Peeping Toms beware. These women are watching you
When she goes clothes shopping and enters a changing room, Emily runs through a checklist.
Is the dressing room separated by genders?
Do the partitions run floor to ceiling, or are there gaps?
If she’s not satisfied with the answers she’ll shop elsewhere, or buy the clothes and try them on at home. It’s not worth the risk.
Emily described her new routine in a Johnson County courtroom in May while giving her victim impact statement at the sentencing for a man who took photos of her in a dressing room. As she did so, Emily endured dirty looks from the man’s wife, she said.
Emily, who is 16 years old, was nervous giving her statement in court but felt bolstered by her family, friends and a “stare army” of women in the courtroom.
The stare army is a small, informal network of about six women who have been been secretly filmed as Emily was or are friends and family of women who have been.
The women have come together to support one another in court, raise awareness and send a message to the men found guilty of peeping that their actions are not acceptable. The network formed over the years as women reached out to 41 Action News Anchor Christa Dubill, who posted on social media about her own experience.
Emily is determined to join their ranks supporting the victims that may come after her. The Star is not publishing her last name for safety reasons.
Emily says she lost her ability to go about her daily life without feeling she must be hyper-aware of her surroundings in October 2017.
She was 15 years old and was trying on Halloween costumes with a friend in the changing rooms of the Forever 21 store at Oak Park Mall in Overland Park.
While she was changing, Emily glanced down and noticed a phone, propped up on a pair of jeans, inching its way into her changing room.
“I just immediately had that gut feeling of ‘I’m being watched, I feel uncomfortable,’” Emily said.
Emily considered grabbing the phone from the floor of the dressing room. But instead she took out her own phone and snapped a picture.
“I thought ‘This is so far-fetched,’” Emily said.
She reported the intrusion to a Forever 21 employee and the store manager. The staff told Emily there was nothing she could do about it, she said.
Emily told her parents, and called Overland Park police herself. In December a man was caught in the same Forever 21 taking photos of a 20-year-old woman.
Anthony DeLapp, 34, of Joplin, was arrested in April 2018 on charges of breach of privacy by photo or video, setting in motion more than a year of court proceedings.
The Forever 21 corporate office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An army of support
Emily’s mother remembered hearing the previous year that Christa Dubill spoke out publicly when she caught a man swinging his phone, camera side up, under her skirt at the grocery store. Like Emily, Dubill took a photo as evidence.
With that in mind, Emily’s mother reached out to Dubill over social media.
Dubill met with the family and agreed to support Emily and offer advice throughout her legal proceedings.
Emily was the most recent in a series of people who reached out to Dubill after she spoke out about her own experience in February 2016. Dubill has been contacted by victims and their family and friends about a variety of other upskirt cases in the Kansas City area.
These cases have increased in the last five to 10 years, according to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.
“Way back in the day, before cellphones, you’d have peeping Toms where people would look in windows. We really don’t see that anymore and instead it’s been replaced by people doing this in changing rooms and in bathrooms,” Howe said.
Howe said people need to pay attention to their surroundings and if they believe someone is taping them they should snap a picture, like Emily and Dubill did.
Howe said photos make a huge difference to investigations and his office seeks to intervene early in cases like this because it is not uncommon for individuals who commit these offenses to move on to more violent crimes over time.
Since her own experience in the grocery store, Dubill said, she has been shocked to learn how many women this has happened to.
“The more you know the more you want everyone else to understand and know the things to pay attention to,” Dubill said.
One of the things the stare army does is sit in the courtroom to look at the person accused so the victim doesn’t have to.
“If it’s happened to you sometimes you have a hard time being in the courtroom, let alone looking at the person who’s just been convicted or plead guilty to doing this,” Dubill said.
Dubill said she has never reached out to a victim but rather that they have come to her and that the women in the stare army have not attended hearings for women they did not know.
That practice is in line with guidance from the Metro Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, or MOCSA.
Working through the judicial system after experiencing any sort of sexual violence is different for every woman, according to Victoria Pickering, director of advocacy for MOCSA.
Providing support to victims, she said, is very important as long as those providing support ensure that the victim is in the driver’s seat and making the decisions. Some victims want to look directly at the accused person while others choose to train their eyesight on an advocate or friend. Others choose not to take their case to court at all.
“I think it’s a really honorable thing to say we want to make sure that victims don’t have to look at this person but that somebody is sending the message that we see you and we’re gonna hold you accountable,” Pickering said.
Looking at DeLapp was not an issue for Emily. Seeing him in shackles and a prison jumpsuit was satisfying and gave her a sense of justice.
However, the support from Dubill and her family and friends was still needed throughout the legal process, she said.
“It was comforting and it helped me to know that all these people are cheering for me and it’s all going to be fine,” Emily said.
Doing her part
After just over a year of court proceedings, DeLapp pleaded guilty to breach of privacy by photo or video. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and required to register as a sex offender for 15 years.
During his sentencing, Emily said, DeLapp cried and said that her bravery in coming forward meant that he would never do something like that again.
But he did, less than 24 hours later, according to prosecutors.
The very next day, another 15-year-old girl allegedly caught him with his phone above the partition of an Olathe Target’s changing room, recording her.
Emily said she was only surprised that he acted so soon after his sentencing. Now she plans to attend hearings on behalf of the latest alleged victim.
“I hope that what (Dubill) was to me I can be to the next victim and the next and it’ll just keep building into this group of women who support each other,” Emily said.
“A lot of positives have come out of this really negative experience.”
And she may take it even further. Emily said she wants to go to the Kansas statehouse in Topeka to lobby for stricter sentencing and for updates to peeping laws that would consider the progression of technology.
Because those who commit these crimes are likely to re-offend, Emily said probation is not a strict enough punishment.
Dubill said that, while the stare army is very new and there is no concrete plan for it, the women are ready and willing to support Emily.
“Sweet Emily, this brave teen girl telling her story, I kind of mentioned [the stare army] to her and she’s just all about it,” Dubill said. “We’re like ‘Hey Emily we’ve got your back’ and we’ll have this teen girl from this recent Target incident that Delapp is now accused of, we’ve kind of got her back too publicly and professionally.
“This is a story where you cannot tell enough people about the things they have to be aware of because unfortunately sometimes you become aware after it’s happened to you.”