Rodney Alcala: The Mother of all Serial Killers

Rodney Alcala: The Mother of All Serial Killers

  • Posing as a charming photographer, Alcala used a camera to stalk women in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The total body count is unknown, but could be high as 130.
  • Strangled his victims until they lost consciousness, then waiting until they revived, often repeating the process several times before eventually killing them.
  • After his arrest, police discovered more than 1,000 photographs of women and teenaged boys in sexually suggestive poses. Police publicly released the photos found in Alcala’s storage locker hoping the people on photos could be identified, or confirmed missing.

Rodney Alcala. For some, even hearing his name sends chills down the spine. The charming but sinister smile made its name in 1978 when the producers of a dating TV-show called The Dating Game picked Alcala as a contestant. His answers were charming and witty, making the audience giggle and convincing good-looking Cheryl Bradshaw behind the wall to pick him.

"We're going to have a great time together, Cheryl", told Alcala when Cheryl picked him as the lucky winner. But unbeknownst to her and the audience, the charming man would start a rape, mutilation and killing spree, lasting eight long years.

In fact, the man she picked had already raped a child and murdered a woman. One of them an 8-year-old girl named Tali Shapiro, who was found raped and beaten with a steel bar, but luckily survived. Just like Cheryl, who decided not to go on a date with Alcala.

Rodney Alcala and Cheryl Bradshaw on The Dating Game
Rodney Alcala (left) and Cheryl Bradshaw (right) during the TV-show The Dating Game. Luckily, the pair never went on a date. By all accounts, that decision saved Cheryl's life.

Rodney Alcala

Alcala’s childhood wasn’t easy. His mother had to move to Los Angeles with him and his sisters when their father abandoned the family. Alcala was 12 at the time.

Just like many young men struggling and in need to improve their economic situation, he joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17. Four years later, after a nervous breakdown, he was discharged on medical grounds. The official diagnosis was antisocial personality disorder. A disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others.

Young Rodney Alcala in the late 70s
Rodney Alcala pictured in the late 70s'.

Despite this, he enrolled in UCLA's School of Fine Arts and earned his bachelor degree in 1968, the same year he raped his first known victim Tali Shapiro.

He was interested in photography, the profession he used to lure women to remote spots to rape, torture, and kill.

Tali Shapiro & Cornelia Michel Crilley

Being a fresh graduate of UCLA's School of Fine Arts, the sexual predator started the search for his first victim. 8-year-old Tali Shapiro was on her way to school when Alcala lured her into his car by promising to show her a cute picture. Instead, he drove to his apartment on De Longpre Avenue, where he brutally raped and beat her with a steel bar. A good Samaritan saw the abduction that took place in broad daylight and chose to follow the car and inform the police. When the authorities arrived at the scene and knocked on the door, Alcala had already escaped through the back door. Little Tali Shapiro was able to survive, but the incident left a lasting mental scar. The Shapiro family was so terrified of what happened to their daughter that they moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The murder took place in 1968 and marked his first known crime. Alcala fled the state to avoid the arrest, and the federal agents placed him to FBI's most wanted list. Using a new name John Berger, he enrolled in the New York University film school under the famous film director and producer Roman Polanski. In 1971, Alcala obtained a counseling job at a New Hampshire arts camp for children, using a slightly different pseudonym John Burger.

Rodney Alcala photography
Roman Polanski himself taught Alcala to use a camera, which began his career as a ‘fashion photographer’ – the facade to lure women into his trap.
One of 215 images shot by Rodney Alcala, that NYPD needs help with to identify the people on the pictures.

In the June of 1971, a 23-year-old flight attendant Cornelia Michel Crilley was found raped and strangled in her Manhattan studio. Her murder remained unsolved for the next 40 years, long after the span of killings ended.

Cornelia Crilley and Ellen Hover
On the left: Flight Attendant Cornelia Crilley. On the right: Ellen Hover, who was murdered by Rodney Alcala in the 1970s.

Later that summer, two children at the same camp where Alcala worked noticed an FBI most-wanted poster at the post office and notified the camp directors. The FBI made a quick arrest, but Shapiro’s family had already relocated across the border to Mexico to forget the horror they had to live through. Without the testimony, prosecutors were not able to convict Alcala of rape and attempted murder. Alcala pled guilty to a lesser charge of assault and was paroled after 34 months.

