A Fan's Long, Suicidal Obsession with Actress Sharon Gless Leads to a Tense Police Standoff

UPDATED 04/16/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/16/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

Among the thousands of pieces of fan mail that Cagney & Lacey co-star Sharon Gless has received in her some 20 years on TV, perhaps the most disturbing was a letter that arrived early last year from a woman named Joni Leigh Penn. According to Gless's brother Michael, a Long Beach attorney, the envelope "contained three pictures. One showed Joni aiming a handgun into her open mouth. Another showed her holding the gun to her temple." The final picture, says Gless, "showed a kind of a shrine she had made to Sharon, composed of publicity pictures and flowers. In the middle she had placed an attack rifle."

The threat of violence in that letter—and in the steady stream of missives the obsessed Penn has sent since—recently turned perilously real when Penn broke into Gless's unoccupied house in the San Fernando Valley with the apparent intent to sexually assault the actress then kill herself. (Gless, who uses the house as an office, was at her other L.A. home.) Armed with a semiautomatic rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition, Penn, 30, held off the police and hunkered down in a bathroom for nearly seven hours. Thirty-five officers were called to the scene before negotiators finally persuaded Penn to surrender her weapon and whisked her to the police station, where she was booked for burglary.

Although no shots were fired and no one was hurt, the incident is the latest chilling reminder of the danger that often accompanies Hollywood fortune and fame. After the cold-blooded murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a deranged fan last year, Gless, 46, joined a delegation of celebrities to demand that the California legislature limit access to Department of Motor Vehicles address records, which had been used to trace Schaeffer. Such a law was passed, but as Gless now knows, legal measures offer scant protection from the most fixated fans. Penn, in fact, was under a November 1988 court order to stay away from Gless. "She has been in concentrated therapy, but still has this obsession that doesn't dissipate," says Cagney & Lacey executive producer Barney Rosenzweig, who is dating Gless. "It's all very scary."

The drama began to unfold shortly after 3 A.M. on March 30, when Penn smashed her hand through a glass pane in Gless's small stucco house in Studio City, triggering a silent alarm. According to Capt. Don Watson, when the police arrived, she "pointed a rifle toward her chest" and retreated to an interior bathroom. As a precaution, 10 nearby families were told to evacuate. Gless and Rosenzweig were notified, but did not come to the house.

After efforts by a SWAT team and special negotiators failed to resolve the situation, at around 7 A.M. Penn asked to speak to a woman, and a female officer was flown in by helicopter. Speaking from a phone in the bathroom, Penn talked mostly about "suicide and wanting to see Sharon Gless," says Watson. "She talked nothing about wanting to kill her." By 10 A.M. "it was obvious she was getting tired," he says. Shortly after, Penn finally gave herself up, with only minor cuts on her hand from the broken glass.

Several of Penn's neighbors in Santa Ana, where she and her twin sister, Jeanni, rent a two-bedroom apartment, say Penn appeared to lead a quiet life (they say she cleaned houses for a living) and expressed surprise that she had provoked such a showdown. Indeed, when Penn first made herself known to Gless in 1987, she seemed a harmless, if unusually i ardent, fan. "She used to come to the Cagney & Lacey set several times a week, even at 4:30 A.M.," says Michael Gless. "She would wait outside, joke with the guards. Sometimes she would send flowers. She may have even spoken a few words to Sharon. She behaved well." Soon, however, Penn began sending letters. "In all, there were about 120," says Gless. "In the beginning they were romantic in tone, but then they turned increasingly hostile."

In January 1988, Sharon received an unsettling letter from Dr. Hubert Nestor, a psychiatrist treating Penn at the time. Penn, he wrote, plans "to shoot herself in front of you. This might put you in danger, although such is not the motive of this patient, and legally I must inform a citizen when this is the case." Nine months later, Penn made her first reported visit to Gless's home. She told Gless's assistant that she had a gun but disappeared before police could arrest her. Soon after, Gless obtained the restraining order, which Penn apparently obeyed until three days before the March 30 standoff, when police believe she tried unsuccessfully to break into the house.

For the time being, Gless was offered some comfort by the fact that Penn was behind bars at the Sybil Brand Institute for women. Rosenzweig, who will produce Renewal, Gless's new CBS fall series, says, "We've tried to put her away before, but the police say they can't do that if she hasn't done anything." At the arraignment, the prosecutor requested that bail be set at $1 million. Perhaps mindful of how relentless such obsessions can be, the judge refused to set any bail at all.

—Jeannie Park, Lois Armstrong, Doris Bacon and Eleanor Hoover in Los Angeles

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