As Rodney Alcala’s third murder trial winds to a close, victim’s brothers wait for closure, justice
Day after day, Robert and Tim Samsoe sit together in the third row of a Santa Ana courtroom, united in grief, reliving a nightmare.
The man they believe murdered their little sister in 1979 after a day at the beach sits a few feet away -- on trial for a third time. Over three decades, Rodney James Alcala, 66, has been convicted and sentenced to death twice in the murder of Robin Samsoe, 12. Both convictions were reversed on appeal and Alcala was ordered retried. He spent the intervening years in custody.
During the first trial, they were teenagers -- Robert, 14, Tim, 16. For the second they were young men, just starting to live their own lives. They are 44 and 46 now. Robert is married and has five children; they have never been allowed to go with friends to the beach. Tim married Teresa, who has been his constant companion in a seemingly endless replay of testimony and arguments.
There have been times, the brothers said, that they’ve imagined walking away. But the need to be present for Robin overwhelms them.
Over the years, they have followed the case from trial courts in Orange County to appeals courts in Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco.
Since January, they’ve again heard the details of a case they know almost by heart. Again listened to the story of how Robin’s small body was found decomposed and dismembered in the forest. Again watched the parade of witnesses, who like themselves have grown older, their memories faded.
But this trial is also different. This time Alcala is acting as his own attorney, cross-examining witnesses -- including their mother -- and discussing courtroom procedure with the judge and prosecutors.
And this time, they’ve heard about the four women Alcala also is accused of torturing and murdering.
As he watches the trial, Robert says, he can’t help but wonder where it will go wrong this time. “Where are they making the mistake? Did I miss it? Will I catch it? Is this the part that’s going to get it overturned?”
Marianne Connelly, then Marianne Frazier, her two daughters and two sons came to California from Wisconsin in 1977 to escape the cold and start a new life after her divorce. They settled in Buena Park and then Huntington Beach.
“At first we loved it,” says Robert. “We didn’t have to have 50 pairs of clothes just to go outside. We could feel our toes at night.”
On June 20, 1979, Robin and her friend Bridgette Wilvert went to the beach. They were approached by a photographer who asked to take their picture for a contest. Soon after, Robin borrowed Bridgette’s bike and headed to ballet class.
Her body was found two weeks later in the Angeles National Forest.
Rodney Alcala was a photographer with a history of violence against girls. In 1972, he had been convicted of kidnapping, raping and nearly beating to death an 8-year-old girl in Hollywood. He was paroled two years later. Soon after, he was caught smoking marijuana with a 13-year-old girl who said he kidnapped her. He was returned to prison and released again in 1977. A couple of years later, at the time of Robin’s disappearance, he was awaiting trial in the beating and rape of a 15-year-old girl, for which he was later convicted.
His former probation officer saw an artist’s sketch of the photographer who approached Robin and reported Alcala to police.
Prosecutors told the family the case was a slam dunk.
As the first trial got underway, Robert was starting his freshman year at Huntington Beach High School. For reasons the brothers still don’t understand, their parents decided it would be best if Tim went to live with their father in Arizona. Their older sister was living on her own.
“We went from being a big giant family to just me and my mom,” Robert says. The constant questions from teachers about the trial made school difficult, he says. He went to school 23 days that year.
The trial was swift. But it was also marred by problems. The evidence linking Alcala to Robin’s murder was mostly circumstantial. Prosecutors relied on Robin’s friend Bridgette and a handful of people who said they saw Alcala or a man who looked like him on the beach with a camera.
One witness, Dana Crappa, said she saw Alcala with Robin near where the girl’s remains were found. But she revised her story repeatedly before trial.
When Crappa sat on the witness stand, her behavior was so bizarre that the judge considered ending the testimony. Defense attorneys believed she had been hypnotized -- a tactic prosecutors admitted using with other witnesses -- and her testimony induced.
The inconsistencies would later undermine the case against Alcala.
Prosecutors also relied heavily on Alcala’s past. They introduced information about his previous crimes to show a pattern of abducting young girls and violently abusing them.
