WHEN DE­VO­TION TURNS DEADLY In 1989, ac­tress Re­becca Scha­ef­fer opened her door and was shot by a de­ranged fan. But are celebs any safer now?

In 1989, up-and-com­ing ac­tress Re­becca Scha­ef­fer opened her door and was shot by a de­ranged fan. Are celebs any safer now?

WHO - - Hot Topics - By Joe Mcgovern

Awhite van makes a slow turn onto North Sweet­zer Av­enue in cen­tral Los An­ge­les. Sit­u­ated just south of West Hol­ly­wood, the block gives off the safe vibe of a mid­dle-class sub­urb, dot­ted with two-storey homes and a shoe-re­pair shop on the cor­ner. But some­thing truly aw­ful once hap­pened here—and this van, filled with 14 pa­trons of the Dearly De­parted Tour, an only-in-la ex­cur­sion that vis­its sites where celebri­ties died, stops to view the front door of a res­i­dence half­way down the street. A tour guide named Scott be­gins: “In the 1980s there was a show on tele­vi­sion called My Sis­ter Sam, star­ring Pam Daw­ber and a young ac­tress named Re­becca Scha­ef­fer. And Re­becca Scha­ef­fer had a stalker named ­Robert John Bardo, who paid a pri­vate de­tec­tive to get her ad­dress.”

For many peo­ple, that brief de­scrip­tion alone is enough to churn up mem­o­ries of the ma­cabre event that tran­spired. On the morn­ing of July 18, 1989, a sin­gle shot fired from Bardo’s re­volver took the life of 21-year-old Scha­ef­fer. The bul­let hit her heart, and she died in the door­way. Bardo, a 19-year-old who had never met Scha­ef­fer be­fore, fled down an al­ley.

The loss was in­cal­cu­la­ble. Scha­ef­fer’s boyfriend at the time, film di­rec­tor Brad Sil­ber­ling ( City of An­gels, Lemony Snicket’s A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events), searches for the right words to de­scribe it be­fore set­tling on ones once used by the ac­tress’s grand­mother Lu­cile: “It was as if a tor­nado came down and plucked her into the sky.” The death sent a shock­wave of grief and alarm through not only the Hol­ly­wood com­mu­nity but the na­tion, re­sult­ing in the en­act­ment of pri­vacy and anti-stalk­ing laws in all 50 states.

How­ever, 28 years later, there is a gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple largely un­aware of Scha­ef­fer’s story. “Re­becca can­not be for­got­ten,” says for­mer deputy dis­trict at­tor­ney Mar­cia Clark, who suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted Bardo in court, three years be­fore she be­came a house­hold name due to the O.J. Simp­son trial. “Her case re­ally brought to light the prob­lem with celebrity and the dan­ger­ous na­ture of so-called fans.” But ul­ti­mately that is of lit­tle con­so­la­tion to Clark: “The whole thing still breaks my heart. That this uniquely in­no­cent girl at the very brink of star­dom could be taken away—it’s the epit­ome of tragedy.” Re­becca Scha­ef­fer never shied from the stage or the spot­light. Born in Ore­gon in 1967, the bright, en­er­getic only child got her first taste of per­form­ing when she starred in a sixth-grade pro­duc­tion of the feminist touch­stone Free to Be …You and Me. By high school, Scha­ef­fer was al­ready out­grow­ing Ore­gon and took a 1984 sum­mer job with Elite Model Man­age­ment in New York. The 16-year-old was daz­zled by the city’s gritty aura of pos­si­bil­ity. “Like an id­iot, I asked if she re­ally wanted to stay,” mother Danna re­calls. “And she said, ‘Yes, of course!’ So we threw her a big party and let her do it.”

Over the next two years, Scha­ef­fer scored a short run on the soap One Life to Live, trav­elled to Ja­pan to model, and nabbed small parts in Woody Allen’s Ra­dio Days and on Steven Spiel­berg’s se­ries Amaz­ing Sto­ries. But her big break came in 1986 when she landed a star­ring role on the sit­com My Sis­ter Sam, play­ing the part of Patti, a giddy free spirit who lives with her older sis­ter (Pam Daw­ber of Mork & Mindy). On the LA sound­stage, co-star Jenny O’hara re­mem­bers Scha­ef­fer be­ing a mix of youth­ful en­ergy and as­tute ma­tu­rity, of­ten shad­ow­ing the show’s crew and ask­ing ques­tions about their jobs. “Re­becca was just a beam­ing ray of

“This in­no­cent girl at the very brink of star­dom ... It’s the epit­ome of tragedy” —Mar­cia Clark, for­mer deputy DA

light,” she says. “My daugh­ter is now 28, and Re­becca was her first babysit­ter. Gosh, she was such a peach.”

