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Letterman Stalker Commits Suicide

October 11, 1998

HOTCHKISS, Colo. (AP) _ To the world, Margaret Mary Ray was a joke, the daffy celebrity-stalker who kept breaking into David Letterman’s house. More recently, she had taken a shine to astronaut Story Musgrave. Usually her antics ended in her arrest.

But to those who knew and loved her in this valley high in the Colorado Rockies, Margaret Ray was a good mother, a compassionate friend, a genial, creative and intelligent woman.

Obsessed stalker? Kindhearted pal? That she could be both illuminates the struggle with schizophrenia, the mental illness that consumed her.

Last Monday, around midday, she walked to the edge of this little town and stood at a railroad track. When a 105-car coal train rumbled in her direction, Ms. Ray stepped onto the tracks, kneeled down and died.

She was 46.

``Everybody knew Margaret,″ said Liz Lilien, 63, who owns an antiques shop in Hotchkiss. ``They knew she was different, but she had friends, from the postmaster to the guy who ran the airport. The world knows what the illness can do to people. But that’s not all she was. She was a huge part of life itself. She gave my life richness. Lovable, unbelievably lovable.″

Ms. Ray grew up in Illinois with hints of difficulties to come, according to a psychiatric report. Two of her four siblings were schizophrenics who killed themselves as young men, the report said.

She enrolled in a nursing program at Marquette University in Milwaukee but dropped out after a couple of years, according to the report, prepared in 1992 for a court-ordered evaluation of her competence for trial after her seventh arrest for breaking into Letterman’s house.

She married in 1973 and had four children but divorced 10 years later, the report said. The children stayed with their father, who remarried and now lives in Grand Junction, 60 miles west of here. A fifth child _ Alex, now 14 _ lives with Ms. Ray’s mother on the East Coast.

Ms. Ray made her home in Hotchkiss, living on Social Security disability benefits for the mentally ill, doing odd jobs like cutting pine boughs for Christmas wreaths, ironing clothes in exchange for a new dress. Usually she hitchhiked, but occasionally she’d find a jalopy and drive it until it broke down.

People looked after her, and she looked after their houses when they were away, trusted to keep the wood stove burning, the chickens fed.

She moved from place to place, a few weeks here, a few months there, surviving on her friends’ hospitality.

Ms. Lilien met her 14 years ago. Margaret Ray was about to give birth to her fifth and last child. A month later, after the birth, Ms. Lilien’s companion died. ``As soon as she heard that, she came to the house, she started making soup for the people who came.″

But she could also be trying. Sudden fits of anger would send Ms. Ray storming out, slamming doors. She usually came back soon, ready to talk about current events or the books she adored, bring a cake she baked, share a story she wrote, even just pick up a broom or do dishes.

Friends describe her long, light-brown hair as her most striking feature. She was of medium height, a meticulous dresser, who only in her last years grew plump.

About 10 years ago romance seemed to blossom. ``She seemed interested in this guy, and he was pretty interested in her,″ said Bill Bailey, who let Ms. Ray store her belongings in a trunk on his property while she was away. ``Then, out of the blue, she was just up and gone, and he was left bewildered. That’s how Margaret was. Things just didn’t follow any linear concepts of normality.″

It was about then that Ms. Ray’s obsession with David Letterman, the talk show host, began. In 1988, she was arrested for driving Letterman’s Porsche into New York, 3-year-old Alex beside her. Lacking the fare through the tunnel, she told authorities: ``I’m Mrs. David Letterman and this is David Jr. Don’t you think David Letterman is good for the toll?″

She was arrested eight times during the next five years on trespassing and other counts. She left cookies and an empty whiskey bottle in the foyer of Letterman’s home in New Canaan, Conn. She was found asleep near his tennis courts; left a book about meditation and a letter in his driveway.

Publicly, Letterman treated it as a joke. In 1993, before taking his late-night show to CBS, Letterman’s ``Top 10 things I have to do before I leave NBC″ included: ``Send change of address forms to that woman who breaks into my house.″

Around that time, her attentions shifted to astronaut Musgrave, whom she admired for leading a heroic 1993 spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. She wrote him letters, phoned and sent packages. In 1994, she posed as a reporter and interviewed him at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Musgrave’s suspicions were aroused, he said, when he noticed she wasn’t taking notes, but he didn’t make the connection until the ``reporter″ wrote to him and he recognized her handwriting. Then, last September, she showed up at his home in Osceola County, Fla., pounding on the door and turning on his outdoor faucets.

