Prosecutors said that Alcala "toyed" with his victims, strangling them until they lost consciousness, then waiting until they revived, sometimes repeating this process several times before finally killing them. One police detective described Alcala as "a killing machine", and others have compared him with Ted Bundy. A homicide investigator familiar with the evidence speculates that he could have murdered as many as 50 women, while other estimates have run as high as 130.
Alcala compiled a collection of more than 1,000 photographs of women and teenage boys, many in sexually explicit poses. In 2016, he was charged with the 1977 murder of a woman identified in one of his photos. He is known to have assaulted one other photographic subject, and police have speculated that others could be rape or murder victims as well.
Alcala was born Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor in San Antonio, Texas, to Raoul Alcala Buquor and Anna Maria Gutierrez. In 1951, his father moved the family to Mexico. After he abandoned them three years later, his mother moved Rodney and his siblings to suburban Los Angeles when he was about 11 years old.
He joined the U.S. Army in 1960, at age 17, where he served as a clerk. In 1964, after what was described as a "nervous breakdown", during which he went AWOL and hitchhiked from Fort Bragg to his mother's house, he was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder by a military psychiatrist and discharged on medical grounds. Other diagnoses later proposed by various psychiatric experts at his trials included narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and (from homicide expert Vernon Geberth) malignant narcissistic personality disorder with psychopathy and sexual sadism comorbidities.
After leaving the Army, Alcala graduated from the UCLA School of Fine Arts and later studied film under Roman Polanski at New York University.
Alcala committed his first known crime in 1968: A motorist in Los Angeles called police after watching him lure an eight-year-old girl named Tali Shapiro into his Hollywood apartment. The girl was found alive, raped and beaten with a steel bar, but Alcala had fled. To evade the resulting arrest warrant he left the state and enrolled in the NYU film school, using the name "John Berger". In 1971, he obtained a counseling job at a New Hampshire arts camp for children using a slightly different alias, "John Burger". In June 1971, Cornelia Michel Crilley, a 23-year-old Trans World Airlines flight attendant, was found raped and strangled in her Manhattan apartment. Her murder would remain unsolved for 40 years.
The FBI added Alcala to its list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives in early 1971; a few months later, two children attending the arts camp noticed his photo on an FBI poster at the post office. Alcala was arrested and extradited to California. By then, Tali Shapiro's parents had relocated their entire family to Mexico and refused to allow her to testify at Alcala's trial. Unable to convict him of rape and attempted murder without their primary witness, prosecutors were forced to permit Alcala to plead guilty to a lesser charge of assault. He was paroled after 34 months, in 1974, under the "indeterminate sentencing" program popular at the time, which allowed parole boards to release offenders as soon as they demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation. Less than two months after his release, he was re-arrested after assaulting a 13-year-old girl identified in court records as "Julie J.", who had accepted what she thought would be a ride to school. Once again, he was paroled after serving two years of an "indeterminate sentence".
In 1977, after Alcala's second release, his Los Angeles parole officer took the unusual step of permitting a repeat offender—and known flight risk—to travel to New York City. NYPD cold-case investigators now believe that a week after arriving in Manhattan, Alcala killed Ellen Jane Hover, 23, daughter of the owner of the popular Hollywood nightclub Ciro's and goddaughter of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Her remains were found buried on the grounds of the Rockefeller Estate in Westchester County.
In 1978, Alcala worked for a short time at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter, and was interviewed by members of the Hillside Strangler task force as part of their investigation of known sex offenders. Although Alcala was ruled out as the Hillside Strangler, he was arrested and served a brief sentence for marijuana possession.
During this period, Alcala convinced hundreds of young men and women that he was a professional fashion photographer, and photographed them for his "portfolio." A Times co-worker later recalled that Alcala shared his photos with workmates. "I thought it was weird, but I was young, I didn’t know anything," she said. "When I asked why he took the photos, he said their moms asked him to. I remember the girls were naked." "He said he was a professional, so in my mind I was being a model for him," said a woman who allowed Alcala to photograph her in 1979. The portfolio also included "... spread after spread of [naked] teenage boys," she said. Most of the photos are sexually explicit, and most remain unidentified. Police fear that some of the subjects may be additional cold-case victims. In 1979, according to later trial testimony, Alcala knocked unconscious and raped 15-year-old Monique Hoyt while she was posing for photographs.
