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DWTS judge Mark Wilson: 'Months after the show first aired, my life became a nightmare.'

Mark Wilson’s devastating ordeal is well known in Australia.

On two separate occasions an unknown stalker set fire to his dance studios, which were burned to the ground. The perpetrator has never been found, while life for Mark and his family will never be the same.

“Whoever it was tried to destroy our lives, and I felt helpless about being able to protect my family. For us, dancing has never been a job, it’s a way of life.”

When you work for a company, you are creating income for someone else and you get rewarded for that. It is different when you create something from nothing, something that gives you a real sense of fulfilment. That is what Mark and his wife Annemarie did when they began their dancing business with his brother and sister-in-law, holding dance nights attended by more than 100 children and couples.

“With dancing there are so many things that ticked boxes,” Mark says.

“There’s a fitness perspective and an artistic perspective. It’s a very wholesome and creative thing to do, particularly now that technology plays such a big part in youngsters’ lives. Dancing gives them social skills and confidence.”

Mark Wilson wife
Mark with his wife, Annemarie. Image: Facebook.

Mark ran dance programs in schools: "When the kids danced, it was like witnessing an unconscious sense of release."

"They reacted to the music, dancing to the rhythm. When you see them do that for the first time it feels amazing. By the time they have their second class they really want to be there. They’re having fun. For us that’s a real buzz. It’s not just dancing – it’s the social skills they learn."

Some go on to study dancing seriously and become very accomplished. "That’s exciting, seeing them progressing from one level to another from the beginner stage." Mark has taught dancers who have gone on to be national champions or have performed in television dance shows and on stage in the musical version of Strictly Ballroom.

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From 2004 to 2013, Mark was one of the judges on the television show Dancing with the Stars. Prior to that he did not have a public profile. But once the show screened, he began to recognise "the way people become attached to you or disengaged with what you say and who they perceive you to be. There is an important PR element to being on television. You are always on show and it’s important how you interact with the public."

That was ‘a shock’, Mark says.

"I would walk down the street and people would stop and shake my hand and say, 'Hi Mark, how are you?' I’d say hi back but I wasn’t sure if I actually knew them. You’re not your own person any more once you’re on TV. You have a public profile."

Mark describes an evening out with his family that was typical.

"I was really exhausted – we had been travelling around doing a lot of promotional work. We went to a restaurant and hadn’t even ordered our meals when a group of girls came up wanting photographs. They were taking photograph after photograph and it got to the point that Annemarie and the family were struggling to have any private conversation. We just had to become accustomed to it."

Nevertheless, Mark was enjoying being on Dancing with the Stars and "our business was going well – and it should have continued to do well. I was grateful for the opportunity. It was a new exciting world and I met so many beautiful people. I was so excited to be on television with Daryl Somers, to walk up the red carpet with the lovely Jennifer Hawkins. It was like a dream. But never in my wildest dreams did I think being on the show and having a public profile would attract the kind of attention it did."

On Friday, May 13 2005, seven months after Dancing with the Stars was first aired, there was a fire at Mark’s dance studio. "When the police phoned us, Annemarie was distraught, but I said, 'Don’t worry, it’ll just be a small fire in the kitchen or something.'"

"I knew there was a real problem when I got to the street where the studio was and the road was blocked off. I parked the car and walked down the hill towards the fire. I could see all the windows at the top of the studio were broken and smoke was pouring out. I was hoping it was going to be okay. But the studio was completely ruined."

It was arson. "They used petrol or kerosene and then drizzled oil under the front door so they could use it as a slow wick and light it from the outside, which gave them time to get away. Once it got to the fuel it just took off."

The police spent hundreds of hours interviewing and investigating possible leads.

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"They conducted a very thorough investigation," Mark says.

"I was questioned for hours. I searched my brain for someone who would have hated me to the extent that they would want to ruin my business, my life. It’s very confronting when you have to go through the process of measuring your friendships against a fire.

"It is very unfair for the victim but it affects other people around you because their relationships with you are called into question – our teachers, other studio owners, past and present students were all under scrutiny. They were looking for anyone who may have had a grudge against us."

Mark was desperate for answers and hired a private investigator.

"I couldn’t just let it go. I wanted evidence, proof, so we could take legal action. After thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, the investigator came up with nothing. It was enormously frustrating and overwhelming, not just for me but for all the family.

