Friday, July 18, 2014

Staying a Step Ahead of the Stalkers

It is hard to remember Rebecca Schaeffer. I can look at a picture of her today and be unable to place where I saw her — or if I saw her or what her voice sounded like.

When you look at her picture, you can see that she had an appealing smile, a generally engaging demeanor. (Yes, I do think you can tell that from a picture.) But there have always been many of those in the entertainment world.

Of course, it has been more than 25 years since she graced our television screens in My Sister Sam, a sitcom that lasted a couple of seasons in the 1980s. She had a small part in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," but those scenes were cut. Otherwise, she hadn't made much of a dent in her field — yet.

She was 21 years old, still new on the entertainment scene, seemed to possess some star quality. I was aware of her name, but I can't say that I watched either My Sister Sam or the handful of movies she made, a couple of which were released after her 1989 murder — when, I suppose, her commercial appeal was at its height.

But we know that at least one person, 19–year–old Robert John Bardo of Tucson, Ariz., was watching.

He became obsessed with her after the first object of his obsession, a child peace activist named Samantha Smith, died in a plane crash. Bardo stalked Schaeffer for awhile; he even tried to gain access to the studio where her TV show was filmed, but he was kept out by security. For awhile, it seems he lost interest in her and fixated on others, but he zeroed in on her again after watching one of her movies and seeing her in bed with an actor.

Bardo hired an investigator to find Schaeffer's home address, which he did through Department of Motor Vehicles records. Bardo then confronted Schaeffer at her home 25 years ago today. Schaeffer answered the door, gave Bardo an autograph and went back to her apartment. She thought he had gone away when her doorbell rang a second time. She went to answer it, and Bardo shot her in the chest.

Who knows what goes through the mind of such a person? Does he think of the consequences of his crime? If Bardo bothered to think at all about how his act would be perceived by anyone — and, based on my experience as a police reporter, I doubt that he gave any thought to it, especially how it would be perceived by the media or social activists — he probably thought it would be treated like one of thousands of murders that were committed that year.

But it wasn't. It was a landmark legal event that made government acknowledge stalking for what it was. Prior to Schaeffer's murder, my impression is that stalking was treated as a "boyfriend/girlfriend" thing. Even if the two were not lovers, even if one was a total stranger to the other. Those were merely details.

It wasn't taken seriously. It wasn't treated like a real crime. Of course, it was and is a real crime. Schaeffer's death was a flashpoint for that realization. A public epiphany.

Laws were changed to protect the privacy of citizens, prohibiting state Departments of Motor Vehicles from releasing personal information about licensed drivers.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. The advent of the internet, with its online address search services, significantly eroded that law's impact. Today, anyone with access to a computer and the know–how to use it can do what that investigator did for Bardo 25 years ago.

Evolving technology has changed most things, and those who would rather such private information is not so readily available to potential stalkers need to be steadfast in their resolve.

For all the Rebecca Schaeffers out there, we must stay a step ahead of the stalkers.

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