But police in several California and East Coast cities are certain this well-spoken sexual predator was far more than a child rapist; they contend he is a slippery, brilliant, persuasive serial murderer in the mold of Ted Bundy, the handsome killer who was executed in Florida in 1989. And this time, as they face Alcala in court, cops and prosecutors believe they have extensive DNA evidence to prove it.

Robert Samsoe, who says the slaying of his sister destroyed his loving Huntington Beach family and turned him into a deeply troubled young man, sees the trial in Santa Ana, expected to last until February or March, as the final comeuppance.

“It takes me everything I have to not jump over the chairs and grab him by the head and smash his head into the table,” says Samsoe. “That is what I think about. The worst part of it is that you have to tell your kids, ‘I can protect you,’ but in your heart, you know that there are monsters out there—and you really can’t.”

Charlotte Lamb
Charlotte Lamb

*     *     *

For retired detective Steve Hodel, this tale began on a clear afternoon in the fall of 1968. As a fresh detective working juvenile crimes out of the LAPD’s Hollywood Station, he was given the case of fugitive Alcala, a 25-year-old fine-arts student at UCLA accused of the brutal rape of 8-year-old Tali in his Hollywood apartment.

On the day of the attack, officers were alerted by a motorist who saw Alcala, a former U.S. Army clerk, lure into his car a tiny schoolgirl walking on Sunset Boulevard. Turning around to follow, the worried motorist tracked Alcala to an apartment on De Longpre Avenue and called police. LAPD officers soon knocked on the door and were greeted at a window by a shirtless Alcala, who told them he’d be right with them. Instead, he escaped out a back door. When the officers broke in, they found the child, Tali, near death on the floor.

Hodel, who penned the New York Times best-selling book Black Dahlia Avenger that claimed his father, Dr. George Hodel, is the infamous Black Dahlia murderer, remembers how completely Alcala had people fooled. As Hodel interviewed Alcala’s LA acquaintances in an effort to find the escaped rapist, one of Alcala’s UCLA arts professors insisted, “You have the wrong guy. He would never hurt a fly.”

Alcala easily fit into his new haunts in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s; with his appealing style and Sam Elliott good looks, he was a popular figure in the West Village scene for a time. He used his fake name, John Berger, to enroll in New York University, and, NYPD detectives now say, brutally raped and strangled TWA flight attendant Cornelia “Michael” Crilley in 1971.

But police at the time suspected Crilley’s boyfriend, Leon Borstein, then an assistant district attorney for Brooklyn, and her murder was never solved. “I am now almost 71, and this occurred 40 years ago, and I am still affected by it,” says Borstein. “I was crazy about her at the time. . . . I was devastated by her death. She was beautiful, charming, with a great sense of humor. She had the Irish eyes and the Irish hair.”

Borstein, who later became chief special prosecutor for New York City, suspected Crilley may have met her killer while moving into her new apartment. “I can easily see Michael invite someone up to help her move the furniture,” says Borstein. “She was a very secure child of the ’60s. She wouldn’t think anything like this would happen to her.” It would be many years, however, before police would link Alcala to the Crilley murder.

The same year Crilley was slain, Hodel got his big break in finding the fugitive child rapist. Hodel convinced the FBI to put Alcala on its Ten Most Wanted list; the FBI poster was spotted by two teenagers in a local post office while waiting out a rainstorm. The girls recognized Alcala as John Berger or Burger, their counselor at New Beginnings, an arts summer camp geared toward young actors and actresses in Georges Mills, New Hampshire. They notified the camp’s dean.

“I go back and find out that he had reinvented himself,” says Hodel. “He had new ID. He went back to college in New York. He just repeated out there. . . . He was a Class-A con man, and I recognized how dangerous he was. He was able to con people as an intelligent, refined person—and that is a dangerous combination.” Alcala was arrested on Aug. 12, 1971, and extradited on the arm of Hodel to face attempted murder charges in the rape of Tali. Investigation documents show that Alcala told Hodel at the time, “I have been trying to forget what happened. . . . I have forgotten all about Rod Alcala and what he did.”

He was convicted, but within a few years, a California state prison psychiatrist deemed him “considerably improved.” Soon after his release from prison, his parole agent allowed him to visit New York. That year, 1977, young socialite and piano virtuoso Ellen Jane Hover, daughter of famed Ciro’s nightclub owner Herman Hover, vanished in New York, and NYPD began focusing on “John Berger”—a name found scrawled on Ellen Hover’s calendar the day she vanished.

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