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- July 31, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 5
An Innocent Life, a Heartbreaking Death
Rebecca Schaeffer Was Living Every Young Actress's Dream—Until, Police Say, a Deluded Fan with a Gun Took It All Away
A 21-year-old native of Portland, Ore., Schaeffer seemed to have a career on the rise. She had co-starred with Pam Dawber in the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam and recently finished a film directed by Dyan Cannon, One Point of View. She is currently onscreen in the comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Charming and effervescent, she was living in a quiet neighborhood just east of that class struggle, L.A.'s middle-class Fairfax area, when she woke last Tuesday morning to a world full of opportunity.
The first sign of trouble came when her neighbors noticed a stranger in a yellow polo shirt wandering the streets. He carried a bulky manila folder and handled it gingerly, "Like it contained food and he didn't want to turn it over," as a witness later put it. From the package he would pull a glossy publicity photo of Schaeffer and ask passersby if they knew her and where she lived. "I just looked at him and said, 'What?' " says Irene Tishkoff, who encountered him outside a market. "He looked weird." Debbie Kennedy bumped into him twice. "It was strange seeing him twice," she says, "You think about it for a second, and then go your own way. That's what you do in L.A." Later he was seen talking to a cab driver outside the North Sweetzer Ave. building where Schaeffer lived. "Is this a house or an apartment building?" he was overheard to ask.
Not long thereafter, neighbors heard a shot and two screams. "It was bloodcurdling," says Richard Goldman, who lives across the street. Kenneth Newell, another neighbor, saw Schaeffer's body lying in her doorway. "Her eyes were open and glazed over," he says. "I took her pulse, and there was no beat." She had been shot once, in the chest. The man in the yellow shirt was seen jogging up the block. Half an hour later Schaeffer was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
After the murder, but before an arrest was made, police and friends speculated that the killer was a deranged fan. "I can only assume that it was somebody who didn't know her but was obsessed with her," said Class Struggle director Paul Bartel. "I can't imagine that anybody who really knew her would do this. She was so mature and intuitive that she would have made sure this couldn't happen."
Bartel was right. On Wednesday morning, police in Tucson began receiving calls about a man behaving bizarrely and disrupting traffic at a major intersection. They arrived and found Bardo, a troubled and unemployed young man who last worked as a janitor at a Jack-in-the-Box. L.A. police said they had been tipped that Bardo might be their man by a friend of his in Tennessee; the friend said Bardo had told him about his obsession with Schaeffer, that he had written a love letter to her and that he had threatened to hurt her. Tucson police faxed Bardo's picture to L.A., and Schaeffer's neighbors identified him as the man who had been hanging around that morning.
The single dreadful bullet that hit Schaeffer conjured up the darkest nightmares of anyone who ever watched the red light atop the camera go on—anyone who ever realized that, among all those fans out there, some one of them might be mad.
The last man to shoot a President sprang first to mind. "You didn't wear your plaid skirt today," John Hinckley Jr. wrote in 1980 to his fantasy figure, the young actress Jodie Foster. "You have no right to disrupt our relationship in such a manner."
Months later the disturbed youth shot Ronald Reagan and critically wounded press secretary James Brady. His reason was framed in one of his many unanswered and scary letters to Foster: "You'll be proud of me, Jodie. Millions of Americans will love me—us." Part of what moved Hinckley to his crime, it later developed, was the murder of John Lennon at the hands of another deranged fan, Mark Chapman.
In the years since then, an uncomfortable number of people have been found to have experienced such twisted love and hate.
On the violent dark side of the law, an escaped convict named Daniel Vega threatened several celebrities and then stalked Donna Mills, the star of the prime-time soap Knots Landing. When Vega was cornered near Pasadena, Calif., and emerged with guns drawn, he was killed by police.
Last week, a woman was arraigned on charges—to which she pleaded not guilty—of sending more than 5,000 letters, including death threats, to Family Ties star Michael J. Fox. Tina Marie Ledbetter, 26, was allegedly upset because her idol had gotten married.
Even more frightening is the case of Ralph J. Nau, 34, an Illinois mental-ward inmate who was suspected of having killed his 8-year-old stepbrother with an ax but was acquitted of the crime. For complex legal reasons, Nau, who has twice trailed Olivia Newton-John to Australia, may be released this summer. He is considered so dangerous that an Assistant State's Attorney has sent warning letters to 40 celebrities who have figured in Nau's fantasy life.
