Robert John Bardo took a seat in the office as he waited for an investigator to become available. Clutching a photograph tightly, he shifted nervously in his chair, watching the figures around going about their business, oblivious to his presence. Eventually the office manager gestures him over to a partitioned cubicle and greets him with a firm handshake, before taking his position behind the desk and pausing to allow the young man to introduce himself. At nineteen, Bardo seemed harmless, although perhaps a little out of place at a company that usually dealt with older clientele. He presented the large, glossy picture of an attractive woman and announced that he wanted to contact ‘an old friend.’ The black-and-white image was a publicity shot from a film studio, and below the girl’s face was her autograph. ‘He said he knew her from some Hollywood studios,’ recalled William Johnson, one of the investigators present that day at the Anthony Agency. For Anthony Zinkus, the man sat across from him holding the photo seemed harmless, if perhaps a little awkward. ‘He said he wanted to send her a gift,’ explained the manager. ‘He said that she might be somewhere in the L.A. area and that she had connections with the television business.’
Rebecca Schaeffer had awoken knowing that her life was about to change. Today was the day that all her dedication would finally pay off and that she’d reap the rewards of her hard work. As she stepped out of the shower she was aware that the morning was escaping from her, and in less than an hour she was to meet the man that could make her dream a reality. She had the chance to win the most coveted of film roles, a part in a highly-anticipated motion picture, one that could transform her into a movie star. She had already been blessed with a starring role in a popular television series, but that had come to an end and now she was ready to take the next big step. ‘I think she was optimistic, upbeat and very excited about what her future held,’ claimed Dyan Cannon, who had directed the young actress on her most recent project. And any moment now a screenplay was to arrive, one that she so desperately craved, and when the silence was disturbed by a loud bang on her front door, Rebecca thought it had finally arrived.
The gunshot echoed through the neighbourhood. The few that were home that quiet Tuesday morning were unsure on what exactly they had heard. ‘I was on the phone near the window when I heard the scream,’ reported one neighbour, Francois Lesloud, who witnessed the perpetrator running from the scene of the crime. It was shortly after 10am on a beautiful July morning when Rebecca Schaeffer fell to the ground in the doorway of her Hollywood apartment. ‘The door shuck, the wall shuck,’ explained Lynne Morta, a fellow resident of the luxurious complex. ‘She was still screaming while I was dialling 911. By the time I got to the door, she was wailing. I opened the small hatch in my door. There was a smell of gunfire.’ Thirty minutes later, Rebecca lay dead on an operating table in a nearby emergency room, the victim of a seemingly random act of violence. She had never met her attacker before that day and he offered no clear motive for his actions, yet in a single moment he had claimed the life of a twenty-one-year-old, a woman with her whole future ahead of her. But once the identity of her killer was revealed, so too was the fear that this could happen to anyone.
But the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer was less random than authorities had first believed. The world had already been exposed to the dangers of stalkers almost a decade earlier with the death of musician John Lennon, and as the eighties progressed, other celebrities found themselves the targets of unhinged fans whose devotion to their favourite artists would eventually lead to violence. Bardo had developed a fascination with Schaeffer over the course of three years, regularly watching episodes of her cancelled sitcom from his collection of videocassettes, and in his mind the two of them were kindred spirits. It is not uncommon for a fan to see themselves in their favourite film star or singer, but this imagined connection can occasionally turn deadly when a fan turns fanatical. ‘Stalking is a relatively new phenomenon. Even though all fifty states now have laws addressing it, this has not always been the case,’ detailed author Gregory K. Moffatt in his 2000 book Blind-Sided: Homicide Where It is Least Expected. ‘Stalkers themselves are a diverse group. They are male and female, old and young, from varied races, and from varied socioeconomic classes. Despite their diversity, stalkers share some characteristics. One study has shown that stalkers are most often white, have stalked others in the past, and range in age from eighteen to fifty, and that more than half have a mental illness.’
He was a quiet man. This is often the description given by neighbours and colleagues when asked what kind of person an assailant was before they had committed a crime. This is most commonly used to summarise perpetrators of mass murders, such as public shootings and suicide bombings. After Stephen Paddock opened fire on fifty-eight people at a Las Vegas concert before turning the gun on himself in 2017, his girlfriend described him as ‘a kind, caring, quiet man.’ Later that year in the Australian city of Melbourne, a radicalised man called Ali Khalic Shire Ali was arrested after police discovered that he intended on massacring a New Year’s Eve party with an AK-47 assault rifle. Following his arrest, The Age revealed that ‘the suspect’s a quiet young man, part of a beautiful family, with a father who tirelessly drove a taxi so that he and his brothers and sister could get a private education and move from their commission house.’ As recently as April 2020, following a mass shooting in Nova Scotia by fifty-one-year-old Gabriel Wortman, the killer was referred to by a former girlfriend as a ‘good person, he works hard, people liked him.’
Bardo fit the characteristics associated with those responsible for random acts of extreme violence. He was young, white and by all accounts a loner, a man with no friends or meaningful relationships, who had turned to celebrities for meaning in an otherwise empty existence. He had moved through life inconsequentially, almost invisible to those around him, only attracting attention when he caused a disturbance around his neighbourhood. He was just nineteen-years-old at the time he brought Schaeffer’s life to an end, just two years younger than his victim, and with one bullet he destroyed both of their lives. One would die, the other destined to spend the remainder of their life behind bars. But what could have brought a lonely young man to take the life of an innocent woman whom he had never met before that fateful day, and what was it about Rebecca Schaeffer that led him to obsession? ‘How do we discriminate between those who are simply fixated on a public figure and those who will inappropriately communicate and approach? Can we identify the factors that predict an attack upon a public figure?’ posed J. Reid Meloy, Jens Hoffmann and Lorraine Sheridan in 2018’s Stalking, Threatening and Attacking Public Figures. ‘The basis for a fixation may be a ‘narcissistic linking fantasy,’ a conscious belief that one has a special and idealised relationship with another person or object. Such fantasies, in turn, may compensate for an actual life that is blighted and forlorn, and the feelings that adhere to it.’
