The word “appeal” can have a range of uses, each considerably different from the last. If something appeals to you, it is desirable. If you make an appeal to someone, it is a request for assistance. From a legal standpoint, an appeal means you are taking a case to a higher court in an attempt to have a ruling changed. In the world of serial killers, you are bound to come across several instances of the word. Some killers, like Ted Bundy, lured in their victims with their charming appeal. When a killer is unidentified and still on the loose, law enforcement will appeal to the public to come forward with tips and leads. When a killer is convicted for their crimes, the case is almost always brought before a Court of Appeals or a Supreme Court to either uphold or overturn the conviction. There is no better example of this than one particular serial killer who plagued several states through the 1970s.
June 24, 1971. Officers climb through the rear window of a Manhattan apartment belonging to 23-year-old Cornelia Crilley. Cornelia had not been heard from all day, and the officers who were called to check on her found the front door locked and no answer from anyone inside. Upon entering, they located Crilley’s body, raped and strangled.On July 15, 1977, another 23-year-old would suffer the same fate. Ellen Hover left her Manhattan apartment for a photography session with a man named John Berger. Eleven months later her remains were discovered in Westchester County, New York. Her body had been buried under rocks and was skeletal at the time of finding.
On the other side of the country, in Southern California, the September 13, 1978 episode of the hit show, “The Dating Game” aired. Three handsome young men were vying for a date with bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw. In the end, Bradshaw picked the charismatic Rodney Alcala. Alcala was introduced as a photographer who enjoyed skydiving and motorcycle riding. His long dark hair and cool, Los Angeles style gave him a bit of a Jim Morrison appeal. Surely he and Cheryl would have a great time together. Shortly after filming wrapped on the episode, however, Cheryl informed the show’s producers she did not want to go forward with her date with Rodney because he was strange and creepy. Bad news for Rodney, but probably the best decision Cheryl ever made.
Rodney Alcala was born in Texas in 1943 before his mother moved the family to Los Angeles. Rodney enlisted in the Army in the 1960s but that wasn’t a good fit for him apparently as he would suffer a mental breakdown. Before being discharged from the service, he was diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. Perhaps this explained his creepy demeanor later in life. Alcala enrolled in UCLA as a fine arts major and graduated in 1968. Rodney’s IQ was well into the genius range, likely making his studies a breeze. His bright mind wandered away from his studies, towards much darker interests. The same year he graduated college, Rodney was seen luring an child into his apartment. The passerby who noticed this knew it was nefarious and contacted police. Officers arrived and forced entry into the residence. They found 8-year-old Tali Shapiro severely beaten, strangled, and raped, barely alive. Alcala escaped through a window before officers could apprehend him and he never returned to the apartment.
On the run from assault, kidnapping, rape and attempted murder charges, Rodney fled far from the scene of the crime and set up his new life in New York. A wanted man apparently hungry for more knowledge, he enrolled in NYU as a film student and with a passion for photography. Obviously he couldn’t use his real name while avoiding his charges, so he settled on the name John Berger. Decades later it was discovered he attacked Cornelia Crilley in this time period. Alcala stayed active under his alter ego, volunteering as a counselor at a New Hampshire summer camp for girls in 1971. By this time law enforcement was desperate to catch Rodney Alcala before he hurt anyone else, so they made an appeal to the public. The FBI listed Alcala as one of their Most Wanted Fugitives and as such his picture was plastered around the nation. Two girls from his camp recognized the picture of Alcala as John Berger and authorities were quickly alerted. His cover was blown and he was arrested and extradited back to California.
Unfortunately for the women of Los Angeles, Alcala received a plea deal for less than three years in prison in exchange for pleading guilty to child molestation. The District Attorney’s Office was unable to proceed with the original charges because Tali Shapiro and her family left the country after she recovered from her attack and she was the key witness. Alcala was paroled after 34 months but would end up serving more time after violating his parole by providing marijuana to a 13-year-old girl. After his second release, the violent repeat sex offender Alcala was permitted by his parole officer to travel back to New York. There he resumed his photography interests as John Berger for a short time. Though he had enough time to schedule a photo shoot with Ellen Hover.
