Celebrities at Risk

By Hooper, Nancy | Risk Management, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Celebrities at Risk


Hooper, Nancy, Risk Management


nineteen-year-old Robert John Bardo was mesmerized by the flickering images on the screen and the hushed, sexy dialogue between the characters. That night, in a Tucson, Arizona movie theater, he was watching actress Rebecca Shaeffer being seduced right before his eyes in the film "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills." Bardo became enraged. The reason? This wasn't just Rebecca Shaeffer, the actress he'd written to repeatedly for two years and tried, unsuccessfully, to meet at Warner Brothers Studios. This was the innocent Rebecca Shaeffer he'd watched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times on homemade videotapes of "My Sister Sam," the CBS sitcom on which she starred. This was his innocent Rebecca. His possession. His obsession.

Soon after, Bardo wrote to a relative: "I have an obsession with the unattainable. I have to eliminate what I cannot attain." Within days, he convinced his 21-year-old brother to purchase a .357 Magnum for him. Just one more problem to solve: how to get to Ms. Shaeffer? Would she still be at Warner Brothers? Would the studio once again prevent him from getting in to see her? To pave the way, Bardo hired a detective, who then spent a month locating the star's home. The finder's fee: $250.

On July 17, 1989, Bardo arrived in Los Angeles. No trouble locating Ms. Shaeffer's apartment building, thanks to the detective's directions. But just to make sure it was the right one, Bardo showed her photo to passersby. Yes, she did live there, everybody said. Within minutes, Ms. Shaeffer was dead, a bullet in her chest. Bardo had eliminated the unattainable.

This is indeed the age of the celebrity stalker, the occupational hazard of stardom that brings with it fear, insecurity, sleepless nights--sometimes even death. Gone are the days when fans worshipped celebrities from afar, applauded wildly from a seat in the audience or wrote letters, hoping to get an autographed glossy photograph in return. Today, celebrities and other media figures know that "Fatal Attraction" isn't just the title of a heart-stopping movie--it's a very real part of their lives.

Entertainers such as David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Michael J. Fox and Olivia Newton-John have all been harassed by obsessed fans. The hit list doesn't end there, and it is growing--even at the gates of the White House, where three times over a period of several months armed attackers have launched assaults. According to the National Institute of Justice, there have been as many attacks on public figures in the last 20 years as there have been in the preceding 175 years. In fact, an estimated 150,000 people in the United States today are pursuing some kind of unwarranted and inappropriate contact with famous people--and that doesn't include the cases that are kept under wraps. No wonder an increasing number of celebrities--including movie and television actors, recording artists, film directors, athletes, politicians, religious and cultural leaders--are taking steps to protect themselves.

To manage the risk of dangerous encounters has become a specialty in itself, and few individuals in the United States have spent more time studying and dealing with these problems than security expert Gavin de Becker. Based in Los Angeles, Mr. de Becker is a consultant on safety, privacy and threat assessment for more than 120 major media figures. Although he won't name clients, his work for Madonna, Tina Turner, Robert Redford, Sheena Easton, Dolly Parton, Cher, Michael J. Fox and others has been publicized by a wide variety of court cases, where he has served both as an expert witness and as a consultant to the prosecution. He has also advised Fortune 500 companies, universities and government agencies, including the CIA, FBI and the U.S. Supreme Court. Since 1985, his 46-member firm has assessed and managed more than 18,000 cases of unwanted pursuit. He maintains the world's largest database of threatening and obsessive communications, consisting of more than 300,000 pieces of material, and has developed an impressive array of computer programs that help him analyze threatening behavior in advance. …

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