The first time that he saw Rebecca Schaeffer, he felt that he had fallen in love. It was 1 October 1986 and sixteen-year-old Bardo was sat watching L.A., the season seven premiere of the long-running television series Magnum P.I., which had returned to CBS after a six-month absence. During one of the commercial breaks, an advert came on for an upcoming sitcom starring Pam Dawber, an actress best known to audiences as the sidekick to Robin Williams in the hit show Mork & Mindy. In the four years since its conclusion, Dawber had appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone and a succession of made-for-TV feature films, but now she was set to make a regular return with My Sister Sam. The show, which told of a freelance photographer whose life is turned upside down when her younger sister comes to live with her, would make its debut five days later. The clip featured both Dawber and Schaeffer, and with the latter just four weeks shy of her nineteenth birthday, she was presented as the wholesome girl-next-door. It was this innocence and everyday quality that immediately appealed to Bardo. ‘That’s what got me curious about her,’ he later admitted, ‘but then I’d watch the show, and she’s very outgoing and bubbly and everything.’
It was this purity that first fascinated her killer, but if he was infatuated with that innocence then what brought him to shoot her in cold blood without provocation? If he was in love with her like he had claimed, why would he travel almost five hundred miles to Los Angeles in order to gun her down on her own doorstep? In the weeks following her death, the tabloids revealed that Rebecca Schaeffer was not the first girl he had developed an obsession with, and that with each of his fixations he had travelled across the country in an attempt to meet them. He had attempted it once before with Schaeffer, but he had also tried and failed to meet other female celebrities. But he felt a true connection with Schaeffer, who had also grown up on the west coast of America, with neither having any connection to the bright lights of Hollywood until Schaeffer made her way to California in the summer of 1986. But this is where the similarities ended, because whereas Schaeffer was raised in a stable and loving home, Bardo was the youngest of seven children and was denied the affection and nurturing that any child deserves from their parents. While he was never physically or sexually abused, emotional neglect is another common characteristic that many violent offenders share, from serial killers to mass murderers. After his crime was committed, his backstory sounded all-too-familiar to the detectives investigating his life.
I didn’t have any friends
Stability was never something that Robert John Bardo had been able to take for granted. Growing up an army brat, he spent the first few years of his life moving from place to place until his parents finally settled the family in Tucson, a major city in Arizona. His father, Phillip Bardo, was an uncommissioned Air Force officer, and while stationed at the Yokota Air Base near Tokyo he met and fell in love with June, a Korean-born Japanese civilian. Returning to the United States with his new bride, the couple would have seven children together, with the last, Robert, born shortly after New Year 1970. Although he was considered a straight-A student, Bardo was referred to by one teacher as ‘a time bomb waiting to explode,’ and would regularly harass another with letters in which he threatened to kill her, with which he signed his name as either Scarface, Dirty Harry or James Bond. His family had moved to Tucson when he was thirteen and before long he had become something of a problem child. Among the letters that he sent to his teachers included one in which he claimed he would take his own life. As his behaviour grew increasingly erratic, he lost interest in his studies and finally turned his back on school while in the ninth grade. ‘My mistake was dropping out of high school,’ he later admitted. ‘I was isolated. I didn’t have any friends, never had a girlfriend.’
By the time that he had abandoned high school, Bardo had already developed his first obsession with a public figure. While he would later become fixated on pop singers and television stars, his first fascination was with a high school student who had been thrust under the spotlight following her correspondents with a world leader. In the early eighties, the United States and the Soviet Union were still in a state of Cold War, and American citizens feared Communism and the supposed nuclear terror that their enemies represented. In the winter of 1982, ten-year-old Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Soviet politician Yuri Andropov regarding her concerns over the increased tensions between the two countries. ‘‘Why do you want to conquer the world, or at least the U.S.?’ she had asked the Soviet leader. ‘Andropov assured Samantha, whom he described as ‘a courageous and honest girl, resembling in some ways Becky, Tom Sawyer’s friend from the well-known book,’ that Moscow wanted a relationship of peace, trade and cooperation with ‘such a great country as the United States of America,’’ wrote Time in 1983. ‘Samantha said that Andropov’s reply read like ‘a letter from a friend,’ and that the Soviet leader did not seem as grim as she had imagined.’
Perhaps sensing the innocence and kindness that he would later find so appealing with Rebecca Schaeffer, Bardo soon developed an obsession with Samantha Smith and decided to travel to her home state of Maine in an effort to meet the young Ambassador. His visit was unsuccessful and his chance of talking to her in person was destroyed when, on 25 August 1985, a plane carrying Smith and her father crashed as it approached the runway of the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, killing all the passengers on board. ‘Jane Smith, Samantha’s mother, said she was waiting for her husband and their only child at the Augusta airport when airline officials told her of the crash,’ reported the Chicago Tribune. ‘Mrs. Smith said she later visited the crash site. ‘It’s just a pile of ashes,’ she said.’ More than a year would pass before Bardo first saw the commercial for My Sister Sam, by which point Samantha Smith had faded from his memory and his latest obsession had begun to take root. But unlike his interest in Smith, his fascination with the sitcom star would eventually lead to murder.
While he may have become convinced that he and Schaeffer were one and the same, the truth was that the two were from completely different worlds, having experienced childhoods that had very little in common with each other. Whereas Bardo came from a large family and lacked a close connection to his family, Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer was the first and only child of two loving parents. Benson Schaeffer was a respected child psychologist in the Oregon city of Eugene and together with his wife Danna, the two welcomed their daughter into the world on 6 December 1967. From an early age Rebecca was a responsible and intelligent child, and throughout high school it was clear that she enjoyed being the centre of attention. ‘She was interested in drama and so had the lead in Witness for the Prosecution,’ recalled her father in 2019. ‘She really wanted to be an actress.’ In 1980, the family relocated from Eugene to Portland, and at the age of fourteen, following a suggestion from her hair stylist, Schaeffer tried her hand at modelling. Despite her earlier ambition of becoming either a lawyer or a doctor, she signed with the Troutman Profile Inc., and in 1984 made her way to New York City.
