Rodney Alcala to Be Indicted in Dating Game Killer Cold Case

Rodney Alcala, California’s “Dating Game Killer,” has been indicted in the deaths of two New York City women in the 1970s. Christine Pelisek reports.

AP Photo; Getty Images

A New York grand jury has returned an indictment accusing California serial killer Rodney Alcala of the brutal rape and murder of two New York City women in the 1970s. Prosecutors say Manhattan socialite Ellen Jane Hover and TWA flight attendant Cornelia Crilley, both in their twenties when they died, are among the long list of victims of the so-called Dating Game killer.

The ruling will begin the process of Alcala’s extradition to New York to stand trial and, for the families of the two women, a long-awaited reckoning with their alleged killer.

Alcala, 67, is already on death row at San Quentin State Prison, outside San Francisco, convicted of the sexual assault, torture, and strangulation of a 12-year-old ballet student in Huntington Beach as well as four Los Angeles County women.

Those murders occurred between 1977 and 1979. In between, Alcala enjoyed a bizarre star turn as a winning contestant on the ABC primetime show The Dating Game—on Sept 13, 1978, Alcala was introduced as “a successful photographer” whose pastimes included skydiving and motorcycling. Attractive, with a long mane of hair and a self-described “genius IQ,” he apparently charmed his victims with tales of his work in the fashion industry. After brutalizing and killing them, Alcala placed their bodies in a variety of poses, sometimes photographing them. Many of them had been bitten and strangled slowly to forestall death. All had been sexually assaulted.

In 1980, Alcala was convicted and sentenced to die for the murder of the young Huntington Beach girl, Robin Samsoe. After that conviction was overturned due to inadmissible evidence, he was tried and sentenced to death again in 1986. Another overturning on technical grounds brought a third prosecution in 2003, by which time DNA evidence linked Alcala to the four Los Angeles women. In 2010, he was convicted of all five murders and again given the death sentence.

During the most recent trial, Alcala, who represented himself, used footage from his appearance on The Dating Game as part of his defense and in his closing argument played Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant” for the jury.

“There are a large group of family members who want justice,” said Braccini. “Why shouldn’t they have it?”

Authorities in New York had long suspected that Alcala was involved in the slayings of the two young women. Crilley was found raped and strangled with her own pantyhose in her East 83rd Street apartment on June 12, 1971. Police discovered the body of the 23-year-old flight attendant after her boyfriend Leon Borstein, then an assistant district attorney for Brooklyn, reported her missing.

At the time of Crilley’s murder, Alcala was on the lam, wanted for the 1968 rape and attempted murder of an 8-year-old girl, Tali Shapiro, in Hollywood. He had fled to the East Coast and, according to subsequent police reports, enrolled at New York University under the alias “John Berger.”

The FBI captured Alcala in August 1971 after two New Hampshire teenagers recognized his face on an FBI’s Ten Most Wanted poster. Alcala had been their counselor at a summer camp. At the time of his arrest, he told a Los Angeles detective that he was not “dangerous for the streets but that much help could be acquired through therapy.”

Alcala was sentenced to a mere 32 months in prison for the attack on Shapiro and was released in 1974. Two months later, he returned to prison for violating his parole after he was arrested for kidnapping a 13-year-old girl. After his release in June 1977, Alcala, now a registered sex offender, was granted permission by his parole officer to visit his girlfriend in New York and attend a photographer’s convention in Illinois.

Less than a month later, a young socialite and gifted pianist named Ellen Jane Hover--whose father, Herman Hover, owned the Hollywood hot spot Ciro’s—vanished without a trace in New York. Hover was last seen near her apartment on Third Avenue at 44th Street on July 15, 1977, accompanied by a thin, white male who wore his long dark curly hair in a ponytail. She had told a friend that the man was a photographer whom she had met on an unemployment line.

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Police began searching for “John Berger,” after they found his name scribbled on Hover’s calendar the day she vanished. Hover’s stepfather also hired a private investigator to look into her disappearance, which unfolded during the summer of the “Son of Sam” serial killings.

The search for Hover made headlines, and ads and stories referring to a suspect named John Berger appeared in New York papers. A New Hampshire camp counselor spotted the notices and called police. She remembered that in 1971, the FBI had arrested a camp employee named John Berger who was a photographer and wore his hair in a ponytail. The information was passed on to investigators with the New York City Police Department, who figured out through the FBI that Berger was in fact Rodney Alcala.

Alcala, meanwhile, had returned to Los Angeles and told his parole officer that he had had a “good time” in New York.

In December 1977, Alcala was questioned in Los Angeles about Hover’s disappearance five months earlier. During the meeting at LAPD’s main police headquarters, Alcala admitted he had met the piano virtuoso at the New York City Public Library. He said she had given him her phone number and that he called her a couple of times but she didn’t return his calls. Three days later, he said, he had bumped into her at the scene of a fire near her apartment building. When detectives asked him why he was near her apartment, Alcala responded that he was “probably walking around taking pictures.” He was asked to take a polygraph but refused.

In 1978, Hover's skeletal remains were found on the Rockefeller estate in North Tarrytown in Westchester County, New York, a few miles away from her family’s weekend home. That same year Alcala, by now working as typesetter for the Los Angeles Times, appeared as Bachelor No. 1 on The Dating Game. (The Bachelorette who chose Alcala later thought better of it and backed out of their date.)

The following year, Alcala was arrested for the murder of Robin Samsoe, who disappeared on her way to her ballet class. Her skeletal remains were found 12 days later in the foothills near Los Angeles.

New York cold-case detective Steve Braccini reopened the Crilley case in 2003 at the behest of family friends of the Crilleys. After searching through the dusty files, he found prints at the Crilley crime scene. The prints were analyzed and came back as a match to Alcala.

“It was the first case I figured out it was Alcala,” said Braccini. In March 2006, he contacted LAPD Detective Cliff Shepard about Alcala, who was in Orange County jail, awaiting trial once again for the murder of the tiny Orange County ballerina, along with the four Los Angeles women. Braccini was surprised to learn from Shepard that Alcala had been interviewed in Los Angeles in 1977 in connection with the Hover case, before her remains were found.

As suspicions grew, Braccini flew out to interview Alcala in jail, where he allegedly made “incriminating statements” regarding Crilley’s murder. Alcala was ordered to give a dental impression, which was apparently matched to a bite mark found on her battered body.

Witnesses who testified at the secret grand jury proceedings included Alcala’s former girlfriend and a Los Angeles woman who was a teenager in 1979 when Alcala kidnapped and raped her in a remote mountainous area outside of Los Angeles.

“I am looking forward to Rodney going to New York,” said Shepard after the grand jury issued the indictment. “He thwarted and manipulated the system here [in California] for 31 years. Now, he will be taken out of his comfort zone, and the families in New York can have some justice.”

Authorities believe that the litigious Alcala, who has filed numerous complaints about his care in prison, will fight extradition. It could take years before the well-spoken, shaggy-haired killer sees a New York courtroom. But the wheels are now officially in motion.

“There are a large group of family members who want justice,” said Braccini. “Why shouldn’t they have it?”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.