BETTER TO BE WANTED BY THE POLICE THAN NOT TO BE WANTED AT ALL


 

▪ CHAPTER THIRTEEN ▪
BETTER TO BE WANTED
BY THE POLICE THAN NOT
TO BE WANTED AT ALL

The intercom in Rebecca Schaeffer’s apartment was broken, so when the buzzer rang on Sunday morning, she had to go down to the front door of the building to see who it was. It turned out to be a fan who’d first seen the young actress on her weekly TV show, My Sister Sam. She spoke to him briefly, and he left. A while later, the buzzer sounded again, and again she went down to see who was there. It was the same young man, but this time he was not her admirer—he was her murderer. He fired one shot into her chest. She screamed out “Why? Why?” and fell to the floor. She was still alive as he stood there looking down at her. He could have asked someone in the building to call an ambulance, or he could have called one himself, but that would have defeated the whole purpose.

▪ ▪ ▪

Among individual crimes, assassination has the greatest impact on the American psyche. Bullets have demonstrably influenced most presidential elections in the past forty years. A nation based on the concept that the majority chooses its leaders is entirely undermined when a minority (usually of one) undoes that choice with a gun. Whether the assassin’s target is the mayor of LaPorte, Indiana (killed in his bed by an angry citizen), or the president of the United States, the system we live by also falls victim. Because of their disproportionate impact on our culture, identifying those people who will attack a public figure is our nation’s highest-stakes behavioral prediction, one that affects everyone.

 

At some point during our not so distant past, the conditions surrounding being famous changed. There is a part of that change that makes public life in Western society more challenging than it ever was before. It is the part that every prominent person, from the local politician to the beauty queen to the radio talk-show host to the internationally known media figure, must consider at some time. With fame there are hassles that some say come with the territory, but where did anyone sign on to the idea that if you do very well you will be at risk of being killed for it? To answer that, we must go back to the infancy of the media age.

Performers, politicians, and sports figures have long been admired and even loved, but that love used to be contained and distant, relegated to a part of the mind and heart reserved for people one didn’t know personally. It was, emotionally speaking, a one-way street, because feelings could be displayed to the public figure only as part of an acceptable function, like voting, sending letters, or seeing a show. Except for applauding louder or longer than others, members of an audience didn’t seek to make themselves known personally to performers.

 

Before the 1940’s, if one woman in an audience stood up and shrieked at the top of her lungs throughout an entire show she’d have been carted off to an asylum. By the mid-forties, however, entire audiences behaved like that, screaming, tearing at their clothes and hair, leaving their seats to board the stage. On December 30th, 1942, while Frank Sinatra sang at the Paramount Theater in New York, the behavior of the audience changed, and a part of our relationship to well-known people changed forever. Psychiatrists and psychologists of the day struggled to explain the phenomenon. They recalled medieval dance crazes, spoke of “mass frustrated love” and “mass hypnosis.” The media age did bring a type of mass hypnosis into American life. It affects all of us to some degree, and some of us to a great degree.

Before the advent of mass-media, a young girl might have admired a performer from afar, and it would have been acceptable to have a passing crush. It would not have been acceptable if she pursued the performer to his home, or if she had to be restrained by police. It would not have been acceptable to skip school in order to wait for hours outside a hotel and then try to tear pieces of clothing from the passing star.

 

Yet that unhealthy behavior became “normal” in the Sinatra days. In fact, audience behavior that surprised everyone in 1942 was expected two years later when Sinatra appeared again at the Paramount Theater. This time, the 30,000 screaming, bobby-soxed fans were joined by a troop of reporters. The media were learning to manipulate this new behavior to their advantage. Having predicted a commotion, 450 police officers were assigned to that one theater, and it appeared that society had learned to deal with this phenomenon. It had not.

During the engagement, an 18-year old named Alexander Ivanovich Dorogokupetz stood up in the theater and threw an egg that hit Sinatra in the face. The show stopped, and for a moment, a brief moment, Sinatra was not the star. Now it was Dorogokupetz mobbed by audience members and Dorogokupetz who had to be escorted out by police. Society had not learned to deal with this, and still hasn’t. Dorogokupetz told police: “I vowed to put an end to this monotony of two years of consecutive swooning. It felt good.” Saddled with the least American of names, he had tried to make one for himself in the most American way, and but for his choice of a weapon, he would probably be as famous today as Frank Sinatra.

 

Elements in society were pioneering the skills of manipulating emotion and behavior in ways that had never been possible before: electronic ways. The media were institutionalizing idolatry. Around that time, the world met a teenager named Elizabeth Taylor, who began an excursion through public life that defines the celebrity idol as we know it today. A lesser-known teenager of the forties named Ruth Steinhagen would define the anti-idol as we know it today.

Ruth particularly liked a ballplayer named Eddie Waitkus. He was more exclusively hers than Frank Sinatra, who belonged to everyone. Even though they’d never met, Ruth devoted her life to Eddie. He was of Lithuanian descent, so she tried to learn that language. He was number 36 on the Chicago Cubs, so she became obsessed with that number, buying every record she could find that was produced in 1936. She collected press clippings about Eddie, slept with his picture under her pillow, attended every game she could, and sent him letter after letter, even though he never responded. At dinner each evening, Ruth arranged the chairs so that there was an empty one facing hers. She told her sister, “Eddie is in that chair.”

Many of Ruth’s friends had crushes on baseball players, and while her parents were glad at first thatshe too had an idol, they became concerned about her behavior. They took her to two psychiatrists, and her mother was glad to hear them report, that nothing was wrong with her—except that she should forget about Waitkus (which is a little like saying nothing was wrong with John Hinckley except that he should forget about Jodie Foster). Of course, Ruth did not forget about Waitkus, even for a moment, and when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, she stated that she could not live if he moved away from Chicago.

She began to discuss suicide with one of her girlfriends and then set out to buy a gun. She wanted a pistol, but because a permit was required, she went to a pawnshop and bought a rifle instead.

 

In the first week of June 1949, Ruth had decided on something better than suicide. She told her friend Joyce to “watch for the fireworks on Tuesday,” the day she checked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, knowing from the Phillies’ schedule that Eddie would be staying there. She brought along a suitcase filled with Eddie memorabilia, including the ticket stubs from fifty games she’d attended. She also brought the rifle.

