By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Deeply controversial, “indeterminate sentencing” was ended by former Governor Jerry Brown. But by that time, though, Alcala was free. It was years before police realized that when they caught up with him in New Hampshire, Alcala had already begun his alleged murderous romp through the party-and-artsy society of New York’s Greenwich Village, ultimately moving on to California’s beach communities.
Retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel, who investigated Alcala’s rape of Tali, recalls, “My impression was that it was his first sex crime, and we got him early, and society is relatively safe now. I had no idea in two years [he would be out] and continue his reign of terror and horror. I expected he was put away and society was safe. . . . It is such a tragedy that so much more came after that.”
In 1974, two months after he got out of state prison, Alcala was found at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach with a 13-year-old girl who claimed he’d kidnapped her. He was convicted only of violating parole and giving pot to a minor, however, and two years later, upon his second release from prison, the law went easy on Alcala again. His parole officer in Los Angeles permitted Alcala, though a registered child rapist and known flight risk, to jaunt off to New York to visit relatives.
NYPD cold-case investigators now believe that one week after arriving in Manhattan, Alcala killed the Ciro’s nightclub heiress Ellen Hover, burying her on the vast Rockefeller Estate in ritzy Westchester County.
Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who hopes during the current trial to put Alcala permanently on Death Row for Samsoe’s 1979 murder and the slayings of the four women in the Los Angeles area, says, “The ’70s in California was insane as far as treatment of sexual predators. Rodney Alcala is a poster boy for this. It is a total comedy of outrageous stupidity.”
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Alcala was convicted in 1980 of murdering Samsoe, and the saga might have ended with him on Death Row. But his conviction was overturned by the California Supreme Court because the Orange County Superior Court trial judge had allowed the jury to hear about Alcala’s child-rape and kidnapping incidents. Prosecutors went back to court, and in 1986, Alcala was convicted for the second time of Samsoe’s murder. For the second time, a jury awarded the death penalty.
But a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel in 2001 overthrew his conviction once again, in part because the second trial judge did not allow a witness to back up the defense’s claim that the park ranger who found Samsoe’s animal-ravaged body in the mountains had been hypnotized by police investigators.
In many ways, Alcala has long seemed the victor. Robert Samsoe, who was 13 when his little sister was slain, says, “I don’t have any faith in the system. Some people, they are just afforded all the chances in the world. Alcala has cost the state of California more than any other person because of his lawsuits. And they treat him like a king. Everybody is walking on pins and needles around him. He has had 30 years to study the law on Death Row. He is afforded that right.”
But everything changed one day in 2003, as Murphy was working on a new strategy for re-prosecuting the twice-overturned Alcala murder conviction. Murphy got a call from his boss, who’d just heard from the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. DNA swabs taken from Alcala’s mouth in prison—tests Alcala opposed—had unexpectedly matched the DNA in semen left at the rape-murders of two Westside women in Los Angeles, whose bodies were left in eerie, artfully posed positions.
The semen left on nurse Georgia Wixted, 27, who was found in 1977 in her Malibu bedroom, and on Santa Monica legal secretary Charlotte Lamb, 32, who was found in 1978 in a laundry room in El Segundo, matched Alcala’s.
“My reaction was ‘How many more would we get?’” recalls Murphy. As the prosecutors in Orange and Los Angeles counties began to work closely together on the growing case, another DNA match came through in 2004. That year, LAPD Detective Shepard learned that Alcala’s DNA had been matched to semen left on the carefully posed, delicate body of 18-year-old runaway Jill Barcomb, found on a dirt road snaking through tangled ravines near Marlon Brando’s Mulholland Drive home in 1977.
Stunned by the emergence of a long-undetected serial killer, detectives in the two counties began scouring cold murder cases involving attractive young women who moved in the upbeat singles circuit of the 1970s.
When he heard that Alcala’s DNA was being tied to several unsolved murders, “I wasn’t surprised at all,” said retired Huntington Beach detective Steve Mack. “I am convinced there are others we don’t know about.”
Last fall, Alcala insisted he was not guilty by reason of insanity in the murders of Wixted, Lamb, Parenteau and Barcomb, whom police say he picked up on Sunset Boulevard. Alcala has since changed his tune, pleading not guilty to all of those slayings, and he continues to deny he killed Samsoe.