A serial killer won a TV show

Rodney Alcala wowed audiences when he appeared on a TV dating show in the late 1980s. Behind the pepper boy's smile and his cheerful comments hid a terrible secret: the…

Rodney Alcala wowed audiences when he appeared on a TV dating show in the late 1980s. Behind the pepper boy’s smile and his cheerful comments hid a terrible secret: the man was a serial killer and had committed four murders on his conscience when he won the televised game.

“Welcome to the dating game,” said host Jim Lange when he appeared on the screen on September 13, 1978.

This popular TV show always followed pretty much the same format, and soon after Jim shouted these familiar words:

“Now is the time to introduce these three sought-after pepper boys. Here they come!”

The camera was now focused on three men, each sitting on a chair in front of a colorful, rose-colored background in the spirit of the 1970s.

“The first pepper boy is a sought-after photographer who started his career when his dad found him in the darkroom at 13 years old and fully developed”, said the presenter cheerfully and then continued:

“When he’s not taking pictures, he enjoys life skydiving or riding his motorcycle.” Please welcome Rodney Alcala”.

The camera was now directed at a 35-year-old man in a brown jacket and a white, unbuttoned shirt. Thick brown hair cascaded down to her shoulders and formed a beautiful frame around her chiseled face. The man was smiling from ear to ear and clearly had beautiful teeth.


The woman whose job it was to settle between the three men now appears on the screen. Cheryl Bradshaw was dark-haired and pretty in a plunging dress that showed pretty much everything there was to show. She began interrogating the three men with a few questions that included a healthy dose of flirting.


“Gingerman Number One: I’m going to have you over for dinner.” What is the dish called and what does it look like?” Cheryl asked in that lighthearted tone that characterized the TV show.


“My name is banana and I’m very cute to look at”, answered Rodney, much to the woman’s delight.


“Could you be a little more specific?”, she asked. The man answered without hesitation:


“Peel me off”. The audience howled with delight.


When it finally came down to Cheryl choosing who she wanted to go on a date with, she didn’t hesitate:


“I think bananas are delicious, so I choose Pepper Boy No. 1”, she said.


Rodney Alcala stepped to the front of the stage, kissed the girl on the cheek and grabbed her by the waist. They both seemed thrilled with the outcome of the evening. As the two contestants left the stage, however, it dawned on Cheryl that she hadn’t chosen the prince on the white horse.


Rodney was extremely eager, especially smug, and promised her a date she would “never forget”. To Cheryl’s ears, his words sounded more like a threat than anything else.


“I was immediately stabbed in the stomach. He seemed like a very shady fellow. I declined his invitation. I didn’t want to see him again”, she revealed many years later.

Unlike the victims of Rodney Alcalas, the female contestant on the dating show immediately got the feeling that there was something terribly wrong with her prospective date.

Cheryl’s decision to turn down the date with Rodney probably saved her life.

This charming pepper boy was not every mother-in-law’s dream, but a serial killer possessed by torment, with at least four murders on his conscience at the time.

The dating show killer made a comeback nine months after the show aired.

Terrible desires

Rodney James Alcala was born on August 23, 1943 in the city of San Antonio, Texas. He was the second youngest of four siblings.

In 1955, the family moved to Los Angeles. Nothing in the boy’s behavior seemed out of the ordinary. He got good grades in school and was liked by both teachers and classmates.

When Rodney graduated high school with honors, he enlisted in the military. Then problems started to appear. After completing two years of military service, he surprised his mother by showing up at her house unannounced. The boy had left the army.

(Alcala suffers from) “severe antisocial personality disorder”.

Army psychiatrist, 1963

Such an act was punishable and eventually the mother managed to talk to Rodney and get him to report to the nearest military registration office. There, a psychiatrist examined him but concluded that Rodney suffered from “severe antisocial personality disorder.”

This mental illness usually manifests itself after the age of 15 and is characterized by impulsivity, aggression, disrespect for social elements, lying and crossing the boundaries of others.

Rodney was later psychiatrically diagnosed as an “immoral sexual torturer,” a special subspecies of serial killers who delight in torturing their victims, according to FBI definitions, lack empathy, are totally self-absorbed, and have uncontrollable the need to show one’s power and to be in control’.

Rodney Alcalas lured eight-year-old Tali Shapiro into his car.

Tortured serial killers are generally exceptionally well-off, and Rodney Alcala was no exception. When he was drafted into the army, his IQ was 140. Anyone who scores above 140 is considered a genius.

At this stage, no one was aware of the evil that lurked within all this intelligence. However, young schoolgirl Tali Shapiro was soon to find out the truth.

The first victim was a schoolgirl

At eight o’clock in the morning on September 25, 1968, an eight-year-old schoolgirl walked down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. She was on her way to school just a few kilometers away when a car pulled up next to her.

In the driver’s seat was Rodney Alcala, then 25 years old. His face was painted with innocence and he smiled his sweetest when he asked if he could drive Tali to school.

