On the surface, celebrities seem to have it all: a lavish lifestyle and an adoring public inspire envy among us. If only we could be equally worshipped and adored, wealthy and esteemed, how much easier would our lives be? It often sounds too good to be true. Because it is. There are very terrifying aspects of being rich and famous and well.
Many are tracked by disturbed stalkers who feel a warped sense of entitlement. Others are locked in contentious relationships that crumble from the pressures of success. A friendly rivalry can turn toxic. Major business deals are often disastrous. And any one of those scenarios can turn deadly. Sometimes, the dangers of fame far outweigh the benefits, ending in tragedy.
A celebrity murder is always shocking–the endless media coverage is both traumatic and transfixing for fans. It captures our imagination and unnerves us: if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. And every anniversary of their tragic deaths inspires new contemplation, rumors and context.
Here are the 15 most shocking celebrity murders of all time: actors, musicians, models and other iconic public figures, all gone much too soon, for reasons almost impossible to comprehend.
15. Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur was (and remains) one of the most popular artists in hip-hop history. His politicized lyrics showed an artist full of bravado yet artistically sensitive. And it was between those two poles that brought him fame and tragedy.
Shakur had been a vocal participant in the East Coast/West Coast feud with New York City rapper Biggie Smalls (aka, Christopher Wallace), but the beef became so heated that many believe it led to Shakur’s murder in 1996.
After leaving a Las Vegas boxing match in associate Suge Knight’s 1996 BMW, Shakur was shot four times by an unknown shooter, and would later die from internal bleeding at a local hospital at the age of 25.
The first suspect was Orlando Anderson, a notorious member of the L.A. street gang the Crips, but he was cleared by police. Biggie Smalls emphatically denied any involvement and was also never charged (more on him next). The FBI also investigated the Jewish Defense League for issuing death threats against Shakur, but to no avail. It remains a mystery to this day.
14. Christopher Wallace (Biggie Smalls)
Christopher George Latore Wallace (aka, The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls) was one of New York City’s most famous rappers, with a subdued style that made him stand out against his peers. But like rival Tupac Shakur, Wallace would die at a young age from gunshot wounds.
Wallace attended the 1997 Soul Train Music Awards, where the tension between West and East Coast gangs was notably palpable, with many in the crowd still holding the rapper responsible for Shakur’s death.
After leaving the awards ceremony, Wallace was shot at a red light by a man wielding a 9 mm blue-steel pistol. He suffered four bullet wounds to the chest and died shortly after arriving at L.A.’s Cesar-Sinai hospital.
Like Shakur, Wallace’s murder remains unsolved (Suge Knight was the initial suspect, but was never charged). In a recent interview, Wallace’s mother stated that she thinks she knows who killed him, but blamed the L.A.P.D. for covering up the investigation as part of the Rampart corruption scandal of the late ’90s. We may never know for sure what happened.
13. Phil Hartman
One of the most beloved cast members of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and the ’90s hit sitcom News Radio, Phil Hartman seemed to have it all. However, his personal life was filled with discord. Hartman was married three times, with the first two collapsing into divorce. But it was his third marriage that would prove fatal.
Hartman’s wife Brynn Omdahl had aspirations for becoming an actor, but felt dwarfed by her husband’s success. This combined with her drug use led to an extremely unstable relationship, barely held together due to their two children. She was also deeply jealous of Hartman’s friendship with fellow SNL veteran Jan Hooks.
All this came to a head on May 27, 1998. After an argument with Hartman, who threatened divorce if she didn’t get help for her addictions, Omdahl shot him to death, later taking her own life. Hartman’s murder rocked Hollywood, and deeply affected his SNL alumni, including Jon Lovitz, who blamed Hartman’s News Radio co-star Andy Dick for introducing Omdahl to cocaine. Dick has repeatedly denied the charge.
12. Dominique Dunne
Dominique Dunne, the daughter of actor/author Dominick Dunne, is best known for her appearance in the classic ’80s horror film Poltergeist. Sadly, her life ended more horrifically than any scary movie.
Dunne was involved in an abusive relationship with fellow actor John Thomas Sweeney. At one point, he left her so bruised that her injuries were apparent in a guest appearance on the cop drama Hill Street Blues.
Dunne tried to end the relationship, but things led to tragedy on the evening of November 4, 1982, when Sweeney strangled her to death on the front porch of her home. Sweeney fully confessed to the crimes, but his conviction was met with outrage, serving only three and a half years after he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
The previously mentioned Hill Street Blues episode (which came with a tragic air of irony, as she was portraying a domestic abuse victim), aired after her death and was dedicated to her memory. It proved a tragically fitting epitaph to a life cut far too short. She was only 22.
