Much is being made about Rodney Alcala’s allegedly superior intelligence. I don’t buy it any more than I buy it when defense attorneys wave a piece of paper in the courtroom and claim their client is mentally challenged and thus deserves a break. It’s just theater. Alcala’s a haircut with cheekbones: his IQ, whatever it might be, matters far less than the pro-offender sentiments of the era when he was first tried, and re-tried.
It certainly didn’t take a rocket scientist to play the California criminal justice system for a fool back in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, in many ways, the same is still true.
Here are ten specific breaks the system gave Alcala, breaks that either enabled him to add to his body count or torment the families of his victims. Such breaks weren’t reserved for serial killers with MENSA memberships, which is why places like L.A. were so fatal for all sorts of women.
How fatal? Seven, or fifty, or even 100 women and girls, depending on how much evidence Alcala provides and the police uncover with the massive public appeal for assistance now underway. Again, I have to ask: why weren’t these pictures distributed to the public decades ago? Why were families forced to sit in limbo while authorities had hundreds of photos linking a known sadistic rapist and murderer to scores of unidentified women and girls? I’m sure the police, given adequate resources, would have worked these cases. But we’ve never given police adequate resources. We still don’t charge even serious offenders with the totality of their known crimes.
Still it’s a tribute to reformers that some (though not all) of these fatal justice system errors would not occur today.
#1: Judicial Leniency, Indeterminate Sentencing Sets a Killer Free, 1971
Rodney Alcala was 25 in 1968, when he was caught in the act of raping and beating an eight-year old child to death. That’s a chilling number, 25. Kidnapping from a public place, the brutality of the rape, the extreme violence — all are hallmarks of an experienced, brazen killer who had escalated his behavior long before that crime. If Alcala conformed to typical patterns (and there’s no reason to believe he did not), he probably started sexually victimizing girls and women around the time he reached puberty, a full decade before he attacked “Tali S.” That’s potentially a lot of unnoticed crimes:
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.
Attempted murder, plus kidnapping, plus rape of a child, plus absconding. Seems like he’d never see the light of day again. Unfortunately, for future victims at least, pro-offender psychologists and other activists had so infiltrated the criminal justice system in California that the horror of Alcala’s crime was ignored by the courts. From the moment he appeared in some California judge’s courtroom, he ceased to be a (failed) killer and child rapist. He became a client and recipient of social services, a victim needing guidance, rehabilitation, “education,” and counseling. It’s a soul-sickening travesty, one that deserves more exposure:
When Alcala was caught hiding out under the assumed name Berger on the East Coast [in 1971], 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. The hallmark of the philosophy was “indeterminate sentencing,” under which judges left open the number of prison years to be served by a violent felon, and parole boards later determined when the offender had been reformed. Rapists and murderers — including Alcala — went free after very short stints. He served a scant 34 months for viciously raping the 8-year-old, who is known in official documents only as “Tali” . . . Deeply controversial, “indeterminate sentencing” was ended by then-governor Jerry Brown. But by that time, Alcala was free. . . . Retired LAPD Detective Steve Hodel, who investigated Alcala’s rape of Tali, recalls, “My impression was that it was his first sex crime, and we got him early — and society is relatively safe now. I had no idea in two years [he would be out] and continue his reign of terror and horror. I expected he was put away and society was safe. … It is such a tragedy that so much more came after that.”
“Education and psychotherapy.” For raping and trying to kill a little girl. It is important to understand that these highly educated “experts” were not simply trying to grope towards to some psychological discoveries that would only be discovered later.
Knowledge that murder is bad, for example, pre-dates 1971.
As I’ve written previously, I believe Alcala would have received a more severe sentence if he had just bludgeoned the little girl, instead of raping her and bludgeoning her. I suspect the rape actually acted as a mitigating factor, turning him into a victim in the eyes of the people empowered to run our courts. For when a prison psychiatrist found him “considerably improved” and ready for release less than three years after being convicted of attempted murder and child rape, that psychiatrist was undoubtedly referring to the fad psycho-sexual therapies in use at the time — and still being promoted by many academicians and practitioners today. Like Dr. Richard Rappaport, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCSD Medical School, San Diego, who testified in Alcala’s most recent trial that Alcala should not be held responsible for serial sex murder because he just can’t help enjoying . . . sexual murder.
