Nearly four decades after a pregnant woman's body was found on a Wyoming ranch, prosecutors have connected her death to one of California's most prolific serial killers, Rodney Alcala.
On Tuesday, prosecutors in Sweetwater County, Wyo., charged Alcala with the 1977 killing of Christine Ruth Thornton after discovering a photo that Alcala had snapped of her before her death. The aging photograph was found among Alcala's possessions by Huntington Beach police, but it was only recently that the dead woman's sister recognized Thornton among the images.
The photo shows a smiling woman in jeans, a yellow blouse and flip-flops sitting atop a Kawasaki 500 motorcycle in a sage-studded desert.
"The picture, even if you don't recognize her, is a distinct part of Wyoming recognizable to anyone from here," said Dan Erramouspe, the Sweetwater County attorney.
The photo was among several publicized by Huntington Beach detectives after Alcala was sentenced to death in 2010 for killing four women and a 12-year-old in the late 1970s. The photo was spotted by Thornton's relatives in 2013.
Known as the "Dating Game" killer because he appeared on the popular television program decades ago, the former photographer has also been convicted of killing two women in New York. Investigators believe the 73-year-old is responsible for scores of other deaths. They made some photos public in the hope that they would produce leads.
Prosecutors confronted Alcala with the photo at California's Corcoran State Prison. Alcala told prosecutors that he did indeed take the picture, but insisted that Thornton was alive when he left, Erramouspe said.
When asked if he killed the 28-year-old Thornton, Alcala responded: "You're crazy."
"But he said some things that help tie him to the murder," Erramouspe said. "He likes to talk."
Prosecutors say Alcala met Thornton, who was from Texas, during a road trip and buried her in a remote area. She was six months pregnant at the time.
Thornton's family never knew what happened to the expectant mother, but contacted Huntington Beach police when they saw her photo. Two of Thornton's siblings submitted DNA samples to a national missing person's database, which also contained DNA from the Wyoming body, which had remained unidentified for decades. In July 2015, the database connected the samples and alerted Wyoming authorities that the deceased was likely Thornton.
So far, DNA recovered from the body also includes that of a Latino male, according to prosecutors. Erramouspe said samples are being sent to an FBI lab for further testing to see if they belong to Alcala.
The prosecutor said he is seeking to bring Alcala to Wyoming to get justice in the 1977 killing, but no timeline exists for the move.
Alcala's crimes stretch back to 1968, when he raped and beat an 8-year-old girl — crimes he was convicted of four years later.
The women and one girl he has been convicted of killing in California are Jill Barcomb, 18, who was sexually assaulted, bludgeoned and strangled before her body was dumped in the Hollywood Hills in November 1977; Georgia Wixted, 27, who was sexually assaulted, strangled and beaten to death in her Malibu home a month later; Charlotte Lamb, 32, who was found dead in her El Segundo laundry room after she was raped and strangled with a shoelace in June 1978; Jill Parenteau, 21, who was strangled to death and left in her Burbank apartment in June 1979; and Robin Samsoe, 12, who disappeared near Huntington Beach Pier in June 1979, and whose body was discovered days later in the Sierra Madre foothills.
After his sentencing, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas declared: "Rodney Alcala is the poster child for the death penalty."
Many of the detectives who worked the case believe Thornton won't be the last victim tied to the killer.
"Him being behind bars since 1979 probably saved a lot of lives," said Cliff Shepard, a retired cold case detective with the Los Angeles Police Department.