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A Mother’s Torment Resumes

Times Staff Writer

Marianne Connelly tucked the .25-caliber pistol in her purse. She’d decided to kill the man accused of murdering her 12-year-old daughter.

When the curly haired man was led into the courtroom, she recalls now, Connelly reached into the straw handbag. He was only 20 feet away. An easy shot, and a swift end to the misery and anger that had suffocated her since Robin’s body was found in the foothills above Sierra Madre.

But she hesitated, overwhelmed by a sense that her daughter would not want her to do something so rash, something with consequences that would surely crush her other three children.

Connelly snapped her pocketbook shut. The grieving mother would let justice run its course.

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Twenty-five years later, she’s still waiting.

Rodney James Alcala, who has twice been sentenced to death for the abduction and murder of the Huntington Beach girl, and twice had his convictions overturned, will be tried a third time this winter. As before, Connelly will be there.

The years of legal proceedings since Robin Christine Samsoe’s death in 1979 have kept the accused killer and the victim’s mother on a parallel course -- two foes doomed to see each other in court again and again. He has grown old in prison, a graying senior citizen who hopes this time to prove his innocence. She has lost her faith in a legal system that continues to bewilder her even after two decades.

He longs for freedom. She longs for his death.

A Family Moves

Marianne Connelly moved her family from a small Wisconsin town to Huntington Beach in the summer of 1977, hoping the warmer weather would cut down on their clothing costs and medical bills. The single mother set aside enough from waiting tables to send Robin, her youngest, to ballet lessons.

The going wasn’t easy, but Connelly felt good about the direction life was taking her and her four children -- two boys and two girls, then 10 to 17 years in age.

Then Robin vanished on her way to a dance studio where she answered phones and took lessons. A friend, Bridgett Wilvert, remembered that earlier that day -- June 20, 1979 -- the two had met a thin, curly haired man who asked Robin to pose for photos on the beach.

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Twelve days later -- after a massive manhunt, teary news conferences and heavy distribution of a sketch of the beach photographer -- Robin’s remains were found along a trail in the chaparral-covered hills above Sierra Madre.

Her skull had fallen into a ravine a few feet away. In a bush was a tennis shoe, inscribed in a child’s handwriting with the names of the young girl and her crush: “Robin and Ralph.” A kitchen knife was found nearby in the fallen leaves.

Alcala was already on investigators’ radar after his parole officer identified him to police as a potential suspect. When officers contacted him, Alcala said that he’d been at Knott’s Berry Farm interviewing for a job and then returned to his home in Monterey Park.

Still, investigators said, Alcala had plenty of time to kidnap and kill Robin in the forest. He was arrested five weeks after Robin vanished, on her mother’s birthday.

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The year Robin died, Alcala was living a fairly uncomplicated life. He was 32 and pulling in a living as a freelance photographer after recently quitting his job with the Los Angeles Times as a typist.

Court records and evaluations portrayed Alcala as an engaging man with a quick mind and a near-genius IQ. Women found him attractive, with his high cheekbones, warm brown eyes and striking mop of bushy, shoulder-length dark hair. Girls were flattered when he approached them on the beach or at wet T-shirt contests and asked to take their pictures for his portfolio, Alcala later testified.

None of them, even his girlfriend at the time, knew he was awaiting trial on charges of raping and beating a 15-year-old girl in 1978. Nor did they know he had been convicted of two other assaults -- raping an 8-year-old girl and beating her with a pipe, and attacking a 14-year-old girl. He went to prison for the first incident, returned to prison on a parole violation in the second and confessed the third to police after his arrest for Robin’s murder.

When Alcala was brought into court for the first time, Connelly had little problem getting the gun into the courtroom. Security was lax and no one considered searching a grieving mother. After the hearing -- once her opportunity had come and gone -- Connelly walked into the prosecutor’s office and told him about her aborted plan, putting the gun on his desk. She recalled that he closed his eyes in relief.

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The impulse to shoot Alcala never flickered again, she said. And once the trial started, Connelly was forced to spend her days in the hallway outside the courtroom because the defense had subpoenaed her as a witness.

Prosecutors thought they had an abundance of circumstantial evidence: A forestry worker told jurors that she saw a curly haired man steering a blond girl along a hiking trail, less than 300 feet from where Robin’s body was found. Detectives said they found a pair of gold earrings in a Seattle storage locker Alcala had rented, and Connelly testified that she had given the earrings to her daughter. Bridgett and a neighbor identified Alcala as the man who photographed the girls at the beach.

