StMU Research Scholars

Rodney Alcala’s Photo Massacre

Imagine your life ends just when you think it’s about to begin. This is exactly how Robin Samsoe’s life ended. In 1979, in Huntington Beach in California, twelve-year-old Robin Samsoe went to the beach with her best friend thinking she was about to start her first job at her ballet school; but, Rodney Alcala had a different plan for Robin.1 Alcala approached the best friends posing as a photographer that worked with models, and he told the girls that he was entering a competition. As flattering as it was to have a supposed professional photographer taking photos of them, nobody knew that it would be the last time that they would see Robin Samsoe alive. However, Alcala had no idea that his murder of Robin Samsoe would lead to his ultimate takedown.

Tali Shapiro | Courtesy of Boredom Therapy

Rodney Alcala was born in San Antonio, Texas. Alcala’s father left their family when Alcala was very young. However, Alcala did not let his father’s absence take a toll on him… or so everyone thought. Although most of Alcala’s peers, and even his university professors, saw him as a charming and sweet guy, Alcala would come to be known as one of the most infamous serial killers in California history. In 1968, Alcala began his journey as a serial killer when Officer Chris Camacho got a tip that there was suspicious activity going on between a young girl and grown man. Officer Camacho found Alcala in his apartment with eight-year-old Tali Shapiro. Luckily, Officer Camacho was able to keep Tali stable until an ambulance arrived, but it gave Alcala time to get away. At the time, Alcala was attending UCLA, and his classmates and professors were in disbelief about the news of Alcala becoming an alleged killer. Officer Camacho, who made detective three months after Tali Shapiro’s attack, vowed to get justice for Tali. In 1969, Alcala made the “Top 10 Most Wanted” list and his luck at getting away with assaulting Tali Shapiro began to turn. Alcala was found at a camp in New Hampshire, posing as a camp counselor under the alias John Berger.2 When two of the camp students saw Alcala’s picture on the most wanted list at their local post office, they noticed an uncanny resemblance and alerted the dean of the camp who immediately contacted the authorities. Finally, Detective Camacho was getting the justice that he promised Tali Shapiro… or so he thought. Since the Shapiro family left the country in fear of their safety, Alcala could not be properly tried without a victim. Alcala was instead given a deal: he would plead guilty to child molestation, register as a child sex offender, and serve one to ten years in prison based on behavioral terms. In August of 1974, thirty-four months after Alcala was sentenced, he was released on the basis that he was “mentally cured,” having claimed his heinous actions against Tali Shapiro were due to mind altering substances.3

Robin Samsoe, 1979 | Courtesy of Orange County Register

Eleven years later, on June 20, 1979, Robin Samsoe disappeared. Once Robin was reported missing, Detective Matt Murphy was appointed head of the case and began gathering all the information he could when he got a call from Alcala’s former parole officer. Samsoe’s best friend, Bridgette, gave a description of a man that took pictures of the two girls at the beach the day of Robin’s disappearance, and Alcala’s former parole officer noticed that the composite sketch looked a lot like one of his former case loads, Rodney Alcala. When Detective Chris Camacho (formerly the officer that saved Tali’s life) got wind of the case, he showed up as quickly as possible, ready to help take down Alcala once and for all.

Both detectives tried to talk to Alcala’s mother, but she believed that her son was innocent and would not let the officers into her home without a warrant and continuously tried to protect her son. So the detectives worked harder; they put Alcala’s (technically his mother’s) house on 24-hour surveillance. Robin Samsoe’s body was found twelve days after her reported disappearance. Her body was almost unrecognizable; there was no hair, no skin, her limbs were barely intact, and the only thing that detectives were able to identify Samsoe with were her dental records. Finally, the detectives got a search warrant for the Alcala house, but did not find much, because after hearing that Robin Samsoe’s remains were found, Alcala rented out a storage locker and hid any evidence that could incriminate him. Rodney Alcala was arrested on July 24, 1979 and was charged with the kidnap and murder of Robin Samsoe. Rodney Alcala had no alibi for his whereabouts at the time of Samsoe’s disappearance, thus making him the prime suspect3 

However, what detectives didn’t expect to get was an accidental tip from Alcala’s sister when she visited him in jail. Detectives secretly recorded Alcala and his sister’s conversation and hit the ultimate jackpot. Alcala told his sister to go to his new storage unit and empty everything out of it, to just get rid of it all; but the detectives made it to the storage unit before Alcala’s sister could. Neither Alcala nor his sister knew that, in the detectives’ search of the Alcala home, they found a receipt for a storage locker. The detectives knew they struck gold when they opened up that unit.5 There were copious amounts of photos showing Alcala’s previous victims in vulnerable positions and exposing them without remorse. There was so much evidence in this storage unit that there was no way that Alcala could get away—not this time. In the storage unit, detectives also found a small, silk bag with earrings and other “souvenirs” of Alcala’s former victims and, when they showed the contents of the bag to Robin’s mother, she pointed out a pair of gold stud earrings that Robin often borrowed from her.

