The Fine Art of Killing
Rodney Alcala’s murderous romp through polite society has brought him to an Orange County courtroom once again
Rodney Alcala is a man stuck in a time warp, his flowing silver hair, granny glasses, beige blazer and jeans reminiscent of a creative-writing professor circa 1980, the year he began life behind bars. As he walked into an Orange County Superior Court room one recent day, news photographers snapped his lean, no-longer-handsome face. His handcuffs were removed, he picked up a pen with his left hand and waited for Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseño to bring in the 12 jurors who will decide if he should die or spend life in prison—or, though exceedingly unlikely, go free.
The once-dashing ladies’ man, UCLA fine-arts grad, former Los Angeles Times typesetter, amateur photographer and film student of Roman Polanski is believed to have used his smooth-talking charm and access to the creative communities in Southern California and New York City during the 1970s to entrap and murder seven women and girls, as well as rape several others.
So smooth was Alcala that he was selected to compete on the ABC prime-time show The Dating Game in 1978, on which “bachelorette” Cheryl Bradshaw picked him as her date. Later, police say, she reportedly refused to go on the winning date, sensing that there was something creepy about Bachelor No. 1.
Now 66, Alcala has twice stood trial in Orange County for the murder of 12-year-old ballet student Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach, a sensational crime that rocked the city 31 years ago. He was twice convicted of slaying the girl, who disappeared on her way to ballet class while riding a yellow Schwinn bicycle. Two different juries said Alcala should die. But twice his convictions were reversed on different technicalities—once by the California Supreme Court in 1984 and a second time by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001.
With a near-genius IQ of 135, Alcala has spent his time behind bars penning a 1994 book, You, the Jury, which claims his innocence and points to a different suspect; suing the California prisons for a slip-and-fall claim as well as for failing to give him a low-fat diet; and complaining about a law that requires him and other Death Row inmates to submit DNA mouth swabs for comparison by police against unsolved crimes.
Alcala is still as cocky as ever—bold enough to represent himself in the trial for his life now unfolding in Orange County.
And why not? He has a talent for mining legal technicalities and has repeatedly enjoyed success with appellate judges. And—in the past, at least—he had the support of women in his Monterey Park-based family. His mother provided Alcala $10,000 in bail after he was arrested for raping a teenager decades ago, and Huntington Beach detectives suspect another female family member of trying to hide a receipt to Alcala’s secret locker in Seattle, where detectives found “trophy” earrings they say were taken from his alleged murder victims.
Using evidence such as those earrings and multiple DNA and blood matches, an unusual mixed team of Los Angeles and Orange County prosecutors hopes to prove that Alcala not only murdered Robin Samsoe, but also killed four young Los Angeles-area women in the 1970s. The bodies of Georgia Wixted, Jill Parenteau, Charlotte Lamb and Jill Barcomb were found in carefully arranged poses; at one murder scene, a lamp shade had been removed, improving brightness.
LAPD homicide Detective Cliff Shepard says the consensus among investigators is that fine-arts graduate Alcala took their photos “to defile the victims as best he can, in death.”
Although the trial now under way gives Alcala one more chance to argue he did not kill Samsoe and dump her in the foothills above Sierra Madre, police contend that he has long been a vicious predator. His first known attack was in 1968, when he abducted a second-grade girl walking to school in Hollywood, used a pipe to bash her head, and then raped her—only to be caught red-handed because a Good Samaritan spotted him luring the child and called police.
When LAPD officers demanded he open the door of his Hollywood apartment, Alcala fled out the back. Inside, police found the barely alive little girl on Alcala’s floor. It took LAPD three years to catch the fugitive Alcala, living under the name John Berger in New Hampshire—where the glib and charming child rapist had been hired, disturbingly, as a counselor at an arts-and-drama camp for teenagers.
When Alcala got caught on the East Coast, a conviction for brutally raping a child in California was not a guarantee of a long prison sentence. California’s state government had embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat rapists and murderers through education and psychotherapy. The hallmark of the philosophy was “indeterminate sentencing,” under which judges left open the number of prison years to be served by a violent felon and parole boards later determined when the offender had been reformed.
Rapists and murderers went free after very short stints, including Alcala. He served a scant 34 months for viciously raping the 8-year-old, who is known in official documents only as “Tali.”
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.
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.”
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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.