#2: Parole Board Leniency, 1974
It takes two to tango: a judge who refuses to hold a sick predator responsible for his crime by giving him an indeterminate sentence, and then a parole board that decides the “rehabilitation’s taken.” Who served on that parole board in 1974, the one that decided to cut Alcala loose? I’d love to see the transcript. If anyone would send it to me, I’ll post it. This wasn’t some gray-area first offense. I wonder why the media hasn’t sought out these people and asked them why they let Alcala go. As public servants, the parole board members should feel obliged to revisit such a devastating error. A year’s worth of such decisions would make interesting reading — and yet one more interesting corrective to mythic beliefs that our country is too harsh on criminals.
#3: Prosecutorial/Judicial Leniency, Not Believing a Victim, Failure to Punish Recidivism, 1974
After the parole board cut him loose, it took Alcala two months to get caught with another child. Two months. Or, possibly, less:
In 1974, two months after he got out of state prison, Alcala was found at Bolsa Chica State Beach with a 13-year-old girl who claimed he’d kidnapped her. He was convicted only of violating parole and giving pot to a minor, however . . .
A convicted, violent, child rapist is found with a 13-year old girl who tells police she has been kidnapped. What happens next? Somebody doesn’t believe the child. Who? The judge? The prosecutor?
#4: Parole Leniency, 1977
Alcala served another short sentence, and was apparently declared “re-reformed.” Then a parole officer cut him some breaks. It makes you wonder: was there anyone, anywhere in California’s criminal justice system, outside police themselves, who harbored a negative attitude towards violent offenders?
[T]wo years later, upon his second release from prison, the law went easy on Alcala again. His parole officer in Los Angeles permitted Alcala, though a registered child rapist and known flight risk, to jaunt off to New York City to visit relatives. NYPD cold-case investigators now believe that one week after arriving in Manhattan, Alcala killed the Ciro’s nightclub heiress Ellen Hover, burying her on the vast Rockefeller Estate in ritzy Westchester County.Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who hopes during the current trial to put Alcala permanently on death row for Samsoe’s 1979 murder and the slayings of four women in the Los Angeles area, says: “The ’70s in California was insane as far as treatment of sexual predators. Rodney Alcala is a poster boy for this. It is a total comedy of outrageous stupidity.”
#5: Social Leniency, 1977 – 1979: The Polanski Effect
It really does take a village. Between the time Rodney Alcala was released from prison on his second child offense charge, and when he was captured after the murder of 12-year old Robin Samsoe, it seems that nobody he encountered (outside the police) felt it was right to judge him for — oh, little transgressions like trying to murder a young child he was raping, or being a suspect in several other murders, or being investigated in the Hillside strangler cases, or ending up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Surely, FBI agents and other detectives approached Alcala’s co-workers and employers when he was being investigated for these crimes; surely his family and friends and professional acquaintances knew about the rape and beating of the 8-year old child.
So why did the L.A. Times choose to hire him anyway? Why didn’t his supervisors there act on the knowledge that he was circulating his home-made child porn to co-workers? Why did the Dating Game producers allow a child-rapist on their show? Why did Alcala have such success in high-end social circles, in the art world, and with celebrities such as Roman Polanski? Well, that one’s pretty easy to answer.
Was Alcala’s social success, in fact, based on his status as a “sexual outlaw,” being “persecuted by the pigs”? Such was the argot in newsrooms and art circles, after all. Funny how all the people who knew him then are so tight-lipped now: it sounds as if he really got around, between slaughtering young women:
1977 Ellen Hover, Jill Barcomb (18), Georgia Wixted (27)
1978 Charlotte Lamb (32), Monique H. (15), Jill Parenteau (21). And more to come.
#6: Yet More Judicial Leniency, and Help From Mom, 1979
Another kidnapping and rape, another lost chance to get Alcala behind bars. The police catch ‘em and the courts let ‘em go, leaving two more girls dead. This type of behavior from the bench, sadly, continues today:
Alcala’s alleged reign of terror might have been halted in early 1979, when a 15-year-old hitchhiker called police from a motel in Riverside County to report she had just escaped from a kidnapper and rapist. Although Riverside police quickly charged Alcala with kidnapping and rape, a judge set his bail at just $10,000, paid by his mother. While free, police say, Alcala killed 21-year-old computer keypunch operator [Jill] Parenteau five months later in her Burbank apartment. The killer cut himself climbing through her window, and prosecutors now say Alcala’s rare blood type has been matched to the blood remnants. Six days after Parenteau’s slaying, Robin Samsoe disappeared, a child-snatching that sent fear rippling through safe, quiet Southern California communities. Samsoe’s friend Bridget told police the two swimsuit-clad girls were approached that day by a photographer who asked if he could take their pictures. The man was scared off by a suspicious neighbor, but shortly after that, Bridget lent Samsoe her yellow bicycle so that Samsoe could make it to ballet class. Samsoe was never seen again. Detectives circulated a sketch of the mysterious photographer to the media, and a parole officer recognized his parolee Alcala. Twelve days after she vanished, on July 2, 1979, Samsoe’s skeletal remains were found by U.S. Forestry Service rangers. Alcala was arrested on July 24 at his mother’s house in Monterey Park.
#7: Criminal Appeals, 1984
Alcala was found guilty of murdering Robin Samsoe in 1980 and was sentenced to death. But that verdict was overturned in 1984 by the California Supreme Court. The court found that the jury had been “unduly prejudiced” when prosecutors introduced information about about the rape and attempted murder of the 8-year old child in 1968.
Evidence of prior crimes is sometimes admissible at certain times, so long as the priors are materially similar to to crime being tried. For instance, is raping and trying to murder an 8-year old girl at all similar to raping and murdering a 12-year old girl? There’s a four-year difference in the ages of the victims there, and a higher success component on the whole “murder” thing. I’m sure, however, that the California Supreme Court could not have overturned Alcala’s death sentence on such a frivolous distinction. It must have been some other frivolous distinction.
#8: Criminal Appeals, 2001
This time, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals got a piece of the action. They decided that, because one witness’ testimony from a previous trial was read from the stand without the witness being in the room, the entire second trial, which doubtlessly cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars to re-try, simply had to be tossed out because of this.
What’s the matter with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? Richard Posner says they’re just too large for their own good, with too many different justices thinking together, and he’s got a well-known large brain that thinks in perfect unison with itself. Me, with my quotidian little intellect, I think they just never saw a serial killer appeal they couldn’t bleed for, since they don’t have to, like, literally bleed, like the victims. Not a very elegant argument, I know, but maybe it would pass muster before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
#9: Alcala’s Exclusive Access to the Courts, 1979 – 2010
With his denim pantsuit aesthetic and not-very-bright courtroom performances, Alcala doesn’t really present as a brain trust. But he doesn’t need to be one. And defendant can tie up the courts — and further devastate victim’s families — with frivolous lawsuits and endless appeals designed to catch certain activist judges’ eyes:
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.
Orange County prosecutor Matt Murphy likens Alcala to a video game villain that keeps coming to life and says that the appellate courts have hit restart on this real-life murderous villain’s rampage through the system. The families of the victims as well as those close to the investigation criticize the decisions as misguided political statements by justices who opposed the death penalty and ignored the facts of the case. For Murphy, who tried the latest Samsoe case, each decision to overturn stripped away more evidence from his arsenal against Alcala. And for Robin Samsoe’s family, the legal setbacks have altered the course of their lives, ripping through like aftershock upon aftershock following a devastating earthquake. . . Samsoe’s mother [Maryanne Connelly] spoke eloquently about the hardships she has endured in the 31 years since her daughter’s murder, waiting for justice that never came. . . Meanwhile, her daughter’s killer has spent most of his life in prison, and has perfected the art of working the system to his advantage, filing lawsuit upon lawsuit when he felt his rights were violated while in custody – such as a civil suit against an investigator who did not respond to a request for discovery within 10 days. In fact, a contempt case against the Orange County Jail is still pending. . . Connelly wonders where her rights were, while the man who killed her daughter became comfortably institutionalized. This inequity has become the rallying cry of all the victims’ families, as well as victim’s rights advocates, who say the system has coddled a vicious killer while failing victims’ loved ones.
If the victims’ families had the same rights as Alcala, they could sue him for mental cruelty. Where such a trial could be held is a difficult question, because his co-defendant would be the justice system itself.