Alcala was convicted, and one year to the day after Robin disappeared, he was sentenced to death.
There were high-fives and pats on the back, Robert recalls. He remembers one person telling him that the next time he would hear about Alcala would be when he was executed.
With the trial behind them, the family tried to put at least the legal part of this new life behind them.
“Robin was gone,” Robert remembers thinking. But “they found the guy who did it and eventually he would get what was due.”
Nothing, however, was the same.
“I was on my own,” Robert says. “Timmy was on his own. My mom was on her own and we were just trying to get back to normalcy.”
Robert worked on fishing boats. Tim went to welding school and picked up carpentry jobs.
Four years later, the family learned that Alcala’s conviction had been overturned by the California Supreme Court. The justices agreed with Alcala’s trial lawyers that introducing evidence of his previous convictions irrevocably prejudiced the jury.
Prosecutors were stunned.
For John Barnett, Alcala’s attorney in the first trial, the reversal meant that a doctrine of fair trial had prevailed. “Our system is based not on being quick, but on being right,” he said recently.
The year of the Supreme Court decision, Robert was in a car accident in which a friend was killed.
“I thought I was bad luck,” he says. “I didn’t want to be close to anybody. . . . I just ran amok.”
Their mother had turned to politics. She became the face of a successful campaign to vote out of office the justices who overturned Alcala’s conviction. But the work took its toll. The brothers had a hard time finding structure.
“Robert and Tim would drink and fight,” says Teresa, Tim’s wife. “Robert would go sit at Robin’s grave and drink and cry. . . . They’d go to jail. One went, then the other.”
After Alcala was transferred from San Quentin to Orange County for his second trial, Robert and Tim hatched a plan to get arrested and attack him in jail. “We were young,” Robert says. “We thought we could get close to him.”
The second trial took place in 1986. It, too, had problems.
Crappa, whose bizarre testimony had tested the first trial judge, told prosecutors she didn’t remember the events and couldn’t testify.
When the defense asked for time to consider her purported amnesia, the new trial judge declared, “You gentlemen can do all the research in the world, and everybody knows I am never hampered by the law anyway.”
Crappa’s previous testimony was read to the jury.
Alcala’s defense attorney also failed to call a witness who might have corroborated his alibi that he was at Knott’s Berry Farm trying to get a photography job when Robin disappeared. When asked why he didn’t call the witness, the attorney said he couldn’t recall.
The jury found Alcala guilty and he was again sentenced to death.
For a time after the second trial, Robert continued living as if nothing mattered. He just didn’t see the point of having a productive life.
But gradually, as the years passed, the brothers settled down. Robert married about a decade after the second trial. The eldest of his five children is now 16. Tim and Teresa had two girls, now 17 and 14.
The children were sheltered. New friends learned quickly that they wouldn’t be allowed to go out the way other kids did.
“Eventually their friends just quit calling and asking to go places,” Teresa says.
In 2001, the Samsoes once again learned that Alcala had been granted a new trial. The courtroom sojourn began anew.
For the last five years, Teresa, Robert and Tim have been in and out of the 11-story courthouse in Santa Ana. They sat through preliminary hearings and pretrial motions. They waited as the trial was delayed again and again.
As preparations finally got underway, they learned that prosecutors believed they had tied Alcala through DNA, blood and fingerprint evidence to four other deaths.
In this third trial, prosecutors have presented evidence that Alcala killed Jill Barcomb, 18; Georgia Wixted, 27; Charlotte Lamb, 32; and Jill Parenteau, 21, in Los Angeles County. Investigators described in detail how they believe the women were sexually tortured and strangled.
The decomposed state of Robin’s body made it impossible to determine how she died or if she had been sexually abused. Over the years, the brothers chose not to think of it. Now they can’t seem to help it.
“In our minds we could always blank out parts,” Robert says. But with the new evidence, “there are no more blank spots.”
The brothers have asked their mother to stay away as much as possible. But the two of them and Teresa come nearly every day.
The trial is in its final days and every once in a while someone will ask with sympathy: “Aren’t you glad this is almost over?”
“Do you think I really believe that?” Robert wonders.