Rodney Alcala's Final Revenge
In 2005, when DNA evidence linked alleged serial killer Rodney Alcala to the 1977 murder of petite 18-year-old New York runaway Jill Barcomb, her brother Bruce sent letters and a book on sex addiction called Out of the Shadows to Alcala in his Orange County jail cell, where he was preparing his defense against charges that he murdered Jill Barcomb and four others.
In the letters, Barcomb compared Alcala to notorious serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and begged him to spare the victims' relatives from a painful trial — including the family of 12-year-old Huntington Beach ballet student Robin Samsoe, and Barcomb's own elderly mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy.
Barcomb reminded Alcala that even the cannibal Dahmer expressed remorse for his crimes. And the slyly charming Bundy, executed in Florida in 1989, assisted police in solving many of his own slayings, also giving advice (albeit not helpful) on how to find Washington state's Green River Killer.
Barcomb hoped that Alcala, an amateur photographer and former Los Angeles Times typesetter, would confess to the cold-case murders he is suspected of committing in the 1960s and 1970s, during an alleged murderous romp from New York's Greenwich Village to California's beach cities. It was Barcomb's desire that Alcala also reveal to police any unsolved murders he may have committed.
"I asked him to own his truth," says Barcomb, 49, who lives in North Hollywood. "He needs to give up the rest of his victims. Not to me, but to law enforcement — so other families can know what happened to their loved ones."
Alcala never replied. "He has chosen ego," Barcomb tells L.A. Weekly sadly.
Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Cliff Shepard, who is handling the Jill Barcomb murder investigation, thinks he knows why: "This is the last thing a [serial killer] has control of. They have the power and knowledge. You don't, and they won't give it up. This is about power and control."
Alcala's third trial for murdering Samsoe is winding down in a Santa Ana courtroom. He has twice been sent to death row, but escaped execution both times on appeal. Alcala is now acting as his own defense attorney in the trial for Samsoe's Orange County slaying, and in the trials for the four Los Angeles County murders. A jury verdict is expected sometime soon.
Alcala, a once-dashing ladies' man, UCLA fine-arts graduate and former film student of Roman Polanski's, is believed to have used his wit and his access to the creative communities in L.A. and Greenwich Village during the '60s and '70s to entrap and murder seven women and girls, and to rape several others. So smooth was Alcala that he appeared on the ABC prime-time show The Dating Game in 1978, on which "bachelorette" Cheryl Bradshaw picked him as her date.
Prosecutors contend he killed Jill Barcomb, 32-year-old legal secretary Charlotte Lamb, 27-year-old nurse Georgia Wixted, 21-year-old keypunch operator Jill Parenteau and 12-year-old ballet student Samsoe. The killings unfolded both before and after his splashy television debut.
New York City detectives believe the now-wizened and bespectacled 66-year-old is also responsible for the cold-case murders of flight attendant Cornelia Crilley and Manhattan socialite Ellen Jane Hover. The latter woman's disappearance decades ago sent fear through L.A.'s and New York City's jet sets, both of which Hover associated with.
In one fantastic irony, even as the L.A. Times was publishing sensational articles in the late 1970s about the mysterious Hillside Strangler, who terrorized much of L.A. at that time, Alcala, who worked typesetting articles for that paper, was being questioned by the LAPD in relation to those very murders.
In an interview with the Weekly, Alcala's former Times colleague Sharon Gonzalez remembers: "He would talk about going to parties in Hollywood. It seemed like he knew famous people. He kept his body in great shape. He was very open about his sexuality. It was all new to me."
He brought his photography portfolio to show his Times workmates, she says, and the photos were "of young girls. I thought it was weird, but I was young, I didn't know anything. When I asked why he took the photos, he said their moms asked him to. I remember the girls were naked."
Gonzalez adds that she wasn't "smart enough or mature enough to know" that she was looking at child porn. Yet incredibly, she describes how L.A. Times' management in the 1970s had a golden opportunity to turn Alcala in, but did nothing: "There were other people in the department who were in their 40s and 50s. The [Times] supervisor at the time — she saw it." Instead, the reaction at the newspaper was, "We thought he was a little different. Strange about sex."
Today, Alcala, who has attended his trial in an ill-fitting beige blazer, is anything but smooth. He has displayed a rambling and unprepared defense, during which Orange County Superior Court Judge F.P. Briseno has often asked him to speak up. On many occasions, Briseno asked jurors to leave the room so he could explain basic legalese to Alcala. "I am having so many conversations with you, I am losing my voice," the judge complained.
In fact, Alcala has performed in exactly the manner Bruce Barcomb asked him to avoid for the sake of his alleged victims. Alcala has held up the trial for weeks, acting like an absent-minded professor. Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit wrote of Alcala's opening statements: "I've seen 19-year-old gangbangers give a more cogent and persuasive defense."
Even the court audience has added to the antics: Actress Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, showed up one day, and was chastised by the judge after she attracted attention while trying to sneak out of the court before the jurors left.
Alcala has focused on constructing an alibi for the Samsoe killing, but said nothing in court about his whereabouts on the days that Parenteau, Jill Barcomb, Lamb and Wixted were found murdered. Instead, he spent a full day explaining to the jury what he claims he was doing before, during and after the June 20, 1979, disappearance of ballerina Samsoe.
"Okay, Mr. Alcala, let's move on," he said to himself on the stand one day. "Let's talk about earrings."
Alcala has insisted that earrings found in what prosecutors called his "trophy pouch" were actually his own, and not earrings owned by Samsoe's mother, Marianne Connelly, who testified recently that the gold earrings found by police in Alcala's Seattle locker were hers.
In an apparent bid to gain sympathy from the jury, Alcala asked Connelly why she brought a loaded .25 caliber pistol to a 1980 hearing of his arrest for her daughter's murder. But Connelly appeared to get the upper hand when she testified candidly, "Yes, I did [entertain the idea of shooting Alcala in 1980]. But I thought the law would have helped me. I realized that the children I had left needed me."
Detective Shepard says of Alcala's behavior in court, "It is his final act — to orchestrate the case and represent it in a way he wants to present it. Everyone is a captive there. Everyone is at his command."
Jill Parenteau last spoke to her older sister Dedee hours before she was murdered. Parenteau attended a Dodgers game with a high school friend who had a crush on her. On June 14, 1979, the day after that friend dropped her off at her Burbank apartment, she was found dead inside; she had been raped and beaten badly. "It made me crumble," Dedee tells the Weekly of her sister's murder. "I really had to talk myself through many of the days."
Alcala became the prime suspect after Parenteau's friend picked him out as the mangy-haired photographer whom Parenteau had brushed off beforehand, at the Handle Bar Saloon in Pasadena. Later, a jailhouse informant ratted out Alcala, who allegedly had told the inmate he had cut his finger when he climbed through the apartment window of a woman he had killed, leaving behind traces of his blood, a rare type. Alcala murdered Parenteau, the informant alleged, because she "shined on" Alcala.
Now, for the third time, Alcala's fate is in the hands of 12 Southern California jurors. Says Bruce Barcomb: "The Perry Mason fantasy of walking away from five counts of capital murder was just a fantasy. He could have spared all of us for having to go through the trial. He will do whatever he wants to — and victims be damned."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.