We’ve all been told from a young age to never talk to strangers. Someone could claim to know you or the people in your life, but how do we really know that they know us? Predators will often use this as a ploy to pull their victims in, and Rodney Alcala was no different.
Rodney Alcala is a serial killer who created a whole lot of problems across the coasts and even some places in between. He shook the lives of many innocent girls, in some cases, by pretending to be a friend of the victim’s parents. He was an animal who was willing to go to great lengths to catch his prey. To this day, authorities are working to connect him to missing and murdered individuals.
Rodney Alcala first came onto the police’s radar after he abducted Tali Shapiro, who was just eight years old at the time. She was walking to school one day in 1969 when a man pulled up in his car and offered her a ride. The young girl knew that something about this interaction was strange, and knew in her gut that she shouldn’t take it.
“I told him I didn’t talk to strangers,” Tali shared about that September 25th, 1969 encounter. “That is when he told me he knew my parents. I really didn’t want to get into the car, but I was raised to respect my elders. I didn’t know to fear people.” This interaction would change young Tali’s entire life.
When Alcala convinced the young girl to get into his car, he had no clue that she had a guardian angel watching the entire interaction. This unnamed good Samaritan watched her get into the beige car with no license plates and promptly followed the vehicle to its next destination. He knew something was fishy.
The informant followed Alcala and Tali Shapiro to Alcala’s apartment complex and called the police as soon as he could. Had they not received the call when they did, police might not have been able to save the little girl’s life. The police quickly arrived on the scene and needed to put their eyes on the missing little girl – it could be a matter of life and death.
When police arrived at Alcala’s home, he didn’t answer the door. They tried to get him to open it, but it took the officers threatening to knock down the door to finally get him to open it; just a crack, but open nonetheless. They told him he needed to let them into the apartment, and of course, he tried to buy himself some time.
He peeked through the window to tell the officers that he was just in the shower and that he needed a moment to throw on some clothes. Officer Chris Camacho told Alcala that he could have 10 seconds to throw on some clothes, but that was more than enough for the criminal to sneak out his back door as the officers broke down the front door.
Upon breaking down the door, officers found a truly terrifying scene. They found little Tali Shapiro laying in a pool of her own blood, with her little white shoes off to the side. She had a thick, heavy rod laying across her neck – her murder was basically interrupted by the police…
The officers assumed that the young girl was dead. They started searching through the apartment to try and find the assailant but saw that he escaped. They also found professional camera equipment, along with many photos of women. Suddenly, the officers heard something – a wet, choking sound. Little Tali was alive and was in need of immediate medical care.
While processing the crime scene and getting the young girl to safety, officer Camacho and the officers at the scene looked through all of his possessions in the home, hoping to find a name. From their search, they were able to identify the assailant as Rodney Alcala, labeled on some of his professional photography equipment.
Alcala was a 25-year-old student at UCLA, studying theater. On paper, he was far from what they expected a villain of his nature to do. People who knew him claimed he was just a kind guy who wouldn’t be capable of even swatting a fly away.
Alcala’s attack on Tali Shapiro is believed to be the start of his killing spree. He went on to kill at least seven women, always approaching girls with the same modus operandi – or M.O. His methods would explain the camera equipment they found.
The majority of his victims were lured in with his camera. He would ask girls (and later, we’d learn that some boys might have been at risk as well) if he could take their photo. He would tell them, “I work for a magazine; this is for a photo contest!” Some girls were excited to have their picture taken, not knowing what was coming next.
And by list, we mean the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted.” In 1969, Alcala was put at the top of the list while they searched for him high and low. He was nowhere to be found because he was going under a different name in New York City. He was now a film student at N.Y. University, identifying himself as John Berger.
He somehow managed to fly under the radar, despite being at the top of this infamous list. He would live life like any other person without a thirst for blood, pretending like he wasn’t the epitome of evil. In the summer of 1971, Alcala would be found while in hiding.
In 1971, Alcala would finally be exposed for who he was. Two young girls at a summer camp in New Hampshire took a trip to the nearest town. When they got to their destination, the post office, they saw a photo of Alcala labeled “WANTED,” hanging on a tack board filled with community announcements.
The girls were naturally terrified since they knew him as their counselor at the nearby all-girls sleepaway camp they attended! They notified their local police, who passed the information along to the FBI. Alcala was then extradited back to California to stand trial, though it wouldn’t produce the results everyone wanted.