By this point, much like Bardo, she had turned her back on high school, but for Schaeffer this was because she was determined to land her big break in the entertainment industry. With the help of her early mentor Nannette Troutman, she landed an internship with the Elite Model Management and soon found herself sharing an apartment with five other young models in Manhattan. Despite the harsh realities of living in the city, Schaeffer impressed her new friends with her no-nonsense attitude and, determined to advance in the industry, enrolled at the Professional Children’s School in August 1984. Due to her height being just below the industry standard, she was often overlooked for modelling positions, and in an effort to gain further experience spent some time in Japan, modelling for magazines and appearing in television commercials. Returning to the United States, Schaeffer turned her attention back to performing, now even more determined than ever to become an actress. ‘I saw myself in theatre,’ she told The Day in 1987. ‘But in New York now, you have to have a big name to do much in theatre. A lot of people do film or TV to gain attention. That sounds calculating, but you have to make the right career move.’
For Schaeffer, her time in New York may have been a gruelling experience, but it was one which she would make the most of as she worked as a waitress in between auditions. ‘When Rebecca and I were in New York together she was sixteen, and that is so young,’ explained Barbara Lusch, the actress that Troutman had entrusted to protect her client. ‘This was a big adventure for her and things were going well.’ Having trained under renowned acting teacher Robert Modica, whose other students have included Rachel Ward and David Duchovny, Schaeffer finally made her acting debut in 1985 with One Life to Live. Based around the turbulent personal lives of the Lord family, the show was first broadcast on ABC in July 1966 and would remain one of the longest-running soap operas in American history, eventually coming to an end in 2013 after forty-seven years on air. Schaeffer’s recurring role as Annie Barnes would bear little impact on the overall story arc of the series, but her performance gained acclaim from her co-stars. ‘She was remarkably good for somebody of that age,’ declared Erika Slezak, who would star as the family’s matriarch throughout the history of the show. ‘She had a certain presence and confidence that exudes on screen.’ While her appearance would fail to bring her the exposure she craved, it afforded her the focus and determination she needed to take the next step in her career.
In July 1984, NBC-TV and Amblin Entertainment, the production company owned by Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg, announced a new television series entitled Amazing Stories. An anthology of horror and fantasy tales, many adapted from the magazine of the same name, the show was revealed just two months after the release of Spielberg’s latest motion picture, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Making its debut on 29 September 1985, the show was only a minor critical success but would resonate with young audiences, showcasing the imagination of such filmmakers as Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese. The second season made it to the small screen in the autumn of 1986, with its second episode, Miscalculation, broadcast on the anniversary of the pilot. Directed by Tom Holland, fresh from his success with the horror comedy Fright Night, the episode starred Pretty in Pink actor Jon Cryer as an awkward teenager who uses mysterious chemicals to bring the women from his pornography magazines to life with disastrous consequences. Schaeffer would appear in only one scene, but all these minor roles brought her to the attention of Warner Bros.
Her luck would change when Schaeffer returned to her apartment one evening to find a note taped to the door, inviting her to an audition in Los Angeles. ‘I had no phone, and I didn’t even have enough money for the bus. I ran twenty blocks to find my agent,’ she told The Messenger following the broadcast of the first season of My Sister Sam. ‘I was never frightened. I wasn’t nervous. I knew I could do it and all I felt was happiness at getting the chance.’ While a sitcom had never been a consideration for the young actress, her minor work had caught the eye of executives at CBS, and the following day she made her way from New York to California to audition for the show. According to a 1988 article published by Spy, the concept for the show had first been conceived by an elusive figure called Roy Licerio and pitched to Scott Kaufer, a high-ranking figure at the network. This would soon find its way onto the desk of Diane English, a rising writer and producer who had already tried and failed to launch a sitcom with Foley Square. Having already signed a deal with Warner Bros. to create original concepts, English and her husband Joel Shukovsky had struggled through a variety of forgettable projects before the studio approached them with their latest sitcom. ‘We never, under this three-year deal, had an opportunity to really get any of our own ideas on the air. It was one of those deals they make with you just to keep you on the lot,’ she recalled decades later. ‘I don’t think they ever really expected us to come up with anything. They just really wanted to keep us on My Sister Sam.’
Created by Stephen Fischer and developed by Susan Beavers, who would later receive three Emmy nominations for her work on Two and a Half Men, My Sister Sam told of a twenty-something freelance photographer whose younger sister comes to live with her, bringing her independent lifestyle to an end. For CBS, this show was a potential vehicle for Pam Dawber. ‘I had a development deal with CBS, but it turned out I spent three-and-a-half years futilely trying to put together a series,’ she explained. ‘Finally, we pitched this idea about a single photographer living with her teenage sister, and at that very moment CBS happened to be in need of a comedy, because both Mary Tyler Moore’s new show and Foley Square had failed. We got the pilot together by the skin of our teeth.’ Yet while the network had high hopes for the concept, the first episode would prove to be a disaster, forcing Warner Bros. Television and Dawber’s own company, Pony Productions, to rework the tone and characters before the network pulled the plug.
The character was too one-dimensional
‘We’ve made some changes since the pilot episode,’ she confessed to the Kentucky New Era one week before its debut. ‘I felt the character was too one-dimensional. It was too cartoony. We’re not doing a joke show. The new scripts are funny. But it’s a less obvious kind of show. I think the humour is stronger because it’s real. The concept’s still the same, but we don’t want to fall into the trap of, ‘What’s Patti doing this week to screw up Sam’s life?’ Patti will be strong some weeks, but it’s going to centre more on my life.’ For English, she too recognised the challenges that developing a new show will bring. ‘When you start a series, you kind of have to keep your fingers crossed. We do our homework before we cast anybody, and we check them out pretty thoroughly to make sure there are no troublemakers, no drug problems, you name it,’ she told the Washington Post in 1993. ‘One bad apple and the whole thing is in turmoil. The same thing with the crew. And then we almost cast our writing team the same way. I’ve always said that you wind up casting a character as close to the real person as possible, because that’s ultimately what you’re going to get.’