There were other episodes that didn’t make the headlines: a 1996 arrest for shoplifting groceries, a fracas in North Fond du Lac, Wis., for refusing to pay for a cup of coffee.

Sometimes she went to prison, sometimes to psychiatric hospitals. Some courts found her competent for trial, others did not. She gave up custody of Alex, her beloved little boy, giving him to her mother about the time he reached school age, friends say.

She spent most of the past year in a state psychiatric hospital in Florida, followed by about a month in jail. In August she was released and came back to Colorado.

After her arrest last year for trespassing at Musgrave’s home, she claimed in an interview that he had talked to her about writing a book together. ``I love Dr. Musgrave,″ she said in her soft girlish voice. ``I would die for him. He is a man of integrity and intelligence.″

The celebrity-stalker herself became a celebrity of sorts. About a month ago she appeared on ``Extra,″ a syndicated TV news magazine. She acknowledged her mental illness but said she felt Letterman understood her.

Coupled with her arrests, this publicity only aggravated her illness, said her daughter, Anna-Lisa Johanson. In an interview, she said her mother was schizophrenic, and ``the attention given to her, and the actions of the authorities, made her situation that much worse.″

Ms. Ray belonged to that 1 percent minority of people with schizophrenia, a mental illness with a wide range of severity and typified by disordered thinking.

Only one in five schizophrenics become stalkers, forming obsessional attachments, said forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, editor of a book, ``The Psychology of Stalking.″

Schizophrenics, stalkers or not, are seldom violent, Meloy said. But they have much higher suicide rates than the general population, studies show.

Ms. Ray appeared to be among those who attempt to anchor reality by fixing affection on strangers, Meloy said.

``David Letterman would unwittingly contribute to her delusion by making reference to her on his late-night show,″ Meloy said. ``He translates her delusional fantasy into a reality in front of millions of television viewers.″

Sooner or later, she always ended up in the North Fork Valley. If her forays in the wider world were disruptive, she caused no trouble here, authorities say.

When people asked her about the Letterman thing, she’d laugh or change the subject.

Her last homecoming was in August, after she was freed from jail in Florida. Her old friend Bailey said she had a house-sitting job lined up but it fell through. She couldn’t find a place to stay.

``I could see her deteriorating,″ Ms. Lilien said. Less than two weeks ago, Ms. Ray asked if she had any space, and Ms. Lilien shook her head. Bailey said the same.

By the railroad tracks at the edge of town stands a cluster of shacks known as the Goat Man’s place, the abandoned home of another eccentric.

On Monday, Ms. Ray set down her backpack and her purse by the shacks. She left a short note with the phone number of a friend who would know how to reach her family. Then, at about 1 p.m., she walked on to the tracks.

``This is a sad end to a confused life,″ said a prepared statement from Letterman. He declined further comment.

Musgrave, 63 and retired now, was shaken. ``I almost felt like I lost a relative,″ he said. ``I felt bad because it’s a terrible outcome. I always thought she was a creative genius.″

Circuit Judge Roger McDonald, who sent her to a state hospital in Florida, wishes more could have been done.

He said a lopsided emphasis on crime control puts more money into police and prisons than toward the medications and care that could help people like Ms. Ray.

``What I found sad, when she came back from the mental hospital, she was restored to competency. When I sent her, she was screaming profanities at me. And when she came back, she was saying ‘Your honor’,″ McDonald said in an interview from the Kissimmee, Fla., courthouse.

The funeral was to be private, said Ms. Ray’s daughter, Anna-Lisa.

``The media and the attention given to this, my mother’s disease, have deprived my family of the right to grieve and hold a ceremony for our mother with the same degree of privacy that any other family would expect,″ she said.

Days after the suicide, on a rusty barrel by the railroad tracks lay two carnations, one red and one white. Tucked underneath was a note: ``Margaret, I love you. I understand you. I forgive you.″

It was signed ``Heather.″ Another one of Margaret’s friends.

____

EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Foster is the AP’s Northwest regional reporter. National Writer Arlene Levinson is based in New York. AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn and AP correspondents Denise Lavoie in Stamford, Conn., and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.

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