Rodney Alcala worked as a photographer and a typesetter and was once a contestant on “The Dating Game.” However, police say he was also a chameleon and a serial killer, perhaps the deadliest in the country’s history, and investigators are unsure if they will ever know how many victims he left behind.
Peter Van Sant and 48 HOURS investigate Alcala’s trail of murder in a new edition of “Rodney Alcala: The Killing Game,” to be broadcast Saturday, Feb. 17 (10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
For more than a decade, 48 HOURS has been investigating this case of a handsome killer who crisscrossed the country, leaving victims in his path while changing names and jobs, and for many years eluding police. When police finally caught him though, the case was far from over, and even now, as Alcala sits in prison, the investigation into his string of death continues.
“I honestly believe in my mind, in my heart, that there’s going to be other victims – seeing how arrogant he was, knowing how charming he apparently was back in the day, and knowing how smart he is. I wouldn’t doubt if there’s 100, 150, maybe even 200 victims out there,” Sweetwater County (Wyoming) Sheriff Corporal Jeff Sheaman tells 48 HOURS.
Alcala’s known crime career began in 1968 when Los Angeles police found an 8-year-old Tali Shapiro near death in his home. She survived, but he fled out the back door. It would take years for police to catch up with him, then working in a New Hampshire girls camp and using an alias.
What could have been the end of the Alcala’s crime history was far from it. He pleaded guilty to child molestation in the Shapiro case and was released after serving less than three years in prison. In 1979 he approached two young girls on a beach in California. Later that day, one of them, Robin Samsoe, disappeared. Her remains turned up 12 days later some 40 miles away. Her friend, however, gave police a detailed description of the man who saw them on the beach. Alcala’s parole officer saw the sketch and told police. As police worked to investigate the Samsoe case, detectives overheard Alcala telling his sister that he had a storage locker in Seattle, Wash. There, police found thousands of photographs of women, many in vulnerable positions. In its 2010 broadcast on Alcala, 48 HOURS posted on its website a gallery of some of these photos taken by Alcala of unidentified women.
Twice, Alcala was tried and convicted for the murder of Samsoe. Twice, he received the death penalty. And twice, those convictions were overturned. But, while he remained on death row awaiting his third trial, DNA technology caught up with him. This time Alcala was tried and convicted for the murder, kidnapping and rape of five California women, including Samsoe. Most of the evidence against him was DNA evidence. He received five separate death penalties and was sent back to death row.
By 2012, Alcala had been on California’s death row for more than 30 years. Yet, police have never stopped digging, especially in New York City. That year, Alcala was sent to New York to face justice in two cold cases from the 1970s that had recently been solved – the 1971 murder of Cornelia Michael Crilley and the 1977 killing of Ellen Hover. The cases never went to trial. He pleaded guilty to both. The New York prosecutors were shocked because Alcala had denied every crime he was accused of in the past. Alcala was sentenced to two concurrent prison terms of 25 years to life and returned to California.
Meanwhile, Kathy Thornton had spent 39 years trying to find her sister, Christine, who went missing after a trip out west with her boyfriend. Thornton had never heard of Alcala, but her son did. He had watched 48 HOURS and saw its website of Alcala’s unidentified photos of women. He urged his mother to look.
When Thornton looked at it, she stopped on an image of a beautiful woman on a motorcycle.
“I said, ‘That sure looks like Chris’ – then I saw her little toe, her baby toe,” Thornton tells 48 HOURS. “That’s one thing I always remembered about Chris was her little baby toe was different. It hooked – I just saw that toe, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Chris.”
Was her sister one of Alcala’s victims, or just a woman in a picture he had in his collection?
It would take years for Thornton to find out for sure.
48 HOURS and Van Sant report on Alcala’s trail of death and the race to identify more victims through interviews with current and former investigators, family members and more.
48 HOURS: “Rodney Alcala: The Killing Game” is produced by Gayane Keshishyan Mendez and Tom Seligson. Linda Martin is the development producer. James Taylor, Bob Orozovich, Mike Vele, Jake Day and Michael Sheehan are the editors. Janis Klein is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Susan Zirinsky is the senior executive producer.