While the character of Patti had been developed without a specific actress in mind, the producers were immediately impressed with both Schaeffer’s audition and her approach to the role. Boasting the same naivety and youthful energy as her character, she was the perfect choice to portray Sam’s younger sibling. But the chemistry between the two sisters would go beyond the show as Dawber, upon discovering that her co-star had nowhere to live in Los Angeles, invited her to stay with both herself and her partner, actor Mark Harmon, while she found a place of her own. For Dawber, whose younger sister had passed away during open-heart surgery a decade earlier, Schaeffer almost represented a surrogate sister. ‘We just kind of fell into this sisterly thing,’ she told ABC in 2019. ‘Because I’d had a sister. My sister passed away when she was twenty-two and I was twenty-five. And so having another young girl in the house was something I was very comfortable with. It was good for us.’ For Schaeffer, the bond was mutual. ‘This will sound corny, but she’s really like my big sister,’ she explained. ‘She has given me good advice about a lot of things. She’s so level-headed. She made it so easy for me when I first came out here.’
With the cast in place, My Sister Sam made its debut on Monday, 6 October 1986, sandwiched in between the hit shows Kate & Allie and Newhart. As a result, it became an immediate success, transforming Schaeffer into a minor star and allowing Dauber her first successful role in four years. Reviews were often negative, but audiences could not get enough of Sam and Patti Russell. The first season came to an end in May 1987, during which time Schaeffer would make a small appearance in the Woody Allen comedy Radio Days, but when the show returned for its second run, CBS decided to move it from its prominent Monday night slot to Saturday evening, the least-watched day of the week. The viewer ratings soon fell and after just six episodes the show was place on a hiatus. Reluctantly, the network continued the season four months later, this time having moved the show to Tuesday night, but by this point audiences had lost interest. In March 1988, CBS announced that My Sister Sam was cancelled, and opted not to broadcast the remaining twelve episodes. Yet despite the failure of the show, Rebecca Schaeffer had one fan that had fallen in love with her character, and by this point Robert John Bardo had already attempted to meet his favourite television star.
One beautiful morning in June 1987, Schaeffer and her co-stars were hard at work filming scenes for My Sister Sam when a young man brandishing flowers and a large cuddly toy arrived at the cast and crew entrance to Soundstage 29 at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank. Bardo had travelled from Tucson with gifts in-hand, determined to meet the object of his affection. It was not uncommon for enthusiastic fans to try and talk their way on-set, and so there was nothing about the seventeen-year-old that was a cause for alarm. But security knew better than to grant access to the public and so Bardo, like many before him, was turned away. But he refused to take no for an answer and insisted that he should be allowed to meet the actress. ‘I thought he was just lovesick, which I think he was,’ claimed Jack Egger, a former Beverly Hills police captain who, during the eighties, was chief of security at the studio. ‘He was terribly insistent on being let in. ‘Rebecca Schaeffer’ was every other word. ‘I gotta see her. I love her. If I could just see her for a minute.’ He seemed to be an intelligent kid; no raving lunatic, no dumbbell, but something was definitely wrong, mentally. There was something haywire going on, but I didn’t perceive it as potentially violent.’
However, Bardo remained insistent that he be allowed to speak with Schaeffer, and so Egger took the young fan to his security office to discuss the matter further. ‘He was one of the most lucid and intelligent types of people that I’ve dealt with,’ explained Egger. ‘He proceeded to tell me how much he was in love with Rebecca Schaeffer and he just wanted to see her and give her the flowers and the teddy bear. I let him know firmly that he wouldn’t get in.’ For Mimi Weber, one of the leading executives on the show, the initial confrontation with Bardo seemed inconsequential at the time. ‘So a fan tried to get on the lot? So what? Who’s going to think he’s a potential murderer?’ she declared. ‘It would have seemed harmless, another young kid who’s star-struck. We have tons of those. Lots are loveable, some are crazy. But who’s to know?’ After a long discussion, Egger drove Bardo back to his cheap Hollywood motel. ‘I dropped him off and told him the best thing would be for him to go back to Tucscon. He said, ‘I’m going to do that.’ All in all, it was a pleasant encounter. I felt I’d accomplished something.’
For Bardo though, being turned away from the studio was a rejection he was unable to process. ‘I was frustrated and it hit me hard, because I wasn’t expecting that,’ he confessed. ‘I didn’t understand it. It made me feel bad.’ For some time, Bardo had been writing long letters to Schaeffer, where he felt he was able to express his true feelings to someone who could truly understand him. ‘I’m a sensitive guy,’ he told her in one correspondent. ‘I’m harmless. You could hurt me.’ But when My Sister Sam was suddenly cancelled in the spring of 1988, Bardo’s attention began to wane and he soon turned to other popular teen stars such as Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, even travelling to New York in an attempt to meet the latter. Tiffany had become the teen sensation of the year with her number one rendition of I Think We’re Alone Now, while Gibson’s debut album Out of the Blue had achieved multi-Platinum status. Both had become regular fixtures of television shows and magazine covers around the country, and their record labels had marketed them as the girls-next-door, with Tiffany just fifteen-years-old when she first found success. But his fascination with Schaeffer still remained.
Following the demise of My Sister Sam, Schaeffer was once again auditioning for film and television roles, although this time her meetings would take place in Hollywood. Her first project was the pilot for another television series, Out of Time, a science-fiction thriller in which a police officer travels back in time from the late twenty-first century in an attempt to stop a nefarious criminal from obtaining a radical new medicine that could eradicate most known diseases. In the role of the villainous Richard Marcus was Adam Ant, a leading figure in the British new romantic scene of the early eighties. ‘Intended as a pilot for a possible series for stand-up comedian Bill Maher, it also included Bruce Abbot, who’d starred in Re-Animator,’ detailed Ant in his memoir Stand and Deliver. ‘Abbott plays a cop from the future who goes back in time to help his grandfather fight crime in present-day Los Angeles. I again played the bad guy. I was beginning to worry that I was being typecast.’ While Maher would portray Abbott’s great-grandfather in twentieth century California, Schaeffer was cast as the assistant to the scientist that had developed the medicine, and thus mankind’s last hope against such deadly diseases as AIDS and cancer.
