The most intriguing true crime tales are the ones that continue to unfold for decades, holding our attention captive long after the perpetrator has been put away. One such case is that of Rodney James Alcala, the so-called Dating Game Killer. Now 76, Alcala is on death row in California for seven murders he committed when he was a young man in the 70s.
A seemingly charming, likable man who once made an appearance on the television show The Dating Game, Alcala kept a sinister aspect to his personality hidden: the one that relished slowly killing his young victims. Like many of the notorious serial killers operating in the 70s (think Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Strangler), Alcala took advantage of more lax cultural norms - inefficient law enforcement protocol and the lack of DNA technology - to carry out his brutal crimes. But investigators had a unique edge in this case: Alcala kept a collection of about one thousand photographs he had taken, some of them depicting his victims. The cache of Rodney Alcala’s photos has been used to link him to missing persons as recently as 2016. Of course, this cache only became useful once Alcala was identified as a killer–which took nearly a decade.
Although we can rest easy knowing Alcala will never be free to enter society again, it’s very likely that he has additional victims that have not been identified. Some estimates even place his body count in the triple digits. Though he’s been imprisoned since 1979, Alcala’s murderous streak presents a complex case that has continued to stump authorities well into the present day. Read on for an in-depth account of Rodney Alcala’s twisted psyche, unforgivable crimes, and the investigative work that brought him to justice.
Early Warning Signs
Alcala’s childhood is somewhat of a mystery. Many serial killers have been known to exhibit violent tendencies even at a young age, such as torturing animals. Some suffered mental or physical abuse at the hands of adult guardians. However, it is not known whether Alcala experienced violence in his childhood, nor if he is still in contact with his family today, although they did not attend his latest trial and sentencing in 2010.
We can only guess at what the violent man was like in his childhood and adolescence. Here’s what we do know: He was born Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor in 1943 to a Mexican-American family in Texas. The family, including Alcala’s two sisters and brother, relocated to Mexico; three years later, their father Raoul abandoned them. Alcala was just 11 years old when this occurred. There has been speculation that he had a number of emotional and trust issues caused by this abandonment. After this loss, Alcala’s mother Anna Maria relocated the family to Los Angeles, where her son would commit his first confirmable violent crime years later, at the age of 25.
At 17, Alcala enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served as a clerk for about four years before he went AWOL and hitchhiked back to L.A. He had also been accused of sexual misconduct during his commission, but the details of these accusations remain unclear. His erratic behavior was attributed to some sort of nervous breakdown, and he was evaluated by a military psychologist. Alcala was discharged on medical grounds after the psychologist diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder.
To receive this diagnosis, Alcala would have had to exhibit a persistent pattern of disrespect for the rights of other people, disregard for right and wrong, and a lack of guilt or remorse for his actions. In other words, he was what is popularly known as a psychopath.
Alcala's First Victim
Alcala committed his first known violent crime in Hollywood in 1968. He lured eight-year-old Tali Shapiro into his car while she was walking to school. Decades later, she recalled the experience during one of Alcala’s trials. She remembered being wary of him at first, but he told the girl he was a friend of her parents and he had a picture to show her. Shapiro got in his car and Alcala took her to his apartment.
Fortunately for Shapiro, that is all she can remember of the horrific experience. The officers responding to the scene, however, have the crime scene seared into their memories. They responded to a call about a suspicious man driving a vehicle without license plates and pulling up alongside a little girl. The Good Samaritan who witnessed this followed Alcala’s vehicle and called 911 to report the location.
When police arrived at the apartment, Alcala answered the door, said he was getting dressed and that he would be with the officers shortly. Officer Chris Camacho later recalled, “I will always remember that face at that door, very evil face.” A minute later, the officers kicked the door in to find Tali Shapiro, lying naked and unconscious in a pool of blood. Alcala had raped her and beaten her with a metal bar. He fled out the back door and left her for dead.
Shapiro overcame her severe injuries and was one of Alcala’s only victims to survive his attack. With her attacker on the loose and no knowledge of his whereabouts, the Shapiros left the country.
A Rapist Walks Free
Rodney Alcala was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, but background checks were rather lax in the 70s. The rapist and attempted murderer fled to the east coast, where he changed his name to John Berger and lived undetected for years.
Under his fake name, Alcala attended NYU film school, studying under Roman Polanski. While living in Manhattan, he committed his first known murder. In June 1971, twenty-three year old flight attendant Cornelia Michel Crilley was found strangled to death in her apartment. The police had no real suspects at the time and the case went unsolved for 39 years. In 2010, a fingerprint found at the scene of her murder was matched positively to Rodney Alcala.
Alcala left Manhattan shortly after his second attack and moved to New Hampshire, where he altered his alias to John Berger. Disturbingly, he began a new job in close proximity to children, as a counselor at an arts and drama summer camp. Three years after attacking Tali Shapiro, he was finally recognized. Two of his young female students saw his picture on an FBI Most Wanted poster at the local post office and alerted authorities. Alcala was arrested and extradited to California.
