This is my first blog for 2021- so welcome! Even if you’ve read every single blog since I started last year, or this is the first one, I sincerely thank you. This site has given me a platform for both of my passions- writing and true crime, and I appreciate every single person who has visited this page. Even if I have one reader or a thousand, I’ll be forever grateful.
Since ‘The Bachelor’ season 25 premiered last night, I thought I’d devote this week’s blog to a bachelor from 1978. Someone who would later become known as “The Dating Game Killer”. This is the story of Rodney Alcala.
Rodney Alcala was born Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor on August 23rd, 1943 in San Antonio, Texas to Raoul Alcala Buquor and Anna Maria Gutierrez. Rodney and his family lived in San Antonio for seven years, but in 1951, Rodney’s father moved the family to Mexico. Three years later however, Rodrigo just up and left. He completely abandoned his family. After his father left, in 1954, Anna moved her 11 year old son, two daughters and herself to suburban Los Angeles.
In 1961, at the age of 17, Rodney joined the United States Army and served as a clerk. But after serving for three years, in 1964, Rodney suffered a nervous breakdown- going AWOL. He hitchhiked from Fort Bragg to his mother’s house. He was discharged after being diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. Rodney then attended California State University, later transferring to UCLA. He graduated with a fine arts degree in 1968. After fleeing California in 1968, Rodney used a “John Berger” alias to enroll at New York University- where he took a class with none other than Roman Polanski- you know… the director of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and the husband of the late Sharon Tate.
You’re probably thinking- “Hold up, wait a minute. Why would Rodney want to flee California in 1968?” Well, I’ll tell ya. In 1968, Rodney committed his first (known) crime. An eyewitness in Los Angeles called police after watching Rodney lure an eight-year-old girl named Tali Shapiro into his Hollywood apartment. When police arrived, they kicked the door in. Tali was found alive, raped and beaten with a steel bar, but Rodney had fled. To evade the resulting arrest warrant, he left the state. After getting a taste of violence towards women- and successfully fleeing capture, Rodney took it upon himself to continue his offences. In 1971, he obtained a counseling job at a New Hampshire arts camp for children using a slightly different alias, “John Burger”. In June 1971, Cornelia Michel Crilley, a 23-year-old TWA flight attendant, was found raped and strangled with her own stockings in her Manhattan apartment. However, her murder would go unsolved until 2011. (We’ll get to that later.)
You see…the FBI added Rodney to its list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives in early 1971. A few months later, some women attending the arts camp noticed Rodney’s photo on an FBI poster at the post office. The girls told the camp’s dean which then led to Rodney being arrested and extradited to California. By then however, Tali’s parents had relocated their entire family to Mexico and refused to allow her to testify at Rodney’s trial. Unable to convict him of rape and attempted murder without their primary witness, prosecutors were forced to permit Rodney to plead guilty to a lesser charge of assault.
Rodney was paroled after seventeen months in 1974 under the “indeterminate sentencing” program which was popular at the time. “Indeterminate sentencing” allowed parole boards to release offenders as soon as they demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation. But because Rodney wasn’t actually rehabilitated, less than two months after his release, he was re-arrested for assaulting a 13-year-old girl identified in court records as “Julie J.”, who had accepted what she thought would be a ride to school. But once again, he was paroled after serving two years of an “indeterminate sentence”. Can I insert an eyeroll emoji now? If you think our justice system is perfect, think again.
In 1977, after Rodney’s second release, his Los Angeles parole officer took the unusual step of permitting a repeat offender—and known flight risk—to travel to New York City. A week after arriving in Manhattan, Rodney killed Ellen Jane Hover, 23, daughter of the owner of the popular Hollywood nightclub Ciro’s and goddaughter of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Ellen Jane had left behind a calendar that stated she was meeting with a “John Berger”. Her remains were found buried on the grounds of the Rockefeller Estate in Westchester County.
In September of 1977, Rodney worked for a short time at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter. In March of 1978, he was interviewed by members of the Hillside Strangler task force as part of their investigation of known sex offenders. Rodney was ruled out as the Hillside Strangler, but police had no idea that they had actually spoken with a different serial killer. Although Rodney was cleared of the Hillside crimes, he was arrested and served a brief sentence for marijuana possession.
In September 1978, Rodney appeared as Bachelor No. 1 on ‘The Dating Game’- a t.v show that had men and women cheekily interview prospective dates- sight unseen. (Kind of a very early base for ‘Love is Blind’.) Obviously at the time, Rodney was a convicted child molester, but the show failed to run a background check, otherwise I highly doubt he would have ever been casted. Nevertheless, Rodney was introduced as “a successful photographer, who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed. Between takes you might find him skydiving or motorcycling.” When asked by Cheryl Bradshaw (his prospective date) to describe what kind of meal he’d be, Rodney answered, “I’m called ‘The Banana’ and I look really good… peel me.” Rodney’s use of charm and innuendo won him a date with bachelorette Cheryl. Unbeknownst to Cheryl and others, a fellow bachelor contestant later described Rodney as a “very strange guy” with “bizarre opinions”. When Rodney and Cheryl met face to face, things didn’t go… well. Cheryl revealed that she saw his true colors backstage- stating that she felt ill upon conversing further with Rodney. She felt that Rodney was “acting really creepy” and opted not to go with him to their tennis lesson. Unknowingly, she saved her own life because I believe Rodney would have killed her.