Out of Time would be rejected as a series and was instead released on home video as a made-for-television film, earning negative reviews and poor sales. Schaeffer’s next project was only a minor role, but in a high-profile project directed by Paul Bartel, the man responsible for the critically-acclaimed Eating Raoul. The story of two rich households seen through the eyes of their male servants, the central concept of Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills focused on Juan, the dogsbody for the widowed Clare Lipkin, making a wager with Frank, the next-door-neighbour’s chauffer, that he can sleep with Frank’s employer before he can bed Clare. If Juan wins then his gambling debts will be cleared, but if Frank wins then he finally has the chance of taking the handsome Juan to bed. ‘My one regret about that movie is that the gay relationship was predicated on a bet and the straight guy was obliged to go through with it without particularly wanting to,’ revealed Bartel to The Advocate in 1998. ‘On the other hand, what I’m proud of is the scene the next morning, where it’s clear he doesn’t think it was any big deal and possibly even enjoyed it. I’m very interested in building bridges between gay people and straight people, allowing for sexual interchange of experience and, above all, acceptance and understanding.’
Compose a ‘death list’
Having spent two years as the star of a sitcom, Schaeffer was desperate to try her hand at more dramatic roles, and with her next project she joined the ensemble cast of a three-hour mini-series that dramatized the terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro, a large vessel overtaken by four Palestinian radicals in 1985, resulting in the brutal murder of sixty-nine-year-old Leon Klinghoffer. ‘The hijackers of the Achille Luro selected a group of Americans and other passengers and they shuffled their passports to compose a ‘death list’ of those who would be executed,’ reported the New York Times. ‘‘They numbered them like cattle,’ said Nicholas A. Veliotes, the United States Ambassador to Egypt, who interviewed many passengers. ‘They said to him, ‘You’re number one, you’re number two, number three, number four, number five.’ Mr. Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound owner of an appliance manufacturing company in New York, was eventually shot in the forehead and his body thrown overboard. There are several reports that the hijackers may have ordered the ship’s barber and another crew member to push Klinghoffer and his wheelchair into the waters off Tartus, Syria.’
Leading the cast of Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair were screen legends Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint as Klinghoffer and his wife Marilyn, with Schaeffer in another supporting role as one of the passengers fearing for their lives. Lancaster had been a star for over half a century, and despite numerous health issues, had recently appeared as ageing baseball star Moonlight Graham in the fantasy Field of Dreams. ‘In June, he and Susie went to Italy to film Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair for the new Tribune Premiere Network, to be aired in May 1990,’ wrote Lancaster biographer Kate Buford. ‘It was the second television recreation of the tragic October 1985 Mediterranean cruise, during which Palestine hijackers shot American Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer, paralysed on his right side by an earlier stroke and wheelchair-bound, and threw him overboard. This production’s claim to authenticity was that, except for some scenes shot at Cinecittà, most of the story was filmed aboard the original ship, which retraced the voyage’s route from Geneo to Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt.’
Schaeffer’s final roles would come with The Age of Innocence, Dyan Cannon’s semi-autobiographical account of her adolescence that saw Schaeffer portraying the director as a teenager. ‘It’s a movie about a woman who keeps giving herself away to everyone in her life; her parents, she does everything her parents’ way, her boyfriend’s way, she doesn’t have any relationships that work,’ Cannon told chat-show host David Letterman in 1990. ‘From the time I started the writing of it to the time I have finished publicising it, it will be a three-year project. It’s not my life but all the feelings that I understand are in the movie, and I wanted all the creative control. So I went to Carol Little, who’s a girlfriend of mine, a dress designer. She gave me a million-and-a-half, she and her husband, because that’s what the line producer told me it would cost to make. I believed him, but it ran over. It ran to three-and-a-half million, so I sold my house to pay for it.’
In the year since the cancellation of My Sister Sam, Schaeffer had appeared in both forgettable television movies and acclaimed dramas, but she was determined to escape from supporting roles and embrace something with more substance. And on 18 July 1989, she awaited the arrival of a screenplay entitled The Godfather Part III, the long-awaited closing instalment of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic story of Mafia family Corleone and the rise of their patriarch, Michael. For the closing chapter, the film introduced the protagonist’s daughter, Mary Corleone, a role that every young actress in Hollywood was determine to win. Schaeffer was set to audition for the part with Coppola, but the role would ultimately go to Winona Ryder. Following her screen debut with Lucas in 1986, the teenager had become an icon through her roles in such cult classics as Beetlejuice and Heathers, but having worked nonstop since her big break, Ryder had failed to take time off between projects, and by the time that principal photography on Mermaids came to an end in December 1989, she collapsed due to exhaustion. As a result, Ryder backed out of The Godfather Part III, leading to speculations in the tabloids.
‘I’m really burnt out defending myself because the truth is so simple,’ Ryder told writer Holly George-Warren in 1997. ‘I was sick physically and exhausted. That’s what happened. It’s amazing how people want things to be as complicated and nasty as possible. I think maybe some people are waiting for me to fuck up, because I hadn’t really fucked up yet. Obviously, I would have loved to have worked with those wonderful actors and a great director. But it wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, I’m not feeling too well today. Maybe I won’t do this movie.’ The doctor was there, and he said, ‘You have an upper-respiratory infection. You can’t do it.’ My leaving the movie was disappointing to everybody, especially to me.’ While Madonna had been rejected for being too old for the role, Coppola’s first choice, Julia Roberts, was committed to Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, and so the director was forced to cast his daughter as Mary Corleone. ‘When my father was writing the script, he based a lot of the character on me,’ Sofia Coppola told Entertainment Weekly. ‘I even did read-throughs of the script before they cast Winona Ryder. But when I got it, I was worried. Did I just get it because I’m his daughter?’