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a transformational artist during the 1990s, bringing her fusion of Tejano and Cumbia to a worldwide audience. The singer helped to expand the reach of a subculture previously confined to the Latin market. But her multicultural breakthrough success came at a heavy price. It was so stratospheric and widespread that it allowed for opportunistic betrayal in the form of Yolanda Saldívar, a rabid fan who was promoted from the singer’s fan club president to manager of Quintanilla-Pérez’s line of clothing boutiques.
Things took a turn for the worse when the vocalist discovered Saldívar was embezzling her clothing line profits, and she was terminated shortly thereafter. Three weeks later, the two reconnected in a hotel room, with Selena requesting financial records Saldívar had been withholding. An argument ensued, ending with Saldívar shooting the singer in the back. She would later die of the injury, two weeks from her 24th birthday.
10. Dimebag Darrell
Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell Abbott is one of the most legendary guitarists in metal history, forging a unique mix of Texas blues and Sabbath snarl that spurred his band to greatness in the ’90s. But after the group folded in 2003, he would soon become a tragic figure.
Abbott would go on to form another band, Damageplan, with his brother (and Pantera drummer) Vinnie Paul. During a 2004 tour stop in Columbus, Ohio, Abbott was attacked by Nathan Gale, a 25-year-old former Marine. Abbott was shot five times in the head from Gale’s 9 mm Beretta 92FS, dying instantly. Gale would also kill three bystanders and wounded seven others before he was killed by police.
Although the reasons for Gale’s attack have never been fully understood, one theory is that he was upset about Pantera’s breakup, blaming Abbott and his brother. Another train of thought is that he thought the guitarist had stolen one of his songs. In the end, both reasons feels senseless and cruel, and impossible to comprehend, robbing the world of a true musical talent.
9. Jam Master Jay
Jam Master Jay’s (real name: Jason William Mizell) DJ skills helped put RUN DMC on the map as one of the most iconic groups in hip-hop. His sampling of rock guitar over rap beats was so influential that he even ranked 10th on Spin magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. By all accounts, he was beloved by peers and fans alike.
This makes Mizeel’s death all the more puzzling. He was shot to death on October 30, 2002 while recording in a Jamaica, Queens recording studio by an unknown assailant. Over the years there have been several suspects named, most notably Ronald “Tenad” Washington, who was a former associate of the aforementioned Tupac Shakur. Court papers declared that Washington “pointed his gun at those present in the studio, ordered them to get on the ground and provided cover for his associate to shoot and kill Jason Mizell.”
8. Rebecca Schaeffer
Rebecca Schaeffer was an up and coming young actress, garnering attention for co-starring in the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam (opposite Mork and Mindy’s Pam Dawber). After My Sister Sam was cancelled midway through its second season, Schaeffer moved on to several film roles until her life was tragically cut short on July 18, 1989at the tender age of 21.
Schaeffer was shot to death by Robert John Bardo, who had relentlessly stalked the actress for three years. He murdered Schaeffer after seeing her in a sex scene in the film Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Bardo claimed she was just “another Hollywood wh***” who deserved to die.
He was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes, and the media exposure of Schaeffer’s tragic passing raised such awareness for the dangers of stalking that it led to the passage of the first anti-stalking law in 1990, a crucial first step in combating a disturbing and terrifying criminal trend.
7. Dorothy Stratten
Dorothy Stratten, a Canadian model and actress, was the Playboy Playmate of August 1979. She also appeared in several television shows, including Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Fantasy Island, gaining praise for her comedic abilities. Unfortunately for Stratten, she was also involved in an abusive relationship with Paul Snider, who in addition to being her husband was also her business manager.
She was encouraged by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to cut ties with Snider, calling him a “hustler and a pimp.” Their toxic union would lead her to start an affair with acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show). She attempted to end her marriage to Snider, who in turn hired a private investigator to track her whereabouts. He described Stratten as his meal ticket, his “rocket to the moon,” and he couldn’t accept being spurned both romantically and professionally.
In the end, Snider’s erratic behavior and unchecked jealously turned tragic: he shot Stratten to death, then abused her corpse and later took his own life.
6. Gianni Versace
One of the most influential designers in the history of fashion, Gianni Versace will be forever remembered for his multi-faceted design aesthetic that covered everything from clothing, perfume, home furnishings, cosmetics, and even extended to costume design for television and film. Unfortunately, he will also be remembered for his tragic and shocking death in 1997.
Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami mansion after a morning walk. The assailant was Andrew Cunanan, a serial killer who murdered four other victims prior to Versace. Cunanan would eventually take his own life, shooting himself in the head on a houseboat. The motives for Versace’s murder (as well as the four other victims) remains unclear, with Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto noting at the time that “I don’t know that we are ever going to know the answers.”
