Stalkers Are No Joke!

5

Late-night talk show hosts Johnny Carson and David Letterman had two things in common. They made millions of people laugh, but they also attracted stalkers, and that was no joke.

In 1976, Carson got a letter demanding $6,000 or he would be killed. The enclosed photo showed Carson and an unidentified woman with bullet holes in their heads. This post includes two stalking cases. One involved Johnny Carson, the other David Letterman. One had a positive outcome. The other did not.

courtesy teakdoor.com
courtesy teakdoor.com

A Man on a Mission
When John Searing was a kid, he loved to watch The Tonight Show. Every night he would yell, “Here’s Johnny!” along with Ed McMahon. He even got a tape recorder and recorded himself yelling, “Here’s Johnny!” after the theme song. As Searing grew to adulthood, his goal in life never wavered.

In 1980, he was working as an art supplies sales clerk in New Jersey. He wrote a letter to The Tonight Show, asking if he could yell, “Here’s Johnny!” on the air some night. In response, he received a photograph of Johnny Carson in the mail. Undeterred, he wrote another letter. This time he got a thank-you note from a staff member saying his proposal would not be possible.

Most people would have given up, but John Searing was a man on a mission. He began writing Johnny Carson a letter every single day. Five years later, Searing had written more than 800 letters to Carson. He also sent audio tapes of himself doing imitations of celebrities like Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, and others. Each tape pleaded with Carson to let Searing come on the show and yell, “Here’s Johnny!”

In June 1986, Searing got a phone call from a Tonight Show staffer. “John, why are you obsessed with doing this?” the staffer asked. Searing replied that nothing in his life would mean more to him than being able to yell, “Here’s Johnny!” on the air. The staffer said he would get back to him. A few days later Searing got the most exciting news of his life. He would be allowed to appear on The Tonight Show and yell, “Here’s Johnny!”

Overjoyed, Searing said, “The idea that I would be standing where Ed McMahon usually stands, and that Johnny would be backstage behind the curtains, waiting for my signal to come on.” He flew to California. On June 26, 1986, an NBC limousine picked him up at his hotel and drove him to The Tonight Show studio for the late afternoon taping. He was taken to the makeup room and then to his dressing room, which had his name on the door, to watch the show.

Ed McMahon did his regular introduction, and Johnny Carson came out and did his monologue. After a commercial break, Carson told the audience about John Searing and his 800 letters. To polite applause, Searing came out and sat on the couch beside Carson. The two men chatted for six minutes. Then Carson gave Searing a script, directed him to the microphone and went backstage.

Reading from the script, Searing said: “This is John Searing, along with Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra, inviting you to join Johnny and his guests.” He named them, including himself “letter-writer John Searing.” Then he paused for a drum roll, his cue. His magical moment had arrived.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” he yelled. “Here’s Johnny!”

The band played the theme song, and Johnny Carson came out from behind the curtain again. During the applause, Carson said to Searing, “Now go and write no more.” And that is exactly what John Searing did. Having achieved his mission, Searing went home a happy man and never wrote another letter to Carson. That case had a positive outcome. The next one did not.

Margaret Ray Stalks Letterman
Margaret Ray was fixated on David Letterman. Her obsession first made news in May 1988 when she was arrested for failing to pay the 3 dollar toll for the Lincoln Tunnel. At the time, she was driving Letterman’s Porsche, which she had stolen, from his driveway. Her three-year-old son was with her. She claimed she was Letterman’s wife and that her son was their child.

An All-American girl
Born in 1952, Margaret Ray was the second of four children of George and Loretta Ray. She grew up in Grayslake, Illinois, 45 miles northwest of Chicago. Her father was a factory worker; her mother was a nurse. A popular honor student, Margaret, nicknamed Peggy, graduated from Grayslake Community High in 1970. “She was the most wonderful, beautiful, all-American girl,” recalled a woman who often hired her as a babysitter. “Everyone would say: ‘Don’t you wish you had a daughter like Peggy Ray?”

