Twenty-one-year-old Rebecca Schaeffer was an actress with a promising future. The television series My Sister Sam, which also starred Pam Dawber of Mork and Mindy fame, had ended but had brought her enough recognition to move on to film roles. On July 18, 1989, she was studying a script for The Godfather III, in preparation for an audition. But that was also the day she met her killer, Robert John Bardo.
Bardo was a 19-year-old man from Arizona who repeatedly became obsessed with female celebrities. Singers Debbie Gibson, Madonna and Tiffany captivated his attention for some time, after which he moved on to Samantha Smith. Smith was famous for writing a letter to Soviet official Yuri Andropov in which she questioned his intentions regarding possible war between the U.S.S.R. and America. Smith died in a 1985 plane crash at the age of 13, ending Bardo’s obsession with her. His next target would be Schaeffer.
On My Sister Sam, which premiered in 1986, Schaeffer portrayed teen Patti Russell, who moved in with her older sister Sam (Dawber) in San Francisco. Patti’s character was that of a wholesome, typical teenager and Bardo found her irresistible. He began to write a series of fan letters to Schaeffer, one of which was answered with a signed photo of the actress. Sadly, this kind gesture may have ultimately cost Schaeffer her life, as Bardo was encouraged to continue to attempt contact.
In 1987, Bardo traveled to California to try to meet Schaeffer in person. He went to CBS Television City, the studio where My Sister Sam was filmed, but was refused entry by studio security. His obsession with the actress continued until 1989, when he watched the film Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.
Schaeffer filmed a scene for the movie in which her character, Zandra, appeared in bed with a man. Bardo was outraged that the sweet girl he had idolized on TV had lowered herself to film such a scene. In his eyes, she was in danger of becoming just another “Hollywood whore.” Bardo paid a private investigator to obtain Schaeffer’s address from the California DMV. Bardo set off for California again with the information in hand, along with a gun his brother helped him obtain and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, the book carried by Mark David Chapman, John Lennon‘s killer.
After working up his nerve, Bardo rang Schaeffer’s doorbell. She came to the door to answer, because her intercom was broken. What followed was reportedly a regular type of celebrity encounter, with Bardo showing her his autographed picture and complimenting her work. The two talked for a few minutes, and then Bardo left.
A short time later, he returned. Schaeffer once again came to the door, but this time seemed to be annoyed by the return visit. Bardo later said the actress sounded “…like a little brat…” and told him he was “…wasting her time…” He pulled out his gun and shot Schaeffer in the chest. She fell to the ground screaming, “Why?” repeatedly, an action that would be chillingly re-created by Bardo in his confession. Schaeffer was rushed to the hospital but pronounced dead half an hour after she was shot.
Bardo returned to Arizona after the shooting, where he was arrested for erratic behavior after dodging cars on a busy road. A relative, who had heard of Schaeffer’s killing and knew about Bardo’s obsession with her, shared her suspicion of his involvement with police. Bardo was subsequently returned to California and convicted of first-degree murder. Marcia Clark, who would later try the O.J. Simpson case, was the prosecutor. Bardo was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Bardo was stabbed 11 times by another inmate in 2007, but recovered after medical treatment at UC Davis Hospital. Schaeffer’s death led to stalking laws, championed in part by fellow actress and stalking victim Theresa Saldana, and a law preventing the DMV from releasing home addresses to others.