“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers”, the girl then replied.

“I’m not a stranger. I know your parents. I have such a fun picture I want to show you”, said Rodney in a seductive voice.

“I think someone lured a girl into a car.”

A witness who called the police in 1968.

Tali was filled with curiosity, hesitated for a moment, but then got into the man’s car. Realtor Donald Haines was on his way to work and also drove along Sunset Boulevard. When he stopped at a red light, he spotted a little schoolgirl talking to a man in the car next to him. They didn’t seem to know each other.

The real estate agent felt something unusual about the man and decided to follow the vehicle. A few minutes later, the car was parked in the parking lot of an apartment building near the well-known “Hollywood Walk of Fame”.

Rodney Alcala led the baby girl into the block. Haines ran to the nearest pay phone and frantically called the police.

“You probably think I’m crazy, but I witnessed an incident just now that struck me as odd. I think that one man lured a baby girl into a car and that she entered an apartment with him.

Maybe I’m right, but maybe it’s a mistake. Can you guys come and see if there’s any merit in this so I can sleep well tonight?” Haines asked.

“This is the police, I want to speak to you”.

Officer Chris Camacho

The police arrived within minutes and knocked on the apartment door.

“This is the police. Open the door! I want to talk to you”, shouted the policeman at the door. A moment later, Rodney appeared in a window next to the front door.

“Wait a second, I was just coming out of the shower”, said the man and disappeared from the window.

The police officer noticed that the man’s hair was dry. The veteran police officer found the man’s voice strange. While Officer Camacho waited for the door to open, he heard muffled moans from inside the apartment. He picked up the pistol and kicked in the door.

The first thing he noticed inside the apartment was a huge amount of photographic equipment, including a tripod. Alcala had managed to escape through the back door.

When the police officer entered the kitchen, he almost threw up. The little girl was lying on the floor, naked.

A dumbbell had apparently been used to smash the tiny skull and then had been placed over the child’s neck to prevent her from taking a breath. The little girl’s legs had been moved apart and the pool of blood beneath her revealed that she had clearly been brutally raped.

“Rodney Alcala couldn’t hurt a fly”.

One of Alcala’s teachers, 1968

The police officer was at first convinced that the girl was dead, but he detected a faint pulse and called an ambulance. Tali did not regain consciousness in the hospital until two days later, and she had to stay there for a whole month before she could be discharged.

No one suspected that Alcala was a lust torturer

The police had an easy time identifying the culprit. His credentials from the University of California lay on the kitchen table, where Rodney studied art in hopes of becoming a professional photographer.

When the police later questioned the man’s neighbor, the description was always the same: a neat young man who got along well with everyone. One of his college professors said without blinking, “Rodney Alcala couldn’t hurt a fly.”

It was actually going to be more difficult to find the man who had mistreated the little girl than the police had imagined.

Alcala fled across the United States and settled in New York – more than 4000 km away from his first, horrific crime.

Namely, Alcala fled to the east coast of the United States. There he enrolled in the film school in New York under the name John Berger. After a three-year unsuccessful search for the man, the federal police decided to put him on the list of ten most wanted criminals.

Just a few months later, two students at the film school identified the man as John Berger and notified authorities. The police responded to the tip and a large group of officers attended the university dormitory. Rodney Alcala was finally arrested there on August 12, 1971.

He pleaded guilty to child abuse and was sentenced on May 19, 1972 to what is known as an indeterminate sentence, ranging from one to ten years. The idea behind this type of punishment was that it would be possible to rehabilitate the prisoner by treating him and educating him.

One of Alcala’s victims was found on a deserted road near the Hollywood sign in California.

If the parole board deemed that the prisoner had been cured of his mental illness, he could be released within this specific punishment framework. That is exactly what happened. In 1974, the prison’s psychiatrist assessed that Alcala’s condition had “much improved”, and the man was released in August of that year.

Horror at the Hollywood sign

Rodney Alcala, however, had not changed an iota of consciousness. Just three months after his release, he drugged a 15-year-old girl against her will.

He was sentenced to prison again at Christmas 1974, but was released two and a half years later for good behavior. Rodney was free of all his travels in June of 1977. As before, it didn’t take long before the murderous desire surfaced again.

Alcala’s next victim was Jill Barcomb, just 18 years old.

Jill Barcomb was only 18 years old when she decided to leave her home in New York and try her luck in Hollywood with some friends.

When Jill arrived in Los Angeles in October of 1977, she was excited to find out what future awaited her on the West Coast. However, the dream of breaking through in the film city was to turn into a nightmare from which she would never escape.

On November 10, officers on routine patrol found her body in a bush on Franklin Canyon Drive, which winds its way up the hill toward the large, iconic Hollywood sign.

The girl’s skull had been smashed with a large rock and there was a deep gash on one of her breasts, and the slightest sign that the girl’s nipple had been bitten off. The officers who came to the girl had never seen such horror at a crime scene before.

