21 Infamous Celebrity Murders

I don’t know why some people crave fame; give me anonymous wealth and prosperity any day. Fame can be a means to that end, of course, but as these tragic cases show, fame is still a four-letter word that, if nothing else, puts a big fat target on your back. (For the sake of a manageable list, we’ll keep political assassinations separate.)

1) Stanford White (1906)

Date of Death: June 25, 1906
Location: New York City, New York
Age: 52

Famed architect Stanford White (above left), who most notable design is perhaps the arch in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, was shot three times at point-blank range by millionaire heir Harry Kendall Thaw (above right), 35, while attending a play at Madison Square Garden. White was a longtime rival of Thaw’s for showgirls’ affections who had slept with Thaw’s 21-year-old wife, popular model Evelyn Nesbit, before they were married. The high profile of the crime and of the individuals involved led to a media frenzy that dubbed it “The Trial of the Century.” The first trial was deadlocked, and the second — during which Nesbit testified (falsely and in exchange for money from Thaw’s mother) that White had raped and abused her — ended by finding Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. In 1913, he was released from an asylum but would spend the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions.

 

2) Sharon Tate (1969)

Date of Death: August 9, 1969
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 26

Up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, who in the years leading up to her death had received a Golden Globes nomination for Valley of the Dolls and had married acclaimed director Roman Polanski, was killed by members of Charles Manson’s “Family” cult as part of a violent spree that left nine dead during the summer of 1969. Tate and three of her friends (including the heiress to the Folgers coffee empire) were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, occupying the house that was formerly rented by a music producer against whom Manson had held a grudge. Although Manson was aware that the producer had moved out of the house earlier in the year, he ordered a group of his cult members to kill everyone there as part of his plan to bring about an apocalyptic race war, dubbed “Helter Skelter.” Shortly after midnight on August 9, four of the Family cut the power to the house, then snuck in through a window. After her three friends had been shot and stabbed to death, Tate was the last of the residents left alive. Because she was more than eight months pregnant at the time, Tate pled with the killers to take her hostage for the two weeks remaining until her baby was born, but they proceeded to brutally stab her 16 times until she and her unborn baby boy were dead. By December of that year, all five suspects — including Manson — were under arrest. It took until October 1971 for the final verdict to arrive: the death penalty for all five. The following year, the sentences were reduced to life in prison after the California Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.

 

3) Sal Mineo (1976)

Date of Death: February 12, 1976
Location: West Hollywood, California
Age: 37

By the age of 22, Sal Mineo had been nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (for Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus), but by the ’70s, his big-screen career had dwindled to nothing. He was in the midst of a comeback early in 1976 when, returning home from a rehearsal for a play, he was stabbed outside of his apartment. Although Mineo was openly gay, that was not believed to be the motivation for the crime. Pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams (above right) was eventually arrested for the murder and for 10 robberies in the same area. In 1979, he was found guilty and sentenced to 57 years in prison.

 

4) Bob Crane (1978)

Date of Death: June 29, 1978
Location: Scottsdale, Arizona
Age: 49

Actor Bob Crane, best known as the Emmy-nominated star of the long-running comedy series Hogan’s Heroes, was beaten to death in his apartment with a blunt object that was never found. For years, Crane had been a sex addict who had videotaped his sexual exploits, but it’s unclear if that was the reason for his murder. The main suspect was John Henry Carpenter, a friend of Crane’s whose car was found to contain blood that matched the actor’s blood type. However, since DNA testing was not an option, no concrete link to Crane could be made. Carpenter was eventually tried when the case was reopened in 1994 — 16 years after the murder — but was found not guilty in part because there wasn’t a suitable blood sample remaining to conduct DNA testing.