Finally, Alcala would face justice for his heinous crimes against a child—or so law enforcement officials thought. Now living in Mexico, Shapiro’s parents refused to allow their daughter to return to the U.S. to testify at the trial and relive her brutal attack. The prosecution’s ability to pursue a rape and attempted murder charge was weakened without Tali as a witness. Alcala pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault, and shockingly served less than two years in prison before being released. The parole board believed he showed signs of rehabilitation.
They were wrong. Two months after his release, Alcala offered a 13-year-old a ride to school and raped her instead. He went back to prison for another two years before being paroled once again.
The Descent into Serial Killing
In 1977, Alcala snatched the life of his second known murder victim. With the permission of his parole officer, he arranged to return to New York City. 23-year-old Ellen Jane Hover went missing that very same week. Though her disappearance was high-profile—her father owned the famous nightclub, Ciro’s, and she was goddaughter to Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.—the police had no suspects.
Hover’s buried and decomposed body was found a year later. It would not be until 2012 that Alcala was indicted for the crime. DNA technology had evolved sufficiently to link him to the murder, and by that time police also knew that he had gone by an alias all those years. The nail in the coffin: Hover had penciled in a meeting with one John Berger on her calendar on the day she disappeared.
Meanwhile, Alcala returned to the west coast and began working as a typesetter at the Los Angeles Times. It was around this time that his photography hobby began to take on a more sinister role in his life. Alcala would lure young women and teenage boys and girls back to his house to model for him. He photographed hundreds of people and manipulated many of them into posing nude for the camera. Some of these people became his next victims, including 15-year-old Monique Hoyt, whom he knocked unconscious and raped during a photoshoot.
In 1978, Alcala appeared on the television show The Dating Game, which led to his moniker the Dating Game Killer. It’s chilling to think that he was considered charming enough to be cast for the show, despite his criminal record as a violent sex offender against children. He even won over the bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw. You can watch them banter in the original footage below.
Alcala had the ability to turn on the charm to hide his absolute lack of a moral compass. But when the cameras weren’t rolling, his true personality came out. Bradshaw had some intuition about her date’s twisted psyche. Despite their initial chemistry, when she met him backstage, she found him “creepy” and refused to go out with him. Fellow contestant Jed Mills had the same conclusion when he chatted with Alcala before going on stage. Years later, he recalled, “he was very obnoxious and creepy—he became very unlikable and rude and imposing as though he was trying to intimidate...He was a standout creepy guy in my life.”
Alcala's Crimes Catch up to Him
At 12 years old, Robin Samsoe was too young and trusting to spot a predator for what he was. She was playing with her best friend Bridget on the beach when they were approached by a strange man who asked to photograph them. However, he fled when an adult neighbor checked in on the girls. A short while later, Robin said goodbye to Bridget and headed to her ballet lesson. She never made it there.
Samsoe’s decomposed body was found 12 days after her disappearance, 40 miles from where she was last seen, and in close proximity to Alcala’s home. Bridget gave the police a description of Alcala, and a composite sketch was drawn up and circulated to the California media. Alcala’s parole officer recognized his face immediately and reported him.
With no alibi, Alcala was the perfect suspect. He was arrested. The case against him gained more momentum when he made a crucial error: When his sister visited Alcala in jail, he asked her to clear out a locker he had rented in Seattle. Police listening in on the call beat her there, and discovered among his collection of graphic and disturbing photographs a bag full of women’s earrings. Samsoe’s mother identified a pair as the ones her daughter was last seen wearing.
Alcala finally went to trial for murder. He was found guilty of Samsoe’s murder and sentenced to death. But Robin Samsoe’s family wouldn’t receive closure for another 30 years.
The Long Legal Battle for Justice
Naturally, Alcala appealed the decision to execute him, and the California Supreme Court ruled in his favor, overturning the conviction. They ruled that because the jurors had been informed of his prior sex crimes, Alcala did not receive a fair trial. The information about the sadistic crimes he had already committed was said to have tainted the jurors’ perception of the man as innocent until proven guilty in regard to the murder of Samsoe.
The prosecution didn’t quit and Alcala went to trial again for Robin Samsoe’s murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death once more. But for a second time, the conviction was overturned. This time, a court of appeals ruled that there would have to be a retrial because Alcala didn’t get the chance to present all of his evidence.
His second conviction was overturned in 2001. At that point, it had been 22 years since Samsoe had been brutally murdered, and her family lived in constant fear that her killer would be allowed to walk free. They were dreading a third grueling trial when there was a development in the case against Alcala. His DNA proved a positive match for the unsolved murders of four women dating back to the 70s. The judge granted the prosecution’s motion to join these five murder trials into one.
