Public Records Led Suspect to Actress-Victim
A 19-year-old “obsessed fan” accused of murdering Rebecca Schaeffer at her Los Angeles apartment house had hired private investigators in his hometown of Tucson to track down where the young actress lived, authorities said Friday.
Six weeks before Schaeffer’s killing, Robert John Bardo walked into the Anthony Agency, a Tucson firm that advertises its ability to find missing persons, and showed private investigators a studio publicity photo of the television and film actress, Los Angeles police officials said.
Employees of the firm told The Times that Bardo had said Schaeffer was an old friend and he wanted her current address so he could send her a gift.
“He said he had been writing letters to her in the past and he wanted a current mailing address,” recalled William Johnson, who works for the investigation firm but did not personally handle the case.
Johnson said the photograph of Schaeffer that Bardo carried contained her signature and a personal message scribbled on the print by the actress.
“He said he knew her from some (Hollywood) studios,” Johnson said.
The private investigators said they had no knowledge that Bardo may have been intent on killing Schaeffer: “Naturally,” said Johnson, “if they knew what he would do, they wouldn’t have taken the case.”
For a fee of $250, the private investigators contacted a person in California, whom they refused to identify, and asked that person to find Schaeffer’s address through public records.
“We just made a request of someone over there (in California) to do a check,” Johnson said. “Apparently, they got a driver’s license with an address.”
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, for a nominal fee, regularly provides driver’s license information to the public. Authorities said that it is virtually impossible to fully shield a person’s residence if it exists in public records.
“I think we have all left a paper trail, be it voter records, tax or motor vehicle records,” said LAPD homicide detective Dan Andrews. “If a person is inquisitive enough, that trail can be found.”
Schaeffer, 21, who co-starred in the TV series “My Sister Sam” and recently appeared in the film “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” was shot to death Tuesday morning at the glass security door to her Fairfax District apartment complex.
Seized in Tucson
Bardo, a high school dropout who worked occasionally at fast-food outlets, was arrested the next day in Tucson as he walked into oncoming traffic on a downtown highway.
Bardo is being held in a Tucson jail on $1-million bail, awaiting an Aug. 18 extradition hearing.
Andrews said that the Tucson private investigators called police and said they had been contacted June 5 by Bardo.
For two years, Bardo had sent a stream of fan letters to Schaeffer. Recently, authorities said, he mailed an ominous-sounding letter to his sister in Knoxville, Tenn., indicating that if he could not have the actress, no one would.
Neighbors of Schaeffer said her assailant had pulled out her photo and asked if they knew the exact building where she lived. Police suspect he was guided to the street by the information he purchased from the private investigators, but may have been unsure of the specific building.
With some exceptions, California law states that “every person has a right to inspect any public record.” The exceptions are home addresses of judges and peace officers.
Earlier this year, California legislators were angered when a Northern California newspaper obtained the driving records of each lawmaker. But, DMV officials said, there was nothing they could do but release the information.
DMV officials said the records of 19 million licensed drivers are open to the public for inspection under state law.
For as little as $1, a person can go into any of the DMV’s 170 field offices, fill out Form 70 stating who they are, what person they want information on, the reason they are requesting the information and how they intend to use it. The information is delivered on the spot.
During the last year, more than 16 million requests were made by the general public for driver and vehicle information in California, according to the DMV. Many requests are made to verify information supplied by job applicants, loan seekers and the like.
“If someone comes in and says, ‘We have a class or armed forces reunion and we need this information,’ we are going to say, ‘That is an acceptable reason,’ and give out the information,” said DMV spokesman Bill Gengler.
But, Gengler added, “If a person comes in and says a driver has made an obscene gesture and they want to get the driver’s license because they are mad at them, or they saw a person in a car and want to get together with them socially, they would be turned down.”
DMV employees are told not to release information if they believe the applicant might seek to harass or harm someone else. But officials concede that, as with any form, people can lie.
Gengler said he doubts there would have been any way to stop Bardo from getting the information if it came through legitimate channels.
“I don’t think there is any way this particular person could have been protected from this because of the public information laws and the way they are written.”