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The Haunting Photography of a Serial Killer

​In 1979, Huntington Beach Police found hundreds of photographs of women taken by a murderer named Rodney Alcala. Many of the subjects are unidentified to this day.

Julian Morgans

Julian Morgans

Images courtesy Huntington Beach Police Department

On July 26 1979, homicide detectives from Huntington Beach, California, found hundreds of photographs of unidentified women in a Seattle storage locker belonging to a man named Rodney Alcala. They were investigating the murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, who had been seen talking with Alcala a month earlier. Tellingly, her earrings were found in the locker along with the photos.

Alcala was sentenced to death on May 8, 1980, but successfully appealed the ruling in 1984, claiming the case's inclusion of some previous convictions had prejudiced the jury. His next trial, in 1986, was also overturned because the judge had "precluded the defense from developing and presenting evidence material to significant issues in the case." Alcala was most recently convicted in March 2010, and again received the death penalty.

Despite the difficulty in making his convictions stick, there was never much doubt that Alcala was a prolific killer. In the three trials between 1980 and 2010, he was proven to have murdered seven young women, and detectives maintain that tally is incomplete. Playing out this theory, Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD) publicly released Alcala's photos at the end the last trial, hoping some of the hundreds of women could be identified, or confirmed missing.

"A handful of woman (less than 30) identified themselves as having posed for the pictures," reported HBPD detective Patrick Ellis. "His collection included coworkers, classmates, girlfriends, family members, and strangers, but less than ten admitted to knowing him personally." Despite fielding hundreds of calls since 2010, Ellis admits that none of the women were linked to missing persons cases. The HBPD has since removed the identified women from its site, leaving the unsolved cases online, and the case remains partially open. None of the women in the photos in this article have been identified.

Former detective Steven Mack also worked on Huntington Beach's 2010 case against Alcala. He believes "it's highly likely" that some of the photographed women were murdered. "I have absolutely no doubt that there are other victims," he says. "A couple of weeks ago I heard someone say it's 150, but I don't think it's that high. I think it would be double digits though."

Rodney Alcala was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1943, but moved to LA at the age of 12. After a failed stint in the army (he was discharged because of a personality disorder) he enrolled in fine arts at UCLA and graduated in 1968, which is when he committed his first known crime. A motorist watched him lure an eight-year-old girl into his car and followed him back to his Hollywood apartment. When the police arrived they found the girl had been raped, beaten, and was barely alive, but Alcala had somehow escaped. He left for New York with a fake name and enrolled at NYU, where he studied film under Roman Polanski. In a dark twist of fate Polanski's wife would be murdered by Charles Manson the following year, and he himself would be indicted for sexually abusing a 13-year-old a few years after that. But it was Polanski who taught Alcala to use a camera, which began his career as a self-proclaimed "fashion photographer."

"He had a gift of the gab that worked with the girls," explained Mack. "I think the average guy—and I consider myself an average guy—you see an attractive girl in a bar and you probably won't talk to her because you think she'll shut you down. Well, he wasn't afraid of talking to anyone. He could talk them into posing for his photographs, and it worked over and over."

This is how he amassed his vast folio, including portraits of a 23-year-old New York flight attendant named Cornelia Crilley who he strangled to death in 1971. This became his modus operandi, leading to three murders in 1977: A 23-year-old Ellen J. Hover and 18-year-old Jill Barcomb, both also from New York, and a 27-year-old Malibu nurse named Georgia Wixted. In 1978 he appeared on the ABC game show The Dating Game, where he beat two contestants for a date with a woman named Cheryl Bradshaw. However, this fell through when Bradshaw decided he was "creepy" backstage. As she told CNN in 2010, "He was quiet, but at the same time he would interrupt and impose when he felt like it. He became very unlikable and rude and imposing as though he was trying to intimidate. I wound up not only not liking this guy... He was a standout creepy guy in my life."

Later that year he murdered 32-year-old Charlotte Lamb, then 21-year-old Jill Parenteau in 1979, both of whom lived in LA. Finally, on June 20, 1979, Robin Samsoe went missing en route to ballet class and the police raided Alcala's apartment where they found a receipt for the storage locker in Seattle. Alcala has been in San Quentin State Prison ever since.

"This was a personal case for me," recalled Mack, who is now retired. "I was a Huntington Beach patrol officer when Robin was kidnapped. And they are the photos I think about actually—the known victims. Ellen Hoover from New York and the girls from Los Angeles, and then ours from Huntington Beach. You know, that changed the course on how my children were going to be raised, and what they weren't going to be allowed to do. I couldn't allow my children to go to the beach after that."

Other women suspected to have become Alcala victims include 19-year-old Pamela Jean Lambson, from San Francisco. She disappeared in 1977 after telling friends she was meeting with a photographer. Police say they have no DNA evidence to go on, but witness descriptions convincingly match Alcala's profile. Likewise police in Seattle are convinced he was behind the deaths of two teenage girls in 1977 and 1978, but again without sufficient evidence for a conviction.

His ability to evade convictions has often been attributed to his unusually high IQ, which is reportedly 135. But Mack thinks he just got lucky.

"I had a conversation with him once," he says. "And he's got a high IQ, according to everyone, but I don't think he's as smart as he thinks he is. He wrote a book called You the Jury, and I read it, or tried to, and it made absolutely no sense. It was just a lot of rambling. He's not insane, it was just pure sexual deviancy and pleasure that drove him."

If your recognize any of the women in this article, please contact detective Patrick Ellis: pellis@hbpd.org

Follow Julian Morgans on Twitter.

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