Versace’s death will be further explored on the upcoming season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story.
5. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye is one of the most iconic singers of all time, renowned for his pioneering fusion of soul, R&B, funk, and jazz. But like so many great artists, the Motown legend had a troubled personal life, enduring child abuse and struggling with depression and drug addiction. At one point, he tried committing suicide, with Motown founder Berry Gordy intervening before he could follow-through with the act. It seemed that the worst was behind him.
Gaye’s strained relationship with his parents reached a fever pitch in 1984, however, when the singer got into a physical altercation with his father (Marvin Gay Sr.) in an attempt to break up a fight between him and his mother. Shortly thereafter, his father shot him to death.
Gaye’s father received just a 6 year suspended sentence with probation, with his charges dropped from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter after it was revealed that a brain tumor may have contributed to his unstable behavior.
4. Bob Crane
Bob Crane lived a double-life: in public, he was the wholesome star of sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, playing the wise cracking Colonel Hogan. He was also a doting husband and father and noted Conservative. But in private, he was a sex addict who filmed and photographed his copious carnal adventures with female admirers.
In the end, Crane’s compulsive behavior sealed his fate. The actor was found murdered in the bedroom of his Scottsdale, Arizona apartment. And the method of death was (allegedly) bludgeoning by a camera tripod. Crane’s bizarre murder exposed his secret obsessions, becoming one of the most tawdry murder cases in Hollywood. It was also one of the most mysterious, inspiring the movie Autofocus in 2002.
Finding Crane’s murderer proved difficult for the Scottsdale police, but the primary suspect was John Carpenter, Crane’s friend who also participated in his sexual hijinks, and who was reportedly upset when Crane tried to end their friendship. He was later acquitted (although widely considered guilty in the court of public opinion), and died four years later. The case remains unsolved.
3. Sharon Tate
The 1969 murder of Sharon Tate is one of the most famous (and disturbing) crime stories in American history. The budding actress was entertaining friends in her Los Angeles home when they were attacked by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel: all members of “The Manson Family.” Tate, who was two weeks from giving birth at the time, pleaded for her life, but was stabbed 16 times. She would die from her wounds.
In all, 10 people were murdered by the murderous cult over a two day period. It created a sense of panic and media frenzy that was unparalleled at the time, making figurehead Charles Manson a household name.
The trial of Manson (who orchestrated, but didn’t carry out the killings) and his brainwashed followers became a three-ring-circus, with cult members vocally disrupting the proceedings, and showing a complete disregard for human life. In the end, the failed rock star turned criminal svengali was sentenced to life in prison, with his various attempts at gaining parole bringing his grisly crimes back in the spotlight time and time again.
2. Nicole Brown Simpson
On the surface, O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson had an idyllic marriage. Public photos showed what appeared to be a happy couple with beaming smiles. But the truth couldn’t have been more different. They had a toxic abusive relationship that turned physical, with Simpson pleading no contest to spousal abuse in 1989. They divorced soon afterwards, but attempted to reconcile. It didn’t last long.
Nicole Brown Simpson was found murdered on June 13, 1994 outside her home in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, having been stabbed multiple times. Beside her was the body of Ron Goldman, also stabbed to death. The revelation turned America upside down.
O.J. Simpson became the primary suspect in “the trial of the century,” a legal case that divided the court of public opinion on racial lines and dominated television news. In the end, Simpson was acquitted in a criminal trial, but was later found guilty in a civil suit. When he was sentenced to prison for unrelated crimes in 2008, many viewed it as delayed karma.
1. John Lennon
As mentioned earlier, celebrity murders unnerve partly because they show that no one is invulnerable, despite fame and riches. But it’s also because fans of the deceased drew inspiration and solace from their talents. That separation of talent and audience can prove heartbreaking. Such was the case with John Lennon, the voice of a generation.
The Beatles vocalist was murdered by Mark David Chapman, who had previously asked Lennon to sign a copy of his album Double Fantasy, outside of Lennon’s New York City apartment building. The star reportedly asked Chapman, “Is this all you want?” Sadly, the answer was no.
Chapman returned to Lennon’s building on December 8, 1980, fatally shooting him four times, blaming his actions were inspired by the book The Catcher in the Rye. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The response to Lennon’s death was overwhelming, with a worldwide mourning matching the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. For a singer who espoused pacifism, his violent end seemed especially cruel.
That wraps up our list of the 15 most shocking celebrity murders. Which celebrity death had the biggest impact upon you? Tell us in the comments.
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