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Rodney Alcala: The Fine Art of Killing 

One man’s murderous romp through polite society

Thursday, Jan 21 2010
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Rodney Alcala is a man stuck in a time warp, his flowing silver hair, granny glasses, beige blazer and jeans reminiscent of a creative-writing professor circa 1980, the year he began life behind bars. As he walked into an Orange County Superior Court room one recent day, news photographers snapped his lean, no-longer-handsome face. His handcuffs were removed, he picked up a pen with his left hand and waited for Orange County Superior Court Judge F.P. Briseno to bring in the 12 jurors who will decide if he should die or spend the rest of his life in prison — or, though exceedingly unlikely, go free.

The once-dashing ladies' man, UCLA fine-arts grad, former Los Angeles Times typesetter, amateur photographer and film student of Roman Polanski's is believed to have used his smooth-talking charm and access to the creative communities in L.A. and Greenwich Village during the 1970s to entrap and murder seven women and girls, and to rape several others. So smooth was Alcala that he was selected to compete on the ABC prime-time show The Dating Game in 1978, where "bachelorette" Cheryl Bradshaw picked him as her date. Later, police say, she reportedly refused to go on the winning date, sensing that there was something creepy about Bachelor Number One.

[Watch video footage of Alcala on The Dating Game here

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Now 66, Alcala has twice stood trial in Orange County for the murder of 12-year-old ballet student Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach. The sensational crime rocked the sleepy beachside city 31 years ago. He was twice convicted of slaying the small girl, who disappeared on her way to ballet class riding a yellow Schwinn bicycle. Two different juries said Alcala should die. But twice his convictions were reversed on different technicalities — once by the California Supreme Court in 1984 and a second time by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001.

With a near-genius IQ of 135, Alcala has spent his time behind bars penning You, the Jury, a 1994 book in which he claims his innocence and points to a different suspect; suing the California prisons for a slip-and-fall claim and for failing to provide him a low-fat diet; and, according to prosecutors, complaining about a law that required he and other death-row inmates to submit DNA mouth swabs for comparison by police against unsolved crimes.

Alcala is still as cocky as ever — bold enough to represent himself in the trial for his life, now unfolding in Orange County. And why not? He has a talent for mining legal technicalities and has repeatedly enjoyed success with appellate judges. And, in the past at least, he had the support of women in his Monterey Park–based family. His mother provided Alcala $10,000 in bail after he was arrested for the rape of a teenager decades ago, and Huntington Beach detectives suspect another female family member of trying to hide a receipt to Alcala's secret locker in Seattle, where detectives found "trophy" earrings they say were taken from his alleged murder victims.

Using evidence such as those earrings and multiple DNA and blood matches, an unusual, dual-jurisdiction team of Los Angeles and Orange County prosecutors hopes to prove that Alcala not only murdered Samsoe but also killed four young Los Angeles–area women in the 1970s: Georgia Wixted, Jill Parenteau, Charlotte Lamb and Jill Barcomb. Their bodies were found in carefully arranged poses, and in a least one instance a lamp shade had been removed, increasing brightness. LAPD homicide Detective Cliff Shepard says the consensus among investigators is that fine-arts graduate Alcala, who preyed on attractive females ranging from stunningly beautiful career women to young and pretty teens, took their photos "to defile the victims as best he can in death."

Although the trial now under way gives Alcala one more chance to argue he did not kill the tiny ballerina Samsoe and dump her in the foothills above Sierra Madre, police contend that he has long been a vicious predator. His first known attack was in 1968, when he abducted a second-grade girl walking to school in Hollywood, using a pipe to badly bash her head and then raping her — only to be caught red-handed because a Good Samaritan spotted him luring the child and called police. When LAPD officers demanded he open the door of his Hollywood apartment on De Longpre Avenue, Alcala fled out the back. Inside, police found the barely-alive, raped little girl on Alcala's floor. It took LAPD three years to catch the fugitive Alcala, living under the name John Berger in New Hampshire — where the glib and charming child rapist had been hired, disturbingly, as a counselor at an arts-and-drama camp for teenagers.

When Alcala was caught hiding out under the assumed name Berger on the East Coast, a conviction for brutally raping a child in California was not a guarantee of a long prison sentence. California's state government of that era had embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat rapists and murderers through education and psychotherapy.

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