By the time that Alcala was extradited from New York to Los Angeles to stand trial, Tali Shapiro’s family had relocated. Not only did they leave southern California, but they left the United States altogether. The Shapiro family wanted to help their daughter heal as best as they could, and they wanted to be far from where this traumatic event happened to her.
The Shapiro family had their daughter’s best interest in mind and did not want to make her relive any trauma the case would surely bring up. The young girl didn’t testify, which makes sense as to why they were unable to get a harsher sentence for him. He stood trial and was found guilty for his actions, but the indefinite sentencing laws at the time made things more complicated.
At the time of Alcala’s arrest, there were indefinite sentencing laws in the state of California. This meant that he could be sentenced to anywhere between one and 99 years in federal prison. Sure, he could serve a year, but he could also serve until the end of his life, too.
Perhaps the sentence would have been firmer had Shapiro testified against him, but we can’t think about the “what if” of the situation. Who could blame her or her family for wanting to put it behind them? However, another question arose. Police officers came into the scene and witnessed Shapiro half dead , so why couldn’t the officers testify against him?
Alcala was known for being quite charming to those around him. He used his theatre education to convince officials at his prison that he was no longer a threat to himself or society. Alcala had somehow convinced both psychiatrists and his parole board that he was worthy of release.
After a short 34 months behind bars, Alcala had talked his way out of jail. He was charismatic and convincing, a “model prisoner” if there ever was such a thing. The killer thought that he was free to get back to his routine, but it wouldn’t take long to land himself back in jail months later.
Alcala was only out of jail for two months when he landed himself back in police custody. He had quickly violated his parole after pulling a familiar move. In October 1974, Alcala pulled up next to a 13-year-old girl named Julie and convinced her to get into his car.
He took Julie to an isolated area, then forced her to smoke marijuana. After, he tried to kiss her, which is already creepy enough coming from a man who was well into his 30s. As a registered sex offender, being with a young girl was a violation of his parole. Having and using marijuana didn’t help his case, either.
At the time of his incarceration, parole boards across the country, specifically in California where Alcala was serving, believed that sex offenders could be rehabilitated. (So much of the prison system, especially today, would preach that their facilities aimed to rehabilitate criminals.)
That might have been a better idea in theory than in practice. In yet another decision that shocked many people, Alcala’s parole board allowed him to leave the state of California and go back to New York City. Typically, those on parole cannot leave the state, but he must have charmed them to allow him to do so.
He returned to New York City for just a brief period of time and returned to Los Angeles by 1978. He started working as a typesetter for the Los Angeles Times. When Alcala began working at the publication, they were actively reporting on the case of the infamous Hillside Strangler.
Alcala was a registered sex offender, which resulted in him being interviewed in the Hillside Strangler case. He was considered a suspect, though it appeared that his employers had no clue. Even while working for the publication, he couldn’t help his hunger for murder.
Jill Parenteau was just 21 years old when she was found dead, positioned strategically, in the comfort of her own home. She had been raped and strangled in her living room, though no charges were filed. They knew it was tied to Alcala; there just wasn’t nearly enough proof.
Parenteau was on the cusp of the rest of her life. She was a college student working in data entry at the time. She was found just moments before other people’s bodies were recovered, which were killed in the same manner as her. They would all eventually be connected to the same person.
Alcala was known to be violent from his days serving in the U.S. Army. He went AWOL on multiple occasions while assigned to Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. One weekend in June 1963, an army report stated that he stole a car, then robbed another driver of their credit card before fleeing to New York City.
In this stint, he reportedly attacked another innocent bystander. “One night after leaving a bar [in New York], he saw a young lady walking down the street. He followed her a short distance and struck her with a coke bottle,” the report said. She was able to get away, but Alcala tried to flee to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he was promptly arrested.
After he was arrested by military officers, he managed to escape when he was being escorted between trains in Atlanta, Georgia. He went back to his family’s home in California, though they were not excited about it. They advised him to turn himself in, especially after exposing himself to his youngest sister.
Naturally, his sister became hysterical in response. “Private Alcala stated he did not know if he wanted to have sexual relations with her,” the military report stated. Experts at the Ford Ord California Army Hospital determined that he knew right from wrong but “that [he] is totally unsuitable for further military duty,” the report said. He pleaded guilty, paid a fine, had his rank reduced, and was “honorably” discharged. How is that honorable?!