#10: Turning the Courtroom into His Last Killing Field, 2010, and Beyond
“He was blowing kisses at me across the courtroom, and I thought I was going to lose my mind,” Connely said. “And I thought I was going to go crazy, you know. And I reached into my purse and I was going to grab it, you know, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.'”
That’s Marianne Connelly, speaking recently about Alcala’s 1980 trial for the murder of her daughter: back then, she once brought a gun to the courtroom to shoot Alcala. I doubt anyone would have blamed her then, and they certainly wouldn’t blame her now, after thirty more years of sitting in courtrooms watching Alcala toy with her, and other victims, for fun.
Where was the judge while Alcala was blowing kisses at his victim’s mother? Did that judge feel his hands were tied, thanks to our perverse appeals system? Or did he simply not care? Why did he allow the defendant to behave that way?
This unique, public humiliation and torture of crime victims is one thing that has not changed in 30 years. From the most recent trial:
Robin’s brother Tim Samsoe, 44, said the worst thing was watching Alcala perk up in court every time he got the chance to see old photographs of his alleged victims. “You see the gleam in his eye,” said Samsoe. “He’s enjoying this again.”
According to prosecutors, Alcala always enjoyed torturing his victims:
[Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt] Murphy told the packed courtroom that Alcala took his time terrorizing his victims by choking them with his bare hands, waiting for them to wake up at least once, then strangling them again — sometimes using shoelaces or panty hose. “It is a staggeringly horrific way to die,” exclaimed Murphy. “There is ample evidence the women put up some resistance….He gets off on it. It was fun.” Once they were dead, Alcala allegedly [he has since been found guilty] would then pose their bodies.
Now the only victims he has access to are the relatives of the women and children he killed:
Robert Samsoe, who was 13 when his little sister was slain, tells L.A. Weekly, “I don’t have any faith in the system. Some people, they are just afforded all the chances in the world. Alcala has cost the state of California more than any other person because of his lawsuits. And they treat him like a king. Everybody is walking on pins and needles around him.
Alcala dragged out his latest trial for weeks, representing himself, attacking victims, rambling on and enjoying himself. If this judge felt he simply had no power to prevent such behavior, he should now take steps to do something about the warped system of which he is a part. When is enough enough?
At the trial’s close, Alcala forced family members to listen to a recording of Alice’s Restaurant, a move that nearly drove one columnist to violence. Frank Mickadeit, of the OC Register, wondered how family members could hold themselves back:
To make the family and jurors listen to somebody, even Guthrie, sing: “I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and guts and veins in my teeth”? I guarantee you, that made nobody in the room think about how horrible Alcala’s death might be, as was apparently his intent. . . In all the years I’ve covered trials, I’ve never once wanted to personally wreak vengeance on a defendant. I can dissociate along with the hardest of professionals. But at Minute 50 on Tuesday, Murphy got me to go to that unprofessional place, where the father, brother and uncle lives. I think it might have been one young woman’s morgue-photo – a head that was missing a third of its face because Alcala had bashed it away with a rock. I stared hard at the back of Alcala’s tan sports coat, where the collar met the unruly mass of gray curls that cascades down his back (Arlo-like, if you must know), and I thought hard about that 15 feet between me and that thin neck. A cat-like leap, a bound, a forearm-lock, a snap – he’d never see me coming. The burly deputy sheriff between us would, though, so there was no chance even if I had indulged my momentary fantasy. I looked to my left. Immediately across the aisle from me was Robert Samsoe, Robin‘s brother – roughly my age and size. He was wearing jeans, penny loafers and white socks, and I could see his right foot tapping nervously during these last 10 minutes of Murphy’s closing. The photo of another victim, her lower lip torn away, flashed up. Murphy hadn’t even begun recounting Robin’s death yet. . . Mercifully, there are no morgue photos of Robin, at least not in the sense that there are of the other murder victims. When they found Robin, just a skull was left – albeit a disfigured one from where Alcala had bashed in her teeth. Robert Samsoe didn’t leap out of his chair and break Rodney Alcala’s neck, as part of me would have like to have seen.
Of course he didn’t. The victims figured out long ago that they are not actually people, with human rights, including the right to dignity, in the eyes of the law. The only person in that courtroom whose rights were being protected was Rodney Alcala.
It doesn’t have to be that way.