The rich and famous aren’t immune to family tragedies, and unfortunately, some celebrities have endured the kind of traumatic loss that alters the course of one’s life forever, regardless of one’s success in music, movies, or sports.
From basketball great Michael Jordan to Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, the following stars have all suffered through the murder of a parent. Some of these famous figures suffered this painful loss as young children, while others were forced to grieve under the glare of the media spotlight. In either case, the experience impacted their lives in ways many of us could never imagine. The reasons might be different — a brutal robbery, self-defense from an abusive relationship, a potential hate crime, jealous ex-lovers, and seemingly random acts of violence — but the result was the same. Let’s take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding these terrible losses and explore the ways these beloved celebrities have coped with their pain and loss.
Dylan McDermott is known for his role as Ben Harmon in the American Horror Story franchise, but in real life, the actor suffered true horror. In 1967, 5-year-old Dylan was standing outside his Waterbury, Conn. home — his mother’s boyfriend had kicked him out — as a horrible scene played out inside. According to the Republican-American (via Today), Dylan heard a gunshot. The next time he saw his mom, her body was being carried out on a gurney. Diane McDermott’s boyfriend, John Sponza, "was the only witness to that gunshot, and he told police that Diane had committed suicide," reported Today.
In 2011, Dylan contacted the Waterbury police asking questions. "[The actor] said, ‘In order for me to survive and to get where I am today, I needed to bury that moment in my life deep within myself,’" Police Superintendent Michael Gugliotti told the Republican-American (per The Hollywood Reporter). "He said it wasn’t until recently ‘that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’m able to begin to process all of this." The case was reopened, and this time, a medical examiner determined a gun "had been pressed to the back of [Dianne’s] head," reported Today. There was enough new evidence "to file murder charges" against Sponza. The Hollywood Reporter said the investigation also "implicated" Sponza in "at least two additional unsolved homicides."
Sponza will never see his day in court. In 1972, police reportedly found his dead body in the trunk of a car in a grocery store parking lot.
With six NBA titles, Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, but he temporarily retired from the game in 1993, the year his father, James Jordan, was shot and killed. According to the Los Angeles Times, 57-year-old James had been missing for three weeks when his body was "found floating in a South Carolina creek on Aug. 3." His vehicle, a red Lexus 400, was recovered by police two days later. "It had been stripped of its tires and stereo speakers, the front windshield and back window had been broken and the personalized license plate taken."
Daniel Andre Green and Larry Martin Demery, the two teenagers charged with the crime, reportedly shot James as he slept in his car and didn’t realize who they’d killed until they rummaged through his belongings. According to Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt (per the Chicago Tribune), Green opened James’ wallet, then turned to Demery and said, "I believe we killed Michael Jordan’s dad."
Jordan talked a bit about his father’s murder with Oprah Winfrey, telling her that he didn’t want to know the killers’ reasons for their actions "because it would probably hurt me even more."
On Oct. 24, 2008, Jennifer Hudson’s sister, Julia Hudson, returned to the family’s Chicago home and discovered that her mother, 57-year-old Darnell Donerson, and brother, 29-year-old Jason Hudson, had been shot and killed and that her son, 7-year-old Julian King, was missing. Three days later, Julian was found in the back of an abandoned SUV. He had been shot in the head, reported the Chicago Tribune. In 2012, Julia’s estranged husband, William Balfour was convicted of all three murders and sentenced to life in prison.
Jennifer rarely discusses the heartbreaking tragedy, but in a 2015 interview with Glamour, the American Idol star opened up about her pain. "It’s frustrating as hell to me to have somebody who ain’t lost nothing try to talk to me about it," she said. "I want to say, ‘Don’t even bother, because you know nothing.’ But you never know how much you can get through until you’re going through it." She admits that giving birth to her son a year after the murders helped her cope. "I went from being an aunt, having a mom, and being a child to not having a mom, becoming a mom, and raising my own child," she explained. She said her son, David, "saved [her] life."
Guitarist Dave Navarro played in iconic ’90s bands such as Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he believes it’s through "some sort of divine intervention" that he survived into adulthood. When he was 15 years old, his mother, 41-year-old Constance ‘Connie’ Navarro,’ and her friend, Sue Jory, were reportedly shot and killed by Constance’s ex-boyfriend, John Riccardi, after he broke into her Los Angeles apartment on March 3, 1983. Dave was visiting his father at the time of the murders. According to the Daily Mail, Riccardi "spent eight years on the run before he was finally arrested in Houston in January 1991 after the TV show America’s Most Wanted aired a segment about him."