After his escape to New York following his attack on Tali Shapiro, he attacked a 23-year-old Queens, New York native who was living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She was a TWA stewardess who was found dead on the floor of her apartment, strangled with nylon stockings. She had bite marks on her breast and had been raped and murdered.
After asking his parole officer for permission to go on a “vacation,” he was granted permission and returned to New York City in 1977. He roamed the streets looking to photograph anyone who would let him when he stumbled upon Ellen Hover (the heiress to Ciro’s in Hollywood). She was reported missing on July 15th, 1977, the day after the infamous New York City Blackout that was filled with looting and violence.
After Hover was reported as missing, police searched her apartment for clues. They found a calendar with a July 15th entry that said “John Berger.” Police were already familiar with Alcala’s alias and tracked him down. There was, again, not enough evidence to arrest him.
Her body was recovered 11 months after she was reported missing when her skeletal remains were found 30 miles north of the city in Tarrytown, New York. Dental records were needed to identify her body, and there was, unfortunately, no forensic evidence at the scene to confirm her killer. Still, they knew who their guy was – there was no doubt.
Four innocent young women lost their lives too soon to Alcala when he returned to Los Angeles. Between 1977 and 1979, he attacked four unsuspecting women. Jill Parenteau was among the four, as well as 19-year-old Jill Barcomb, who was found dead near the Hollywood sign.
Georgia Wixted, a 27-year-old cardiac care nurse in Malibu, and Charlotte Lamb, a 32-year-old legal secretary in Santa Monica, were the other two victims. They were all sexually assaulted and murdered, with two found inside their own homes and one found in an apartment that she had no connection to. DNA technology later connected them all to Alcala.
By the time that Alcala appeared on The Dating Game in 1978, a popular T.V. game show in which one contestant asked questions to three potential dates who were hidden from her view, he had already murdered at least five women across both coasts and had been charged with the attempted murder of an 8-year-old. Surprisingly, the show did not conduct background checks.
The contestant coordinator, Ellen Metzger, found Alcala “striking,” while her future husband, Mike Metzger, the show’s producer, disagreed. “In terms of putting him on as a contestant, I think on the form I wrote N-W, which was my symbol for ‘no way’… because I noticed that he had a very strange personality,” he told ABC News. They ultimately put him on the show and would soon regret it.
After lots of banter and many “playful” innuendos on the show, contestant Cheryl Bradshaw ended up choosing Alcala for a date. Looking back, producers realized how eerie his comments were. Within a day, Bradshaw had already reconsidered and was incredibly uncomfortable, calling Metzger to share her thoughts.
Metzger recollected her conversation with Bradshaw. “She said, ‘Ellen, I can’t go out with this guy. There are weird vibes that are coming off of him. He’s very strange. I am not comfortable. Is that going to be a problem?’ And of course, I said, ‘No.'” Bradshaw is probably grateful not to have had to go out with him – she could have been one of his victims!
Roller skaters at Sunset Beach would be what ultimately brought Alcala to justice. It all began when he was trying to lure in a series of young girls, staring with 17-year-old Lori Wurtz. He approached her while spending her afternoon roller skating on the boardwalk.
“He was asking me all kinds of questions like where I’m from, my name, my age,” Wurtz told ABC News. “He tried really hard to get me in the car… and leave my friend on the beach.” She and her friend Patty continually refused, and he drove toward Huntington Beach, where he would take his last victim. When identifying victims later, he claimed to have not been to Sunset Beach in years, but his photo of Wurtz roller skating proved that to be a lie.
On June 20th, 1979, 12-year-old Robin Samsoe and her friend Bridget Wilvert were briefly at the beach before Robin was set to head to her new job at a ballet studio, where she would be getting classes in return. They went down to the beach to have a cartwheel competition. This was when Alcala approached them, asking to take their photos.
Wilvert refused, and a nearby adult chased the predator off. Not long after, Samsoe was running late to her first day of work, so Wilvert told her to take her bike and not stop. Later that evening, they learned that she never made it to the ballet studio, and the young girl was never seen alive again.
