Bachelor No. 1, ‘Dating Game’ contestant, film student, fashion photographer…sexual predator, rapist, serial killer, death row inmate.
A short note before I get started: the timeline for this case is kind of all over the place. To really understand the full extent of Alcala’s horrific crimes, I recommend reading this from beginning to end. As always, please read with caution.
1943 – 1968
San Antonio, Mexico, Los Angeles
Alcala was born in 1943 in San Antonio, Texas. His family moved to Mexico when he was 8. When Alcala was 11, his father left the family, leaving his mother to support herself and four children. After his father left, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles.
In 1960, when Rodney was 17, he joined the US Army. He served for 4 years, until he was diagnosed with a severe antisocial personality disorder and was discharged on medical grounds.
On leaving the army in 1964, Alcala began a degree in Fine Arts at UCLA and graduated in 1968 with his BA.
The same year, 8-year-old Tali Shapiro was abducted on her way to school. As luck would have it, another driver saw Tali being lured into a car with no licence plates and instantly got a bad feeling about it. The driver followed the car to an apartment building and called the police. The police arrived, barged into the apartment, and found Tali lying in a pool of blood, raped and beaten within an inch of her life. An attempt had also been made to strangle her with a metal bar.
On searching the apartment, police found it belonged to UCLA student Rodney Alcala. Also discovered in the apartment was photography equipment and many pictures of young girls. Alcala, however, was nowhere to be found.
On The Run
1968 - 1971, New York City, New Hampshire
Alcala fled California ASAP. He took on a new identity as ‘John Berger’ and went to New York, where he enrolled in NYU Film School. His peers saw him as free spirited and fun loving. While at NYU, he met Roman Polanski, who trained him in photography, a vital skill which Alcala would later use to lure and trap his victims.
Alcala also got a job as a camp counsellor at an arts camp for girls in New Hampshire. Here he changed his fake name to a slightly different one, John Burger. At the time, he was on the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for the rape and attempted murder of Tali Shapiro, but given his changed identity, he was able to live undetected by law enforcement.
In and Out of Prison
1971 – 1977, Los Angeles
In 1971, Alcala’s luck changed. Two campers from the arts camp recognised their counsellor on a wanted poster at the post office – not as John Burger, but as Rodney Alcala. They told camp directors, who informed police. Alcala was swiftly arrested and extradited to California. Tali Shapiro and her family had moved to Mexico after she was attacked, meaning she was not at the trial to testify against Alcala. This was a huge blow to the prosecution’s case; Tali’s absence meant they were unable to convict him for rape and attempted murder and instead were forced to agree to offer Alcala a plea deal. Alcala plead guilty to child molestation and was sentenced to one year to life in prison.
At the time the US justice system was largely focussed on rehabilitating criminals and therefore indeterminate sentencing was practiced. A parole board decided whether an inmate had been sufficiently rehabilitated and therefore whether or not they should be released. Alcala was charming and smart and able to convince the board he was ready to re-enter society. He was paroled in 1974 after just 34 months in prison.
After 2 months on parole, Alcala told a 13-year-old girl he would give her a ride to school, so she got in his car. Instead he drove around with her and offered her marijuana. She got away, telling the police she had been kidnapped. Alcala was not charged for kidnapping, but spent another 2 years in prison for breaking his parole and providing marijuana to a minor.
Free Once Again
1977, Los Angeles, New York City
After being released from prison, Alcala had no trouble inserting himself back into society. He created an identity as a charming and charismatic fashion photographer with a job at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter (who also happened to be a convicted sex offender, but he was very successful at keeping this under wraps). He also managed to convince his parole officer in LA to let him travel to New York to ‘visit family’ (very bad move).
The Dating Game
In September 1978, Alcala participated in ‘The Dating Game’ as Bachelor No. 1. Alcala was in his element in the public eye, clearly feeling pretty smug about his deception of law enforcement and the public.
Host Jim Lange introduced Alcala with this description:
“A successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed.”
This wouldn’t have been as funny if they had known that Alcala was was actively killing women when he wasn’t participating in game shows.
Alcala came across as charming and funny, resulting in “bachelorette” Cheryl Bradshaw choosing him as her date. However, the date did not happen in the end, as Cheryl found Alcala too “creepy”. Alcala was not happy with the rejection, to say the least.
You can see Alcala’s Dating Game appearance here.