My Sis­ter Sam was a suc­cess in its first sea­son. Though Daw­ber was the ex­pe­ri­enced TV ac­tress, it was Scha­ef­fer, 16 years her ju­nior, who ex­hib­ited a sly, side­ways kind of hu­mour that gave the se­ries its comic throt­tle. How­ever, an un­for­tu­nate shift to Satur­day night in its sec­ond sea­son led to a de­cline in rat­ings, and it was can­celled with 12 episodes left un­aired. While the can­cel­la­tion was a set­back, Scha­ef­fer had made her mark in Hol­ly­wood. “She was such a spit­fire,” says Sil­ber­ling, who be­gan dat­ing Scha­ef­fer in 1987 af­ter a blind date at a screen­ing of his stu­dent the­sis. “There was that wicked sense of hu­mour, but she was also very se­ri­ous about the work.”

And work she did. Fol­low­ing My Sis­ter Sam’s can­cel­la­tion, Scha­ef­fer went to Egypt to co-star with Burt Lan­caster and Eva Marie Saint in the TV film Voy­age of Ter­ror: The Achille Lauro Af­fair and re­ceived high marks play­ing a spoiled daugh­ter in Paul Bar­tel’s satire Scenes From the Class Strug­gle in Bev­erly Hills. In cast­ing cir­cles, Scha­ef­fer’s name was in the mix, and she was even briefly con­sid­ered for the lead role in Pretty Woman but was seen as too girl­ish. Scha­ef­fer was, in fact, only nine days younger than the movie’s even­tual star Ju­lia Roberts, which in­di­cates that she was fight­ing against “lit­tle sis­ter” type­cast­ing caused by her TV se­ries.

The ob­ses­sive prowl­ing of fa­mous peo­ple is a phe­nom­e­non that pre­dates the in­ven­tion of ra­dio. Some at­tack­ers have delu­sions that the love is re­cip­ro­cal. In the early 1900s, a French woman suf­fer­ing from “ero­to­ma­nia” in­sisted that King Ge­orge V was send­ing her se­cret love mes­sages through Buck­ing­ham Palace’s cur­tains. In 1949, base­ball player Ed­die Waitkus was shot in a ho­tel room by an in­fat­u­ated fan. Prior to Scha­ef­fer’s death— which fully pop­u­larised the term “stalker” as we know it to­day—the most no­to­ri­ous ex­am­ples of this crime had been the 1980 mur­der of John Len­non by an un­hinged fan; the 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt of Ron­ald Rea­gan by a man who was try­ing to im­press Jodie Foster; and the vi­o­lent stab­bing in 1982 of Rag­ing Bull ac­tress Theresa Sal­dana, mere miles from where Scha­ef­fer was gunned down.

All three of those in­ci­dents pro­vided de­mented in­spi­ra­tion to Robert John Bardo. The youngest of seven chil­dren from Tuc­son, Ari­zona, Bardo had ex­hib­ited an ab­nor­mal fix­a­tion on fe­male celebri­ties from an early age. His first known tar­get was a young good­will am­bas­sador from Maine named Sa­man­tha Smith. Af­ter Smith died in a plane crash at age 13, Bardo shifted his at­ten­tion to other fa­mous faces. “Bardo was ob­sessed

with sev­eral celebri­ties,” says Dr Park Di­etz, a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist who has stud­ied stalk­ing for decades. Di­etz in­ter­viewed Bardo ex­ten­sively and found that he had also tar­geted 1980s teen pop stars Deb­bie Gib­son and Tif­fany, bom­bard­ing them with fan let­ters. “Hate mail, in­ter­est­ingly, is not as dan­ger­ous a sign as ob­ses­sive love mail,” Di­etz ex­plains.

When My Sis­ter Sam pre­miered in 1986, the then-16-year-old high-school dropout shifted much of his at­ten­tion to Scha­ef­fer. In 1987 he even trav­elled to Los An­ge­les in an at­tempt to ac­cess the Warner Bros lot where the show was filmed. “I thought he was just lovesick,” the stu­dio’s chief of se­cu­rity later said, adding that Bardo had also made a num­ber of phone calls to the stu­dio. “He was ter­ri­bly in­sis­tent on be­ing let in. ‘Re­becca Scha­ef­fer’ was ev­ery other word.” Ul­ti­mately deemed harm­less, Bardo was es­corted off the premises. “He came with a knife in his bag,” says Sil­ber­ling. “Se­cu­rity didn’t let him on the lot, but they sent him away with just a pat on his butt. That would never hap­pen to­day, thank God.” (The se­cu­rity chief, who died in 2010, said that he in­formed the show’s pro­duc­tion com­pany of the in­ci­dent.)