Incidents of lesser celebrity harassments abound. Fortunately most are not hazardous to anyone's health. Everyone who has spent much time in the public eye knows that any public outing is likely to be interrupted and quiet conversation at a restaurant becomes a thing of the past. "We never had a dinner out when there weren't people at our table asking for autographs," says Shari Theismann, ex-wife of former star quarterback Joe. "[They want to tell you about] their devotion to the Redskins, how long they've had tickets, down to their personal problems. They just sit down and start telling you."
But few celebrities are prepared for the likes of Margaret M. Ray, who broke a window and made herself and her son at home at David Letterman's residence in New Canaan, Conn. She also tooled around in his Porsche for a few days while he was away.
In Canada pop singer Anne Murray was bothered for years by a farmer named Robert Kieling. After numerous prior convictions for harassment, Kieling was convicted once again this year after calling Murray 263 times in six months.
"The cult of celebrity provides archetypes and icons with which alienated souls can identify," says psychologist Marilyn Robinette Marx. "On top of that, this country has been embarking for a long time on a field experiment in the use of violence on TV. It is commonplace to watch people getting blown away. We've given the losers in life or sex a rare chance to express their dominance."
Gavin de Becker, an L.A. security expert who helps stars ward off unwanted attentions, thinks the problem is increasing. "It's getting much worse," says de Becker. "It's because of the emphasis on the personal lives of media figures, particularly on television. And this has blurred the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Nowhere in history could you completely 'know' someone like you can now 'know' Johnny Carson."
Schaeffer's death was particularly shocking. Her personality, by all accounts, made her seem like a dream. The only child of a psychologist and a writer, Rebecca was a good student at Portland's Lincoln High. But as a 15-year-old sophomore, she heard so much about her glowing beauty that she ventured into modeling.
"I took one look and fell in love with her," recalls Nannette Troutman, owner of the first talent agency that Schaeffer approached. "She had a fresh charismatic way about her and was very gorgeous, with big brown eyes, dimples and a beautiful smile." After doing some local commercials and working as an extra on a TV movie, Rebecca headed for New York City to seek an acting career.
Douglas Ashe, then at the Prestige modeling agency, was her first guide. "I went to Portland about five years ago and I saw this nice, clean kid," he says. "She was very serious about what she did. We had her room with six other models, and she was always this good kid who never lost her friends or her perspective."
The buoyancy and the bright image were rewarded quickly. Soon Rebecca was a cover girl on Seventeen. Then she was called to Los Angeles for a screen test for My Sister Sam. She had also had her phone disconnected because she couldn't pay the bill. She didn't have to bother: Her agent taped a note on her door to tell her she had her start toward becoming a star.
Even as the career took off, Schaeffer remained an unspoiled charmer from Oregon. "She was extremely curious and spirited," says Sean Six, an actor from Portland who dated her last year. "We'd travel, go to parks, have picnics. She liked to horseback ride or just spend time on a mountaintop. She was the only actor I've ever known who managed to become successful and remain unjaded."
Actress Michael Michele, who roomed with Schaeffer several years ago on West 62nd Street in New York City, says, "She was the intellect that sat you down and told you what the city was all about. I don't want to say she was fearless. But she wasn't affected by the big city or intimidated by the power."
A few minority voices wondered if she was trying to take on too much too soon. "I taught her in a class of 20, five hours a day, three times a week," recalls acting teacher Robert Modica. "She was 17 or 18. Then when she got the job in California, she rented a house by herself. I told her, 'You shouldn't be living by yourself.' She said she didn't mind. She liked it, but it was lonely. There was a scared-ness, a loneliness about Rebecca."
Ex-boyfriend Six agrees: "She lived a very quiet life. She was sensitive, kind of a loner."
But, sometimes tragically, celebrities are not allowed the luxury of being alone. Schaeffer discovered that last Tuesday morning, when the bell rang in her apartment. Because her intercom was out of order, she came to the door in person. And why not? How much risk could there be in a neighborhood free of crack dealers and street hustlers?
What she encountered was a curly-haired white male whom neighbors described as nondescript.
He killed her with a single shot.
Afterward he jogged almost casually up the bright California block, turned into an alley and disappeared. The sorrow and devastation he left behind made it very clear, to paraphrase a lyric from songwriter Kinky Friedman, that they have raised the price of fame.
—Pete Axthelm, with reporting from correspondents in Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago and New York
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