June 20, 1979, Huntington Beach
It was summer in Southern California and 12-year-old Robin Samsoe was having a pretty great time. She got to spend plenty of time at the beach and was looking forward to starting ballet classes. Robin was described as fun, sweet, loving and happy. She was very close to her mother, Marianne. Robin loved to dance and had struck a deal with the ballet studio in town where she would work answering phones for a couple of hours in exchange for lessons.
Before she planned to head to the studio that day, she arranged to meet up with her best friend, Bridget, at the beach. On their arrival, a dark haired man with a camera approached them, asking to take pictures of them. Robin said okay, however, when a neighbour appeared and asked the girls if everything was okay, the man looked as though he had seen a ghost. Before they knew it, he had grabbed his camera and was gone.
The girls left the beach and Robin realised she was going to be late to the studio. Bridget urged her to take her bike, which she did. Bridget would be the last person to see Robin alive.
Later that day, an employee of the ballet studio called Robin’s home, notifying Marianne that Robin had never arrived at the studio. She immediately called 911.
Twelve days later, Robin’s remains were found in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains around 40 miles north of where she was last seen alive. Animals had ravaged her body and all that was left were bones.
Investigators interviewed Bridget, and from her description, a sketch of the man from the beach was produced and distributed throughout Southern California. The sketch was a good portrayal of Alcala; when his parole officer in LA saw it, he notified the Huntington Beach PD that they had to take a look at Rodney Alcala. Four days later, they located Alcala, who was living at his mother’s home – literally next to where Robin’s remains were found. They arrested him on suspicion of murder.
Evidence Against Alcala
Possibly the most important piece of evidence found at the home was a receipt for a storage unit Alcala had rented in Seattle, dated 9 days after Robin disappeared.
Investigators travelled to Seattle to search the storage unit. They struck gold, finding hundreds of pictures of children and women. Neither Robin nor Bridget were in any of the photos, however, a photo of another girl was found which has been taken at Sunset Beach, about 2 miles from where Robin had been abducted from. The photo had also been taken the day Robin disappeared. Other teenage girls came forward, telling police they had also been approached that day at the beach by a man with long dark hair, asking to take their picture. They also found a small pouch filled with earrings. One pair, Robin’s mother confirmed, belonged to her daughter.
The Rollercoaster Continues, 1980 - 2003
The evidence against Alcala was overwhelming. In 1980, he was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of Robin Samsoe. In 1984, however, the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Alcala’s second trial took place in 1986 and once again he was sentenced to death.
In 1994, Alcala wrote a book titled You, the Jury, in which he proclaimed his innocence in the murder of Robin Samsoe.
In 2001, his conviction was overturned…again.
In 2003, Alcala got a shock he really didn’t see coming. DNA analysis technology had taken a massive leap forward since the 70s, playing a pivotal role in solving a number of murder cases which had been cold for decades.
Los Angeles, 1977 - 1979
Between November 1977 and June 1979, four women were brutally beaten, raped, strangled and left in carefully posed positions. These were:
18-year-old Jill Barcomb, who just 3 weeks previously had moved from New York to California, was found in a ravine off Mulholland Highway in November, 1977.
27-year-old registered nurse Georgia Wixted, found in her Malibu apartment in December, 1977.
32-year-old legal secretary Charlotte Lamb, found in the laundry room of an apartment building in El Segundo in June, 1978.
21-year-old Jill Parenteau, who worked as a computer program keypunch operator, was found in her Burbank apartment in June, 1979.
Alcala’s DNA was found at the murder scenes of each woman. Charlotte Lamb’s DNA was also found on a pair of earrings discovered at the Seattle storage unit.
The Third Murder Trial, 2010
Alcala was still to stand trial a third time for the murder of Robin Samsoe. The prosecution requested that Alcala’s trial for Robin’s murder be combined with the murder trials for Jill B, Georgia, Charlotte and Jill P, to which Alcala strongly protested. However, in 2006, the California Supreme Court granted the request to combine the murder trials.
In 2010, 66-year-old Alcala stood trial for the five murders. As Bundy did in his trial for the Florida sorority sister murders, Alcala opted to represent himself. The trial was a circus; Alcala questioned himself, using different voices for five hours. He insisted that on the day of Robin’s disappearance he was applying for a job as a photographer at Knott’s Berry Farm and that the earrings identified as Robin’s were his. Alcala was almost 100% focussed on convincing the jury he was innocent of Robin’s murder; when it came whether or not he killed the other four women, he simply said he ‘did not remember’.
