A man behind bars for the last 25 years for allegedly killing a 12-year-old Huntington Beach girl is now accused of slaying four women in Los Angeles County in the late 1970s during a serial-killing spree, officials said Monday.
Rodney James Alcala, 62, who is in Orange County jail awaiting his second retrial in the 1979 kidnapping and killing of Robin Samsoe, made a court appearance Monday on charges of sexually assaulting and murdering four women, who were strangled in or near their homes. His arraignment was postponed until Oct. 6.
After uncovering the new cases through DNA and blood evidence, detectives said they were trying to connect Alcala with other unsolved missing-person and murder cases, including two killings in New York state.
“He belongs right up there” in a list of serial killers, said Los Angeles Police Det. Cliff Shepard, who is in the department’s cold-case unit. “Him being behind bars since 1979 probably saved a lot of lives.”
The killings occurred in an era when Southern California was being terrorized by serial killers such as the Hillside Strangler and the Freeway Killer. At the time, police suspected that at least one of the women now linked to Alcala was a victim in the string of deaths attributed to the Hillside Strangler.
The new charges against Alcala involve four slayings from 1977 to 1979. Authorities said the victims died under similar circumstances.
The body of Jill Barcomb, 18, was found in the Hollywood Hills on Nov. 10, 1977, three weeks after she moved to California from Oneida, N.Y. She was sexually assaulted, bludgeoned and strangled with a pair of blue pants. Coroner’s officials found three bite marks on her right breast.
The nude body of Centinela Hospital nurse Georgia Wixted, 27, was found Dec. 16, 1977, in her Malibu apartment. Wixted had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. A hammer was found next to her body.
Legal secretary Charlotte Lamb, 32, of Santa Monica was found June 24, 1978, in the laundry room of an El Segundo apartment complex. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled with a shoelace.
On June 13, 1979 -- a week before Robin Samsoe was abducted and killed -- Jill Parenteau was found sexually assaulted and strangled in her Burbank apartment, pillows propping up her nude body. Law enforcement sources said Alcala allegedly met the 21-year-old keypunch operator at a restaurant.
Police in New York suspect Alcala killed at least two women there, one of them Ellen Hover, 24, in 1977. She was last seen in her New York apartment July 15, and her body was found 11 months later in a shallow grave on the Rockefeller estate, about 100 feet from where another woman told police she had posed for Alcala, an amateur photographer.
“Mr. Alcala left a trail of evil in multiple states and multiple counties,” said Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Alcala’s arrest in Robin Samsoe’s death was “the only reason he stopped killing.”
Alcala refused a jailhouse interview and his attorney declined to discuss the new charges.
Authorities said Alcala met the women in discos and other public places, flirted with them and then followed them home when they spurned his advances.
“The reality is he was running around Southern California in the ‘70s looking for prey,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Ray Peavy, head of the homicide bureau. “He looked for innocent victims who couldn’t put up much of a fight and caught them when they were home in bed and pretty much defenseless.”
The Los Angeles County cases had stalled for decades until they were cracked with the help of a statewide DNA database. In each of the slayings, the killer left semen or other biological material on the objects he used to strangle his victims.
After a recent state law required Alcala to provide a DNA sample to be used in crime-solving efforts, the state Department of Justice connected him a year ago to the unsolved killings.
“The DNA hits were like turning a light on in a room,” Peavy said. “Suddenly an unsolvable case is now solved.”
Sheriff’s Det. Cheryl Comstock has been investigating the cases since the DNA links were found, Peavy said. She interviewed Alcala in prison several times and was able to confirm that he was not behind bars at the time of the killings.
Wixted’s sister and brother-in-law, Anne and Al Michelena of Irvine, said Alcala’s coming arraignment was a relief.
“I just regret that most of my family didn’t live long enough to hear the news,” particularly their mother, said Anne Michelena, 50, an elementary school teacher.
“For the past 25 years, I’ve been constantly looking over my shoulder, not knowing what I was looking for or who I was looking for. It got to the point where I thought I would never know,” she added, but “I never stopped wondering.”
She said the charges, coming after more than 25 years, should give hope to families in similar situations.
Her husband, who retired in August after 25 years of investigating killings and supervising the Los Angeles Police Department’s robbery/homicide unit, had regularly checked the case’s status with the Sheriff’s Department.
He never knew Wixted -- he met his future wife shortly after her sister’s death. But seeing how the killing affected his wife, he said, shaped his interactions with victims he met through work.
Prosecutors hope to try all five cases, including the retrial in the Robin Samsoe killing, together in Orange County. Consolidating the cases will allow the counties to pool resources and shorten the survivors’ already lengthy wait for justice, Rackauckas said.
Lawyers for Alcala said they would try to have the Orange County case tried separately from the others.
“That way, the jury can see that case in isolation and weigh it in isolation, without any information that would bias their view,” said attorney George Peters outside court.
While Peters declined to discuss the new charges, he said his client has repeatedly insisted he did not kill the girl.
Robin, an aspiring gymnast, vanished June 20, 1979, as she bicycled to a dance lesson. Her body was found July 2 in the Angeles National Forest, in the foothills near Sierra Madre. Her body had decomposed to the point that police could not determine how she was killed or whether she had been sexually assaulted.
At the time, Alcala was an amateur photographer who had recently been a typist at the Los Angeles Times. A UCLA graduate, he had also worked for a time at a camp in New Hampshire, teaching filmmaking to children.
In 1979, while on parole for raping and beating an 8-year-old girl, Alcala appeared on “The Dating Game” television show. “It’s pretty chilling to watch the banter between him and these contestants,” Peavy said. “This is a serial killer, and here’s a woman flirting with him.”
At the time of Robin’s death, he was awaiting trial on charges of raping and beating a 15-year-old girl in 1978.
At the first trial, a forestry worker testified to seeing a curly-haired man with a blond girl on a hiking trail the day Robin was abducted, near where the body was later found. Jurors deliberated only a few hours before convicting Alcala on June 20, 1980. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber.
Alcala won his first new trial in August 1984 after the state Supreme Court said evidence about his other crimes had been improperly allowed.
In the second trial, the forestry worker testified that she had suffered amnesia and no longer remembered the man or the girl. Still, Alcala was again convicted, and sent to San Quentin State Prison to await execution.
But in April 2001, the conviction was again overturned on grounds that Alcala’s lawyers should have been allowed to introduce a psychologist’s testimony casting doubt on the amnesia claim. Also, Alcala’s attorney was faulted for not calling a witness to support his alibi that he was interviewing for a job photographing a disco contest at Knott’s Berry Farm when Robin disappeared.
Robin’s mother, Marianne Connelly, said during a press conference Monday that she now recognized that if Alcala had been executed soon after his first death sentence, the other victims’ families might never have known who killed them.
She said the new charges might allow the families to “get some closure.”
“I’m saying that strictly to be noble, I’m sure,” she said. “I just wish he was gone.”
Times staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.