In her room, Ruth wrote a letter to her parents (“I hope you understand things. I love you. Things will work out for the best”) but crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. She then wrote a note to Eddie:

Mr. Waitkus, we’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain it to you. As I’m leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow, I’d appreciate it greatly if you could see me as soon as possible. My name is Ruth Anne Burns, and I’m in room 1297-A. I realize this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it’s rather important. Please come soon. I won’t take up much of your time. I promise.

Ruth tipped a bellman three dollars to deliver the note. On reading it, Eddie thought she was probably just another “Baseball Annie” (what we’d today call a groupie), and he agreed to visit her. Ruth put a knife in her skirt pocket, intending to stab Eddie in the heart as he entered her room, but he hurried past her, sat down in a chair, and asked, “So what’s all this about?”

“Wait a minute. I have a surprise for you,” Ruth said, and then went to the closet and took out the rifle. “For two years, you have been bothering me, and now you are going to die.” Ruth fired one shot into Eddie’s chest. It punctured a lung and lodged just under his heart. (Waitkus survived and even returned to professional sports. I found an old baseball card of his. Under the heading “My Greatest Thrill in Baseball,” it reads, “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl.”)

The things Ruth said and did after the shooting were extraordinary in 1949, but no longer. She explained to police:

I liked him a great deal and knew I could never have him, and if I couldn’t have him neither could anybody else. I’ve always wanted to be in the limelight. I wanted attention and publicity for once. My dreams have come true.

Ruth was eloquently expressing a sentiment all too familiar to modern-day Americans. In describing the aftermath of the shooting, she said:

Nobody came out of their rooms. You would think they would all come rushing out. I got mad. I kept telling them I shot Eddie Waitkus, but they didn’t know who Eddie Waitkus was. After that, the police came, but I was burning because nobody was coming out of those other rooms. Nobody seemed to want me much. I could’ve walked right out of that place and nobody would have come after me.

At nineteen years old, Ruth felt it was better to be wanted by the police than not to be wanted at all. About twenty years later, a young woman named Valerie Solanas apparently felt the same way. An aspiring actress and writer, Solanas carried a gun into the headquarters of Andy Warhol and shot the famous artist. Soon after, Solanas walked up to a cop in Times Square and said, “The police are looking for me.” She added proudly, “They want me.” (It was Andy Warhol who gave us the quote that is itself an icon of the media age: “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” Ironically, Valerie Solanas got her 15 minutes at Warhol’s expense. She got another 90 minutes last year, when an entire film was made about her life.)

The Solanas attack occurred in 1968, and we were already jaded, but back when Ruth Steinhagen shot Eddie Waitkus, this kind of thing was nothing short of remarkable. When Ruth told her mother that she intended to get a gun and shoot Eddie Waitkus, her mother replied, “You can’t do that. Women don’t do those things.” Mrs. Steinhagen would be proved wrong by Ruth, and by Valerie Solanas, and more recently by Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (both of whom attempted to kill President Gerald Ford).

Due to Ruth’s choice of target, hers was not a shot heard round the world, though it did make her the first in a long line of media-age public-figure stalkers and attackers, some famous, many others not famous.

Experts decided Ruth was insane, and she was committed to a mental facility. Three years later, experts decided she had regained her sanity, and she was freed. Still alive today, Ruth Steinhagen is the senior member of a uniquely American minority. It’s not that other nations haven’t had their share of assassination, but killings rooted in some idealistic or political expediency are a far cry from shooting a stranger just to get “attention and publicity for once.”

There is also the uniquely American choice of targets. In the thirties and forties, baseball players and statesmen were the most prominent and adored idols. By the time Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, the torch of idolatry had been passed from sports to entertainment. Twenty-six years later, an actor became president, and a media addict (John Hinckley) shot him, claiming an obsession with a film actress (Jodie Foster). After a long courtship, the marriage between violence and entertainment was consummated.

 

Idolizing heroes and falling for their seductive appeal is normal in America, but what is a mild drug to most is a poison for some people. To learn more about that poison, I sought a meeting with an unlikely expert in the field, Robert Bardo, the man who killed Rebecca Schaeffer.

To visit him I had to pass through two metal detectors and follow a prison escort down a series of long green corridors, each ending at a locked steel gate that, after careful scrutiny, a guard would let us through. Finally I was shown into a small concrete cell with two benches anchored to the floor. My escort said he’d be back soon, then closed and locked the cell door. Even with the certainty that one will be let out, being locked in a prison cell is like being locked in a prison cell; it feels awful.

Waiting for Bardo, I thought of Robert Ressler, the FBI agent who’d spent much of his career at the Behavioral Sciences Unit studying and interviewing America’s most prolific killers. Sitting in the cell reminded me of Ressler’s final prison meeting with Edmund Kemper, a man who’d brutally killed ten people, several of whom he had decapitated. Kemper was literally a giant, six foot nine inches tall and more than three hundred pounds. At the end of a four-hour interview, Ressler pressed the call button for the guard to come and get him out. Some time went by, but no guard. About 15 minutes later, he pressed the button again, and then again. Still no guard. Kemper must have intuitively detected Ressler’s concern, because on the tape of their interview he can be heard to say, “Relax, they’re changing shifts, feeding the guys in the secure areas. Might be fifteen, twenty minutes before they come and get you.”

After a thoughtful pause, Kemper added, “If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble. I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.”

Kemper was correct. Against his terrific size advantage and experience at killing, Ressler didn’t stand a chance. Kemper, who had endured a long abstinence from his compulsive habit of murder, now had a live one: a famous FBI agent. Ressler warned the killer that he’d be in big trouble if he murdered a federal official, but Kemper, already serving seven life terms, scoffed, “What would they do, cut off my TV privileges?”

There followed a thirty-minute contest of fear and courage, with Ressler using his impressive behavioral insight to keep Kemper off balance. At one point in their high-stakes debate, Kemper acknowledged that if he killed Ressler, he would have to spend some time in “the hole,” but he added that it would be a small price to pay for the prestige of “offing an FBI agent.”

One of Ressler’s several gambits: “You don’t seriously think I’d come in here without some way to defend myself, do you?”