 

5) Herman Tarnower (1980)

Date of Death: March 10, 1980
Location: Purchase, New York
Age: 69

Physician, best-selling author and creator of the popular and revolutionary Scarsdale Medical Diet, Herman Tarnower was shot and killed by his longtime girlfriend Jean Harris (above right), 56, headmistress at a Virginia girls boarding school. Though the two had been together for 14 years, they never married, and Tarnower had been romantically involved with numerous other women during that time. His latest affair was the last straw for Harris. She drove to his home with a loaded gun and, according to her, the intention of committing suicide, but an argument ensued, and she ended up shooting Tarnower four times at close range. Harris, who claimed that the gun had discharged accidentally when the doctor tried to take it away from her, was charged and convicted of second degree murder. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison but was granted clemency by New York governor Mario Cuomo in 1992 and released in 1993 after serving 12 years.

 

6) John Lennon (1980)

Date of Death: December 8, 1980
Location: New York, New York
Age: 40

On the night of December 8, 1980, five hours after a famed photo shoot (above left) with wife Yoko Ono and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, former Beatles singer John Lennon was shot dead in front of The Dakota apartment building in New York City. The killer, 25-year-old Mark David Chapman (above right), had a history of mental problems and attempted suicides and had developed an obsession with not only Lennon, but also other celebrities, like Johnny Carson and Elizabeth Taylor. He supposedly targeted Lennon because he saw him as a blasphemer and a hypocrite who preached the evils of materialism while attaining wealth. Chapman staked out The Dakota, where Lennon and Ono lived, for most of the day, even stopping to ask for Lennon’s autograph as he left to go to a recording studio around 5:00 in the afternoon. When he returned shortly before 11:00 PM, Chapman was still there. He calmly opened fire, shooting five times with a revolver, hitting Lennon twice in the back and twice in the shoulder. He then dropped the gun, pulled out a copy of his other obsession — the book The Catcher in the Rye — sat down on the sidewalk and waited for the police to arrive. Despite his lawyers’ advice to make an insanity plea, Chapman pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison — although he was eligible for parole after 20 years. However, he has repeatedly been denied parole since 2000.

 

7) Dominique Dunne (1982)

Date of Death: November 4, 1982
Location:
Age: 22

Dominique Dunne, the young daughter of renowned writer Dominick Dunne and sister of actor Griffin Dunne, was best known for playing the oldest daughter in the movie Poltergeist before she was killed by her ex-boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney (above right). Five months after Poltergeist hit theaters, the abusive Sweeney strangled Dunne outside her home during an argument. However, he was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 6  years in prison.

 

8) Marvin Gaye (1984)

Date of Death: April 1, 1984
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 44

On April Fools Day, 1984, while staying at his parent’s house in Los Angeles, legendary R&B singer Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father, Marvin Sr. (above right), when the younger Marvin intervened in an argument between his parents. Marvin Jr. reportedly physically assaulted his father in the latter’s bedroom, then retreated to his own room, at which point Marvin Sr. retrieved a handgun his son had given him the previous Christmas and shot the singer twice at point-blank range, killing him a day before his 45th birthday. The elder Marvin, who had abused his son throughout his childhood, claimed he was in fear for his life. He avoided first-degree murder charges by pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a six-year suspended sentence and five years probation. Marvin Sr.’s wife of 49 years divorced him shortly after sentencing.

 

9) Dian Fossey (1985)

Date of Death: December 27, 1985
Location: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Age: 53

Famed zoologist Dian Fossey’s work studying the mountain gorillas of Rwanda gave way to her devotion to fighting illegal hunting, exporting animals to zoos and tourism, a dogged conservationism that may have cost her her life. She was found dead in her mountain cabin two days after Christmas in 1985, with a machete wound in her head. Her murder was never solved, but since her valuables remained intact, the crime appeared to be personal in nature. The suspects were many, including poachers, the tourism bureau, national park workers who took bribes from poachers and even the Rwandan ruling family, some of whom participated in animal trafficking. Three years after her death, Fossey’s life was captured in the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist, for which Sigourney Weaver won an Oscar for Best Actress.