Bridget Wilvert worked with a sketch artist to create a composite of the man she’d interacted with. The sketch was broadcast on T.V., and Alcala’s parole officers, along with some others, immediately recognized him. Just 12 days after Robin Samsoe disappeared, her remains were found in the Sierra Madres by a park ranger.
Her remains had been scavenged by animals, but the teeth came back as a match for the young girl. The body had been dismembered, and by the time she was found, Alcala had already headed to Seattle to store his many “trophies” in a storage locker; the receipt was listed as purchased within days of her disappearance and discovery of the body.
Alcala was arrested at his mother’s house in Monterey Park, California, and was charged with Robin’s murder. They searched the home and found evidence of a receipt for a storage locker. His sister came to visit him while he was held in jail, and he asked her to go clear it out before the police got to it. Little did he know, they were listening to his entire conversation.
They rushed to the storage locker and uncovered enough evidence to lock him up forever. The space was filled with thousands of photos of people, young and old, primarily women (with some boys included), many nude and in compromised positions. There was also a bag with pieces of jewelry, which investigators believe the criminal took as trophies from his victims.
Alcala tried to claim that the earrings found were his; specifically, a set of gold studs that belonged to Robin Samsoe’s mother that the young girl was wearing when she went missing. Though he tried to claim the earrings belonged to him, Alcala had no idea that DNA evidence from the earrings would prove otherwise. They would also connect him to other victims later.
Most of the photos in the storage locker were not suitable for release to the public, though they were able to release around 120 images. This successfully identified nine women, fortunately all still alive, and one said he molested her. Three other photos helped family members identify missing loved ones. Many, if not most photos, had addresses on the back of them. He was keeping track.
Alcala was put on trial multiple times and had been extradited to New York for his conviction for the murder of numerous New Yorkers. He was given the death penalty multiple times, though he kept appealing and kept having the conviction overturned. His trials began in 1980, retrying him again in 1984, then again in 1986.
At 66 years old, Alcala represented himself in his third trial. He made a plea against the death penalty and played a strange song excerpt to make his case – though the lyrics discussed “wanting to see blood,” which certainly didn’t help to prove him as innocent. For a third time, he was sentenced to death by the jury.
In his 2010 trial, family members of victims testified in court against Alcala, pleading for him to be found guilty. “Shocked” doesn’t even begin to cover how everyone felt when his first victim, survivor Tali Shapiro, had shown up to testify against him. 42 years later, she was not going to let him get away with another crime.
She spoke out about that day, what she remembered, and where her memory ended. Later in the trial, he did something no one expected; “He’s never apologized before, and for him to even bother, I mean, that made me sick to my stomach,” Shapiro said. It took months before she could return to school, and it caused a lifetime of emotional trauma for her and her family.
Despite having been sentenced to death three times, with multiple overturned death penalties, Rodney Alcala is indeed still alive. He is spending the rest of his miserable life on death row in prison in Corcoran, California. Though he appealed successfully multiple times, DNA technology made it hard for him to fight the charges.
Over the years, he was given numerous opportunities to come clean about what he did as part of plea deals to avoid the death penalty. He continually refused to share any more information, even if it would save his life. He would get what he deserved in the long run – though he pleaded for his life, he never granted that opportunity to his victims. Why should he be given mercy when they weren’t?
The release of the photos from his storage locker had helped police and the family members of victims enormously. One image of a woman sitting on the back of a motorcycle helped Kathy Thornton identify her long-lost sister, Christine. She lived in Wyoming, and he approached her while driving cross country from Los Angeles to New York after being granted “vacation time” from his parole officer.
The two met by chance on his road trip, with no rhyme or reason behind them crossing paths. When Alcala was confronted about the photo with Thornton, whose remains were identified years later along with those of an unborn child (she was pregnant), and he claimed he only took the photo. He denied murdering her, though the writing was on the wall.
When Robin Samsoe’s mother Marianne Connelly attended the trial for her daughter’s murder, she came with a loaded gun in her purse. She knew she wanted her daughter’s killer to pay, and jail time wouldn’t be enough. “I wanted to shoot him right between the eyes if I could get a shot in,” she said after.
As she sat with her hand on the trigger of the gun, she felt a weight holding down her wrist. Connelly believed it was Robin, telling her not to take that gruesome path. She said that she heard Robin’s voice, telling her that was not the best way to seek justice. She took her hand off the gun, knowing that’s what her daughter wanted.