Rodney Alcala during court in Orange County, 2010 | Courtesy of Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times

With all of the evidence, Detectives Murphy and Camacho were almost excited for Alcala’s trial. Detective Camacho was finally getting the justice he promised to Tali Shapiro, and both detectives were bringing justice to Robin Samsoe. Nearly one year after Robin Samsoe’s murder, in February of 1980, the prosecutors were ready to take on Rodney Alcala and all his horror to the San Quentin court. After two and a half months on trial, the jury convicted Alcala as guilty and sentenced him to death. He was finally on the San Quentin death row until six years later, when the court judged that Rodney Alcala had not received a fair trial because the jury was given information of previous murders that Alcala was responsible for. The court deemed it unfair that Alcala’s jury was told about all the murders that he had previously gotten away with, so they gave him a second trial. Still, Alcala was found guilty and sentenced to death row again. As if that weren’t enough, Rodney Alcala was prepared to appeal one more time, and this time, he defended himself. In 2001, a federal appeals court overturned Alcala’s second conviction based on evidence he didn’t get to present. Before Alcala’s third and final trial in California, new DNA laws and technology linked Alcala to four more deaths in Los Angeles between 1977 and 1979, and prosecutors decided to try Rodney Alcala for all five murder cases at the same time. During his last trial in California, Alcala’s first reported victim came to the stand—it was Tali Shapiro. She was there to give her testimony of what had happened to her and talk about how appalled she was that Alcala was still free after authorities knew what he had done to her at the age of eight.

In a twisted turn of events, Alcala decided to represent himself in that third trial. He called himself to the stand and even had the nerve to call Marianne Connelly, Robin’s mother, to the stand. Alcala failed in trying to make her seem like the bad guy and ultimately turned to a plea for clemency. He explained that in choosing the death penalty, it would take 15-20 years to finally have him legally murdered. Although this information was true and further information stated that it would be far more expensive to execute someone as opposed to keeping them in prison for life, the jury still found Aclala guilty of first degree murder.6 Finally, in 2010 in San Quentin, Rodney Alcala was found guilty of not only Robin Samsoe’s death, but of the other four deaths as well. Alcala was sentenced to five death rows for each girl’s murder.7

However, now that Alcala’s California cases were settled, he was then tried in New York for the murders of two young ladies that were previously left as cold cases. In June of 2012, Rodney Alcala returned to New York to face yet two more murder trials, and by December of that same year, he pled guilty to both murders. Not only was Alcala sentenced to death in California (to which he was to be returned after his New York convictions), but he was also sentenced to two concurrent prison terms of twenty-five years to life in prison in New York. This meant, if by some odd miracle, Alcala got off of death row and out of prison in California, he still had to serve twenty-five years to life in prison in New York. By the end of 2012, Alcala had been convicted of seven murders and found guilty for all of them; he was also sentenced to five death rows and two twenty-five years to life in prison sentences.

Although Alcala is locked up for seven murders already, there are still so many unidentified pictures of girls and young women that were found in Alcala’s storage unit. Thus far, about twenty women have come forward as being the women in the pictures and exposed Alcala and his ways of conning the young women.8 Were there more victims of Alcala’s photo massacre? Or were they just coincidental photos of Alcala’s “models”? How many other victims of Alcala are we going to discover over the years–either through technological improvement or just coming forward?

  1. Alex Tresniowski and Howard Breuer, “The Eye of a Killer,” People 73, no. 15 (April 19, 2010): 86.
  2. Stephen J. Giannangelo, Real-Life Monsters: A Psychological Examination of the Serial Murderer (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2012), 104-108.
  3. The Dating Game Killer, directed by Peter Medak (2017; USA: Thinkfactory Media, Light and Dark Films, 2017), DVD.
  4. The Dating Game Killer, directed by Peter Medak (2017; USA: Thinkfactory Media, Light and Dark Films, 2017), DVD.
  5. Peter Van Sant, “Rodney Alcala: The Killing Game,” CBS News, Feb. 17, 2018.
  6. Simon Scott, “Death Penalty Judge: ‘Let’s Stop The Charade,’” Weekend Edition Saturday of NPR, April 2, 2011.
  7. Larry Welborn and Rachanee Srisavasdi, “California Man Convicted of 5 Murders from 70s,” The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA), February 25, 2010.
  8. Alex Tresniowski and Howard Breuer, “The Eye of a Killer”, People 73, no. 15 (April 19, 2010): 86.

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85 Responses

  1. Very well written article. That first statement that got me wide awake was that Alcala was born in San Antonio. That bit of information had me shaken. It was so sad to think that a murderer could get away with murder so easily. However, it is cases like this that point out the errors in the legal procedure and help in the betterment of judicial law. I feel that the authorities should work with Alcala himself to find out about his other victims because they also require justice.

  2. I had never heard of Alcala’s murder and crime spree. I loved your article for its details but the way you described how the police found Robin’s body made me sick to my stomach. I cannot imagine how mutilated Alcala must have left it for it to look the way you described it. I think he definitely deserved what he got for being such a disgusting person.

  3. I had no idea about Rodney Alcala or his horrendous acts of murder and child molestation before reading this article; I was also surprised that he was from San Antonio, Texas, which is my hometown. Like many serial killers, Alcala seemed to be a charming and friendly individual to those who knew him, but a manipulative murderer behind closed doors. I couldn’t believe the condition in which he left Robin’s body and how he collected souvenirs from each of his victims. The fact that he tried bringing Robin’s mother to the stand during his trial to make her seem like the bad guy shows the type of person he truly is. Although his victims weren’t able to live a long life, I am glad that they were brought justice.

  4. From reading this, serial killers are mostly depicted as sweet, shy or popular among others, which was the case for Alcala. It’s scary on how a seemingly innocent person can turn out to be a vicious monster incapable of feeling remorse for the killings he had done. It’s crazy on how his trial continued for a few years and was charged with multiple murders and was sentenced to 5 death rows and 2 twenty-five years in prison. Not only this, but there might be more killings that he had done besides those that were found. At least he was found guilty and was put in prison where he will see the outside world ever again. Hopefully, his victims will be able to rest in peace.

  5. I don’t now what to feel after reading this. In general its an awesome article know with the context i’m both mad and sad. It horrible to read how this guy just completely got away with it. Its sad how he didn’t grow with his father by his side and maybe that bring us back to what he did then. Even though I feel bad for him there should never be a reason of why someone should commit a crime. His victims deserve justice!

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