Kemper knew better: “They don’t let anybody bring guns in here.” That was true, but Ressler suggested that FBI agents had special privileges and that a gun might not be the only weapon available to him.

 

Kemper didn’t bite. “What have you got, a poison pen?” So it went until guards arrived, thankfully before Kemper put his ruminations into action. As Kemper was walked out, he put one of his enormous hands on Ressler’s shoulder. “You know I was just kidding, don’t you?” But Kemper wasn’t just kidding. He was feeding on a favorite delicacy of serial killers: human fear.

The murderer who soon joined me in the cell had been after different rewards: attention and fame. With a young man’s light stubble from a few days of not shaving and his prematurely receding hair a mess, Robert Bardo was not menacing like Kemper. In fact, he was the image of an awkward teenager. In another life (and in his previous life) he’d have been the guy dressed in a white apron sweeping the floor in the back of a drive-through restaurant. Robert Bardo was, as he put it, “a geek.”

Because I had studied him extensively when I consulted on his prosecution, meeting Bardo was like meeting a character from a book I’d read. I knew most of the lines he might speak, but the young man in front of me was a far more human incarnation than court transcripts or psychiatric reports could ever conjure, more human perhaps than I wanted him to be.

The power he’d discharged in one terrible second on the steps of Rebecca Schaeffer’s apartment wasn’t in that cell with us. He didn’t have the confidence to intimidate anyone, nor did he have those dead-cold murderer’s eyes that intimidate all on their own. In fact, he was reluctant to even look at me. We both knew what a murderous thing he’d done, and he knew very well from the trial exactly how I felt about it.

 

Bardo had been asked a great many questions since the killing and he was used to that, so I decided to let him speak first, to follow rather than lead him. As it turned out, that took a lot of patience. For about fifteen minutes, we just sat there, him with his head down, me counting on the idea that he wouldn’t be able to pass up the attention I was withholding.

The otherwise quiet cell was occasionally filled with the clang of some distant gate being slammed. (Noise is one of the few things that roams freely in a prison; the concrete walls that keep out so much carry it into every corner.)around the bed to cover her up, something small crushed under my feet. From that tiny signal (combined with all that preceded it), I knew a terrible thing had happened while I slept. It was a barbit'

Bardo finally looked up at me and studied my face intently. “Arthur Jackson asked me to give you a message.” (Jackson was the obsessed stalker who had brutally stabbed actress Theresa Saldana. After I testified against Jackson in court, he condemned me to “burn in hell.”)

“He wants you to meet with him too.”

“Not today,” I replied.

“Then why do you want to talk to me?”

“Because you have something to contribute,” I answered.

“I do want to help other people avoid what happened to Rebecca,” he said.

 

That choice of words implied some distance from his crime, which I didn’t want to grant him.

“Nothing just happened to Rebecca. You make it seem as if she had an accident.”

“No, no. I killed her. I shot her, and I want to help others not get killed by someone like me.”

“That sounds like you think there is someone else like you.”

He seemed surprised that it wasn’t obvious. “There is. I mean there are… many people like me.”

He was quiet for a long while before he continued: “I’m not a monster. On television they always want to portray me as someone frightening.”

I looked at him and nodded. We’d been together for nearly a half hour, and I had not asked him a single question.

“I was someone frightening, of course, but I’m not now. That video of me telling how I shot Rebecca makes me look like the worst assassin of all, and I’m not the worst.” He was concerned about his public image, about how he stacked up against his peers.

Like nearly all modern-day assassins, Bardo had studied those who came before him. After Mark Chapman went to prison for killing John Lennon, Bardo wrote to him and asked why he had done it. Chapman, the famous assassin, and Bardo, the apprentice, had a brief correspondence. “If he told me not to do my crime,” Bardo said, “that would not have overridden my emotions. Emotions are the key, out-of-balance emotions. Emotionally healthy people do not harm others.”

Bardo had also studied everything he could find on the Arthur Jackson case. Jackson had hired a private detective to locate his victim, so Bardo did too. Jackson used a knife, so on one of his earlier trips to kill Schaeffer, Bardo brought one along. Jackson traveled thousands of miles in pursuit of his target, sometimes in a crisscross fashion—as do nearly all assassins—and Bardo did too. They started off a continent apart but ended up living in the same building.

In a videotaped interview done by the defense months before Bardo knew I was working on the case, he revealed the extent of his research into public-figure attack. Describing the lack of security he had encountered around Rebecca Schaeffer, he said: “It’s not like she had Gavin de Becker or anything.”

Now, in offering me advice, Bardo hoped to distinguish himself from other assassins. He would become, he thought, the anti-assassin, helping famous people avoid danger. Of course, he was now famous himself, a fact that carried him to an almost too ironic comment on public life: “All the fame that I have achieved from this results in me getting death threats and harassment. The media says things about me that aren’t even true. I have no control over them invading my privacy, bringing up my case over and over again on TV so they can make money off it. They portray me in ways I never saw myself.”

He didn’t like reporters calling him a loner, but the description was accurate. Bardo had no friends, and had never even kissed a girl romantically. (Almost certainly, he never will.) A lack of healthy intimacy is a common feature of many assassins. John Hinckley didn’t ever attain a developed romantic relationship; nor did Arthur Jackson, nor did Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace.

Bremer was a virgin who sought to change that in the weeks before his crime. Knowing he would soon be dead or in prison for life, he hired a prostitute, but their sexual encounter ended awkwardly. In his diary he wrote, “Though I’m still a virgin, I’m thankful to Alga for giving me a peek at what it’s like.”

Bizarre though it may seem, the greatest intimacy most assassins attain is with those they attack. Through stalking, they come to know their victims more closely than they know others in their lives, and through shooting them, they become partners of sorts. Bremer’s diary shows increasing intimacy with his first victim of choice, President Richard Nixon. As he stalked the president from state to state, the diary references move from “the President” to “he” to “ Nixon” to “Nixy,” and ultimately to “Nixy-boy.”

Those who attack with knives have even more intimacy, as is disturbingly described in multiple-murderer Jack Henry Abbott’s book In The Belly of the Beast. Of one of his murder victims, he wrote: “You can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder.”

