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How the Murder of Starlet Rebecca Schaeffer by Her Stalker ‘Changed Hollywood’

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Danna Schaeffer can vividly recall the moment she learned her daughter, up-and-coming actress Rebecca Schaeffer, had been murdered.

It was a July morning in 1989 in Portland, Oregon, and Dana, a writer and teacher, was working on a play. So when her phone started ringing at about 11:30 a.m., she let it go to her answering machine.

Then she heard the message an ABC executive had left for her, and she called back.

“I still remember how sunny my voice sounded when he [the executive] picked up the phone,” Danna told Entertainment Weekly for a new retrospective on the case. “Then he said, and these words are inscribed in my brain, ‘Mrs. Schaeffer, I have terrible news. This morning Rebecca was shot and killed.’ ”

Rebecca Schaeffer
CBS via Getty

Dana called one of her daughter’s agents next, who confirmed the bad news.

“He got on the phone and he could not talk,” she said to EW. “I could just hear him sobbing. And that’s when I knew.”

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Rebecca, 21, died in the doorway of her apartment building in Los Angeles on July 18, 1989, only a few years after moving west to pursue acting.

She had already starred in a CBS sitcom, My Sister Sam, and appeared on the cover of  Seventeen and in several film roles. She was even in contention for Julia Roberts’ part in Pretty Woman.

But then she was murdered by an obsessive so-called fan named Robert John Bardo, 19, who’d paid a private investigator a small fee to obtain her home address.

Robert John Bardo in 1989.
Getty Images

Bardo fatally shot Rebecca once — in the heart — and, according to EW, he later told a psychiatrist that she repeated one question as she lay dying: “Why? Why?”

He was arrested a day later, in Tucson, Arizona, and was convicted of first-degree murder in 1991. He remains behind bars in California, while Rebecca’s killing galvanized a national movement against stalkers, as EW details.

As one former L.A. police captain explained, “[Her] death was a tipping point.”

There are now anti-stalking laws in every state. In 1989, in the wake of the murder, L.A. police created the nation’s first team specializing in stalking investigations.

“We weren’t aware of the ripples going out right after Rebecca died,” her then-boyfriend, director Brad Silberling, told EW. “But it was an earthquake.”

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Brad Pitt later mentioned his own connection to the killing, Silberling remembered: “He told me he’d actually been living on Rebecca’s street [in 1989]. And he said, ‘It’s no consolation, but the impact of her loss and the sense of awareness and safety for younger actors was huge.’ ”

The case also received extensive media coverage, including a PEOPLE cover story just days afterward.

“Yes, on a very nuts-and-bolts level it changed Hollywood,” Danna told EW, “but Rebecca was not a soldier fighting for a cause. She didn’t choose this.”

Former L.A. deputy district attorney Marcia Clark, who prosecuted Bardo — and later prosecuted O.J. Simpson in his 1995 murder trial — echoed Danna’s sentiment: “Good things came of it, but none of those things bring Rebecca back.”

Click here to read more from EW’s story on the Rebecca Schaeffer murder, the first in a new series on pop culture crime: “When Devotion Turns Deadly”