Cheryl Bradshaw thought she found her dream date when she chose Bachelor #1, Rodney Alcala, on the popular 1970s show THE DATING GAME. Introduced by the host as “a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed,” Alcala cooed from behind the partition: “We’re gonna have a great time together, Cheryl.” Alcala won Bradshaw over with pick-up lines like “Nighttime’s the best time…when things really get going,” and “I’m called ‘The Banana’ and I look really good… Peel me.”
Despite giving him the win, Bradshaw never ended up going on the date with Alcala, turning him down after filming because she thought he was “creepy.” Years later, Bradshaw found out how right she was… and her instincts may have saved her life. The man she chose was actually a murderer in the midst of an almost decade long spree, and she played a part in the creation of his serial killer moniker: “The Dating Game Killer.”
Despite being his morbid calling card, winning THE DATING GAME wasn’t the first and only time Rodney Alcala got lucky; his history of slipping through the cracks of the legal system kept him cruising the streets for years before police put him away for good.
Born in Texas in 1943, Rodney Alcala relocated to Los Angeles at the age of 12. He studied fine art at UCLA after being discharged from the Army for a personality disorder. The year of his graduation, 1968, was also the year of his first known act of sexual violence — the brutal rape and beating of 8-year-old Tali Shapiro. In 1968, when Alcala took Tali Shapiro to his apartment and beat her nearly to death, police in pursuit made the choice to save the girl instead of running after Alcala, and he made a lucky break for it. With a warrant out for his arrest, he fled to the east coast and assumed a fake name. In a morbidly appropriate twist of fate, he studied film under Roman Polanski at NYU, where he discovered his passion for fashion photography. After film school, he moved on to New Hampshire and took the creepiest job imaginable for a man with his proclivities: girls’ camp counselor.
He was finally arrested for his crimes against Tali Shapiro when two of his campers recognized him on a wanted poster. In another stroke of luck for Alcala, Tali Shapiro and her family had relocated to Mexico and didn’t want Tali to testify. Without her appearance, the police decided to assign him a watered-down charge of assault. He served only 34 months of this sentence before being released, after he showed psychologists evidence of his rehabilitation. Within two months, another encounter with an underage girl sent him back to jail, where he served a two year stint before being released again.
Coincidentally, after he regained his freedom, police questioned him and ruled him out as another infamous serial killer, the Hillside Strangler. In 1977, he talked his probation officer into letting him travel to New York, despite being a sex offender and a flight risk. During that time, he murdered Ellen Jane Hover, the daughter of the owner of the famous Ciro’s nightclub. Alcala made his way back to California and made his infamous appearance on THE DATING GAME in 1978. Between his appearance on the show and his arrest the next year, he killed at least three more women.
Crime profiler Pat Brown questioned the effect of Bradshaw’s rejection on Alcala: “One wonders what that did in his mind. That is something he would not take too well.”
After the disappearance of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach, CA led to a search of Alcala’s apartment, police found receipts for Alcala’s storage locker in Seattle. The discovery of Samsoe’s earrings in the locker, along with jewelry belonging to other missing women, led to Alcala’s arrest. Though he was convicted of Samsoe’s murder and sentenced to death, another lucky break came Alcala’s way when his conviction was overturned by the California Supreme Court’s ruling that jurors should not have been informed of his prior crimes during his trial. Retried and reconvicted in 1986, his case was again thrown out by an appeals court in 2001 on a legal technicality.
As prosecutors prepared to retry the case a third time, they tested Alcala’s DNA against unsolved crimes and found four matches. Alcala went back to trial, charged not only with the murder of Samsoe, but the murders of Georgia Wixted in 1977, Jill Barcomb in 1977, Charlotte Lamb in 1978, and Jill Parenteau in 1979. Since then,he has also been convicted of two murders in New York — one committed while he was there with his probation officer’s permission. In addition to the seven murders for which he has been convicted, he is suspected of many more. He remains a “person of interest” in a number of murder cases in California and Washington. Some experts estimate his death count might be anywhere between 50 and 150.
Looking back on Alcala’s meandering journey to justice, it has become painfully clear that luck wasn’t the only thing on Alcala’s side — he benefitted in equal parts from his innate intelligence and charm, and from a lax legal system. Many people who came into contact with him described him as very charming. Along with his purported 170 IQ, he used the same sly charm to seduce women into his car, and then to slither out of his punishments, convincing judges of his rehabilitation and probation officers of his trustworthiness. Just like he did to Cheryl Bradshaw on THE DATING GAME, he pulled his victims in with smooth talk about his successful photography career; he got them alone and comfortable by offering to take their portraits. For many of them, this was the last thing they would ever do.
Even now, more than 35 years since he went to prison, Alcala’s reign of terror still casts a dark shadow: In 2010, the Huntington Beach Police Department released a series of photographs discovered among Alcala’s belongings in his Seattle storage locker. The collection includes 120 portraits of unknown women and men taken by Alcala — only a fraction of the photographs the police discovered, as most were deemed too sexually explicit to release. The Police Department reached out to the public in an effort to identify the subjects of the photographs, and to determine if they might be unconfirmed victims of Alcala’s murder spree. In September 2016, the state of Wyoming filed murder charges against Alcala based upon an identification made from one of these photos.
A relative of Christine Thornton recognized the above image in the collection of Alcala’s photographs in 2013. Two years later, after DNA testing finally identified a set of human remains found in 1982 as Thornton’s, investigators discovered that Alcala’s photograph of Thornton was captured not far from the location of her remains. This provided the catalyst for an investigation that resulted in Alcala’s 8th murder charge. (The photos are still available to view online as authorities continue to search for the identities of many of Alcala’s subjects.)
So far, because of the twists and turns of his legal history, Rodney Alcala has been sentenced to death three times for the murder of Robin Samsoe. He sits on death row in California because of murder convictions that span from 1977 to 1979, placing his appearance on THE DATING GAME right at the height of his murder spree.
In the end, contestant Cheryl Bradshaw’s true happy ending on THE DATING GAME came from her rejection of the most famous and least eligible bachelor in reality TV history.