Bardo’s coarse act of murder was, with the saddest irony, inflicted on the only girl who ever gave him any positive attention. Rebecca Schaeffer had sent a kind reply to one of his letters.

Bardo: It was a personal postcard where she wrote, “Robert, dash, your letter was the nicest, most real letter I ever received.” She underlined “real.” She wrote, “Please take care,” and drew a heart sign and then “Rebecca.” That’s what propelled me to want to get some more answers from her.

 

GdeB: So what advice would you offer other famous people?

Bardo: Be careful about what you write. If you do answer fan mail, don’t let it be so over-glowing. That’s not the way to be with a fan, because it makes it seem like they’re the only one, and that’s how I felt. I felt I was the only one.

Like other assassins, Bardo had stalked several famous people, including a client of mine whom he decided was too inaccessible. He gave up on her and switched his attention to Rebecca Schaeffer. For assassins, it is the act and not the target, the destination, not the journey that matters.

Because targets are interchangeable, I asked Bardo how the security precautions taken by some public figures affected his choice. He said, “If I read in an article that they have security and they have bodyguards, it makes you look at that celebrity different and makes a person like me stand back. It kind of stands against this hope of a romantic relationship.”

Though Bardo’s defense tried to sell the idea that he expected a romantic relationship with Rebecca Schaeffer, he never really did. Bardo expected exactly what he got, an unenthusiastic reception and ultimately a rejection. He used that rejection as an excuse to do what he had long wanted to do: release his terrible anger against women, against his family, and against the rest of us.

Of course, to care about being rejected by a total stranger, one must first come to care about that stranger. Bardo did this by obsessing on each of his various targets. Even today in prison, he is still doing it, focusing intently on two women. One is a singer, and the other is someone who was not famous when he first heard of her but is very famous now: Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who sent him to prison for life. In a letter Bardo wrote to me, he explained: “Twice, the Daily Journal has profiled Marcia Clark… I learned a lot. Turn to Page Two to give you an idea.” Page 2 was a lengthy list of personal facts about Marcia Clark and her family.

 

It is a convoluted irony of the media age that Marcia Clark prosecuted a regular citizen who stalked and killed a famous person, then prosecuted a famous person (O.J. Simpson) who stalked and killed a regular citizen, then became famous herself, and is now the focus of a stalker.

▪ ▪ ▪

Media-age assassins are not unlike another uniquely American icon: the daredevil. If you understand Evel Kneivel, you can understand Robert Bardo. Like those of a daredevil, all of an assassin’s worth and accomplishment derive from one act, one moment. This is also true for most heroes, but assassins and daredevils are not people who rise courageously to meet some emergency. The assassin and the daredevil create their own emergencies.

 

The daredevil fantasizes about the glory of accomplishing his stunt, the fame that waits for him on the other side of the canyon. The media has portrayed the daredevil as a courageous hero, but what if someone got the motorcycle, painted it special, got the colorful leather pants and jacket, got the ramps, notified the press, got all set up at the canyon… and then didn’t do it? Suddenly he’s not cool and special; he’s pathetic. Now he’s a guy whose silly name and goofy accessories add up to geek, not hero. The whole thing loses its luster if he doesn’t do it.

Arthur Bremer wrote, “I want a big shot and not a little fat noise. I am tired of writing about it, about what I was going to do, about what I failed to do, about what I failed to do again and again. It bothers me that there are about 30 guys in prison now who threatened the Pres and we never heard a thing about them.”

Assassins, you see, do not fear they are going to jail—they fear they are going to fail, and Bardo was no different. He had gotten all the components together: He had studied other assassins, he had researched his target, made his plan, gotten the gun, written the letters to be found after the attack. But like the daredevil, he was just a guy who worked at Jack in the Box until he made that jump, until the wheels left the ground, until he killed someone famous. Everything that goes with fame was waiting for him on the other side of the canyon, where, in his words, he’d finally be “a peer” with celebrities.

When he found Rebecca Schaeffer and was face-to-face with her, he had all the credentials of an assassin, but he couldn’t pick up his prize until he shot her. Since he was fourteen years old, he had known what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he got there on the steps of Rebecca Schaeffer’s apartment building. Robert Bardo was a career assassin, a killer for whom the victim was secondary to the act.

Some people put years into their heroic accomplishments; assassins do not. While stalking Richard Nixon, Bremer wrote, “I’m as important as the start of WWI. I just need the little opening, and a second of time.” Such narcissism is a central feature of every assassin, and like many of their characteristics, it is in us all to some degree. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes that narcissism is universal. Becker says every child’s “whole organism shouts the claim of his natural narcissism. It is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration, it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation.” Becker says we all look for heroics in our lives, adding that in some people “it is a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”

But the howls for glory of assassins had been unanswered in their mundane pre-attack lives. The assassin might be weird or unusual, but we cannot say we don’t understand his motives, his goal. He wants what Americans want: recognition, and he wants what all people want: significance. People who don’t get that feeling in childhood seek ways to get it in adulthood. It is as if they have been malnourished for a lifetime and seek to fix it with one huge meal.

The same search for significance is part of the motivation for the young gang member who kills, because violence is the fastest way to get identity. Murderer Jack Henry Abbott describes the “involuntary pride and exhilaration all convicts feel when they are chained up hand and foot like dangerous animals. The world has focused on us for a moment. We are somebody capable of threatening the world.”

Ernest Becker writes, “The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to society.”

Well, Bremer, Hinckley, and Bardo all admitted it, with devastating results. Each first aspired to make it in Hollywood but gave that up for a faster, easier route to identity. They knew that with a single act of fraudulent heroism, with one single shot, they could be forever linked to their famous targets.

▪ ▪ ▪

Like all endeavors, assassination is reached by a certain protocol, certain hoops one jumps through. Many of these are detectable, observable hoops that leave a trail we can follow. Assassins teach each other, each learning something from the ones before. When I worked on the Bardo case, I was struck by the fact that he did so many things that Hinckley had done before him. The two young men had early life experiences with some similarities, and that’s no surprise, but the similarities of the choices they made later are nothing short of remarkable. For example, Hinckley knew that Mark Chapman had brought along a copy of Catcher in the Rye on his trip to murder John Lennon, so he brought one with him on his trip to shoot President Reagan. Bardo brought the same book along when he killed Rebecca Schaeffer, later telling me he read it “to find out how it had made Chapman kill John Lennon.”