In 1978, despite his status as a convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Alcala was accepted as a contestant on The Dating Game. By then he had already killed at least two women in California and two others in New York. Host Jim Lange introduced him as a "successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed. Between takes you might find him skydiving or motorcycling."
Actor Jed Mills, who competed against Alcala as "Bachelor #2", later described him as a "very strange guy" with "bizarre opinions". Alcala won the contest, and a date with "bachelorette" Cheryl Bradshaw, who subsequently refused to go out with him, according to published reports, because she found him "creepy". Criminal profiler Pat Brown, noting that Alcala killed Robin Samsoe and at least two other women after his Dating Game appearance, speculated that Bradshaw's rejection might have been an exacerbating factor. "One wonders what that did in his mind", Brown said. "That is something he would not take too well. [Serial killers] don't understand the rejection. They think that something is wrong with that girl: 'She played me. She played hard to get.'"
Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old girl from Huntington Beach, disappeared somewhere between the beach and her ballet class on June 20, 1979. Her decomposing body was found 12 days later in the Los Angeles foothills. Samsoe's friends told police that a stranger had approached them on the beach, asking to take their pictures. Detectives circulated a sketch of the photographer, and Alcala's parole officer recognized him. During a search of Alcala's mother's house in Monterey Park, police found a rental receipt for a storage locker in Seattle; in the locker, they found Samsoe's earrings.
Alcala was arrested in late 1979 and held without bail. In 1980 he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Samsoe's murder, but the verdict was overturned by the California Supreme Court because jurors had been improperly informed of his prior sex crimes. In 1986, after a second trial virtually identical to the first except for omission of the prior criminal record testimony, he was again convicted and sentenced to death. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel nullified the second conviction, in part because a witness was not allowed to support Alcala's contention that the park ranger who found Samsoe's body had been "hypnotized by police investigators".
While preparing their third prosecution in 2003, Orange County investigators learned that Alcala's DNA, sampled under a new state law (over his objections), matched semen left at the rape-murder scenes of two women in Los Angeles. Additional evidence, including another cold case DNA match in 2004, led to Alcala's indictment for the murders of four additional women: Jill Barcomb, 18, a New York runaway found "rolled up like a ball" in a Los Angeles ravine in 1977, and originally thought to have been a victim of the Hillside Strangler; Georgia Wixted, 27, bludgeoned in her Malibu apartment in 1977; Charlotte Lamb, 31, raped, strangled, and left in the laundry room of an El Segundo apartment complex in 1978; and Jill Parenteau, 21, killed in her Burbank apartment in 1979. All of the bodies were found "posed...in carefully chosen positions". Another pair of earrings found in Alcala's Seattle storage locker matched Lamb's DNA.
During his incarceration between the second and third trials, Alcala wrote and self-published a book, You, the Jury, in which he claimed innocence in the Samsoe case and suggested a different suspect. He also filed two lawsuits against the California penal system, for a slip-and-fall incident and for refusing to provide him a low-fat diet.
In 2003 prosecutors entered a motion to join the Samsoe charges with those of the four newly discovered victims. Alcala's attorneys contested it; as one of them explained, "If you’re a juror and you hear one murder case, you may be able to have reasonable doubt. But it’s very hard to say you have reasonable doubt on all five, especially when four of the five aren’t alleged by eyewitnesses but are proven by DNA matches." In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled in the prosecution's favor, and in February 2010 Alcala stood trial on the five joined charges.