"Hundreds of people were impacted by the loss – the social dancers who used our dance studio as their meeting place, the competitors who lost their dance clothes valued at many thousands of dollars. The day after the fire we attended a competition and many of our dancers wore street clothing and borrowed shoes. It was soul-destroying."

As Mark points out, it is not only the financial losses caused by a fire like this but the emotional ones.

"There were lots of autographed photographs and paintings on the studio walls which had enormous sentimental value. There were perpetual trophies from the early days of the Melbourne competition scene. We lost music that has never been converted to CD or MP3. It was all gone."

"There was a lot we had to do to just keep our heads above water and try to regain some sense of normality. It was important to keep the teachers in jobs. A woman who had a small dance wear shop at the studios was also directly affected and we had to provide an opportunity for her to continue to trade. I bought new equipment straight away, because everything had been destroyed in the fire and we held our dance classes at various venues to keep the business going – sometimes we were at three different venues a week. I was moving equipment eight hours a week – that’s a normal day’s work for someone.

"I was haunted ... and that never leaves you. There’s not a week that goes by without me thinking about what happened."

Mark opened a new dance studio at the end of 2008.

"It was very exciting. We were one of the first studios to have plasma screens. We built a stage and installed a small lighting rig with lighting and cameras for the competitors to play back their practice (sadly not activated yet at the time of the fire). We had a fabulous barista machine and installed the Australian Dance Championship floor from Melbourne Park. It was an amazing atmosphere unlike any other studio."

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Twelve weeks later Mark got a phone call. The studio had been burned down – in exactly the same way.

"The fire chief on duty rang and said, 'Mark, your studio has burned down.' I said he must be mistaken. 'Mark,' he said, 'you need to get down here now.'"

"It was like a dream. It couldn’t be happening again. I couldn’t think of a single person who would want to cause me so much harm. I couldn’t imagine anyone who would do this. Although the police had always thought the first fire had been targeted at me personally, I’d always found it impossible to believe. But the second fire convinced me they had to be right."

The studio had been burned in exactly the same way as the first.

"I can’t begin to say how devastated I was," Mark says.

"And so were Annemarie, our children, our teachers and our students. It was the worst time of my life."

"Somehow we had to try to keep on teaching. We used my sister-in-law’s studio but we only told the people who needed to know – there was this fear of it being burned down as well. The week after the fire the stalker rang my home and told Annemarie that if we set up again they were going to burn the place down. “We know where you live,” they said. “Don’t set up again or we will burn your house down.”

"That’s when you realise your life is not your own. If someone is so determined to ruin you, to crush you, and is prepared to go to those kinds of lengths to wipe you out, financially and emotionally, there is no way you can defend yourself. I was scared stiff. I was afraid this person would come to the studio or to our home and attack us.

"I took my children to self-defence classes with me. If the stalking took a personally violent turn, I wanted to be able to fight long enough for Annemarie and the children to get away. I’d never been frightened in my life before. It took some getting used to. The sense of trust, of security, has been taken away from us. The business we were building to give to our family was gone. Not only that, but the threats meant that our ability to re-start the business again was gone.

"The police were fabulous. The guy who investigated the fire said to me, 'Listen, mate, you just won’t find this person.'

"He said the stalker had made the phone call from a public phone box. It was impossible to trace him. The police had suspicions, but suspicions are not enough to go on. They said that the perpetrator will only be identified if one day he’s in the pub and has a few too many drinks and boasts about the fire."

"Mark’s story serves as a reminder that irrespective of your public profile and means, a stalker is more often than not one step ahead," lawyer Vic Rajah says.

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It’s hard to imagine what would drive someone to cause so much pain and anguish for so many people.

"When I look back," Mark says, "I wonder how I coped because I was the one who had to try to put the pieces back together and get our lives on track.

"We were all numb with the horror of what was being done to us. I knew I had to drive the family. I’d say, we can do this and move on. So we just took the equipment that was left and moved the classes somewhere else, just moved everyone on. I knew I had to. There were teachers to consider and our students. We had to get going again."

Mark Wilson's story is shared in the book Stalked. Image: Supplied.

From his experience of the first fire Mark knew what to do immediately.

"But I was never prepared for the financial impact on our family. The stalker took away our cash flow – and also my ability to create income. It got really ugly financially. If it hadn’t been for the bank we would have lost our house – they cancelled all payments and didn’t ask for any money for 16 weeks."

So many people said to Mark, 'Well, weren’t you insured?' 'The insurance will cover everything.’

"Yes", Mark says.