The last film to be released during Schaeffer’s lifetime was Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which would make its debut barely six weeks before her death. During a montage near the end of the picture, each of the principal characters awoke the next morning in bed with their respective lover, and when Bardo saw Schaeffer lying under the covers with co-star Ray Sharkey, he allegedly became enraged, considering her just ‘another Hollywood whore.’ The role had required no nudity, with only lead actress Jacqueline Bisset baring her breasts, but seeing the girl of his dreams in bed with another man filled him with anger. By this point, he had already obtained Schaeffer’s address from the Anthony Agency in Tucson, who had sought her personal details through the Department of Motor Vehicles. But the agency believed the young man posed no threat to the young actress. ‘Rebecca Schaeffer was a low-risk victim. Although she was becoming famous, she lived a low-key lifestyle in an average, relatively safe neighbourhood. According to her friends and co-workers, she was well-liked, and her talent was greatly respected,’ wrote Joen E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker in their 1998 book Obsession. ‘Bardo was more resourceful and focused on the mission to kill Schaeffer than he had been with anything else in his life. In Arizona, you had to be twenty-one to purchase a firearm, so Bardo got an older brother to buy one for him. He wanted to make sure his attempt wasn’t a failure, so he got hollow-point cartridges, designed to expand as they penetrate.’
Robert John Bardo collected the Manila envelope from off his bed and then carefully concealed the handgun, checking his appearance in the mirror before making his way to the nearby bus station. Purchasing a return ticket to Los Angeles, he quietly took a seat and stared out of the window at the world he felt was passing him by. Taking care to keep his weapon from view, he spent the long journey to California daydreaming about what he would say when he came face-to-face with Rebecca Schaeffer and, more importantly, what she might say when she greeted him at the door. Finally disembarking from the Greyhound bus, he travelled to the Fairfax District of the city, where he soon found himself on North Sweetzer Avenue. But despite having the address he had procured from the investigators, he was unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, and so sought directions from a variety of locals, eventually arriving at her door at approximately 8am one Tuesday morning. Despite being shocked and uncomfortable at his decision to visit her home, Schaeffer remained calm and courteous, even bidding farewell to the stranger with, ‘Please take care.’
But Bardo had forgotten to present her with his gift, and so two hours later he returned to the door and knocked once again. ‘She was in a bathrobe and I was thinking this is the wrong time, she’s taking a shower,’ he would later recall, with Schaeffer believing her screenplay was finally being delivered. ‘She said, ‘You came to my door again.’ It was like I was bothering her again. ‘Hurry up, I don’t have much time.’ I thought that was very callous to say to a fan.’ Angered by what he had perceived as a rejection, he revealed his handgun and opened fire, shooting her point-blank in the chest. ‘She was going, ‘Why, why?’ I was still fumbling around, thinking I should blow my head off and fall on her.’ The residents of this quiet suburban neighbourhood suddenly became alert to the sound of gunfire. ‘I was in the kitchen making coffee and I heard what sounded like a car backfiring,’ writer Richard Goldman told the tabloids. ‘After the pop, there were two bloodcurdling screams. I looked out the window and I saw a guy in a yellow shirt jogging at a fair clip.’
Bardo fled the scene and hastily made his way back towards the bus station, discarding any criminal evidence as he ran from witnesses. Within minutes, police officers and paramedics had arrived at the apartment building, with Schaeffer transported to a nearby hospital as the authorities questioned neighbours for clues. Due to the nature of the bullet and the close proximity of the shooter, doctors had little chance of saving her from her wounds, and at approximately 10:45am, twenty-one-year-old Rebecca Schaeffer was pronounced dead. News of her murder soon reached her parents, who had remained in Portland while she pursued her dream of becoming an actress. Her mother, Danna, was working on a new play when the phone rang downstairs, but being engrossed with her writing, she allowed it to go to voicemail. Sometime later she decided to take a break, and upon checking her messages was greeted with an exasperated voice that insisted she return the call. When the stranger answered he declared, ‘Mrs. Schaeffer, I have terrible news for you.’ Her daughter, she was informed, had been seriously injured. Phoning the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she received the news that would tear her world apart. ‘She would only say a woman had been admitted and died,’ she recalled two years later. ‘And at that point I kind of knew. Then the detectives called. And it was all over.’
The classic sick fan
When news of her murder reached the media that afternoon, the authorities confessed that they had little in the way of leads, but that the culprit was most likely an obsessed fan. In a statement to the press, LAPD Detective Dan Andrews revealed, ‘It smacks of the classic sick fan. The killer was apparently in the neighbourhood earlier that morning with a photograph of the victim and asked a pedestrian if she had seen the victim. This again is a fan, not a boyfriend.’ But with no evidence that placed Bardo at the scene of the crime, it would seem that the killer had escaped justice. But no matter how premeditated a crime, sometimes the perpetrator is haunted by a guilty conscience, and in less than twenty-four hours he had confessed to his crime. ‘On Wednesday morning, police in Tucson began receiving calls about a man behaving bizarrely and disrupting traffic at a major intersection,’ revealed People. ‘They arrived and found Bardo, a troubled and unemployed young man who last worked as a janitor at a Jack-in-the-Box.’
Bardo was taken into custody and questioned by local police, but when he finally confessed to his crime, they immediately contacted the LAPD to corroborate his claims. Held on bail to the sum of $1m, authorities in California sought to extradict the suspect to stand trial in Los Angeles. Bardo soon began to reveal details on not only how he had planned the murder, but also his attempts to discard the incriminating evidence. ‘Acting on information reportedly provided by murder suspect Robert John Bardo, Los Angeles authorities recovered a yellow shirt, a gun holster and a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye only blocks from the Fairfax District apartment,’ revealed the Los Angeles Times. ‘Included in Bardo’s statements, authorities said, were directions on where they could find items he discarded in Los Angeles, LAPD Detective David Escoto said. The long-sleeved yellow shirt with a button-down collar was found on the roof of a building occupied by Target Cleaners and Stroud’s Linen at Crescent Heights and Beverly boulevards, almost four blocks from the murder scene. Witnesses said they had seen Schaeffer’s assailant fleeing the scene in a yellow shirt, jeans and floppy sandals. When Bardo was arrested in Tucscon, he was wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. A red paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye was found on the roof of the Beverly Palms Rehabilitation Center on Beverly Boulevard.’