As she did for hun­dreds of other fans, Scha­ef­fer would re­spond to Bardo’s fan mail with a post­card-size head shot and a note, which read, “Yours is one of the nicest let­ters I’ve re­ceived.” That was an in­ad­ver­tent trig­ger for Bardo, ac­cord­ing to Mar­cia Clark, who worked closely with threat-as­sess­ment ex­pert Gavin de Becker on the case. “It was not Re­becca’s fault, of course, but se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists now coun­sel celebrity clients to keep cor­re­spon­dence on a very im­per­sonal level, if they com­mu­ni­cate at all,” she says. “But it’s so com­pli­cated. A fail­ure to re­ply can en­cour­age them to get more hos­tile more quickly, while a pla­tonic kind of ‘best wishes’ an­swer can piss them off, too.”

Bardo, who had been work­ing as a cleaner, ac­quired Scha­ef­fer’s home ad­dress by pay­ing $300 to an Ari­zona pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor. In a sick twist, he had learnt about this method from a news re­port about Sal­dana’s at­tacker, who had ob­tained her ad­dress the same way. The PI merely needed to re­quest Scha­ef­fer’s name via the De­part­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles [DMV], cost­ing only a few bucks. Armed with that in­for­ma­tion—and a .357 mag­num hand­gun, pur­chased by an older brother—bardo made his way from Tuc­son to Scha­ef­fer’s res­i­dence. “She came to the door, she was nice to him, she shook his hand, wished him a nice day,” says Clark. “And be­cause she was so dis­arm­ing, he walked away.”

But mad­ness was stew­ing inside Bardo. He re­treated to a nearby restau­rant, where he ate onion rings and cheese­cake. In his bag was a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, a piece of copycat para­pher­na­lia—it was the same book found in the pos­ses­sion of John Hinck­ley Jr (Rea­gan’s shooter) and Mark David Chap­man (Len­non’s killer). Whether Bardo was feel­ing snubbed or, as per his own ac­count to Dr Di­etz, had sim­ply for­got­ten to give Scha­ef­fer a note and a CD, the fact re­mains that he re­turned and rang her door­bell again. This time, when she opened it, he fired.

When the down­stairs buzzer in Scha­ef­fer’s apart­ment rang on that fate­ful morn­ing in 1989, the ac­tress was wait­ing for a courier to de­liver a script for The God­fa­ther Part III. She was sched­uled to meet with di­rec­tor Francis Ford Cop­pola later that day to au­di­tion for a role in the film. The in­ter­com in her build­ing was bro­ken, so Scha­ef­fer walked down­stairs to open the door, where Bardo was wait­ing for the sec­ond time.

That same morn­ing in Port­land, Ore­gon, writer and teacher Danna Scha­ef­fer was work­ing on a play and try­ing to ig­nore the tele­phone, which had started ring­ing around 11.30. “I knew it wasn’t Re­becca,” she says of her daugh­ter, “be­cause we’d spo­ken on the phone the night be­fore.” Even­tu­ally Danna lis­tened to her an­swer­ing ma­chine and heard ABC ex­ec­u­tive Tom Nu­nan—she knew his name be­cause he was dat­ing Re­becca’s best friend—ur­gently ask­ing her to re­turn his call. “I still re­mem­ber how sunny my voice sounded when he picked up the phone,” Danna re­calls. “Then he said, and th­ese words are in­scribed in my brain, ‘Mrs Scha­ef­fer, I have ter­ri­ble news. This morn­ing Re­becca was shot and killed.’ ” Dis­be­liev­ing, she hung up and called one of her daugh­ter’s tal­ent agents. “He got on the phone and he could not talk,” she says. “I could just hear him sob­bing. And that’s when I knew.”