Look at this list of things that John Hinckley did before shooting President Reagan:

  • wrote letters to an actress
  • wrote songs
  • took a job in a restaurant
  • read Catcher in the Rye
  • crisscrossed the country
  • stalked public figures other than his final target
  • traveled to Hollywood
  • kept a diary
  • studied other assassins
  • visited the Dakota Building in New York City to see the place where John Lennon was murdered
  • considered an attention-getting suicide
  • sold off his possessions
  • wrote letters to be found after the attack
  • took a bus to the attack location
  • stalked his final target at more than one site before the attack
  • brought along Catcher in the Rye
  • didn’t shoot at the first opportunity
  • left the scene after the first encounter
  • waited about a half hour and then shot his target

Amazingly, Bardo also did every one of the things on this list. There are more than thirty striking similarities in the behavior of the two men. The predictability of pre-attack behaviors of assassins was confirmed by the work of Park Dietz, the psychiatrist and sociologist who first came to national attention as the lead prosecution expert in the Hinckley case. In 1982, when I was on the President’s Advisory Board at the Department of Justice, I proposed a research project to study people who threaten and stalk public figures. Dietz was the expert we chose to run the project. From this and his other pioneering work, he assembled ten behaviors common to modern assassins. Nearly every one of them:

1. Displayed some mental disorder

2. Researched the target or victim

3. Created a diary, journal, or record

4. Obtained a weapon

5. Communicated inappropriately with some public figure, though not necessarily the one attacked

6. Displayed an exaggerated idea of self (grandiosity, narcissism)

7. Exhibited random travel

8. Identified with a stalker or assassin

9. Had the ability to circumvent ordinary security

10. Made repeated approaches to some public figure

In protecting public figures, my office focuses on those who might try to kill clients, of course, but also those who might harm clients in other ways, such as through harassment or stalking. In evaluating cases, we consider a hundred and fifty pre-incident indicators beyond those covered above.

If we had to choose just one PIN we’d want to be aware of above all others, it would be the one we call ability belief. This is a person’s belief that he can accomplish a public-figure attack. Without it, he cannot. In fact, to do anything, each of us must first believe on some level that we can do it. Accordingly, society’s highest-stakes question might be: “Do you believe you can succeed at shooting the president?” Would-be assassins won’t always answer this question truthfully, of course, nor will society always get the opportunity to ask it, but to the degree it can be measured, ability belief is the preeminent pre-incident indicator for assassination.

 

If the truthful answer is “No, what with all those Secret Service agents and special arrangements, I couldn’t get within a mile of the guy,” the person cannot shoot the president. Of course, this isn’t a permanently reliable predictor, because ability belief can be influenced and changed.

If, for example, I believe I could not possibly dive into the ocean from a two-hundred-foot-high cliff, then I cannot. But a coach might influence my belief. Encouragement, teaching of skills that are part of the dive, taking of lesser dives—first from 20 feet, then 30, then 50—would all act to change my ability belief. No single influence is more powerful than social proof, seeing someone else succeed at the thing you might have initially believed you could not do. Seeing a diver propel himself off an Acapulco cliff, sail down into the Pacific and then emerge safely dramatically influences my belief that it can be done, and that I could do it.

 

Similarly, the enormous media attention showered on those who attack public figures bolsters ability belief in other. It says, “You see; it can be done.” Little wonder that in the period following a widely publicized attack, the risk of other attacks goes up dramatically. It is precisely because one encourages another that public-figure attacks cluster (President Ford—two within two weeks; President Clinton—two within six weeks).

Society appears to be promoting two very different messages:

1) It is nearly impossible to successfully attack a public figure, and if you do it and survive, you will be a pariah, despised, reviled, and forgotten.

2) It is very easy to successfully attack a public figure, and if you do it, you’ll not only survive, but you’ll be the center of international attention.

Since we are discussing what amounts to a form of advertising, information following a public-figure attack could be presented quite differently than it is now. Law-enforcement personnel speaking with the press about a criminal who has been apprehended have tended to describe the arrest in terms of their victory over a dangerous, powerful, well-armed and clever adversary: “Investigators found three forty-five caliber handguns and more than two hundred rounds of ammunition in his hotel room. Since the perpetrator is a skilled marksman, it was touch and go when we stormed the building.”

This attaches to the criminal a kind of persona doubtless attractive to many who might consider undertaking a similar crime. I have recommended a different approach on my cases, one that casts the offender in a far less glamorous light. Imagine this press conference following the arrest of a person who was planning an assassination:

Reporter: Would you describe the man as a loner?

Federal agent: More of a loser, actually.

 

Reporter: Did he put up any resistance when taken into custody?

Federal agent: No, we found him hiding in the bathroom—in the clothes hamper.

 

Reporter: Could he have succeeded in the assassination?

Federal agent: I doubt it very much. He’s never succeeded at anything else.

Ideally, the agent would always switch the focus to the people and special methods that act in opposition to assassins, keeping the focus off the criminal.

Federal agent: I want to commend the eight-man team of special agents whose investigative work and application of new technologies made the apprehension possible so rapidly.

I propose that we don’t show the bullets on the bureau in the seedy hotel room; show instead the dirty underwear and socks on the bathroom floor. I propose that we don’t arrange photo opportunities that show the offender being escorted by ten federal agents from a helicopter to a motorcade of waiting cars. Show him instead in a mangy T-shirt, handcuffed to a pipe in some gloomy corridor, watched by one guard, and a woman at that. Not many identity-seeking would-be assassins would see those images and say, “Yeah, that’s the life for me!”

Conversely, guarded by federal agents (just like the president), whisked into waiting helicopters (just like the president), his childhood home shown on TV (just like the president), the type of gun he owned fired on the news by munitions experts extolling its killing power, the plans he made described as “meticulous”—these presentations promote the glorious aspects of assassination and other media crimes. Getting caught for some awful violence should be the start of oblivion, not the biggest day of one’s life.

