By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.
The Ellen Hover disappearance, which unfolded during the terrible summer of the Son of Sam serial killings in New York, drew in the FBI and frightened the LA and New York jet sets, among whom Hover’s impresario father counted Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin as very close friends. “She was this little, enchanted cousin of mine,” remembers Sheila Weller, Vanity Fair writer and author of Dancing At Ciro’s: A Family’s Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip. “She was naive. She was sheltered. She was very trusting. When you are young and out of college, you trust the wrong people. I did so many things like that, and this happened to her the first time out. I felt guilty.”
After Hover vanished, her stepfather hired a private detective who placed ads in The New York Times seeking information about a man last seen with her—a ponytailed photographer named John Burger. Berger, or Burger, couldn’t be found. But a year later, as New York police continued their search, Hover’s skeletal remains were discovered on the wooded Rockefeller Estate.
She “was [found] wearing my T-shirt,” recalls Hover’s younger sister Victoria, who didn’t want her last name used.“My parents had a weekend house 10 minutes away. . . . She was my role model. I wanted to be just like her. . . . I am devastated, and to this day, it is very hard. It ripped our family apart.”
While NYPD detectives scoured the region for John Berger, back in Los Angeles, Alcala’s conviction in the brutal 1968 rape of young Tali did not seem to hinder his career or compromise his false front as a charming Lothario.
In September 1977, he got a job at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter. “They hired him, with his name, having kidnapped and raped an 8-year-old,” says prosecutor Murphy. “How did he get a job there? He was using his name. It wasn’t like he was using an alias. He was a convicted child molester and registered sex offender.”
That fall, Southern Californians were terrified by a string of murders covered by the LA Times and attributed to the Hillside Strangler, dubbed so because he left bodies in ravines and hilly areas. Police suspected that the murder of Barcomb was a Strangler case because her slight, half-nude body was discovered Nov. 10, 1977, on a service road between Mulholland Highway and Beverly Drive near Brando’s home. Her body was posed in a knee-chest position, curled up like a ball.
“Jill was a kind of runaway,” says her now-49-year-old brother Bruce Barcomb, of North Hollywood. “We were a Catholic family. She was number five and I was number six of 11 kids. Her death put a tremendous hole in my life. After she died, my life changed dramatically. She took me to my first freshman dance. She played trumpet in the high school band. She was a candy striper. She was not a throw-away kid.”
Her body’s discovery halted filming that day of a movie in a nearby reservoir, and LAPD detective Philip Vannatter—later a lead detective in the O.J. Simpson murder investigation—started knocking on doors with other cops, interviewing film legend Brando, whose hilltop hideaway overlooked the dirt road where Barcomb was found. But neither Brando nor his neighbors had seen anything.
Just a month later, in December 1977, Alcala was questioned at LAPD’s Parker Center at the request of the FBI. The Bureau had linked him not to Barcomb’s killing, but to Hover’s disappearance several months earlier in New York. They were acting on a tip from a New Directions drama-camp counselor in New Hampshire who told detectives seeking a “John Burger” that back in 1971, a fellow camp counselor of that name had been arrested and taken away by police. She was describing LAPD detective Hodel’s capture of fugitive Alcala for the child rape of Tali.
The noose was tightening on Alcala. At Parker Center, he admitted he’d known Hover in New York. But because her body had not been found—it was unearthed on the Rockefeller Estate a few months later—LAPD detective Shepard says, “There was nothing to hold him on because there was no dead body. So he was released.”
Police say it is a measure of Alcala’s arrogance that just two days after he was questioned at Parker Center regarding the Hover disappearance, the body of 27-year-old nurse Wixted was discovered in her studio apartment in Malibu, the morning after she attended a birthday party at Brennan’s Pub in Santa Monica. “I think he did that one to show that he could kill with impunity,” says Shepard. “But unfortunately for him, he left evidence behind”—a clear half-print of his palm and his DNA, Shepard alleges.