In 2010, Alcala stood trial for a third time. This time around, the case against him was air-tight. Not only did the prosecution have DNA proof linking him to the victims, they were also able to demonstrate a pattern in his killing. He was said to have toyed with his victims, taking them to the brink of death and back again. Alcala sexually assaulted his victims and would strangle them into unconsciousness, repeating the process when they were awake again, until they finally died. He also carefully posed his deceased victims in lewd positions (presumably to photograph) and kept trophies from his victims, like the bag of earrings police had found after Samsoe’s murder.
By the time of his third murder trial, Alcala was in his sixties, but the gray-haired man had not been tempered by age. He decided to act as his own attorney, which was a disturbing sight to behold. He took the stand and questioned himself for five hours, using a deeper voice to ask himself questions. He even called Robin Samsoe’s mother to the stand, intending to impeach her character. She called the face-to-face confrontation with her daughter’s killer “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Alcala wrapped up the spectacle by playing an Arlo Guthrie song titled “Alice’s Restaurant” during his closing argument. The court heard these lyrics: "I wanna kill, I wanna kill, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean, kill, kill, kill, kill."
There was also a surprise guest at the trial: Tali Shapiro, Alcala’s first known victim. Then a grown woman in her 50s, she spoke about the assault that she had no memory of but which had left emotional scars on her psyche well into adulthood. Alcala apologized to her for the first time, which didn’t go over well. She later stated, “He's never apologized before, and for him to even bother, I mean, that made me sick to my stomach.” This was the only attempt Alcala made at conveying remorse for any of his actions—conveniently during the crucial time in which the jury was deciding whether to recommend a life sentence or the death penalty.
In 2010, the families of the victims finally got the closure they needed. Rodney Alcala was found guilty of five murders and sentenced to death.
Newly Discovered Victims
In 2012, Alcala was indicted for two more murders. Finally, he was definitively linked to the Manhattan murders of Cornelia Michel Crilley and Ellen Jane Hover in the 1970s. Rather than prepare for another trial, Alcala pleaded guilty to both charges and received a sentencing of 25 years to life, in the event that he ever left California alive.
However, his plea was not so much an admission of guilt as a calculated move. He initially intended to plead not guilty, but changed his mind when the judge informed Alcala that he could not be guaranteed unlimited access to legal materials while under trial for these two murders. Committed to fighting his California death sentence, Alcala pleaded guilty to two first-degree murders at the drop of a hat.
Meanwhile, Alcala’s large collection of erotic photographs was lingering in evidence files. In 2010, the NYPD decided to put them to good use. Thinking that the confirmed serial killer may have additional unknown victims, they released 120 of his photos to the public in the hopes of identifying the people in them and linking more cold cases to Alcala. About 900 of Rodney Alcala’s photos were withheld, however, due to their sexually graphic and disturbing nature.
In 2013, more of Alcala’s misdeeds came to light. Christine Ruth Thornton had been missing since 1977, when she was last seen traveling across the U.S. with her boyfriend. Her sister Kathy Thornton had never given up the hunt for her older sister. Though Kathy had never heard of serial killer Rodney Alcala, she would never forget the name after her son forwarded her the collection of Alcala’s photographs to sift through. She immediately recognized a photo of her sister. There was Christine Ruth Thornton, sitting on a motorcycle with a big smile on her face.
Kathy submitted her DNA to a database of missing persons, simultaneously hoping for and dreading a match. After over 30 years of uncertainty, she just wanted the truth.
Kathy’s DNA was a positive match to an unidentified body found in Wyoming in 1982. Detectives had believed the cold case would never be solved. After they identified the woman’s body as Christine Ruth Thornton, the pieces started to fall into place. The 28-year-old had split up with her boyfriend while they were traveling the U.S. together. She went on to travel solo before meeting Rodney Alcala. Detectives believe that she was attacked shortly after the photograph of her on the motorcycle was taken. At the time of her murder, she was six months pregnant.
The then 73-year-old Alcala was indicted for Thornton’s murder in 2016. He has yet to stand trial, as he is reportedly too ill to travel.
Remaining Loose Ends
The case of serial killer Rodney Alcala is truly chilling. Though the man was a sadistic murderer, he was charming and slick enough to make a television appearance as a handsome bachelor, as well as lure young people to model for him. And though he began murdering in the 70s, it took prosecutors until 2010 to get a conviction to stick.
Though the Dating Game Killer has been convicted of seven murders and charged with an eighth, his true victim count could be much higher. To date, about two dozen women have come forward and identified themselves as the subjects in Rodney Alcala’s photos. But there are over 100 women who remain unidentified. Are they alive and well today, or are some of them missing persons? Alcala’s own voyeuristic hobby could provide the clues needed to solve additional disappearances and cold cases. Though Rodney James Alcala is safely behind bars and on death row, he leaves behind a haunting mystery that could take decades to solve.
Follow this link to see if you recognize any of the women in Rodney Alcala’s photograph collection.
Featured photo: Murderpedia