Who Was Rodney Alcala?
Serial killer Rodney James Alcala murdered at least nine women and girls across the United States in the 1970s, though his true death toll could number more than 100. He spent time in prison for sexual assault and other crimes in the 1970s but continued to rape and kill when he was free. Autopsies of some Alcala victims revealed that he would strangle women, then wait for them to regain consciousness before the final kill. Alcala also sometimes arranged the corpses of women he'd murdered in poses. In 2010, photos taken by Alcala decades earlier were made public to try to identify other victims. He has been behind bars since his July 1979 arrest for the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old girl. Alcala was sentenced to death in California but died of natural causes in 2021.
Alcala was born as Rodrigo Jacques Alcala-Buquor in San Antonio, Texas, on August 23, 1943. He moved to Mexico with his family when he was around 8 years old and his father abandoned the family while they were in Mexico. Alcala, his siblings and mother later relocated to Los Angeles.
At the age of 17, Alcala joined the army. He was discharged in 1964, after suffering a breakdown and being diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder.
He attended California State University, then transferred to UCLA. He graduated with a fine arts degree in 1968. After fleeing California that year, Alcala used his John Berger alias to enroll in New York University, where he took a class with Roman Polanski.
After fleeing the scene of his 1968 attack on 8-year-old Tali Shapiro, Alcala traveled to the East Coast. In 1971 he was included on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Some girls at an arts camp in New Hampshire recognized their counselor, who was using the name John Berger, from this list. They told the camp's dean and Alcala was soon arrested, though he was able to plead to the lesser charge of child molestation and served just 34 months.
Though he was a registered sex offender, Alcala managed to land a job with The Los Angeles Times as a typesetter in September 1977.
His past conviction for sexual assault prompted California police to interview Alcala in March 1978 as a potential suspect in the Hillside Strangler killings, another set of serial murders that occurred in California in the 1970s. Alcala was cleared of those crimes, and police did not realize they had actually spoken with a different serial killer.
'The Dating Game Killer'
In September 1978, Alcala appeared as Bachelor No. 1 on The Dating Game, a TV show that had men and women cheekily interview prospective dates, sight unseen. At the time he was a convicted child molester but the show did not run a background check.
Alcala 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." When asked by Cheryl Bradshaw, his prospective date, to describe what kind of meal he'd be, he answered, "I'm called 'The Banana' and I look really good... Peel me."
Alcala's use of charm and innuendo won him a date with Bradshaw. However, when they met face-to-face she felt Alcala was "acting really creepy" and opted not to go out with him.
Alcala was a tall and good-looking man who often told women he was a fashion photographer who wanted to take photos for a contest. His intelligence and charm could make him persuasive. A woman who missed a date with Alcala because he'd been arrested in 1979 later told People, "He was so easy to trust. He had a way of talking to people that really put them at ease."
In the 1970s, Alcala killed Cornelia Crilley, 23, and Ellen Hover, 23, both residents of New York City. Crilley was raped and strangled with her own stockings in her apartment in June 1971. Hover disappeared on July 15, 1977, leaving behind a calendar that stated she was meeting with "John Berger." Her remains were discovered in New York's Westchester County in 1978. Alcala pleaded guilty to these murders in 2012. He received a sentence of 25 to life, though it will only be served if California releases him from custody.
Alcala was arrested in July 1979 for the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach, California. He was convicted on these charges in 1980. Four years later this conviction was overturned as the jury had improperly been told about Alcala's criminal record. Another trial in 1986 resulted in a second guilty verdict, but in 2001 this was also overturned on a technicality. While in custody Alcala wrote the book You, the Jury (1994), in which he argued he was innocent.
Before Alcala was re-tried a third time for Samsoe's death, advances in the world of DNA and other crime scene analysis provided evidence tying him to more crimes (he'd been forced to provide a DNA sample). At his next trial, which took place in 2010, Alcala was again charged with killing Samsoe. Part of the case against him was a pair of gold earrings linked to Samsoe that had been found in his Seattle storage locker. Alcala played clips from The Dating Game that he said proved he was already wearing gold earrings in 1978, but these didn't convince the jury.
In addition, he faced charges for assaulting and strangling four women in California in the late 1970s: 18-year-old Jill Barcomb, who was killed in November 1977, 27-year-old Georgia Wixted, 27, who was raped, beaten and strangled in December 1978, 32-year-old Charlotte Lamb, who was killed in June 1978 and 21-year-old Jill Parenteau, who was killed in June 1979. Alcala opted to represent himself during the court proceedings. In February 2010 he was found guilty of all five murders. He was sentenced to death in March 2010.
In 2016 Alcala was charged with the 1977 killing of Christine Ruth Thornton in Wyoming, though prosecutors opted not to extradite him to stand trial. Authorities also believe he killed Pamela Lambson in the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 1977. However, DNA collected at that crime scene was too degraded to test, so he was not charged with the crime.
Some Alcala victims survived his attacks. In 1968, a witness spotted Alcala driving off with Shapiro. Concerned, he followed them to an apartment and called the police. The responding officer discovered Shapiro, who'd been raped and beaten with a steel bar but was still alive. In February 1979, Monique Hoyt, then 15, managed to escape after Alcala raped her.
Final Arrest and Photos
Following the disappearance of Samsoe, a sketch of a suspect was issued. Alcala's parole officer saw it and recognized him. Police tracked down Alcala, who was arrested on July 24, 1979.
Following Alcala's arrest in July 1979, police found hundreds of his photographs in a Seattle storage locker. These images, some of which were explicit, may include other Alcala victims.
In 2010 police shared many of these photos with the public in the hopes of identifying those in the pictures. Some people were alive and came forward. The photos aided in identifying Thornton as one of Alcala's victims.
Alcala died on July 24, 2021, in California while awaiting execution. He was 77.
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