Ellen Hover

Alcala was back on the streets in less than three years. Within eight weeks, he violated his parole again and was arrested for providing marijuana and offering a ride to a 13-year-old girl, who was identified as Julie J. He was released again after serving two years. Law enforcement repeatedly failed to take the dangerous sexual predator and serial killer off the streets.

After being released from prison in 1978, Alcala started working at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter. During this period, Alcala was able to convince hundreds of men and women that he was a professional fashion photographer who needed photos for his “portfolio.” A portfolio that became notorious when police released it to the public in March 2010, hoping to detect possible victims or rule them out. Only a handful of women identified themselves as having posed for the pictures and police fear that the unidentified people on the photos could be Alcala’s victims.

The Dating Game

With a near-genius IQ of 135, Alcala used his smooth-talking charm to get selected to compete on the ABC prime-time show The Dating Game in 1978.

Gif of Rodney Alcala Smiling
Rodney Alcala grinning ominously after he is being told that he is the winning bachelor on 'The Dating Game'.

Despite being a convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Alcala was accepted as a contestant and 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. Between takes, you might find him skydiving or motorcycling. Please welcome Rodney Alcala!"

Bradshaw chose Alcala as her date, but refused to go out with him.

Killing Spree

The known serial killings started in the July of 1977 when the lifeless body of Ellen Hover was discovered in her New York apartment. In November of the same year, 18-year-old Jill Barcomb was raped, sodomized, repeatedly bit on her right breast, strangled with trousers and a belt, and killed with a rock.

Young Rodney Alcala
The 'charming' Rodney Alcala during the killing spree.

Alcala’s known victims were largely women between the age of 8-31. Most of the victims were molested and sodomized, strangled with nylons or shoe laces and beaten with various blunt objects. He enjoyed torturing his victims by strangling them until they lost consciousness, then waiting until they were revived, often repeating the process several times before eventually killing them. The bodies were in carefully selected positions, posed by Alcala, who often took earrings as mementos.

Victims of Rodney Alcala
Known victims of Rodney Alcala. From left: Charlotte Lamb, Ellen Hover, Jill Parenteau.

The official number of victims is 8, but could be anywhere as high as 130.

The Trial and Surprise Witness

Alcala had three trials and numerous appeals. At the first two trials, Alcala was charged with the murder of Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old who disappeared between the beach and her ballet class on June 20, 1979. 12 days later her remains, and subsequently her earrings, were discovered in a Seattle locker rented by Alcala. Despite the fact Alcala was convicted and sentenced to death, the verdict was overturned by the supreme court because the jurors were informed of Alcala's sex crimes prior to the trial.

Robin Samsoe, a victim of Rodney Alcala
Photos of Robin Samsoe at her family's home.

While preparing for the third trial, advances in DNA science helped match semen left at the crime scenes of two women in Los Angeles. Again, a pair of earrings belonging to a victim were found in the locker rented by Alcala. DNA matches led to Alcala’s indictment for the murders of four additional women: Jill Barcomb (18), Georgia Wixted (27), Charlotte Lamb (31), Jill Parenteau (21).

Mugshots of Rodney Alcala
Little was left of the charming and handsome man, once incarcerated.

At the final trial, Alcala decided to act as his own attorney, just like Ted Bundy and many other narcissistic psychopaths. The star and surprise witness was Tali Shapiro, Alcala’s first victim who survived the brutal rape and beating, finally ready to face the devil. For five long hours, Alcala played the roles of both interrogator and witness. He addressed himself as Mr. Alacala, asking questions in a deeper voice than when answering them. The theatrics of "The Dating Game Killer" didn’t work. The charm that entrapped so many girls didn’t convince the jurors or the judge and Alcala was found guilty on all five counts of first-degree murder. When it was time for the closing argument, he decided to play the Arlo Guthrie song "Alice’s Restaurant".

In March 2010, Alcala was sentenced to death for the third time. The death penalty has not been carried out as of yet.

Rodney Alcala, The Dating Game Killer Documentary

Pictures of Rodney Alcala

Rodney Alcala in Jail
Young Rodney Alcala
Young Alcala.

Pictures of people that need to be identified

Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy is asking for the public's help in identifying the women, young men, and children in over a hundred photos seized from a Seattle storage locker rented by Rodney Alcala. If you know who these people are, contact Huntington Beach police detective Patrick Ellis.

Unidentified people found on Rodney Alcala's locker

Above is only a fraction of pictures that needs be identified. You can browse the whole gallery of unidentified women and children here.

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