Jurors deliberated only a few hours before convicting Alcala on June 20, 1980 -- exactly one year after Robin vanished. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

In August 1984 -- five years after Robin died -- a newspaper reporter called Connelly and delivered some unsettling news: Alcala had won a new trial. The state Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge had improperly allowed prosecutors to tell jurors about Alcala’s prior convictions.

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Despite the hours she’s spent in court, Connelly remains somewhat naive about the legal system. The high court’s decision to overturn Alcala’s conviction left her bewildered.

The second trial -- seven years after Robin’s death -- brought some new twists. The forestry worker who had offered the most damning evidence at the first trial testified that, since the first trial, she had suffered amnesia. Her memories of the man and the little girl had been wiped clean. The prosecutor was allowed to read her testimony from the first trial to the jury, but Alcala’s attorneys were not permitted to question her.

Also, Alcala produced a 1979 video, filmed prior to Robin’s murder, showing him wearing a pair of gold earrings during an appearance on “The Dating Game.” These, his attorney told jurors, were the earrings that had been found in the Seattle locker.

In the end, however, the jury came back with another guilty verdict -- again announced on the anniversary of Robin’s disappearance. Alcala was returned to death row.

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“I just thank God,” Connelly said at the time. “Maybe now my daughter can go to sleep for the first time in seven years. Maybe the rest of my family can go back to life.”

The court ordeal over, Connelly renewed her focus on her home life. She had married longtime friend Harry Connelly in a ceremony in Las Vegas shortly before the second trial, and her three children have combined to produce 11 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

But the nightmare resumed April 2, 2001. Again, it was a newspaper reporter asking what she thought of the man accused of killing her daughter getting a new trial; a federal judge had ruled that Alcala’s lawyers could have done a better job of attempting to prove his Knott’s Berry Farm alibi and should have been allowed to introduce a psychologist’s testimony casting doubt on the forestry worker’s amnesia claim.

At first she thought the reporter had the wrong person. When she realized another conviction against Alcala had been overturned, she collapsed.

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On the same day, Los Angeles County prosecutors announced that DNA evidence tied Alcala to the rape and murder of a nurse in her Malibu apartment in 1977. He will be tried on those charges after his third trial in Robin’s case. A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman said recently that homicide detectives are investigating possible links between Alcala and other murders in the late 1970s.

“The courts never say that he’s getting a new trial because he’s innocent, just because something wasn’t fair,” Connelly said. “It’s not fair that we keep on suffering because of technicalities.”

Maintaining Innocence

Like Connelly, Alcala is 60. He, too, has never had the chance to move on.

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He says he understands her anger, but thinks it’s misguided. Blame the justice system, he wants to tell her, not a guiltless man imprisoned for nearly half of his life on shoddy evidence and lies.

“I feel sympathy for her, of course,” he says. “No one wants to be in her position. But no innocent person should ever have to be in mine.”

Alcala has devoted himself to proving his innocence. In 1994, he wrote a 368-page book titled “You, the Jury,” which was printed by a Fremont publisher. Typed in the San Quentin library, the book contained a transcript of the second trial along with Alcala’s notes, hand-drawn maps and a plea to readers to assess the information and arrive at their own verdicts. A photo of Alcala on the cover labels him “an unintended victim.”

These days, he sits behind bars at Orange County Jail, where he was moved after the latest reversal. He prepares for his legal battles from his Santa Ana jail cell, allowed access to only one of his 16 boxes of testimony and notes at a time. Because pens are banned in the jail as potential weapons, he uses a pencil to scrawl notes for his lawyers.

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Even on the most scorching summer days, a sickly Alcala wraps a bedsheet around his gaunt frame for warmth.

Constant toothaches leave his mouth raw. He insists he is innocent. It was those prior convictions that made him an easy target for the prosecution, he says, not the evidence.

“They had a case, they had no evidence, and they had a very likely suspect in me,” he said.

Since her daughter died, Connelly says she’s never quite gotten back on track.

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She and her husband scratch out a meager living in Norco. To make ends meet, they hold garage sales on their half-acre lot in the Riverside County horse town and breed schnauzer-poodle mixes. She enters every sweepstakes she finds.

Her mind still centers on the past. Memories clutter the sheds and trailers embracing her one-story home, from the dusty collection of dolls and spoons to the faded gray truck in the frontyard that her husband drove on their first date.

Robin’s face smiles out from a handful of pictures in the living room.

“All I live for is seeing Robin again,” she says. “I’d give my whole life if I could see her one more time.”

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Blinking away tears, Connelly sat in her frontyard one afternoon as she reminisced.

“Robin had something to offer the world,” she said. “What does a monster like that have to offer besides heartache to everything he touches?”


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