By Bev Holder

WHEN she first received a Facebook friend request from a woman she didn’t know – Worcestershire horsewoman Michelle Hawthorne thought nothing of it.

What seemed like a harmless attempt to connect, however, turned into a six-year stalking ordeal that proved stranger than fiction and left her fearing for her family’s safety.

Married mum-of-one Michelle said: “It probably took me a couple of years to realise I was being stalked - first through Facebook. I didn’t realise I was interesting enough."

After mentioning the friend request to her family she learned it was from a former flame of a relative trying to contact her.

She said: “I kept getting friend requests from this woman, so I blocked her. She kept opening other profiles and messaging. In the end I messaged her and said ’stop it - I don’t befriend people I don’t know’.”

But Michelle’s attempt to nip the problem in the bud failed and the mysterious social media fanatic “just became obsessed”.

“She found out where I worked, where my son went to school, where we moved house - within weeks. Police concluded she could only have followed us," she said. “She tried to find out where my horses were, she befriended my friends and messaged me again on Facebook. She would sit in the pub over the road in the window. It just went on and on and on."

Things got even more scary when Michelle, a lawyer, received a drawing of her stalker “holding a knife with blood dripping from it”.

She even had to have a password in place at her son’s school so only people who knew the genuine keyword were able to collect him.

Michelle, who lives in Halesowen and keeps horses in Worcestershire, said: “It affected everything. I was absolutely terrified.”

She even changed jobs after receiving an email from her stalker and noticing the woman had been sitting outside her office waving at her.

“I just didn’t feel safe at work anymore as I had to get the train home and walk through a dark car park,” she said.

Even when police took up the case, Michelle had the harrowing job of gathering evidence to prove her allegations without incriminating herself.

She said: “We took pictures of her fake Facebook profiles and when police went to Facebook over 30 different names came back to her IP address. A friend request even came through while an officer was standing there in my house."

She added: “When questioned she tried to turn it round and make out it was me that was harassing her. She was very clever, almost trying to make herself look like the victim.”

The case, however, eventually went to court and the woman, a married middle-aged mother-of-two, was issued with a restraining order.

That was over 12 months ago and Michelle, aged 47, says her life has since been able to return to normal.

The ordeal also took its toll on Michelle’s son, who was at primary school at the time.

She said: “It affected him for a long time. He was frightened this lady was going to hurt us. It’s horrific what she did to us as a family. It became completely consuming and it has changed me permanently."

She said she hopes speaking out about her experience will give hope to other victims of stalking.

She said: “The police will do something but you’ve got to get the evidence. You’ve got to be really determined to see it through. I can see why people feel intimidated. You feel helpless. It really scared me and I was scared for my son.”

She said even now she has no idea why she was targeted.

“There’s nothing interesting about me. I don’t know why it happened. Each time police asked her why she was doing it she gave different reasons.

“Apparently one day she begged police to say ‘just be my friend and see how well we’d get on’. Another time, when confronted by a relative about it, she said she was having a great time and was going to carry on.

"I don’t know what happened - some sort of strange thing must’ve happened in her mind.”