But it was the biggest day in the life of accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was paraded in front the waiting press surrounded by FBI agents, rushed to a motorcade, and then whisked away in a two-helicopter armada. We saw this even more with accused Unabomber Ted Kazynkski, whose close-up appeared on the covers of TIME, U.S. News and World Report, and Newsweek (twice). The cover text of all three described Kazynkski as a “genius.”

Reporters usually refer to assassins with triple names, like Mark David Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Richard Jackson. One might come to believe that assassins actually used these pretentious triple names in their pre-attack lives; they didn’t. They were Mark, Lee, and Arthur.

I propose promoting the least glamorous incarnation of their names. Call a criminal Ted Smith instead of Theodore Bryant Smith. Better still, find some nickname used in his pre-attack life:

Federal agent: His name is Theodore Smith, but he was known as Chubby Ted.

Our culture presents many role models, but few get as much hoopla and glory as the assassin. Those who have succeeded (and even some of those who failed) are among the most famous people in American lore. John Wilkes Booth survives history with more fame than all but a few other Americans of his time.

The tragically symbiotic relationship between assassins and television news is understandable: Assassins give great video—very visual, very dramatic. Assassins will not sue you no matter what you say about them, and they provide the story feature most desired by news producers: extendability. There will be more information, more interviews with neighbors and experts, more pictures from the high school yearbook. There will be a trial with the flavor of a horse race between lawyers (made famous just for the occasion), and there will be the drama of waiting for the verdict. Best of all, there will be that video of the attack, again and again.

 

The problem, however, is that that video may be a commercial for assassination. As surely as Procter and Gamble ever pushed toothpaste, the approach of television news pushes public-figure attack.

Way back in 1911, criminologist Arthur MacDonald wrote, “The most dangerous criminals are the assassins of rulers.” He suggested that “newspapers, magazines and authors of books cease to publish the names of criminals. If this not be done voluntarily, let it be made a misdemeanor to do so. This would lessen the hope for glory, renown or notoriety, which is a great incentive to such crimes.”

MacDonald would be disappointed to see that media-age assassins end up with virtual network shows, but he would not be surprised. After all, the early morning mist of mass media hype was already thick even in his day. In 1912 a man named John Shrank attempted to kill Theodore Roosevelt. While he was in jail, his bail was abruptly raised because “motion picture men” had planned to pay it and secure his release long enough to re-stage the assassination attempt for newsreels. Objecting to the movie, the prosecutor told the Court he was concerned about “the demoralizing effect such a picture film would have. It would tend to make a hero out of this man, and I don’t propose that the young shall be allowed to worship him as a hero.” Probably not realizing they were pioneering a new genre, the frustrated motion-picture men picked out a building that resembled the jail and filmed an actor who looked like Shrank emerging between two bogus deputy sheriffs.

▪ ▪ ▪

No discussion of assassination would be complete without exploring the precautions that can be taken to prevent these attacks. First, of course, just as with any danger, one must learn that a hazard exists. In the Bardo case, for example, there were many warnings: Over a two-year period he had sent Rebecca Schaeffer a stream of inappropriate letters through her agents in New York and Los Angeles. When Bardo showed up at the studio where her show was taped, it was a studio security guard who told him which stage she was on. Bardo himself said, “It was way too easy.”

On one of his visits to the studio, he explained to the chief of security that he was in love with Rebecca Schaeffer and had traveled from Arizona to see her. After telling Bardo the actress didn’t want to see him, the security chief personally drove him back to the motel where he was staying. Unfortunately, even having seen (though perhaps not recognized) several obvious warning signs, the security chief didn’t see to it that Rebecca Schaeffer was informed about the “lovesick” man who had been pursuing her for two years and had just traveled hundreds of miles by bus to meet her.

After the shooting, the security chief explained his meeting with Bardo to reporters: “I thought he was just lovesick. We get a hundred in a year, people trying to get in, fans writing letters.” To the security chief, it was a matter of handling some fan according to what he called “standard procedure,” but to Bardo, it was a powerful and emotional event.

Bardo: I had problems with the security at the studio and the feeling I had toward them, I just put it on Ms. Schaeffer.

GdeB: What was that feeling?

 

Bardo: It was anger, extreme anger, because they said, ‘No, you can’t come in, get out of here, get away from this place!’ They said, ‘She’s not interested, she doesn’t want to be bothered,’ and I just felt that she was the one that I would discuss that with personally in an encounter.

GdeB: But she didn’t say that, did she?

Bardo: No, but I felt, I perceived that that’s what she was like.

The security chief’s account continues: “[Bardo was] terribly insistent on being let in. ‘Rebecca Schaeffer’ was every other word. ‘I gotta see her. I love her.’ Something was definitely wrong mentally. There was something haywire going on, but I didn’t perceive it as potentially violent.”

In an unanswered refrain often heard after preventable tragedies, the security chief added, “What more could I have done?”

About two weeks after Rebecca Schaeffer was killed, there was another much-publicized stalking incident that answers the question. It involved a would-be assailant I’ll call Steven Janoff. He had once pursued a client of mine, and though our evaluation determined he did not likely pose a hazard to our client, we were concerned that he might be dangerous to a co-star on our client’s television show. We met with that actress and told her about the case. Police and studio security warned the pursuer off, assuming that would resolve the matter. It didn’t, of course.

 

About a year later, the actress was in rehearsing for a play. One day she saw a man outside the theater who caught her attention, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that he might be the person we had warned her about, so she called us. After some inquiry, we confirmed to her that Steven Janoff was indeed the man she saw, and that he was there in pursuit of her.

She and her representatives asked for and then exactly followed our recommendations. She stopped using the front entrance to the theater for her rehearsal visits, the box office was provided with Janoff’s photo and some guidance on what to do if he showed up, she agreed to have a security person with her, and she applied several other strategies we designed to limit the likelihood of an unwanted encounter.

 

For five days, Janoff stalked the actress, but because of her precautions, he was unable to encounter her. Janoff had purchased a ticket for the opening night of her play, though he wasn’t patient enough to wait till then. One afternoon he walked right up to the box office, where an employee recognized him and sent out a call to police. Janoff produced a handgun and demanded to see the actress. The employee, hoping the gun was not loaded, ran off. Janoff turned the gun on himself, announcing that he would pull the trigger unless the actress was brought to him. After a four-hour standoff with police, he was taken into custody.