The Catcher in the Rye, the iconic tale of alienation and teenage rebellion from J.D. Salinger, would prove significant as the novel had already played a small role in a murder almost a decade earlier, one that first brought the danger of celebrity stalkers to the attention of the world. On 8 December 1980, John Lennon, who had become a pop star and icon through his work in the Beatles during the sixties, was shot dead outside his New York home by twenty-five-year-old fan Mark David Chapman. Following years of drug abuse, Chapman had rediscovered his faith and had begun to rebuff anything he felt was morally corruptive or offensive. ‘He carried a notebook inscribed ‘Jesus,’ and turned vociferously against rock ‘n’ roll,’ documented People the following summer. ‘In doing so, Mark turned against John Lennon in particular. Most Americans had taken Lennon’s remark about Jesus as offhandedly as it had been intended, but the South had not. There had been a wave of Anti-Beatles demonstrations, Beatles albums were burned in community bonfires, and no fewer than thirty-five radio stations observed a boycott of Beatles music. After opening fire on Lennon, Chapman was found by police a few minutes later reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, something that would leave a considerable impression on Bardo.
Three months after the death of Lennon, one man’s devotion to an eighteen-year-old actress would result in an assassination attempt on the President of the United States. John Hinkley Jr. had developed an obsession with Jodie Foster after he had viewed the 1976 drama Taxi Driver, in which she had portrayed a teenage prostitute. During the final act of the film, its protagonist, Travis Bickle, attempted to assassinate a presidential candidate, and so to Hinkley, making a similar gesture for Foster would win her affection. ‘Someone yelled as we went by, ‘Hey, did you hear? Reagan got shot!’ We continued on,’ recalled Foster in a 1982 article published by Esquire. ‘At dinnertime everyone was asking if we’d heard what the President’s condition was. Well, my radio had been busted for three months and my friend’s was terminally glued to the local reggae station. ‘Come on. This is college. News can wait.’ No one seemed to mention the assailant until late in the evening. I finally sauntered home around 10:30. My roommate opened the door before I could get my key in. ‘John,’ she said. ‘John who?’ ‘John Hinkley.’ ‘What about him? Did he write me again?’ ‘He’s the one, I think. It was on the radio.’ ‘Bullshit! You’re imagining things.’ The phone was ringing. I answered it. My dean said, ‘Don’t be upset.’ He explained that my pictures and address had been found on the arrested man.’
One incident that would provide inspiration for Bardo was the violent attack on actress Theresa Saldana outside her Hollywood home in March 1982. Making her way to her car, she was repeatedly stabbed by a drifter from Scotland called Arthur Jackson. He had successfully obtained her address through a private investigator, and on Monday, 15 March, he accosted her with a large hunting knife. ‘In the first interview since the near-fatal attack last Monday outside her West Hollywood apartment, Miss Saldana described the horror of being pounced upon in a quiet, residential street only steps from her front door,’ wrote UPI. ‘‘I was fighting with him,’ the actress said Saturday from her room at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. ‘I was screaming, ‘He’s killing me! He’s killing me! He’s killing me!’ I just kept screaming because I knew if I just screamed, ‘Help!’ maybe no one would come. I was walking to my car and a man came up to me very close,’ she said. ‘He came very close to me and he said very slowly, ‘Are you Theresa Saldana?’ Then I knew who he was. I didn’t answer and I tried to run. He grabbed me and at the same time he reached in somewhere, either in a bag or pocket, and he pulled out a knife. He just immediately started to stab me.’ Jeff Fenn, twenty-six, a deliveryman from the Sparkletts Water Co., pulled the man off the bleeding woman and disarmed him.’ It was Jackson’s method of obtaining Saldana’s personal address that would inspire Bardo to seek out Rebecca Schaeffer.
Bardo was extradited in August 1989, the same month in which Schaeffer’s co-stars from My Sister Sam – Dawber, David Naughton, Joel Brooks and Jenny O’Hara – filmed a public service announcement in support of gun control. ‘The general public does not understand that we are just people who got lucky and happen to be on television,’ said Dawber in a press statement. ‘This was our friend.’ The trial of Robert John Bardo began in September 1991, more than two years after the death of Schaeffer, with Superior Judge Dino Fulgoni presiding. Much of the evidence used by both the prosecution and defence were obtained through an interview with Bardo that was conducted two years earlier by psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. The lawyer selected as prosecutor is a woman who, just three years later, would become a celebrity in her own right as she sought to prosecute O.J Simpson in the murder of his wife. Much like Bardo, Marcia Clark had spent most of her childhood moving around the country as her father, a chemist for the Food and Drink Administration, was forced to regularly relocate due to the demands of his role. Despite initially training to be an actress at the Susan Wagner High School, she eventually enrolled at the UCLA and, as she separated from her first husband, took the bar exam. She joined the District Attorney’s office in 1981 and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a member of the special trials unit in 1989. Seeing Schaeffer as an innocent victim, she was determined to see Bardo face justice.
On the second day of the trial, Warner Bros.’s head of security, Jack Effer, was called to testify regarding the incident in the summer of 1987, in which Bardo had attempted to meet Schaeffer during the filming of My Sister Sam. ‘We get a hundred cases in a year, people trying to get in, fans writing letters,’ he had explained. ‘What more could I have done?’ One unexpected piece of evidence that was presented during the trial was Exit, a song by the Irish rock group U2 from their critically-acclaimed 1987 album The Joshua Tree. ‘In fact, it was not until the U2 song was played in the courtroom, towards the end of the hearings, that Bardo looked engaged. ‘He sat motionless through the trial,’ the Associated Press reported. ‘Bardo ‘sprang to life, grinned, bobbed to the music and mouthed the lyrics when the song was played in court,’ wrote The I. ‘Exit, inspired by two books about murderers, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was used as a key part of Bardo’s defence. His legal team admitted that he had shot Schaeffer. But they argued he was suffering from schizophrenia and ‘the very sick young man’ had been inspired to kill her by Exit, the penultimate song on U2’s album. A psychiatrist testified that Bardo ‘interpreted parts of the lyrics as references to himself and Schaeffer.’ The prosecution team, led by Marcia Clark, who would later become famous in the O.J. Simpson trial, argued that Bardo had planned the killing rather than it be impulsive.’
