Posted: October 12, 2017 at 1:01 pm

By Rebecca Toro and Daniel Blair

In early August, Morgantown police arrested a 27-year-old area resident for allegedly stalking and then breaking into the Sunnyside home of two female West Virginia University students, where he assaulted them. Victor Panico was charged with night-time burglary, three counts of battery and one count of first-degree robbery.

Panico, who has a criminal record, is currently undergoing a mental health evaluation because police say he has a history of drug addiction and schizophrenia, according to court records.

A few weeks later, another WVU female student reported being stalked by another man.

Video footage shows a strange man following one WVU student out of an elevator and to her car parked in the University Place garage at 1 a.m. one weekend. Credit: The Daily Athenaeum

Video from security cameras shows a large, sandy-haired man following the woman out of an elevator in the University Place parking garage to her car at 1 a.m. one weekend. According to the woman’s report to police, the man insisted she take him back to her apartment, but when she got into her car, he let her drive away.

While physical stalking remains relatively rare in Morgantown, it seems to be on the upswing. In 2013, only one student reported being physically stalked on the main campus of WVU. In 2014, the number of people reporting incidents of physical stalking jumped to 10, but then dropped to five in 2015. In 2016, police say they received six reports of stalking incidents. So far this year, there have been at least at least three stalking incidents on campus, all of them occurring since the 2017-2018 academic year began.

Most stalking incidents involve men who know the women they are harassing, experts say. The majority of stalking incidents occur online on social media such as Facebook. At WVU, 38 percent of students reported being stalked at least once since enrolling at the university, according to a Campus Quality of Life Survey released earlier this year. The survey also found that 30 percent of students reported being stalked by someone they know, compared to 25 percent of students who reported being stalked by a stranger,

“Stalking incidents [occur more often] when individuals have relationships that end badly or someone is infatuated with them,” University Police Chief Bob Roberts says.

Since 2013, the number of stalking incidents has risen from one to six, although police say physical stalking is much rarer than stalking via social media, email or the phone.

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 10 percent of women who experience stalking by an intimate partner are sexually assaulted. Stalking can also lead to homicides.

“Women have a well-founded fear of being killed because there’s a strong correlation between stalking and murder,” said Walter S. DeKeseredy, Director of the WVU Research Center on Violence who spearheaded the Campus Quality of Life Survey.

One in 6 women and one in 19 men in the United States have experienced stalking during their lifetime, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

For the WVU campus quality of life survey, stalking was defined as the “willful, repeated, and malicious following, harassing, or threatening of another person,” DeKeseredy says.

“It involves a variety of fear-inducing behaviors, such as unwanted phone calls and emails, showing up at a person’s home or car,” he adds.

DeKeseredy says he doesn’t think the apparent increase in stalking on WVU’s main campus is a cause for alarm.

“I think these [incidents] are just random,” he says. “If we have in the course of a year an alarmingly high rate of stranger stalking then, ok, maybe there’s something going on, but I don’t think this will happen.”

About 15 percent of WVU students who reported being stalked said the stalkers showed up in places they didn’t expect them to be, such as their home, school, or workplace, according to Campus Quality of Life Survey,

“For those who are being stalked physically, you need to report it so the police can become active in the case and prevent it from escalating,” said Roberts.

Jessica Mannering, a 22-year-old WVU student, was walking by Ashebrooke Liquor Store around 8 p.m. on Aug. 7 when a car started following her. The driver asked her if she had far to go. She pointed to a nearby house. The man replied that he had watched her walk out of her Beechurst Avenue apartment; he said she wasn’t being honest with him.

“I’m like “Okay you need to get out of this situation, this is an uncomfortable situation,” Mannering said. “The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.”

Mannering did not report the incident. She said she wanted to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

“I didn’t think about this for the rest of the night because I just thought it was another guy being creepy,” Mannering said. “A couple hours later, I finally checked Twitter and I saw that one of my neighbors posted about how a man walked right into her house.”

After talking to her neighbor, Mannering discovered that the description of the man who had stalked her matched the man who had burglarized her neighbor’s house in Sunnyside. Police later arrested Panico for the Aug. 7 burglary in Sunnyside.

Students do not report stalking incidents for many reasons.

“Some lack faith in the police,” DeKeseredy said. “Often the police will not take it seriously.”

Panico, who comes from a prominent local family, has a history of criminal activity, such as a 2012 arrest for driving with a suspended license while under the influence. Between 2014 and 2016, police charged Panico with three separate counts of shoplifting, theft of property and petit larceny (theft of less than $50). So far Panico has not been prosecuted for any of these charges.

With his latest arrest for burglary and assault, Panico was detained briefly and then released after his father posted bail of $25,000. According to court records, he was taken to the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Houston, for a mental health evaluation. His trial is set for December 5.

“I don’t think mental health [when] dealing with criminals is taken seriously enough,” said Emma McKenzie, 22, a student at WVU. “People can continuously be [detained] for drugs for example, but they aren’t offered therapy before being released whether they are violent offenders or not.”