Not only did it turn out that the gun was loaded, but Janoff had a collection of other firearms back at his hotel room.

▪ ▪ ▪

The Janoff case shows the enormous improvements the entertainment industry has made to address the safety of media figures. Several theatrical agencies, movie studios and management firms now routinely have inappropriate communications and visits professionally evaluated. Unlike in the Bardo case, media figures are now more likely to be informed of inappropriate pursuit. These and other improvements have brought clear results: Successful attacks against media figures have been sharply reduced in recent years.

 

I wish I could say the same for professional sports, which brings to mind the murder attempt on the young tennis star Monica Seles. Though it certainly won’t be the last attack on a sports figure, with a little effort it could be the last one facilitated by negligence.

Before I give you some little-known details about the Seles case, I want to discuss something about the hazards public figures face that is relevant to your safety. It is the myth that violence cannot be prevented. John Kennedy once made the point that assassins could not be stopped because “all anyone has to do is be willing to trade his life for the President’s.” Kennedy’s oft-quoted opinion is glib, but entirely wrong. In fact, assassination not only can be prevented, it is prevented far more often than it succeeds. Though assassins have a few advantages over their victims, there are many more factors working against them. Literally thousands of opportunities exist for them to fail, and only one slender opportunity exists for them to succeed. It is not the type of crime a person can practice—both literally and figuratively, an assassin has one shot at success.

 

Like John Kennedy, people who apply a fatalistic attitude to their own safety (e.g., “Burglary cannot be prevented; someone can always find a way in”) often do so as an excuse not to take reasonable precautions. Yes, a committed criminal might well be difficult to stop, but the absence of precautions makes you vulnerable to the uncommitted criminal.

In the Seles case, everybody knew that it made sense for her to have security at her public appearances in Europe. Because she was deeply enmeshed in the continent’s greatest conflict, the Serbs versus the Croats, her public appearances frequently brought political demonstrations. She routinely had bodyguards at her tournaments, as she did at the 1993 Citizen Tournament in Germany.

 

Nevertheless, soon after arriving on the court, one of history’s most brilliant athletes lay on her back, bleeding from a serious injury. Though ostensibly protected by two bodyguards, she had fallen victim to a knife attack, the most preventable of all assassination methods. Why did the bodyguards fail and assailant Gunter Parche succeed?

One of the two bodyguards, Manfred, answers my question in his statement to the police, but he begins with the wrong words: “I am a telecommunications worker. I have a side job for the private guard firm at the tennis grounds.”

Presumably, a star tennis player could fairly have the expectation that the bodyguards assigned to her would, in fact be bodyguards, professionals with some relevant training and experience. She might fairly expect that they would have at least discussed the possibility of a safety hazard, maybe even discussed what they would do should one present itself.

But none of that happened, and the promoters did not tell her that the people they had assigned to guard her life were unqualified part-timers. She had to learn that when Gunter Parche plunged the knife into her back and then raised his arm to do it again.

The second bodyguard’s name is Henry, and his statement, too, begins with the wrong words: “My main job is as a loader at Hamburg harbor. I have a side job where I am in charge of security at the tennis grounds. At this tournament, my job was specifically to accompany and look after Monica Seles.”

Amazingly, both men reported that they took special notice of assailant Gunter Parche prior to the stabbing. Henry pegged the attacker quite accurately: “Call it a sixth sense or whatever, I cannot explain it, but I noticed the man. Something told me that something was not quite right with this man. He was swaying instead of walking. I cannot explain it in more detail. I just had an uneasy feeling when I saw the man. As I said, I cannot explain it in more detail.”

Though he clearly had an intuition about the assailant, his main message appears to be that he “cannot explain it.”

Rather than tell anyone about his concerns, Henry decided instead to put down the coffee cup (which he was holding in his hand even though he was on a protective detail for the most controversial figure in world tennis), and stroll over to do I don’t know what, and he didn’t know what. Of course, he had taken only a few steps by the time the attack had started and finished.

 

It is perhaps not fair to criticize Henry and Manfred, for they know not what they do. That, however, is exactly my point.

While Seles was recovering from the knife wound, tennis promoters set out to promote the idea that such attacks cannot be prevented. Here is promoter Jerry Diamond telling interviewers on CNN that screening for weapons with metal detectors would never work in tennis: “When you are working in an enclosed facility where you’ve got walls and a ceiling and a roof, yeah, all those things are possible. But a metal detector is not going to deter anyone who is determined to go in that direction. When [Seles] got stabbed in Germany, it cost us as promoters a tremendous amount of revenue, so we selfishly try to make our security first-rate.”

His statement that weapons screening can’t work for tennis because some facilities lack walls and ceilings makes no sense. When I heard it, I was offended that someone would throw around life-and-death opinions with such misplaced confidence. Though he called weapons screening “ludicrous,” Mr. Diamond has throughout his career managed to screen every single spectator for something far smaller than a weapon: a tiny piece of paper, the ticket he sold them.

He doesn’t know, I imagine, that most television shows now have metal-detector screening for audiences. Why? Because if they didn’t, some armed person with the intent of harming a TV star could get a ticket and get within immediate reach of his target, just like Robert Bardo did when he visited Rebecca Schaeffer’s TV show carrying a concealed knife, and just like Parche did at the Citizen Tournament. When you screen audience members, you don’t have to worry about what is in people’s heads because you know what is in their purses and pockets.

 

Weapons screening is good enough for courthouses, airlines, TV shows, city halls, concerts, high schools, even the Superbowl (no ceiling!), but somehow, a businessman tells us, it can’t work for tennis. Of course, it’s convenient to see it Mr. Diamond’s way, because if attacks are unpreventable, then he and other promoters have no duty to try to prevent them.

Questioned by reporters about security weaknesses in professional tennis, another spokesperson explained that since tournaments occur all over the world, security precautions cannot be standardized. Really? Everywhere in the world they require that each tennis ball must bounce 135 to 147 centimeters when dropped from 2.5 meters. Everywhere in the world the courts are required to be exactly 23.8 meters long and 8.2 meters wide, with service courts that extend exactly 6.4 meters from the net to the service line. This sounds like standardization to me, and yet they asked how could you possibly have a standard credential and access-control system in all those countries? Well, you’d just have to go to the trouble of implementing one.

