Stars are safer today because of actress Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder 25 years ago

The Associated Press
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They’ve shown up in Selena Gomez’s guest house, outside Halle Berry’s kitchen door and inside Sandra Bullock’s home, despite gates, tall fences and guards meant to keep the stars safe.

Rebecca Schaeffer, who played Patti on CBS’s “My Sister Sam,” poses in a publicity photo in 1987.

Celebrity stalkers continue to be one of stardom’s most troubling downsides. Many instances involve serious cases of mental illness, making it difficult for private security, police and prosecutors to anticipate those intent on harassing and possibly harming some of the entertainment industry’s biggest names.

Yet today’s celebrities have greater protections from stalkers due in large part to the murder 25 years ago this week of actress-model Rebecca Schaeffer.

At 21-year-old, Schaeffer was shot to death at the door of her Los Angeles apartment on July 19, 1989, by obsessed fan Robert Bardo. The Arizona native, who had written Schaeffer letters and tried to meet her at a studio where she worked, tracked the “My Sister Sam” actress down after paying a private investigator to obtain her home address from state motor vehicle records.

Bardo remains in prison, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

The legacy of Schaeffer’s death is evident multiple times a year in Los Angeles courtrooms when celebrities such as Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Ryan Seacrest, Paris Hilton and others become stalking victims.

Protections created after Schaeffer’s death include laws that make stalking a crime, restrictions on public access to address information from driving records in California and a specialized Los Angeles police unit that works with prosecutors, celebrity attorneys and security details to keep obsessed fans a safe distance away. Criminal penalties for stalking have also been adopted in other states.

The protections don’t eliminate the various ways celebrity stalkers can torment their victims, from unsolicited love letters to threatening tweets, break-ins and kidnapping plots. But they can eventually put a stop to the threats.

Stalkers can make celebrities “a prisoner,” said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Wendy Segall, who has prosecuted celebrity stalking cases for the past six years. “They never know when this person is going to show up.”

Many of Segall’s cases end with stalking convictions and sentences that require the defendant to get psychological counselling. The sentences, Segall said, allow stalking victims to again feel safe.

Men who stalked Gomez and Berry have been convicted and ordered to undergo psychological counselling. Joshua Corbett, who was arrested last month after breaking into Bullock’s home, has pleaded not guilty and remains in a Los Angeles jail. A search of Corbett’s home turned up an arsenal of illegal firearms, including machine-guns, although he did not have any weapons at the time of his arrest.

In felony stalking cases, victims can obtain a 10-year restraining order — far longer than the three-year stay-away order that can be obtained from a civil judge.

“Arrest and conviction is only one part. It’s not a solution. We recognize that intervention is really what we’re going for,” said Chuck Tobin, the president of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, a 1,200-member organization of law enforcement and private security officers who protect celebrities, politicians and other dignitaries.

Tobin said the Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat Management Unit has been a leader in the field. Detectives in the unit routinely testify against suspected stalkers in criminal and civil courts, and are increasingly searching social media and online sites for evidence of stalking.

Retired Los Angeles police detective Paul Coulter’s first homicide case was investigating Schaeffer’s death and retracing her killer’s steps.

Coulter said authorities knew of the problem with the release of driving records before Schaeffer’s death, because an obsessed fan had stabbed and seriously injured actress Theresa Saldana years earlier. Yet it wasn’t until Schaeffer’s death that policies changed.

Organizations: Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, Los Angeles Police Department

Geographic location: California, Los Angeles, Arizona

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  • Callie
    July 15, 2014 - 01:02

    Very sad that rebecca did not achieve fame through her acting but due to her death. Can't believe it's been 25 years since her death. Such a tragic story to such a promising life.