Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stalkers: The Psychological Terrorist

It Takes A Star

Rebecca Schaeffer (AP)

Rebecca Schaeffer, 21, played a character on the popular 1980s television sitcom, My Sister Sam, and she had just starred in her first movie. As her popularity grew, she received increasingly more fan mail and she tried to respond to each letter personally.

Robert John Bardo (AP)
Robert John Bardo

A 19-year-old man from Tucson, Arizona, named Robert John Bardo had written to her and she had written back, sending a signed photograph. Bardo became fixated on the young television star and built a shrine to her in his room using media photos and videotapes of her shows. He tracked down where she lived through a detective agency, which got her address easily from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. He also used computer databases to find out what kind of car she drove, whom she called, and where she shopped. Without Schaeffer's knowledge, he had the goods on her and it made him feel close to her.

In 1987, he went twice to Warner Brothers Studios, once with a Teddy Bear and once with a knife, but was denied entrance. In his diary he wrote, "I don't lose. Period." When he saw Schaeffer in a movie scene in bed with someone, he decided she had to be punished for her immorality. He drew a diagram of her body and marked spots where he planned to shoot her.

At dawn on the morning of July 18, 1989, he went to Schaeffer's Hollywood apartment and began to pace, watching for any sign of her. Taking with him a copy of J.D. Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye, Bardo decided on a bold approach. After a courier had delivered scripts to someone in the building, he decided to just go ahead and ring the buzzer.

Frances Ford Coppolla (AP)
Frances Ford Coppolla

Schaeffer was about to meet with director Francis Ford Coppola to audition for his film, Godfather III. She heard the doorbell, but her voice intercom system didn't work, so she went to answer the door. As she opened it, Bardo pulled out a photo that she had sent to him and told her he was her biggest fan. She asked him to leave and closed the door. Bardo went away but then returned in a fury. He buzzed again, but remained hidden when she opened the door. That brought her across the threshold, and he burst out with a gun and shot her in the chest. Then he walked away. Schaeffer fell to the ground and died. Bardo later said that she had screamed, "Why? Why?"

Bardo boarded a bus and returned to Tucson. However, he'd told his sister of his intent to visit the actress, penning the note, "I have an obsession with the unattainable. I have to eliminate what I cannot attain." When she heard about the murder, she contacted police to turn Bardo in. He was extradited to California where he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Theresa Saldana (AP)
Theresa Saldana

Something similar had happened to another actress in 1982, and in fact had inspired Bardo's plan. Arthur Jackson had seen Theresa Saldana in the movie Defiance and found himself hopelessly attracted to her. He decided to kill her, get caught, and get the death penalty so he could join her in death. He found her address through a detective agency that similarly got the address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Jackson went to her home and when he saw her, he stabbed her 10 times, but a deliveryman intervened. She survived and Jackson was convicted of attempted murder. Yet he continued to send her threatening letters.

Schaeffer's murder and the Saldana case provoked Governor George Deukmejian to sign a law that prohibited the DMV from releasing addresses and inspired the Los Angeles Police Department to create the first Threat Management Team. Nationwide, stalking was taken more seriously and by 1993, all states, as well as Canada, put anti-stalking laws into effect. California's law was passed in 1990, effective on the first day of 1991. The law was the first of its kind and later helped to convict Jonathan Norman, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempting to carry out threats against director Steven Spielberg.

According to the legislation, a stalker is defined as "someone who willfully, maliciously and repeatedly follows or harasses another victim and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place the victim or victim's immediate family in fear of their safety. "There must be at least two incidents to constitute the crime and show a "continuity of purpose" or credible threat. Another name for it is psychological terrorism, and it's all about the obsession with possession: If I can't have you, no one will.


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