For the third trial Alcala elected to act as his own attorney. He took the stand in his own defense, and for five hours played the roles of both interrogator and witness, asking himself questions (addressing himself as "Mr. Alcala" in a deeper-than-normal voice), and then answering them. During this bizarre self-questioning and answering session he told jurors, often in a rambling monotone, that he was at Knott's Berry Farm applying for a job as a photographer at the time Samsoe was kidnapped. He showed the jury a portion of his 1978 appearance on The Dating Game in an attempt to prove that the earrings found in his Seattle locker were his, not Samsoe's. Jed Mills, the actor who competed against Alcala on the show, told a reporter that earrings were not yet a socially acceptable accoutrement for men in 1978. "I had never seen a man with an earring in his ear", he said. "I would have noticed them on him".
Alcala made no significant attempt to dispute the four added charges, other than to assert that he could not remember killing any of the women. As part of his closing argument, he played the portion of the Arlo Guthrie song "Alice's Restaurant" in which the protagonist tells a psychiatrist that he wants to "kill". After less than two days' deliberation the jury convicted him on all five counts of first-degree murder. A surprise witness during the penalty phase of the trial was Tali Shapiro, Alcala's first known victim. Psychiatrist Richard Rappaport, the only defense witness, testified that Alcala's borderline personality disorder could explain his testimony that he had no memory of committing the murders. The prosecutor argued that Alcala was a "sexual predator" who "knew what he was doing was wrong and didn't care". In March 2010 Alcala was sentenced to death for a third time.
In March 2010, the Huntington Beach and New York City Police Departments released 120 of Alcala's photographs and sought the public's help in identifying them, in the hope of determining if any of the women and children he photographed were additional victims. Approximately 900 additional photos could not be made public, police said, because they were too sexually explicit. In the first few weeks, police reported that approximately 21 women had come forward to identify themselves, and "at least six families" said they believed they recognized loved ones who "disappeared years ago and were never found". None of the photos were unequivocally connected to a missing person case or unsolved murder until 2013 when a family member recognized the photo of Christine Thornton, 28, whose body was found in Wyoming in 1982 (see below).
As of September 2016, 110 of the original photos remain posted online, and police continue to solicit the public's help with further identifications.
After his 2010 conviction, New York authorities announced that they would no longer pursue Alcala because of his status as a convict awaiting execution. Nevertheless, in January 2011, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him for the murders of Cornelia Crilley, the TWA flight attendant, and Ellen Hover, the Ciro's heiress, in 1971 and 1977, respectively. In June 2012 he was extradited to New York, where he initially entered not guilty pleas on both counts; but in December he changed both pleas to guilty, citing a desire to return to California to pursue appeals of his death penalty conviction. On January 7, 2013, a Manhattan judge sentenced Alcala to an additional 25 years to life. (The death penalty has not been an option in New York State since 2007.)
In 2010, Seattle police named Alcala as a "person of interest" in the unsolved murders of Antoinette Wittaker, 13, in July 1977, and Joyce Gaunt, 17, in February 1978. Alcala rented the Seattle-area storage locker, in which investigators later found jewelry belonging to two of his California victims, in 1979. Other cold cases were reportedly targeted for reinvestigation in California, New York, New Hampshire, and Arizona.
In March 2011, investigators in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, announced that they were "confident" that Alcala was responsible for the 1977 murder of 19-year-old Pamela Jean Lambson, who disappeared after making a trip to Fisherman's Wharf to meet a man who had offered to photograph her. Her battered, naked body was subsequently found in Marin County near a hiking trail. With no fingerprints or usable DNA, charges are unlikely to be filed, but police claimed that there is sufficient evidence to convince them that Alcala committed the crime.
In September 2016, Alcala was charged with the murder of 28-year-old Christine Ruth Thornton, who disappeared in 1977. In 2013, a relative recognized her as the subject of one of Alcala's photos made public by Huntington Beach PD and NYPD. Her body was found in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, in 1982, but was not identified until 2015 when DNA supplied by Thornton's relatives matched tissue samples from her remains. Alcala admitted taking the photo, but not to killing the woman, who was approximately six months' pregnant at the time of her death. Thornton is the first alleged murder victim linked to the Alcala photos made public in 2010. The 73-year-old Alcala was reportedly "too ill" to make the journey from California to Wyoming to stand trial on the new charges; he remains in California State Prison, Corcoran, pending further appeals of his death sentences.