” Woolrich says. “Him trying to kidnap me, I can see coming. Him getting one of the rifles in his house and waiting outside for Christian to open the front door and shooting him? There’s no way for us to prevent that.”
Every step of the way, people told Woolrich to relax, that Bennett wouldn’t keep pursuing her. Every time, he came back, and it got worse.
Bennett says he’s done. “The motivation’s gone.” He will go his own way, he says, with a brighter outlook on life and greater patience. “I will never contact her again.” He remembers promising something similar to a judge when he was arrested for breaking Woolrich’s restraining order. He remembers not meaning it. During that case, he says, “I told the lawyer, ‘I’m going to try to keep contacting her.’ He said, ‘Don’t tell the judge that. You just go in there and say you’re done with it.’” So Bennett did. “I told her, ‘I’m not going to st—’” he pauses, “‘contact her any more.’”
No one in the police departments, no one in the district attorney’s office, Woolrich says, has told her that she can expect Bennett’s obsession to end, no matter what promises he makes now. On the day the verdict came down, even Lacher couldn’t say. Will he stalk Woolrich again? “People aren’t the same in jail as they are outside of jail,” is all she answered.
Woolrich is making plans. She’s also laying the groundwork that will allow her to go into hiding if she needs to. And she’s training with a gun.
“I have to keep myself safe,” Woolrich says. If — when — Bennett shows up, she calls the cops. Documents it. Then he goes to jail for six months, or 18 months, or a few years. He gets out; she waits again. “And then he comes to me,” she says. “And I handle it.”