"We were insured and that paid for a lot of things. But it doesn’t cover the customers who don’t come back – you can’t insure for that. And insurance doesn’t compensate for the anxiety and insecurity your family goes through.

"And it’s the ongoing fear, the tentacles of fear that spread further. It’s the mothers telling us that they aren’t bringing their kids back to our studio because they think it is dangerous. We’d had huge kids’ classes. They just fell apart."

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Nevertheless, Mark continued the dance studio, moving around to temporary locations.

"We’ve been in 21 venues – we would say, this week we are going to be here, then next week we are going to move over four suburbs, and so on."

Mark and his family also had to deal with the gossip.

"These whisperings get back to you. He must owe money. He’s had an affair and the husband found out. There was a perception of, 'Well, he’s just had a second fire so he must be involved with the mafia', or 'He must have done something to someone'.

"It’s hard to stop people wondering, stop them thinking the worst. When I would hear these kinds of stories I really didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t feel angry. Disappointed and frustrated, certainly, but I couldn’t stop the whispering. So I focused on what I needed to do. And for me it was important to get our lives back on track."

Mark’s experiences are not uncommon for people in the public eye.

In this case, psychologist Gary Rubin says, "the stalker is not one who constantly harasses or makes themselves known to their victim – in fact does the opposite."

In situations like this the perpetrator, who fits the ‘resentful stalker’ type, "develops an envy or hatred towards a particular person and either wants their fame to end or to actually punish them.

"There are obviously a range of possible reasons why the stalker has targeted this particular victim, from the target reminding them of, or representing, someone who has impacted on them in their past or is achieving goals they themselves aspire to but have not been able to achieve. The fact that Mark had two studios burned down clearly indicates that someone really did not want him to thrive and succeed."

One result of the stalking was that Mark did not know who could be trusted. As Gary Rubin says, "this could be even more destabilising as the realness and the magnitude of the trauma are intensified as a result of the physical destruction and damage to his own everyday environment."

The stalking has changed Mark’s life enormously.

"We feel unsafe. When this happens you are never ever the same. You are always wondering if that person is still out there. That angers me, but what is important is that my family know there is life beyond this. The most heartbreaking time is when the kids get angry. You can’t blame them – our lives have been turned upside down."

"When you are trying to put your life back together, you are like the person at the circus spinning the plates – I had so many plates to spin and I had to make sure they wouldn’t fall down. There were times when I would rock up to teach and I couldn’t walk into the studio and look at one more person. So I would sit there and drink six cans of scotch and coke. That was how I tried to cope. That was hard for my wife to see – she knew I was not that person."

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"But eight years of fighting to try to keep the business going took its toll. In the end we had no choice. We had to close down. We were losing money and the debt was growing. We had planned our future so carefully and it was in tatters. I was 52 and I couldn’t start again. The stalker had ruined us financially. I was very angry then, which is natural. But that isn’t going to solve anything.

"The answer is not to give up and to recognise that you have to start another life, even if this means you have to move. You have to change, adapt and reinvent yourself, which is what I did. I entered the corporate world of advertising."

An abusive relationship often starts with controlling and possessive behaviour. These are the signs of an abuser, told through his victim's phone.

Video by MMC

Some would say that by moving on, the stalker had won. Mark doesn’t see it that way.

"Life isn’t fair – it’s just life – and the only way for my family and for me to regain a sense of hope was to change our lives. And as a result, many, many wonderful things have happened. It has not been an easy ride but we’ve grown immensely as a family. And our children have flourished and that’s the most important thing to us."

Even though Mark has moved on, he still suffers the emotional scars, trauma and financial devastation that the perpetrator cunningly inflicted on him. "You’re never really the same,’ he says, ‘but slowly you can grow. It does take time to let go of the past and find peace. We’re not there yet. But we have a new venture and it’s growing and we get to share some hope."

Sometimes staying where you are just compounds the situation.

"You can become too scared to grow as a result of the 'what ifs'," Mark says.

"Well, here are some other 'what ifs'. What if you got help, as we did, and started to move ahead? What if you changed the status quo and saw some light ahead that gave you just enough hope to grow again? What if you shared your story with a close friend so that someone can hold your hand and let you know you’re not alone?

"We had friends cooking for us and bringing meals around because we couldn’t buy food for ourselves. It’s a very humbling experience. And it’s a very loving experience to know that you’re not on your own."

Book extract from Stalked: The Human Target (Rockpool Publishing $29.99) by Rachel Cassidy, available at book stores and Rockpool Publishing's website.

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