I am so wise, to think love will prevail. I am so wise.- Rebecca Schaeffer, 1989
In July of 1989, a month before the killings of Jose and Kitty Menendez shocked L.A. and took over the airwaves and newspapers, a young actress named Rebecca Schaeffer was stalked and killed by an overzealous fan.
Rebecca was a lovely girl who had started her career modeling for local department store catalogs and commercials and then wholesome outlets like Seventeen magazine, the Bible for adolescent girls in the 70s and 80s. In an era and an industry that worshipped blue eyed blondes, her curly auburn hair and brown eyes made her a standout. Also a standout was her sweet demeanor, kind nature and intelligence.
Roles on the ABC daytime soap One Life to Live and the Woody Allen film Radio Days followed (although her Radio Days role would end up on the cutting room floor.) Rebecca was bitten by the acting bug and Hollywood came calling, with a role on a new sitcom called My Sister Sam. Her role as Patti gave her greater exposure and a fan base. She was known for personally responding to all her fan mail herself. One of those fans who wrote her was Robert John Bardo.
Bardo was a high school dropout working as a fast food restaurant janitor from Tucson, Arizona who had been institutionalized at fifteen for emotional problems, following a childhood of abuse and problems including at least one threat of suicide. Too bad for Rebecca that he didn't follow through on the threat.
He had become obsessed with peace activist and actress Samantha Smith, all of thirteen years old, stalking her in earnest before she was killed in a plane crash in 1985. Her death left an opening in Bardo's fevered mind, one that he was able to replace with Rebecca when My Sister Sam premiered in 1986.
The sitcom was nothing groundbreaking and very 80s. Rebecca, however, shined. Her Patti was representative of what every teen girl was or wanted to be in the mid to late 1980s. She had a wonderful chemistry with costar Pam Dawber (late of Mork & Mindy fame); so much so that Rebecca would live with Dawber and her soon to be husband Mark Harmon before moving into her own apartment in West Hollywood, on Sweetzer Avenue.
The show ran for only two full seasons but during that time, Bardo travelled to L.A. and attempted to get on to the Warner Brothers set with gifts to meet Rebecca. He was motivated in part by a response that she had sent him after receiving a fan letter. He was denied access to her and returned home where he wrote her more fan letters. He also went to see her in her latest film and was left irate after a scene that depicted her in bed with a man. Bardo likely saw her as virginal and innocent; that image was shattered after watching her on a theater screen with another man. Not one to be rational, he decided then that Rebecca had to die to pay for her immoral behavior.
In the year or so prior to the murder, Bardo was arrested three times for domestic violence and disorderly conduct. He began exhibiting strange and threatening behavior toward his neighbors and hired a private detective to find out where Rebecca lived.
Back in 1989, anyone with a couple of bucks could fill out a form at the DMV and get anyone's address. That's right, anyone. You had to give your name and the reason why you needed this other person's address but even if your reason was complete bullshit, the information was turned over to you on the spot. Frankly it's amazing more celebrities weren't stalked with horrifying outcomes.
While Bardo's private detective was getting Rebecca's home address, Bardo himself was attempting to obtain a handgun. He was denied after admitting on his paperwork that he had been institutionalized. Not one to be deterred, he returned with his brother who bought the gun in his name and then promptly turned it over to Bardo upon leaving the store.
The scene was now set for tragedy. Bardo wrote his sister, living in Tennessee, a letter that if he couldn't have Rebecca, no one could and then packed his illegally acquired gun and hopped a bus for L.A. He arrived in town on July 17, 1989.
On July 18, Rebecca was due to audition for The Godfather III. She was home, dressed casually in a black robe, and waiting for the script to be delivered to her. Bardo, armed with the address the private detective had acquired from the DMV, rang her bell that morning. As the intercom to her apartment was broken, she came downstairs. It must have shocked Bardo. He had spent three years devoted to Rebecca and countless attempts to see her in person without success. Now she was in front of him. He told her he was a fan and she graciously gave him an autograph. He left to go to a restaurant down the street, dining on onion rings and cheesecake and reading through The Catcher in the Rye. An hour later, he was back at Sweetzer Avenue.
When the bell rang again, Rebecca must have thought it was the script being delivered to her for the audition that afternoon. She must have been surprised to see Robert John Bardo once again at her door. He claimed later that she accused him of wasting her time although it's unknown exactly what conversation transpired, if any. What is known is that Bardo fired a shot into Rebecca's chest and ran off as she fell, screaming. A neighbor overheard the gunshot and Rebecca's screams and called 9-1-1. She was rushed to Cedars Sinai where she died thirty minutes later from the bullet to her heart.
Bardo had been spotted running from the scene. Witnesses later recalled him walking the neighborhood the day before the murder, with Rebecca's photo, asking persons if they knew where she lived. He had tossed his copy of The Catcher in the Rye in an alley down the street from Rebecca's home. He would be arrested the following day in Tucson, where he was wandering aimlessly in traffic. He immediately confessed to the murder.
As expected, Bardo's attorneys argued that the murder was a result of his unstable mental condition (duh) because of childhood abuse. Cry me a river, seriously. Thank God that excuse went over like a lead balloon. Marcia Clark, who would become famous in 1994 thanks to her connection with the O.J. Simpson case, prosecuted Bardo in a non-jury trial, resulting in him getting life without parole.
One of the more frustrating aspects of this case is that he told his sister what he was going to do - - maybe not in so many words but given his history and unstable behavior, one or twelve red flags should have been flying. But nothing, it seems. And worse, no charges were brought against his brother, who committed a federal violation by lying on his firearms application by being a "straw man" for Bardo. Without the brother's intervention, Rebecca Schaeffer likely would not have died on July 18, 1989.
The system failed Bardo but more importantly, failed Rebecca. Bardo had many issues that were apparently ignored, bypassed, swept under the rug. He had an unhealthy fascination with Samantha Smith, a child, before Rebecca and was reportedly following the movements of singers Debbie Gibson and Tiffany simultaneously with Rebecca.
Bardo remains incarcerated in California. He was stabbed eleven times by a fellow prisoner in 2007 but managed to survive and remain to be a drain on state taxpayers.
The one positive thing that came out of Rebecca's tragic death, along with the frightening attack on actress Theresa Saldana, was recognition of stalking and an anti-stalking law that went into effect on January 1, 1991. This law prohibits the DMV from releasing addresses of residents. By 1993, all states, along with Canada, would have active anti-stalking laws. The LAPD also instituted a Threat Management Team.
Rebecca died at only twenty-one, with a lifetime of promise ahead of her, but she left behind a legacy of love and caring. In 1989 she was a spokesperson for Thursday's Child, a charity for at-risk teens. She made a personal appearance at a girls' shelter, signing autographs and graciously agreeing to return for their Renaissance Fair. She loved nature and wrote poetry. As her grave marker says, she was a courageous spirit.