Alcala returned to California and worked for the Los Angeles Times where he would show off his collection of photos to his co-workers, boasting about his skills as a photographer. The photos included many of nude young boys and girls in sexually explicit positions, but this didn’t raise enough suspicion to be reported thanks to Alcala’s claims of being a professional photographer hired by the parents of the children in the images.
Between 1977 and 1978, bodies were turning up all over Los Angeles thanks to the influx of serial killers in the Los Angeles area during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Among these victims were 18-year-old Jill Barcomb, found dead and posed in a ravine; 27-year-old Georgia Wixted, beaten to death in her apartment; 31-year-old Charlotte Lamb, raped and strangled in an apartment complex laundry room. Many victims were attributed to The Hillside Stranglers, who were known to pose their victims’ nude bodies outdoors after sexually assaulting and killing them. The search for these killers was expansive and resulted in the questioning of many known sex offenders in the area, including Rodney Alcala. He was cleared of involvement in The Hillside Stranglers Case, but was very busy in his own right.
Months after Alcala’s appearance, victory, and rejection on “The Dating Game,” on June 14, 1979, 21-year-old Jill Parenteau was found strangled in her apartment. Six days after Jill Parenteau was killed, Alcala took a play out of the John Berger book and attempted to entice 12-year-old Robin Samsoe and a friend of hers into a photo shoot in Huntington Beach. He was warded off by the presence of a neighbor who believed Alcala was up to no good. However, as Robin later rode her bike to ballet class, she was abducted. Her remains were discovered nearly two weeks later in the Angeles National Forest. Though skeletal, her remains showed signs of a violent attack. Based on accounts from Samsoe’s neighbor and friend a sketch was composed and released to the media as another appeal to the public to identify the suspected killer. Alcala’s former parole officer recognized the person in the sketch and notified police. It just so happened an LAPD Detective caught a rerun of “The Dating Game” which of course featured the newly named suspect. The episode was shown to Samsoe’s friend who also positively identified Rodney Alcala as the creepy photographer who approached her and Robin.
Police obtained a search warrant for Alcala’s mother’s home, his primary residence at the time. While searching the home detective’s found a receipt for a storage unit in Seattle, Washington. Detectives were sent to search the storage unit and found mountains of pictures of women and girls, all potential victims of Alcala. They also located a bag containing various pieces of jewelry, including a pair of earrings which were identified by Samsoe’s mother as the ones Robin was wearing the day she disappeared. It was believed the pieces of jewelry were trophies, taken from victims, indicated Rodney Alcala was indeed a serial killer.
Alcala was arrested and tried for the murder of Robin Samsoe, and would be convicted and sentenced to death in 1980. However, Rodney appealed his conviction, which was overturned by the California Supreme Court due to the jury possibly being prejudiced after learning of Alcala’s criminal history. In 1986, his second trial would commence, again resulting in a guilty verdict, and a death sentence. In 2001, while awaiting execution, Alcala once again appealed his conviction, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that due to the trial Judge not allowing a particular witness to testify to some of Alcala’s claims, the conviction must be overturned again.
While in prison, DNA was collected from Alcala thanks to the passage of a new law in 2003. Prior to the start of his third trial for the Samsoe murder, that DNA was used to tie Alcala to the murders of Jill Barcomb, Georgia Wixted, Charlotte Lamb and Jill Parenteau. Prosecutors were able to combine these new murder charges with the Samsoe case and obtained a conviction for all five murders. During the third trial, Alcala decided to act as his own attorney, and his defense was insignificant to say the least. Alcala was once more sentenced to death in 2010. Thanks to the new DNA evidence, Alcala was charged in 2013 for the murders of Cornelia Crilley and Ellen Hover, and pled guilty. He is also suspected of several more murders in Seattle, San Fransisco and Wyoming. He was formally charged for the Wyoming murder in 2016, however his health was too poor to be extradited for trial.
The so called Dating Game Killer died of natural causes while awaiting execution at the age of 77 in July of 2021. In 2010, 120 of the photographs taken from his storage locker were released online in the hopes that the women would be identified, either as victims, or alive, having survived their encounter with Alcala. To date, more than 100 of the photographs are still online, and the women in them are not identified. Nearly 1000 more photos exist of potential victims, however they could not be publicly released due to their sexual nature. Alcala’s true number of victims will likely never be known, but could reach well into the hundreds.