Rodney was a tall and good-looking man who often told women that he was a fashion photographer who wanted to take photos for a contest. His intelligence and charm could make him persuasive. A woman who later missed a date with Rodney because he had been arrested eventually told People Magazine that, “He was so easy to trust. He had a way of talking to people that really put them at ease.”
Criminal profiler Pat Brown, noted later, that Rodney killed at least three women after his Dating Game appearance. Brown speculated that this rejection might have been an exacerbating factor. “One wonders what that did in his mind”, Brown said. “That is something he would not take too well. [Serial killers] don’t understand the rejection. They think that something is wrong with that girl: ‘She played me. She played hard to get.'”
Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old girl from Huntington Beach, disappeared somewhere between the beach and her ballet class on June 20th, 1979. Her decomposing body was found 12 days later in the Los Angeles foothills. Samsoe’s friends told police that a stranger had approached them on the beach, asking to take their pictures. Detectives circulated a sketch of the photographer, and Rodney’s parole officer recognized him. During a search of Rodney’s mother’s house in Monterey Park, police found a rental receipt for a storage locker in Seattle; in the locker, they found Samsoe’s earrings.
Rodney was arrested in July 1979 and held without bail. In 1980 he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Samsoe’s murder in 1980. Unfortunely, four years later, the verdict was overturned by the California Supreme Court because jurors had been improperly informed of his prior sex crimes. In 1986, after a second trial virtually identical to the first except for omission of the prior criminal record testimony, he was again convicted and sentenced to death. While in custody, Rodney wrote the book ‘You, the Jury’ in 1994, in which he argued that he was innocent in Samsoe’s case and suggested a different suspect. He also filed two lawsuits against the California penal system, for a slip-and-fall incident and for refusing to provide him a low-fat diet.
A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel nullified the second conviction in 2001, in part because a witness was not allowed to support Rodney’s contention that the park ranger who found Samsoe’s body had been “hypnotized by police investigators”. (A technicality.)
While preparing their third prosecution in 2003, Orange County, California investigators learned that Rodney’s DNA, sampled under a new state law (over his objections), matched semen left at the rape-murder scenes of two women in Los Angeles. Additional evidence, including another cold case DNA match in 2004, led to Rodney’s indictment for the murders of four additional women: Jill Barcomb, 18, a New York runaway found “rolled up like a ball” in a Los Angeles ravine in 1977, and originally thought to have been a victim of the Hillside Strangler; Georgia Wixted, 27, bludgeoned in her Malibu apartment in 1977; Charlotte Lamb, 31, raped, strangled, and left in the laundry room of an El Segundo apartment complex in 1978; and Jill Parenteau, 21, killed in her Burbank apartment in 1979. All of the bodies were found “posed…in carefully chosen positions”. Another pair of earrings were found in Rodney’s Seattle storage locker, and had residue that matched Lamb’s DNA.
In 2003, prosecutors entered a motion to join the Samsoe charges with those of the four newly discovered victims. Rodney’s attorneys contested it; as one of them explained, “If you’re a juror and you hear one murder case, you may be able to have reasonable doubt, but it’s very hard to say you have reasonable doubt on all five, especially when four of the five aren’t alleged by eyewitnesses but are proven by DNA matches.” In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled in the prosecution’s favor, and in February 2010, Rodney stood trial on the five joined charges.
For the third trial Rodney elected to act as his own attorney. He took the stand in his own defense, and for five hours played the roles of both interrogator and witness, asking himself questions (addressing himself as “Mr. Alcala” in a deeper-than-normal voice), and then answering them. During this bizarre self-questioning and answering session he told jurors, often in a rambling monotone, that he was at Knott’s Berry Farm applying for a job as a photographer at the time Samsoe was kidnapped. He showed the jury a portion of his 1978 appearance on ‘The Dating Game’ in an attempt to prove that the earrings found in his Seattle locker were his, not Samsoe’s. Jed Mills, the actor who competed against Rodney on the show, told a reporter that earrings were not yet a socially acceptable accessory for men in 1978. “I had never seen a man with an earring in his ear,” he said. “I would have noticed them on him.”
Rodney made no significant attempt to dispute the four added charges, other than to assert that he could not remember killing any of the women. As part of his closing argument, he played the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant” in which the protagonist tells a psychiatrist that he wants to “kill”. After less than two days’ deliberation the jury convicted him on all five counts of first-degree murder. A surprise witness during the penalty phase of the trial was Tali Shapiro, Rodney’s first known victim. Richard Rappaport, a psychiatrist paid by Rodney and the only defense witness, testified that borderline personality disorder could explain Rodney’s claims that he had no memory of committing the murders. The prosecutor argued that Rodney was a “sexual predator” who “knew what he was doing was wrong and didn’t care”. In March 2010, Rodney was sentenced to death for a third time.