 

10) Peter Tosh (1987)

Date of Death: September 11, 1987
Location: St. Andrew, Jamaica
Age: 42

A founding member of legendary reggae group The Wailers and writer of their seminal hit “Get Up Stand Up,” Peter Tosh met a violent end at the hands of three gunmen during a home invasion. Tosh had recently returned to Jamaica from the US, and the robbers reportedly suspected that he brought a stash of money with him. When he told them he had no cash on him, the trio shot him in the head and then shot seven of his friends — two fatally — who had gathered at his house. All victims were lying face-down on the floor when shot. Dennis “Leppo” Lobban, an ex-con whom Tosh had taken under his wing after his release from jail, was arrested and identified as the man who killed the singer, but his accomplices were never named. Lobban was found guilty in 1988 and sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1995.

 

11) Rebecca Schaeffer (1989)

Date of Death: July 18, 1989
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 21

Rising star Rebecca Shaeffer, fresh off her starring role in the recently canceled sitcom My Sister Sam, was killed in her apartment by Robert John Bardo (above right), a 19-year-old obsessed fan with a history of stalking young female celebrities, including pop singers Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Having failed to gain access to the set of the show while it was in production, Bardo later obtained Shaeffer’s address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles and found his way to her apartment door. When she answered, he initially just explained that he was a big fan, but after leaving, he stewed for an hour or so and returned. She again opened the door, anticipating a script delivery, at which point, Bardo pulled out a handgun and shot her once in the chest. He reportedly was upset that  Schaeffer had appeared in a sex scene in a recent movie, thus erasing her “innocence.” Bardo was arrested in Tucson, Arizona, a day later and was convicted of capital murder, receiving a life sentence in jail. In response to Schaeffer’s death, California became the first state to pass an anti-stalking law in 1990, and four years later, it passed a law preventing the DMV from releasing private addresses.

 

12) Jeffrey Dahmer (1994)

Date of Death: November 28, 1994
Location: Portage, Wisconsin
Age: 34

Notorious serial killer/rapist/cannibal/necrophiliac Jeffrey Dahmer, who had killed so many people during his life, was himself murdered during the third year of his jail sentence of 15 life terms (one for each of his victims). Dahmer was beaten to death with a broomstick handle while doing janitorial work in the prison gym at the Columbia Correctional Institution. The culprit was Christopher Scarver (above right), an inmate with a history of schizophrenia who also murdered convicted killer Jesse Anderson during the attack. Scarver, who stated that God told him to do it, received two more life sentences added to his previous life sentence for his actions.

 

13) Selena (1995)

Date of Death: March 31, 1995
Location: Corpus Christi, Texas
Age: 23

Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla, AKA Selena, was the best-selling Latin artist of the ’90s, even though she lived for only the first half of the decade. She was killed by 34-year-old Yolanda Saldivar (above right), a disgruntled former employee who had recently been fired for embezzling money from her positions as president of Selena’s fan club and head of the company that manufactured Selena’s clothing line. Selena arranged to meet Saldivar at a Days Inn motel to obtain financial documents she needed for her tax returns, but when she arrived, Saldivar pulled a gun on the singer and shot her once in the back, piercing a major artery that caused her to bleed to death. Although Saldival claimed that the shooting was accidental, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2025, at age 64.

 

14) Haing S. Ngor (1996)

Date of Death: February 25, 1996
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 55

Cambodian doctor-turned-actor Haing S. Ngor escaped the genocide of his homeland in the late ’70s, only to be killed in his new American home. A decade after winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his first professional acting gig, the 1984 historical drama The Killing Fields, Ngor was shot and killed outside his home in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Three gang members were convicted of robbery and murder, their sentences ranging from 26 years to life to life without parole, but rumors remain that the crime was politically motivated by members of the Cambodian ruling party from which Ngor had escaped.

 

15) Tupac Shakur (1996)

Date of Death: September 13, 1996
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Age: 25

On the night of September 7, shortly before midnight, rapper Tupac Shakur and his entourage were headed from a boxing match at the MGM Grand to a local club owned by Suge Knight, the CEO of his record label, Death Row Records. With Knight driving and Shakur in the front passenger’s seat of Knight’s car, another car pulled up to the passenger’s side of the vehicle while it was at a stop light and opened fire. Shakur was shot in the hand, thigh, pelvis and chest — the latter striking one of his lungs. He was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support; he died six days later. No one was ever charged with the murder, although theories and suspects abound, from rival rapper Notorious B.I.G. to a gang member with whom Shakur and his entourage fought earlier that night to even Knight himself.

