The History of Rodney Alcala

Appearance on The Dating Game (1978)

In September 1978, Rodney Alcala appeared as a winning contestant on the television show “The Dating Game.” This revamped show featured suggestive tones, and Alcala, with his long hair, leisure suit, gold chain, and confident demeanor, seemed to fit right in. The host introduced him as a successful photographer who began his career at the age of 13. Alcala managed to charm bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw enough to win tennis lessons and a date to Magic Mountain. However, Bradshaw quickly realized something was off and backed out of the date, finding Alcala disturbingly creepy backstage—a decision that may have spared her life.

Early Life and Background

Rodney James Alcala was born in 1943 in San Antonio, Texas. At age 12, after his father abandoned the family, Alcala moved with his mother and sisters to Los Angeles. His early years were marked by instability, which could have contributed to his later deviant behavior. At 17, Alcala joined the Army but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1964. Diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder by a military psychiatrist, he was subsequently discharged. Alcala then pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from UCLA, where he appeared as a well-spoken, sophisticated art student—a stark contrast to the violent tendencies he would soon exhibit.

Criminal Activity Begins

Alcala’s criminal activities began to surface openly in 1968 when he abducted, raped, and nearly killed an eight-year-old girl referred to as “Tali S.” in the media. Alcala lured the young girl into his car and brutally attacked her in his apartment, leaving her for dead. Fortunately, a passerby noticed the abduction and called the police, leading to the girl’s rescue. Forewarned by the presence of law enforcement, Alcala managed to escape out the backdoor. The crime scene was littered with photography equipment, hinting at a chilling double life. Alcala fled to New York City to evade arrest, marking the start of his life as a fugitive.

First Murders and Arrest

In New York, Alcala adopted the alias “John Berger” and continued his education at New York University, even taking a film class taught by Roman Polanski. While under this alias, Alcala allegedly carried out his first known murder on June 12, 1971. Cornelia “Michael” Crilley, a 23-year-old TWA flight attendant, was found raped and strangled in her Manhattan apartment. With the local police initially suspecting her boyfriend, Alcala managed to fly under the radar. His past caught up with him when New Hampshire camp counselors recognized him from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted poster for the California assault on “Tali S.” In August 1971, Alcala was arrested and convicted for the attack on “Tali S.” but later released due to lenient rehabilitation-focused laws.

Continued Criminal Activity

Despite his conviction for “Tali S.,” the lax California legal system only required Alcala to serve 34 months. Free by 1974, Alcala did not cease his predatory behaviors. That year, a 13-year-old girl named “Julie J.” reported being kidnapped by Alcala on her way to school. He offered her a ride, then drove her to a secluded area, where he forced her to smoke marijuana before kissing her and releasing her. Convicted of violating his parole and providing drugs to a minor, Alcala served two more years in prison before he was once more released. In 1977, allowed to visit relatives in New York, Alcala proceeded to commit more heinous crimes that would later haunt law enforcement.

High-Profile Murder Case

One of Alcala’s most brutal and high-profile cases was the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe on June 20, 1979. Robin was abducted while riding a borrowed bicycle to her ballet class in Huntington Beach, California. Her decomposing body was discovered 12 days later in the Sierra Madre foothills. Witnesses helped create a composite sketch that led to Alcala’s arrest. When authorities searched his mother’s house, they found a receipt for a storage locker in Seattle, containing photographs of young girls and trophies from his victims, including earrings that belonged to Robin Samsoe. Despite his conviction in 1980, Alcala’s death sentence was overturned on technicalities twice, once in 1984 and again in 2001.

Appeals and Legal Battles

Rodney Alcala’s first conviction for Robin Samsoe’s murder was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1984, primarily because the jury had been allowed to hear about his other crimes which could have biased their judgment. His retrial in 1986 resulted in another death sentence, but this too was revisited and overturned in 2001 by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite these reversals, Alcala remained in prison, where he continued to file lawsuits, including one against the prison system for not providing him with a low-fat diet. All the while, advancements in DNA technology started linking him to other cold cases, culminating in his final trial in 2010.

2010 Trial

In January 2010, Alcala faced a third trial for the murder of Robin Samsoe, as well as additional charges for the killings of Jill Barcomb, Georgia Wixted, Charlotte Lamb, and Jill Parenteau. This time, DNA evidence played a crucial role in tying him to the women’s murders. Alcala chose to represent himself, which led to bizarre courtroom theatrics and frequent private consultations with the judge to explain basic legal terms. Despite his odd defense strategies, including playing a clip from “The Dating Game” and quoting Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” the jury found Alcala guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to death on March 30, 2010, marking his third death sentence.

Further Investigations

Post-conviction, police released hundreds of photos found in Alcala’s Seattle storage locker, suspecting they could lead to identifying additional unknown victims. Investigative efforts extended to unsolved cases in various states, including Seattle, where the deaths of Antionette Whitaker and Joyce Gaunt could be attributed to Alcala. Authorities were also revisiting cold cases in New York, such as the murders of Ellen Hover and Cornelia Crilley. Even New Hampshire investigators explored any links between Alcala and crimes committed while he was known as John Berger. Despite these expansive efforts, countless families awaited closure, hopeful that further DNA analysis would connect more dots.

Media and Public Attention

Rodney Alcala’s gruesome story captivated public attention and received extensive media coverage. Celebrities like Charlize Theron, who portrayed a serial killer in the film “Monster,” attended his trials. His disturbing dual life as a charming game show contestant and a remorseless killer intrigued and horrified audiences. The release of his photographs spurred widespread concern, drawing the attention of families who hoped to identify missing loved ones. Through all the trials and revelations, Alcala’s case remained a haunting reminder of the unpredictability of human nature and the imperfections within the justice system, continuing to leave an indelible mark on the collective consciousness.