She enrolled in a nursing program at Marquette University but dropped out during her sophomore year to marry Gary Johanson. Four children arrived in rapid succession. However, Margaret’s life began a downward spiral. During her mid-20s, she began to exhibit signs of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia
Symptoms can include visual and auditory hallucinations, severe mood swings, and incoherent behavior. The disease usually manifests itself in men by their late teens and in women by their mid-20s. Researchers believe the disease may be hereditary. An estimated 10 percent of those with the illness commit suicide.

Two of Margaret’s brothers suffered from schizophrenia. Both committed suicide, one in 1973, the other in 1977. Margaret’s mother later said that George Ray had been treated for schizophrenia prior to their marriage and was an alcoholic. Schizophrenia can often be managed with drugs, but getting patients to stay on the medications can be difficult, due to the unpleasant side effects.

Such was the case with Margaret Ray. As her condition deteriorated, Mr. Johanson took legal custody of their four children. Margaret refused treatment and often disappeared for months, hitchhiking across the country. In 1984, she had a fifth child. Shortly thereafter, a woman friend recalled that when Margaret “saw David Letterman on television one day, she was spellbound.”

Stalking Letterman
Convinced Letterman was in love with her, Margaret broke into his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, four times. On one visit, she left cookies and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in the foyer. On a dozen other occasions, she was found outside his house. Between visits, she sent him many letters.

Letterman said it was clear from each letter whether she was taking her drugs. “When she was on them, it was like hearing from your aunt. When she was off them, it was like hearing from your aunt on Neptune.”

After the 1988 incident, when Margaret stole his Porsche drew national attention, she became the subject of derogatory articles in the tabloid press. Even Letterman sometimes joked about it. In 1993, before he moved his show to CBS, one of his Top-10 lists was, “Things to Do Before I Leave NBC.” One item on the list: “Send change-of-address forms to that woman who breaks into my house.”

However, he never mentioned her name on the air. In fact, Letterman knew she was ill and felt sorry for her. He often declined to press charges against her. “I wasn’t comfortable with the humanity of that,” he said. “The thing is, she’s insane, and you don’t want to do anything to make it worse than it is.”

A Tragic End
In 1994, after spending 10 months in jail and 14 months in a mental hospital, Margaret began stalking Story Musgrave, a retired astronaut. She called him repeatedly, sent him unwanted packages and once broke into his Florida home. “I love him and want to spend the rest of my life with him,” she told a local reporter. After serving time in prison, Margaret settled in Crawford, Colorado.

On October 5, 1998, Margaret, like her two mentally ill brothers, committed suicide by kneeling in front of a speeding train. She was 46 years old. Friends who knew and loved her gathered a few days later to share positive memories of the woman they knew. When Letterman learned of her death, he released a statement saying, “This is a sad ending to a confused life.”

Sad, indeed. Margaret Ray was mentally ill, estranged from her children and homeless for much of the last years of her life.

The Price of Fame
Margaret Ray was not the only person to stalk David Letterman and as noted above Johnny Carson had many stalkers. They survived but other celebrities have not. In 1989, 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer was shot and killed by an obsessed fan outside her West Hollywood apartment.

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To read about other stalker cases, see my DARK DEEDS eBooks
Volume 1 – Volume 2

 

5 Comments
  1. Susan Fleet says

    Mental illness affects so many people. Do you think anything could have been done to help Margaret Ray?

  2. Andy Bachman says

    Who knows?
    It would seem that Carson’s stalker was a less extreme case, while the Letterman stalker suffered from severe delusions. Well written – good job.

  3. Daphne Shapiro says

    I can relate very deeply to your account, as I’ve been stalked for years, and eventually moved to another town to be able to live a normal life again.

  4. Susan Fleet says

    Thanks for the comment, Andy. Yes, Carson’s stalker seemed relatively benign … if one can call writing 200 letters benign, but Letterman’s stalker was a truly sad case.

  5. Susan Fleet says

    Daphne, sorry to hear of your stalking problem. A friend of mine was stalked for 7 years and finally had to move to another state to escape from him. I offer my best wishes to you for a peaceful life.

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