The musician opened up about the ordeal via a 2015 documentary called Mourning Sun. Directed by his "best friend," the film evaluates "how a single traumatic incident fundamentally shaped" the rest of his life, reported The Huffington Post. "The truth is, there were times when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell it. But I think on a therapeutic level, it was worth seeing through," he told HuffPost. "It’s almost been a rebirth of my relationship with her, in the light," he says in the film. Shaped by those brutal murders, Dave now lends his voice to raise awareness about domestic violence.
Rapper and media mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs used the 2013 launch of his Revolt TV to publicly discuss his late father, Melvin Combs, for the first time. "My father was killed when I was 3 yrs old…we didn’t share a lot of moments but he’s always lived in my spirit!!," Diddy tweeted, with a link to a segment called "Confessions."
Melvin was shot and killed while sitting in his car at the age of 33. "My father was a hustler. He was a drug dealer and he was a hustler, so I learned early in life that there’s only two ways out of that dead-end jail. It made me work even harder," Diddy says. "Sometimes you can’t just answer why things happen, but I definitely think the route that I went on — staying out of the streets and hitting my books and trying to be somebody — I think he played a role in that."
Musician and producer Sean Lennon, son of Beatles legend John Lennon, was born on Oct. 9, 1975 — his famous father’s 35th birthday. Sadly, father and son didn’t have much time together. A man by the name of Mark David Chapman shot the former Beatle four times on Dec. 8, 1980, outside the family’s apartment building in Manhattan. According to CNN, Chapman idolized John but claimed he became angry when his hero infamously proclaimed that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" during an interview in 1966. "I took the gun and just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom," Chapman said during an interview in prison three years after the murder. He was denied parole for the tenth time in 2018.
In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, Sean reflected on life without his father. "People ask me, ‘Do you feel like he’s still around?’ And he is, man," Sean said. "He’s alive in his music, in my life. Sometimes I walk into a store and hear him singing — ‘Instant Karma’ is playing — and I feel like that’s him talking to me."
Malcolm X was a religious leader and fierce advocate for civil rights. Delve into his childhood, and it’s easy to understand why. His father, Earl Little, was a preacher and civil rights activist who was the frequent target of white supremacists. "When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, ‘a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home,’" Malcolm X recalled (per Biography). "Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out."
Little reportedly moved the family from Omaha to Wisconsin to Michigan in hopes of keeping them safe, but tragedy found them. In 1931, Little’s "dead body was discovered lying across the municipal streetcar tracks," reported Biography. The family believed he was murdered by white supremacists, but the police reportedly ruled the death "a streetcar accident, thereby voiding the large life insurance policy he had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death." Malcolm’s mother "never recovered," the site reported. She was committed to a mental institute. Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.
Malcolm X’s life was also cut short. He was assassinated in front of his pregnant wife and children on Feb. 21, 1965, before a speaking engagement in New York. According to The Washington Post, "Days before his death, Malcolm X assured reporters: ‘I live like a man who is dead already. I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything."
Dallas star Patrick Duffy was at the height of his fame when his parents, Terrence and Marie Duff, were brutally gunned down in 1986 during a robbery in the Montana bar they owned. The perpetrators, Sean Wentz and Kenneth Miller, were sentenced to 75 years in prison (per the Express), but Miller was granted parole in 2007, after Wentz reportedly confessed that he was the gunman during the slaying.
Although Patrick supported his sister’s petition to keep their parents’ killers behind bars, the Step by Step actor credited his Buddhist faith with his ability to cope with Miller’s freedom. "My point of view is that he’s already been punished. You know, whether he’s in prison or out of prison," he told OK! magazine (via the Express). "I was stunned that my reaction included compassion for them. I am not a cold and uncaring person. So why am I not emotionally devastated by this? I realize that by now, in all probability, even if they had not been killed, they would be dead. All parents die."
Chuck Palahniuk, best known for his award-winning novel Fight Club, starting writing his 2003 novel, Lullaby, shortly after his father’s murder in 1999. According to The Independent, Fred Palahniuk and his girlfriend died after Dale Shackleford, the girlfriend’s ex-husband, "shot them both and then dragged their bodies to a cabin to burn." Shackleford was convicted and initially sentenced to death, but "the sentence was overturned from death to a life sentence on a technicality," Chuck said.
In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone, the writer recalled a haunting story from his father’s childhood: Three-year-old Fred hiding under a bed while his father shoots and kills his mother then himself. "My father’s first memories were of hiding under that bed…" Chuck told the magazine. "After that, he was always this man still looking for his mother. Then, eventually, he found this woman, and once again a man with a gun comes back into the picture. And kills her. And then kills him." Chuck added, "In a way, I can’t help but admire the shape of this perfect completion of a thing that started so long ago. I find comfort in that. That things happen for a reason and according to a pattern."