In March 2010, the Huntington Beach, CA and New York City Police Departments released 120 of Rodney’s photographs and sought the public’s help in identifying them, in the hope of determining if any of the women and children he photographed were additional victims. Approximately 900 additional photos could not be made public, police said, because they were too sexually explicit. In the first few weeks, police reported that approximately 21 women had come forward to identify themselves, and “at least six families” said they believed they recognized loved ones who “disappeared years ago and were never found”.
None of the photos was unequivocally connected to a missing person case or unsolved murder until 2013 when a family member recognized the photo of Christine Thornton, 28, whose body was found in Sweetwater County, Wyoming in 1982. Thornton’s body was not identified until 2015 when DNA supplied by Thornton’s relatives matched tissue samples from her remains. Rodney admitted taking the photo, but not to killing the woman, who was approximately six months pregnant at the time of her death.
But… we’re not done here. Three different states had added additional associations, charges and convictions to Rodney Alcala. New York State: After his 2010 conviction, New York authorities announced that they would no longer pursue Rodney because of his status as a convict awaiting execution. Nevertheless, in January 2011, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him for the murders of Cornelia Crilley, the TWA flight attendant, and Ellen Hover, the Ciro’s heiress, in 1971 and 1977, respectively. In June 2012, he was extradited to New York, where he initially entered not guilty pleas on both counts. In December 2012 he changed both pleas to guilty, citing a desire to return to California to pursue appeals of his death penalty conviction. On January 7, 2013, a Manhattan judge sentenced Rodney to an additional 25 years to life. (The death penalty has not been an option in New York State since 2007.) Washington State: In 2010, Seattle police named Rodney as a “person of interest” in the unsolved murders of Antoinette Wittaker, 13, in July 1977, and Joyce Gaunt, 17, in February 1978. Rodney rented the Seattle-area storage locker in which investigators later found jewelry belonging to two of his California victims in 1979. Other cold cases were reportedly targeted for reinvestigation in California, New York, New Hampshire, and Arizona. San Francisco (California): In March 2011, investigators in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, announced that they were “confident” that Rodney was responsible for the 1977 murder of 19-year-old Pamela Jean Lambson, who disappeared after making a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf to meet a man who had offered to photograph her. Her battered, naked body was subsequently found in Marin County near a hiking trail. With no fingerprints or usable DNA, charges are unlikely to be filed, but police claimed that there is sufficient evidence to convince them that Rodney committed the crime.
Here is a complete timeline that police and investigators came up with:
|Year(s)||Event or victim name||Offense; offender status/location|
|1968||Graduated from UCLA|
|1968||Tali Shapiro||Rape, attempted murder; pleaded guilty to assault, 1971/California|
|1968–71||Fugitive, student NYU Film School, camp counselor||New York, New Hampshire|
|1971||Cornelia Crilley||Murder; indicted, 2011/New York|
|1971–74||Incarcerated (Tali Shapiro conviction)||California|
|1974||“Julie J.”||Parole violation, providing marijuana to minor; Convicted, 1974/California|
|1974–77||Incarcerated (“Julie J.” conviction)||California|
|1977||Ellen Hover||Murder; indicted, 2011/New York|
|1977||Worked as Los Angeles Times typesetter||California|
|1977||Antoinette Wittaker||Murder; suspect, Washington|
|1977||Jill Barcomb||Murder; convicted, 2010/California|
|1977||Questioned by FBI regarding Hover||California|
|1977||Georgia Wixted||Murder; convicted, 2010/California|
|1977||Pamela Jean Lambson||Murder; accused, 2011/California|
|1977||Christine Ruth Thornton||Murder; charged, 2016/Wyoming|
|1978||Joyce Gaunt||Murder; suspect/Washington|
|1978||Interviewed by Hillside Strangler task force||California|
|1978||Incarcerated (marijuana possession)||California|
|1978||Contestant, The Dating Game||California|
|1978||Charlotte Lamb||Murder; convicted, 2010/California|
|1979||Jill Parenteau||Murder; convicted, 2010/California|
|1979||Robin Samsoe||Murder; convicted, 1980, 1986, 2010/California|
|1979||Arrested on suspicion of Samsoe murder||California|
|1980||Conviction #1, sentenced to death for Samsoe murder||California|
|1984||Conviction #1 overturned by California Supreme Court||California|
|1986||Conviction #2, sentenced to death for Samsoe murder||California|
|1994||You, the Jury||Self-published book asserting innocence in Samsoe case|
|2001||Conviction #2 overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit||California|
|2003||DNA collected, 4 additional murders discovered||California|
|2003||Motion to join Samsoe case with 4 others proposed; contested by Alcala||California|
|2006||Case join granted by California Supreme Court||California|
|2010||Conviction #3, sentenced to death for murders of Samsoe, Parenteau, Lamb, Wixted, and Barcomb||California|
|2011||Indicted for murders of Hover, Crilley||New York|
|2013||Pleaded guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life for murders of Hover, Crilley||New York|
As of September 2019, 109 of the original photos remain posted online, and police continue to solicit the public’s help with further identifications.