Re­becca’s fa­ther, Ben­son Scha­ef­fer, a child psy­chi­a­trist, had been picked up from work by a friend and driven home. When Danna saw his face, even from a dis­tance, she could tell that there was a trace of doubt, a glim­mer of hope in his eyes that this was all a ter­ri­ble mis­take. Ap­proach­ing her hus­band, she wailed, with tears run­ning down her face, “It’s true, it’s true!” Within an hour, the cou­ple were at the Port­land air­port en route to Los An­ge­les. Both were

“Hate mail, in­ter­est­ingly, is not as dan­ger­ous a sign as ob­ses­sive love mail” —Dr Park Di­etz

cry­ing so much that in­stead of tis­sues, Danna packed tea tow­els.

Mean­while, at the of­fices of Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, Sil­ber­ling was sit­ting at his desk when he re­ceived a call from an­other of Scha­ef­fer’s agents. He re­mem­bers, “I was told, ‘There’s been an ac­ci­dent with Re­becca, and you need to call this de­tec­tive.’ And my first thought was, ‘OK. Ac­ci­dent. She’s been hurt hor­ri­bly, but we can deal with that.’ Our brains have an amaz­ing abil­ity to re­align. So then when I called the de­tec­tive and he told me that she was dead, I screamed into the phone. It vi­o­lated ev­ery­thing that I’d just ad­justed my think­ing to.”

More than a decade later, Sil­ber­ling would write and di­rect the film Moon­light Mile (2002), star­ring Su­san Saran­don and Dustin Hoff­man as a cou­ple whose daugh­ter is sense­lessly killed and Jake Gyl­len­haal as the daugh­ter’s boyfriend. Sil­ber­ling based much of the script on the events of that week in his life, when he trav­elled with the Scha­ef­fers and Re­becca’s friend Bar­bara Lusch back to Port­land to ar­range the fu­neral. “To have them with us was un­be­liev­ably won­der­ful and—this is a strange word to use—ex­cit­ing,” says Danna. “It was the clos­est thing to hav­ing Re­becca with us.”

On the evening of Scha­ef­fer’s mur­der, Sil­ber­ling re­calls gath­er­ing with her fam­ily, col­lec­tively numb in a bub­ble of sor­row. “Danna turned to each one of us and said, ‘OK, now, who’s booked their ther­apy ap­point­ments?’ And I just started howl­ing with laugh­ter. Be­cause it was so sharp and funny and real. And be­cause that was Re­becca’s sense of hu­mour.”

Later, in lengthy in­ter­views with Dr Di­etz, Bardo would say that Scha­ef­fer ut­tered th­ese words be­fore fall­ing to the ground: “Why? Why?” Bardo es­caped LA but was found stum­bling through high­way traf­fic the next day in Tuc­son. When po­lice ap­pre­hended him, he in­crim­i­nated him­self and claimed that he was stunned and sad­dened to see on tele­vi­sion that Scha­ef­fer had died. Af­ter be­ing taken to Cal­i­for­nia, Bardo was charged with first­de­gree mur­der. Clark’s of­fice pushed for a bench trial, to be de­cided by a judge rather than a jury; Bardo agreed to it in ex­change for the prose­cu­tion not seek­ing the death penalty. Though he con­fessed, Bardo still pleaded not guilty to first-de­gree mur­der, which clas­si­fied the killing as pre­med­i­tated. (Although Bardo did not opt for an in­san­ity de­fence, his pub­lic de­fender called wit­nesses, in­clud­ing Dr Di­etz, to tes­tify about his men­tal con­di­tion.)

Clark had two chal­lenges. To prove that Bardo acted in­ten­tion­ally would con­demn him to 25 years to life in prison, yet there’d be the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. In or­der to re­move that pos­si­bil­ity, she needed to also prove a “spe­cial cir­cum­stance.” Clark says, “In this case, that was called ‘ly­ing in wait.’ And it was that tape of Bardo be­ing in­ter­viewed by Dr Di­etz, where I saw him de­scribe the mur­der by mak­ing a mo­tion of his hand be­hind his back. He held it there in or­der to con­ceal his weapon. And I pre­sented that as proof. He had no un­cer­tainty of pur­pose.”

The judge agreed. In Oc­to­ber 1991 Bardo was found guilty, and two months later he was sen­tenced to life with no chance of pa­role. As Bardo was be­ing es­corted out of the court­room af­ter the con­vic­tion, Danna ut­tered at him, “Have a won­der­ful time in jail.” Sil­ber­ling was more force­ful. “Your cow­ardice is go­ing to haunt you for the rest of your life,” he said.

