They would have been a handsome couple, if never a happy one: she had the startling good looks of a dark Charlie’s Angel, he was lank and blond, the beachcomber type. They first saw each other as freshmen at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “Our eye’s met,” Walter Wagner wistfully recalls. “She smiled at me, so I went over and introduced myself.” From that innocuous beginning in 1975 followed one of the most bizarre courtships in recent memory.
They had a few long conversations. Then Gail Morton’s interest waned. Wagner’s did not; on the contrary, he became a man possessed. For 21 months he inundated Gail with gifts, flowers and, by her reckoning, some 30 pounds of mail (including long, rambling letters and magazine articles on reproduction and UFOs). “I love you. Te amo. Te amo. Te amo. Ich liebe dich,” one letter ended. The 23-year-old Gail protests, “I did nothing to encourage him. I was repulsed by him, afraid of him.” Walter sent her his birth certificate, his fourth-grade report card, his sterling silver baby cup. He covered her car windshield with camellia petals. Once, Gail says, he pounded on her apartment door for 90 minutes, and he telephoned to plead for a date as often as 40 times a week. “I would hang up or leave the phone off the hook,” Morton says, but Wagner was everywhere. “I’d open the curtains at 8 in the morning, and he would be looking at me.”
Wagner, 27, holds a University of California B.S. in biology and assisted in landmark cosmic-ray research at Berkeley before turning to law and an after-hours fixation on parapsychology. Impervious to her hostility, he professes to see both sides. “On the one hand, she hates my guts,” he admits, then adds mysteriously, “On the other, there were all these things I wanted to bring out of her—these problems which I knew no one else recognized as I had.” In his continuing attempt to apprise her of them, Wagner scuffed with one of her two brothers (when he followed her home to Santa Clara one summer) and with a former boyfriend on campus.
Eventually the Morton-Wagner war of nerves took its toll. “I was constantly in tears, an emotional wreck,” says Gail, who put on 10 pounds during the ordeal. She cut classes, avoided the library and even left Sacramento for long weekends to get away from him, with the result that “my grades really suffered.” She switched to night school, which is easier academically, while Wagner dropped out of McGeorge and enrolled in another law school in Sacramento to repeat his first year. The distance apparently only lent enchantment. “Whenever he used to get near me,” Gail remembers, “he would be shaking. His eyes would water, like he was going to cry.”
Gail went to lawyers only six months after his advances began but got little help. Wagner hadn’t broken the law, they said. One suggested she hire someone to beat him up. Then last fall she finally won a civil-court injunction barring Wagner from mailing her anything, telephoning her, following her or appearing within three blocks of her home or school. When Walter brazenly came back to the McGeorge campus anyway, the school had him arrested.
Since then Wagner has been convicted in civil and criminal court of 17 counts of contempt. He is free on $10,000 bail pending appeal of the civil conviction, after serving eight of 75 days in county jail. At his sentencing this week on two criminal counts, he could receive up to a year and a $1,000 fine.
Walter still hasn’t given up on Gail; now he sends letters to her current lawyer (who received 25 greeting cards from him on the same day) and works on his legal defense and counteroffensive in his spare time. “This case covers every aspect of the law,” he says. “It didn’t start out that way, but I may write the experience up as a term paper.” Gail, on the other hand, is trying to translate the experience into remedial political action. She has convinced two assemblywomen to introduce a bill in the state legislature making repeated personal harassment a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Wagner says he would rather “just talk” to Gail than date her at this point (“She’s still playing games,” he says), but Gail wants an end to their odd legal chase—and a law to prevent other unrequited lovers from violating what Justice Louis Brandeis once called “the right most valued by civilized men…the right to be let alone.”