 

16) Notorious B.I.G. (1997)

Date of Death: March 9, 1997
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 24

Just six months after the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur, whose rivalry with Notorious B.I.G. led some to believe he had a hand in Shakur’s death, Biggie himself was the victim of violence. In Los Angeles to attend the Soul Train Music Awards, Notorious B.I.G. was leaving an after-party shortly after midnight when the incident — which eerily mirrored Shakur’s — occurred. As with his rival’s death, Biggie was seated in the front passenger’s seat of his vehicle and was stopped at a red light when another vehicle pulled up alongside him and shot the rapper four times in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the hospital less than 30 minutes later. Like the Shakur case, no one has ever been arrested for the killing.

 

17) Gianni Versace (1997)

Date of Death: July 15, 1997
Location: Miami Beach, Florida
Age: 50

World-famous fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed outside his Miami Beach mansion by 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan (above right), a troubled young man who had shot four men to death in the three months leading up to Versace’s murder. With the FBI hot on his trail, Cunanan shot himself in the head eight days after killing the designer. There was no specific motive found for any of the attacks.

 

18) Phil Hartman (1998)

Date of Death: May 28, 1998
Location: Los Angeles, California
Age: 49

Comedian Phil Hartman, best known for his work on the TV show Saturday Night Live, was killed in his sleep by his wife of 10 years, Brynn (above left). Drunk and having recently taken both the antidepressant drug Zoloft and cocaine, the inebriated Brynn reportedly got into a heated argument with Hartman on the night of May 27 when he threatened to divorce her over her drug use. Around 3 AM on May 28, she entered his bedroom and shot him once in the torso and twice in the head. She confessed to two friends, and when police arrived, she locked herself in the bedroom and shot herself in the head. A year after the deaths, Brynn’s family sued the makers of Zoloft, which they claimed can cause suicidal tendencies. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

 

19) Roger Troutman (1999)

Date of Death: April 25, 1999
Location: Dayton, Ohio
Age: 47

Roger Troutman (above left), talkbox pioneer and lead singer of the popular funk band Zapp and later a solo artist in his own right who influenced and appeared on tracks from hip-hop icons like Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, was shot by his brother and bandmate Larry Troutman (above right) outside his recording studio. Roger died at the hospital during surgery, while Larry was later found dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A motive was unclear, but a business disagreement was suspected.

 

20) Jam Master Jay (2002)

Date of Death: October 30, 2002
Location: New York City, New York
Age: 37

One-third of the pioneering hip-hop group Run-DMC, DJ Jam Master Jay (above center) was an influential musician whose distinctly “non-gangsta” persona made his murder all the more shocking. Shot and killed in his Queens recording studio by a gunman and his accomplice, the murder remains unsolved, although federal prosecutors charged petty criminal Ronald “Tenad” Washington as the accomplice in 2007. He wasn’t convicted, however, and a shooting suspect has yet to be named. Rumors persist that the motive for the slaying was Jam Master Jay’s affiliation with rapper 50 Cent, who mentioned names of specific drug dealers from his neighborhood in a song early in his career — a street code no-no that supposedly led to 50’s now-infamous shooting in 2000 (which he, unlike Jam Master Jay, survived).

 

21) Adrienne Shelly (2006)

Date of Death: November 1, 2006
Location: New York City, New York
Age: 40

Veteran filmmaker Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed and acted in what was to become her mainstream breakthrough movie, Waitress, starring Kerri Russell, but she was never able to enjoy its success. She was found dead — hanging by a bed sheet from her shower curtain — six months before it was released in 2007. Although the death initially appeared to be a suicide, evidence on the scene — including footprints — pointed to a murder. Diego Pillco (above right), a 19-year-old illegal immigrant from Ecuador who was doing construction work in the apartment building, was arrested and confessed to strangling Shelly when she found him stealing money from her purse. In March 2008, Pillco was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

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