Th­ese scenes and emo­tions would play out again in Moon­light Mile, with Holly Hunter play­ing a pros­e­cu­tor who asks the mur­dered woman’s fam­ily their thoughts on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. The pros­e­cu­tor’s name in the film is Mona Camp—an al­lit­er­a­tion of Mar­cia Clark. “That scene is taken right from our con­ver­sa­tion with Mar­cia,” Sil­ber­ling says. “It was a re­mark­able mo­ment be­cause Danna and Ben­son and

“We deal with [stalk­ing] on a daily ba­sis” —a pub­li­cist

my­self are rather left-lean­ing, but I re­mem­ber one of us say­ing, about Bardo, that we’d just like to see him evis­cer­ated. Those are huge feel­ings, just tremen­dous, in­cred­i­ble rage.”

Pub­lic­ity gen­er­ated by the case helped fuel the cre­ation in 1989 of the LAPD’S Threat Man­age­ment Unit, the na­tion’s first po­lice team to spe­cialise in stalk­ing cases. Cal­i­for­nia also passed a law that year that re­stricted the DMV from re­leas­ing in­di­vid­u­als’ home ad­dresses, the loop­hole that al­lowed Bardo to find Scha­ef­fer. The mea­sure was adopted na­tion­wide in 1994. Stalk­ing laws, which crim­i­nalise pat­terns of threat­en­ing be­hav­iour, were nonex­is­tent in Scha­ef­fer’s life­time but are now on the books in ev­ery US state. In Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple, sen­tences can in­clude a 10-year re­strain­ing or­der for a felony ha­rass­ment con­vic­tion.

While the lessons of Scha­ef­fer’s death have mostly melted into his­tory, the ugly phe­nom­e­non of celebrity ob­ses­sion has metas­ta­sised. Stars ex­ist in pub­lic—tak­ing self­ies with fans at a pre­miere or wait­ing for lug­gage at the air­port—vul­ner­a­ble to risks, es­pe­cially since their lo­ca­tions are geo-tar­geted by any­one who might want to harm them. In a re­cent tragic ex­am­ple, The Voice US alum Christina Grim­mie was killed in 2016 by a fan, one whom she had just opened her arms to hug at a con­cert in Or­lando.

“We deal with this is­sue on a daily ba­sis,” says one veteran pub­li­cist (who asked not to be iden­ti­fied) who can re­count nu­mer­ous death threats and ad­vances made in pub­lic by stalk­ers. So­cial me­dia, ac­cord­ing to the pub­li­cist, has per­pet­u­ated the prob­lem: “It plays into the cul­ture of stalk­ing. There’s an in­dus­try ex­pec­ta­tion for stars to be open, but it’s harder to sep­a­rate the gen­uine fan from the dan­ger­ous fan as long as you’re us­ing those mag­nets.”

Sil­ber­ling, who has been mar­ried to Amy Bren­ne­man ( Judg­ing Amy) since 1995, adds, “Peo­ple feel like they’ve been tweeted at per­son­ally by celebri­ties. That adds chal­lenges to find­ing ap­pro­pri­ate bound­aries. I am al­ways go­ing to be more cau­tious in life be­cause of my ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s made my wife a great am­bas­sador to younger ac­tors she

works with. You can’t be flip or reck­less.”

Danna Scha­ef­fer ac­knowl­edges that her daugh­ter’s death was like a light­ning strike: rare, sud­den, un­ex­pected. At­ti­tudes re­gard­ing stalk­ing were ad­justed, but Danna winces at the no­tion that Re­becca did not die in vain. “Yes, on a very nuts-and-bolts level it changed Hol­ly­wood,” she says, “but Re­becca was not a soldier fight­ing for a cause. She didn’t choose this.” Clark also has trou­ble at­tach­ing much pos­i­tiv­ity to the case, though it was one of her great­est court­room vic­to­ries. “I’m re­lieved that Bardo is locked up,” she says. “But I don’t think of my­self as proud in any way of get­ting the ver­dict. Good things came of it, but none of those things bring Re­becca back.”

Robert John Bardo (in court and, be­low right, in a po­lice photo) was moved to Cal­i­for­nia’s Iron­wood State Prison in 2011 after be­ing stabbed 11 times by an in­mate. His art­work, which has made its way to the out­side world, in­cludes por­traits of Char­lie...

1988’s TV movie Out of Time. 1991’s The End of In­no­cence.

Scha­ef­fer’s par­ents, Ben­son and Danna. Scha­ef­fer’s Los An­ge­les home.

Re­becca Scha­ef­fer circa 1986.

Scha­ef­fer (right) with Pam Daw­ber on My Sis­ter Sam.

With Paul Bar­tel in Scenes From the Class Strug­gle in Bev­erly Hills.

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