Tali Shapiro, the 8-year-old girl whom Alcala had raped and left for dead back in 1968, came back and testify against Alcala. Tali was never questioned by Alcala; he simply apologised to her for his ‘despicable behaviour’.
As his closing statement, Alcala made the interesting choice of playing the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ by Arlo Guthrie to the jury. It goes:
I wanna kill, I wanna kill
I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth.
Eat dead burnt bodies.
I mean, kill, kill, kill, kill.
Unsurprisingly, Alcala was convicted of all five murders and once again sentenced to death.
The New York Murders
In 1971, while Alcala was studying at NYU film school, 23-year-old Trans World Airlines flight attendant Cornelia Crilley was found raped and strangled in her Manhattan apartment. A bite mark was discovered on her left breast. Back in 1971, there was nothing to really lead investigators to Cornelia’s killer. Alcala wasn’t even on their radar; in New York, he was known as John Berger. In 2010, however, the pieces began to fall into place. The knowledge that Rodney Alcala was John Berger and had been in New York in 1971 gave the investigation new hope. A fingerprint on a letter found beneath Cornelia’s body was entered into the FBI’s database and was matched to Alcala. Alcala’s dental impression also showed that the bite marks on Cornelia’s breast were made by him. After 39 years, Cornelia’s murder was solved.
In 1978, Ellen Jane Hover’s remains were found on the grounds of Rockefeller Estate in Westchester County. The 23-year-old had disappeared 11 months previously in July 1977 (remember when Alcala travelled to NYC to visit family?)
Ellen was a gifted pianist and incredibly smart, with plans to go to medical school. Her father owned Ciro’s, the famous Hollywood nightclub. Ellen was described as beautiful, sweet and genuine by her family and friends.
For the 15th July of 1977, Ellen had written ‘John Berger’ in her diary. She planned to meet him for lunch that day and was never seen again. A number of eyewitnesses said they had seen Ellen talking to a man who matched Alcala’s description outside her apartment in the days leading up to her disappearance as well as the day she disappeared. Her friend questioned her about who the ‘freaky-looking guy’ was, to which she replied, ‘Oh he’s all right. He’s a photographer.’ He was also seen at Rockefeller Estate, around the time Ellen disappeared. At the time, Alcala was questioned by police about Ellen’s disappearance and refused a polygraph. However, at that point, they didn’t have a body and the investigation stalled.
In 2011, after being sentenced to death for the 5 California murders, Alcala was indicted for the murders of Cornelia Crilley and Ellen Hover. In 2012, he was extradited to New York. To the surprise of the New York prosecutors, Alcala pled guilty to the murders of both women. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms of 25 years to life. Alcala then travelled back to California, where today at age 75, he remains on death row.
The Unidentified Photographs
Remember the photos that were found in Alcala’s Seattle storage locker? In 2010, the NYPD and Huntington Beach PD released 120 of them to the public, in hopes that people may come forward and identify the women and/or children in them.
In 2013 Kathy Thornton came across Alcala’s photograph archive. Kathy’s sister Christine had gone missing in the spring of 1977. Looking through the photos, she spotted one of a woman on a motorbike. On closer inspection, she had no doubt that the woman was Christine, who was 6 months pregnant when she disappeared. Kathy contacted Huntington Beach PD about her discovery and submitted her DNA to a national missing persons database.
In 2015, her DNA was matched to remains which had been discovered in Wyoming in 1982. Investigators figured that Alcala had met Christine and she agreed to go for a ride with him and pose for pictures. The photo appears to have been taken not far from where her remains were discovered. Alcala was charged with the murder of Christine Thornton in September 2016.
As of October 2016, 21 women had been identified from the photo collection. However, over 100 subjects of the photos still remain unidentified.
These photos beg the question, how many more lives did Rodney Alcala claim?
The photo archive can be found here.
Alcala was a master manipulator and had a near genius IQ, which explains how he was able to get away with his murder (literally) for so long. I just want to reiterate what I wrote in my last post, about remembering the victims of monsters like Rodney Alcala. At the end of the day, the world was robbed of them far too soon at the hands of a truly evil human being. Robin, Jill, Georgia, Charlotte, Jill, Cornelia, Ellen and Christine (and I’m sad to say I’m sure there were more) had so much more to give. I hope they are now at peace.
And ALSO: If a guy comes up to you with a camera, tells you that you could be a model and wants to take you somewhere to take photographs of you, RUN IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION! I’m sure you’re beautiful and you could be a model but this guy is very likely full of shit. Just don’t risk it.