As a result of the controversy caused by the murder trial, U2 would retire Exit from their live set until 2017, when the band performed The Joshua Tree in its entirety in celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. ‘I just want to wash it off my skin,’ admitted frontman Bono in an interview with Hot Press in 1993. ‘And I broke my shoulder and did unearth a lot of shit from within myself, doing the song on stage. It’s also a song somebody used in a murder. It came out later that the guy claimed the song made him do it. That’s what I mean about not wanting to fuck with the devil. That sounded to me like a good lawyer at work for his client. But I still feel you have to go down those streets in your music. If that’s where the subject is taking you, you have to follow. At least in the imagination. I’m not sure if I want to get down there to live. I’ll take a walk occasionally, and have a drink with the devil, but I’m not moving in with him.’ When U2 performed Exit once again, Bono admitted he had reservations about returning to the song. ‘I was very glad not to play it for many years,’ he told Rolling Stone. ‘I’d rather not step back into that song, but I found a way by thinking of where it came from, going back to the books I was reading at the time. I realised the real influence was probably Flannery O’Connor, so I developed this character called the Shadow Man without any self-harm.’
The trial finally came to an end on 29 October 1991 when Robert John Bardo was found guilty of murder in the first degree for the death of Schaeffer. The judge agreed to remove the death sentence if Bardo would wave his rights to a jury trial, and when the verdict came down, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bardo’s lawyer, Stephen Galdino, had attempted to depict his client as a victim, shifting the blame for the murder to a society that had failed him. ‘Rebecca Schaeffer is the victim in the true sense of the word and did nothing to deserve what happened to her,’ Galdino told the Los Angeles Times. ‘Robert Bardo, too, is a victim.’ But for Clark, it was imperative that Bardo remained behind bars, where he would be unable to hurt another innocent person. ‘I’m relieved that Bardo is locked up,’ she admitted decades later. ‘But I don’t think of myself as proud in any way of the verdict. Good things came of it, but none of those things bring Rebecca back.’
Unauthorised discosures of such information
The first positive change to come from the trial was the introduction of the Brady Bill, named after Reagan’s press secretary who had been seriously injured during Hinkey’s assassination attempt in 1981. Schaeffer’s mother, Danna, became a key activist in the fight against gun crimes in America, leading an organisation called Oregon’s Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and was a major supporter of the new bill. ‘Arguing against the Brady Bill is like arguing against yourself,’ claimed Schaeffer. Even more significantly, the Driver’s Privacy Protection was passed following the revelation that a private detective had obtained Rebecca Schaeffer’s home address through the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles. ‘At the time the Act was passed, it was common practice among states to routinely sell personal data from motor vehicle records to individuals and businesses, including direct mail companies, and legislatures became concerned that such data might be misused or abused,’ wrote Jacqueline Klosek in Data Privacy in the Information Age. ‘Most states require a large amount of personal information to be included on a driver’s license. Normally, the personal information on a driver’s licence includes the driver’s name, address, telephone number, age, height, weight and, in some cases, medical data. Under the Act, states are prohibited from any unauthorised disclosures of such information.’
In the decades since the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, celebrities have continued to find themselves the target of obsessed stalkers, something that has become even more commonplace due to such social media platforms as Instagram and Twitter. Now actors, singers and even politicians can awaken to find abusive messages in their inbox, sent by an anonymous nuisance from the privacy of their own home. Meanwhile, those close to Schaeffer have dealt with the grief of her death in different ways, with some even turning their pain into art. ‘About a year and a half ago, I wrote a memoir,’ revealed Danna Schaeffer to Fox News in 2018. ‘A friend read it and said, ‘You only mention Rebecca in the last chapter. The whole book should really be about Rebecca.’ And somehow, I don’t know, I just didn’t feel like I could write it. I wanted to act it. I feel like I can do that now.’ The result was You in Midair, a ninety-minute one-woman show, adapted from an earlier concept called My Little Jezebel, that finally allowed her to process her sadness and loss in a cathartic way. ‘People loved it and responded very positively and powerfully,’ she later claimed. Brad Silberling, Schaeffer’s boyfriend at the time of her death, had already directed a film entitled Moonlight Mile that drew inspiration from the aftermath of her death. ‘It stopped me cold in my tracks,’ he told the Guardian in 2003.
Having survived a knife attack from a fellow inmate in 2007, Robert John Bardo continues to serve a life sentence at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California for the murder of Schaeffer, but the crime he committed more than thirty years ago has left a lasting impact not only on Hollywood but the laws that protect American citizens. ‘As a result of this crime, and the physical attack on actress Theresa Saldana by drifter Arthur Jackson several years earlier, in 1990 the California legislature passed the first anti-stalking law in the United States, effective 1 January 1991,’ wrote J. Reid Meloy in The Psychology of Stalking. ‘By 1992, staking and harassment laws were enacted in thirty other states. The District of Columbia and all the remaining states, with the exception of Maine, passed stalking laws in 1993. Stalking is a continuous crime, and all stalking statutes require at least two or more incidents to constitute the crime. In Illinois, the stalking statute requires a threat and relevant conduct in furtherance of the threat. Other states, including California, require a ‘continuity of purpose.’ In most states, the crime of stalking requires a credible threat, direct or implied, that places the victim in reasonable fear.’
On 18 July 1989, the life of twenty-one-year-old Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer was tragically cut short in a moment of senseless violence, committed by a disturbed individual who had developed an unhealthy obsession with her over the course of three years. He had sent her letters and had attempted to visit her at her place of work, before finally appearing on her doorstep one summer morning with a gun in-hand, firing a single shot into her chest. Half an hour later she was dead. While her murder would ultimately bring about changes in the law that would save other celebrities, as well as members of the public that had become the target of a stalker, the fact remained that an innocent young woman was killed. ‘Rebecca cannot be forgotten,’ insisted Marcia Clark in 2017. ‘I took one look at her and fell in love with her,’ admitted Nannette Troutman, the one who had ‘discovered’ her. ‘Rebecca was just a beaming ray of light,’ declared Jenny O’Hara, her co-star on My Sister Sam. But all this was brought to an end with a single bullet, an obsession that had been fuelled by a photograph, given as a token of appreciation to a man, that had been signed, ‘Love, Rebecca.’