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.
Even as his employer, the Times, covered the sensational Hillside Strangler case, Alcala came under suspicion by the Hillside Strangler Task Force, who were questioning known sex offenders as possible suspects. According to Shepard, Alcala was followed by police and interviewed at his mother’s home on March 22, 1978. He was ruled out as the Strangler but went to jail for a very short stint because the cops found marijuana in his possession.
Soon after his release from jail, on June 24, 1978, the nude body of Santa Monica legal secretary Lamb was discovered in El Segundo. Her body was posed, with her arms arranged behind her back. Investigators say the Lamb murder tripped up Alcala, who had begun taking trophies from his victims—mostly earrings, evidence that plays a key role in the current murder trial. Says retired Huntington Beach detective Mack, “I believe all the jewelry had significant meaning to him as a remembrance of a particular attack.”
Incredibly, this registered sex offender, fresh out of jail in the summer of 1978, just weeks after Lamb’s killing, was a contestant on The Dating Game. Female contestant Cheryl Bradshaw picked Alcala as her “date” after host Jim Lange described Bachelor No. 1 as a “successful photographer.”
The exchanges between Bradshaw and Alcala can be clearly heard on old footage of the game show, with Bradshaw asking Alcala to give his best impression of a dirty old man. Then she asks, “I am serving you for dinner. What would you be like?”
Alcala answers, “I am called the Banana, and I look pretty good.” She asks him to be more descriptive, and he responds, “Peel me.”
Alcala’s alleged reign of terror might have been halted in early 1979 when a 15-year-old hitchhiker called police from a motel in Riverside County to report she had just escaped from a kidnapper and rapist. Although Riverside police quickly charged Alcala with kidnapping and rape, a judge set his bail at just $10,000—which his mother paid.
While free, police say, Alcala five months later killed 21-year-old computer-program keypunch operator Parenteau in her Burbank apartment. The killer cut himself climbing through her window, and police now say Alcala’s rare blood type has been matched to that blood.
Six days after Parenteau’s slaying, Samsoe disappeared, a child-snatching that sent fear rippling through scores of safe, quiet Southern California communities. Samsoe’s friend Bridget told police the two swimsuit-clad girls had been approached that day in Huntington Beach by a photographer who asked if he could take their pictures. The man was scared off by a suspicious adult neighbor, but shortly after that, Bridget lent her friend her yellow bicycle so Samsoe could make it to ballet class. She was never seen again.
Detectives circulated a sketch of the photographer to the media, and a parole officer recognized his parolee, Alcala. Twelve days after she vanished, on July 2, 1979, Samsoe’s skeletal remains, ravaged by animals, were found by rangers for the U.S. Forestry Service. Alcala was arrested on July 24 at his mother’s house in Monterey Park.
As his alibi, he claimed that at the time of the girl’s disappearance, he had been at Knott’s Berry Farm applying for a job as a photographer for a disco contest.
But his story fell apart. Cops had already found, in a search of Alcala’s house, a receipt for a locker in Seattle. Quickly traveling there, police found photos in which Alcala appeared to have been stalking young girls and snapping photos of them. Also found was a picture of Lorraine Werts, a girl who posed for him in the Huntington Beach neighborhood where Samsoe and Bridget were approached. Police also found gold ball earrings allegedly worn by Samsoe, as well as tiny rose earrings much later verified through DNA as belonging to victim Lamb.
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“There are lessons in this case that a lot of people forget,” Senior Deputy DA Murphy said, shortly before this, Alcala’s third murder trial, got under way. “How naive people were about these sexual predators. Notice how many serial killers we had in the ’70s or ’80s? We don’t have that many active today. Do you know why we don’t have them now? Because of the Three Strikes law. They are going down on their first time. . . . They aren’t given chance after chance after chance.”
Barcomb’s brother Bruce remembers the day in 2005 when he learned the semen of his sister’s murderer was matched to a man named Rodney Alcala. “I got the call as my birthday present,” he says darkly. “I was living in Costa Mesa as a senior financial analyst for a mortgage company. I got a post card in the mail from the Los Angeles Police Department asking me to call. [They] didn’t say what for.”
When Barcomb reached Detective Cliff Shepard, the veteran homicide cop told him, “We believe we found your sister’s killer.” Barcomb was so shocked, after more than 30 years, that he simply cried.