 

After the Seles attack, the Women’s Tennis Council publicized that they’d enhanced security, yet they didn’t require promoters to take two obvious steps: the use of metal detectors for screening spectators, and the installation of clear plastic audience barricades (like at hockey games). Weak security improvements—including those you might make in your own life—are sometimes worse than doing nothing because they give false peace of mind and convince people that safety is being addressed when it is not. Poorly designed security fools everyone… except the attacker.

▪ ▪ ▪

When people hear about some public-figure stalker, they may think the case can be added to a list that consists of Chapman and Hinckley and those few others they recall. In fact, each is added to a far longer list. My office has managed more than twenty thousand cases, and only a quarter of one percent have ever become public. Several individual clients of mine have received as many as ten thousand letters a week from members of the general public, some of which meet the criteria for review by our Threat Assessment and Management (TAM) staff. Death threats, stalking, bizarre demands, and persistent pursuit are all part of public life in America. Our work carries us to an underside of this culture that most people would not believe exists, but it does exist, just out of view, just below the surface. Here is a brief sampling of the kinds of cases we encountered in one two-year period:

  • A woman wrote more that six thousand death threats to a client because he was “marrying the wrong person.”
  • A man sent a client of ours a dead coyote, which the sender had killed “because it was beautiful like you.”
  • A man sent several letters each day to the actress with whom he hoped to have a romantic relationship. Six times a week, he walked miles to his local post office to see if a reply had arrived. Over eight years, he sent the actress more than twelve thousand letters, one of which included a photo of him with the inscription “Can you see the gun in this picture?” We were waiting for him when he showed up at her home.
  • A man who was obsessed with becoming famous shaved off one eyebrow, half his head and half his beard, then traveled cross-country in pursuit of a famous actor. He arrived in the actor’s hometown and went directly to a sporting goods store, where he priced a rifle and scope. He was arrested the night before our client made a major public appearance. When I interviewed the stalker, he told me that “whoever kills Caesar becomes a great man.”
  • A man sent a famous singer a picture of a heart pierced by a knife. Six months later, he was at her gate to “serenade her to kingdom come.”

And then there were those who committed terrible crimes against others, influenced by delusions involving some distant public figure:

  • A man attacked a teenage girl with a knife because he thought she was the famous model he was obsessed with.
  • A teenage girl killed her parents and said she was ordered to do it by a movie star.
  • In one case that became very public, a man named Ralph Nau had sinister delusions involving four different famous women, all clients of our office. He focused primarily on one whom he believed was an evil impostor. He killed a dog and sent the teeth to one of our clients. Later he traveled more than thirty thousand miles to destinations around the world in search of her. (He knew where the “impostor” lived but didn’t go there.) Once, he attended a concert given by the “impostor,” unaware that all the seats around him were occupied by TAM agents. We investigated ways to get him incarcerated or hospitalized, but he went to work reliably and never broke the law. He worked at a veterinary clinic, so even the killing of the dog could not be proven to be criminal. We monitored him closely every day for three years, after which he returned to his family home. I notified his father that references in some of his six hundred letters convinced us he would likely be dangerous to someone in his family. Within a few months he had killed his eight-year-old half-brother with an ax. The boy was preventing him from watching something very important on television: a signal about my client which he felt was being sent to him. (Even though he confessed to the killing, Nau was acquitted on a technicality. Every few months he is able to petition the court to release him from a mental hospital, and every few months we stand ready to testify against him.)

Given the number of cases evaluated by our TAM office—a virtual assembly line of madness and danger—I have had to be mindful of the need to keep a human connection between protector and pursuer, for only then are predictions likely to be accurate. Members of my staff who work on assessments put together a profile on each case. At some point, we began to refer to individuals under assessment as “profiles.” This became part of a growing terminology unique to our work, some of which I’ve shared with you in this book. For example, those people who believe they are the Messiah, Captain Kirk, or Marilyn Monroe are described as DEL-ID cases (for delusions of identity). Those who believe they are married to one of our clients are called SPOUSE-DEL (for spousal delusion). Those who feel they are acting under the direction of God or voices or devices installed in their brains are known as OUTCON cases (short for Outside Control).

 

I used to be concerned that this vernacular would dehumanize and depersonalize our assessments, but as we met more and more pursuers, came to know their lives more closely and understand their torment and the tragedy for their families, this concern evaporated. One can’t help being profoundly affected by close involvement with people whose lives are a twisted chain of police encounters, hospitalization, relentless pursuit by imagined enemies, perceived betrayal by their loved ones, restlessness that moves them to new places, only to be restless there and move again, and above all, loneliness.

No, there is no chance that my office will get too far from the human side of our assessment work. We can’t forget the young man who broke out of a mental hospital, mailed a final letter to a distant public figure he “loved,” and then committed suicide. We can’t forget those who killed others and somehow involved a media figure in their crime. Above all, we cannot and will not forget those who might try to harm our clients.

▪ ▪ ▪

In their search for attention and identity, most assassins go, as Park Dietz has put it, “to the people who have the most identity to spare: famous people.” Assassins know that when someone kills or attempts to kill a famous person in America, it is the grandest of all media events. A television reporter will stand with his camera crew just a few feet from another reporter standing with his camera crew, and invariably they will each call the crime “a senseless act.”

But assassination is anything but senseless to the perpetrator, and those reporters are part of the sense it makes. The literally millions of dollars spent videotaping every single walk a president takes to and from a car or helicopter makes sense too. Some call it “the assassination watch,” and electronic news organizations have obviously concluded that the cost of all those crews and all those satellite-dish vans, all that equipment and all that wasted videotape, is worth the images they’ll get if somebody starts firing a gun. Thus, television and the assassin have invested in the same crime, and every few years they together collect the profit from it.

Remember Arthur Bremer, who set out to assassinate President Nixon but later settled on presidential candidate George Wallace? He weighed his act in terms that would make Neilsen proud. In his journal (which he always intended to publish after he became famous), Bremer worried about his ratings: “If something big in Nam flares up, [my attack] won’t get more than three minutes on network T.V. news.”

These senseless acts make perfect sense.






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