For nearly 30 years, authorities believed Rodney Alcala was a brutal killer who had abducted and killed a 12-year-old girl in an Orange County beach town in 1979. Then, after gathering other evidence, they tied him to the rape and murder of four Los Angeles County women in the late 1970s.
Now, authorities say, they’re ready to take him to New York and try him for two other long-ago murders.
On Thursday, Manhattan Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that a grand jury had voted to indict Alcala on murder charges in the deaths of two young women, cases that Vance said “have haunted New York since the 1970s.”
According to prosecutors, Alcala killed Cornelia Crilley, a 23-year-old flight attendant who was raped and strangled in her Manhattan apartment in 1971.
Alcala also killed Ellen Hover, 23, the daughter of a Hollywood nightclub owner who was found slain in 1977 not far from her family’s estate in Westchester County, authorities said.
Alcala, a self-styled playboy who once appeared on “The Dating Game,” spent much of the 1970s eluding police by changing identities and locales. He has been behind bars since 1979 when he was arrested in the murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach.
Twice he was sent to death row for the girl’s murder, but both convictions were overturned on appeal. Last February he was convicted again for Samsoe’s murder and for the murder of four women in Los Angeles County.
“This guy is a killing machine,” said Steve Hodel, a retired Los Angeles police detective who helped investigate Alcala for the 1968 beating and rape of an 8-year-old girl. “I personally believe he has to be good for a lot of crimes between anytime he was out [of prison] and back East.”
For Samsoe’s family, the repeated trials marked a long and difficult odyssey, one which Robin’s brother Robert Samsoe said would not end until Alcala was put to death.
“I’m glad for the other families, that they got closure, that they got to find out what happened to their loved ones,” said Anita Feinberg, a friend of Hover’s who attended college with her. “But I want there to be justice for Ellen.”
The renewed interest in the New York cases was spurred by Alcala’s most recent trial in Orange County and by the creation last spring of a new cold case unit in Manhattan, authorities said.
“When that trial happened, investigators said let’s see what it shows us that we can use in these cases,” a law enforcement source in New York told The Times. “Patterns emerged from the California cases that informed the re-investigation in New York.”
The district attorney declined to explain what investigators had turned up, or how the prosecutors after so many years were able to put together the cases, saying he didn’t want to compromise the case. But, he said, the cases didn’t hinge on any single piece of physical evidence involving DNA or any one development. New York prosecutors and investigators, he said, talked to dozens of old and new witnesses and combed through hundreds of files and bits of evidence collected over almost 40 years.
Phil Pulaski, the New York Police Department’s chief of detectives, said his department had been collecting testimonial and physical evidence for many years and that focus on the cases periodically intensified.
In 2003, a law enforcement source said, New York police visited Alcala in a California jail to collect a dental impression that apparently enabled investigators to match his teeth to a mark on one of the slain women’s bodies.
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy said California and New York law enforcement agents had been in touch over the years but escalated their cooperation in the last few months. A trial in New York would not delay the automatic appeals process that goes along with a California death penalty case, he said.
“It should have absolutely zero impact on the appellate process of our case,” Murphy said. “That’s one of the reasons we fully support New York and what they’re doing.”
Murphy said he expected Alcala would be returned to California following trial. New York state does not have the death penalty.
Authorities believe Alcala went to New York at least twice between 1968 and 1977, once after he was tied to the rape and beating of an 8-year-old girl.
During that period, Crilley was found raped and strangled with her own nylon stockings in her Manhattan apartment. Around that time Alcala was working at a summer camp for girls in New Hampshire, authorities said.
In July 1977, Ellen Jane Hover disappeared from New York City and her body was discovered the following year near her family’s estate. Before she disappeared, she had written the name “John Berger” in a planner, a name police believe Alcala used as an alias while in New York.
The Southern California killings began just a few months later.