27-year-old Georgia Wixted was killed by a heavy blow to the head. Alcala then choked 31-year-old Charlotte Lamb.

DNA samples were unknown at the time, but had they existed, they would have immediately surfaced around Alcala.

Just a month later, Alcala had quenched his thirst for blood again, and on December 16, 1977, police found the body of 27-year-old Georgia Wixted in her Malibu apartment.

Half a year later, the serial killer made a comeback when he killed a 32-year-old woman named Charlotte Lamb. Her badly decomposed body was found in the laundry room of an apartment building where the woman lived in the town of El Segundo, one 25 km southwest of Los Angeles.

The police spent night and day searching for the killer who had so many crimes on his conscience and during all this Rodney Alcala appeared on the TV show “Dating Game”. The bravado that had brought the serial killer into national television stations was also going to be his downfall.

An old TV show convinced the police

In the summer of 1979, two 12-year-old girls, Bridget Wilter and Robin Samsoe, were sunbathing on Huntington Beach in southern California. At some point, a young man with a tag in his hair and a camera in his hands appeared there.

Alcala tricked the victims by saying he was going to take their pictures for an official photo contest.

He said he was taking pictures for a photo contest. They thought he was innocent and let him take pictures of them playing on the beach.

The girls did not know that it was one of the most wanted serial killers in California who, just a few weeks before, had killed his fifth victim, the 21-year-old Jill Parenteau, whom he had abused and killed in her apartment in the town of Burbank, northeast of Los Angeles.

When the photo shoot was over, the two girls went to their respective homes. Robin Samsoe jumped on her bike and rode towards the town, where she was to attend a ballet shortly. However, she never reached the end of the road. At night, her parents reported her missing.

12-year-old Robin Samsoes’ earrings helped make “The Dating Game Killer” famous.

Officer Marilyn Droz interviewed Robin’s friend, Bridget Wilter, who described the photographer on the beach. Marilyn drew a picture of the alleged perpetrator and it appeared in the local papers. Two phone calls from readers were of particular interest to the police.

A police officer who had been Rodney’s probation officer when he was first paroled in 1974 called and said the drawing resembled his former client. The same story was told by Donald Haines, the driver who had called the police when Alcala attacked the little schoolgirl, Tali Shapiro.

Rodney Alcala was now wanted by the police again, although no one was sure that he was to blame for the disappearance of Robin Samsoe. This was to change, however, when police officer Art Droz happened to watch a rerun of the show “Dating Game” in which Alcala appeared.

Art Droz was married to policewoman and cartoonist Marilyn Droz, and now he sat contemplating the man with the devilish smile his wife had drawn a picture of based on his friend’s description.

In 1997, the police arrested 54-year-old Rodney Alcala.

The Drozs had no doubts: Alcala must have kidnapped 12-year-old Robin Samsoe.

Gold earrings led to the death penalty

Police arrested Alcala on July 24 at his mother’s East Los Angeles home. Shortly before, police had found the body of Robin Samsoe in a ditch near Huntington Beach.

When the officers searched the mother’s house, they found, among other things, a receipt showing that Alcala had rented a storage facility in the city of Seattle. They then searched that premises just a few days later. The house search took three hours because the storage room was full of stuff.

When the police had completed the search, they had evidence in their hands that was enough to convict the serial killer, namely a pair of gold earrings that Robin Samsoe had borrowed from her mother and was wearing the day she went to the beach.

The “Date Killer” made quite a splash in many states

During his 11-year criminal career, Alcala moved frequently to avoid arrest. He could not refrain from abusing or killing, no matter where he hid.

The date killer

Name: Rodney James Alcala

Born: August 23, 1943

Crimes: Between 1968 and 1979, he kidnapped, raped and murdered at least 11 girls and women. He is suspected of having committed one hundred more murders, as well as having committed sexual crimes.

State: Washington

Victim: Joyce Gaunt

What year: 1978

Murder: On February 17, 1978, police found the body of 17-year-old Joyce Gaunt in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle. She had been strangled and raped. Alcala had recently leased a warehouse in Seattle. The police never arrested anyone.

State: Washington

Victim: Antoinette Wittaker

What year: 1977

Murder: 13-year-old Antoinette Wittaker disappeared from her foster family with an older man on July 9, 1977. A week later, police found her body in a dark alley in Lake City. She had been stabbed to death with a knife.

State: New York

Victims: Cornelia Crilley and Ellen Jane Hover

Which year: 1971 and 1977

Murder : In 1968, Rodney Alcala fled to New York and had his name changed. Three years later, police found Cornelia Crilley’s body in her Manhattan apartment. She had been strangled with pantyhose and bite marks could be seen in many places on her body. In 1977, the bones of Ellen Hover were found in a flower bed in front of museum one. Rodney later admitted that he had killed them both.

State: Wyoming

Victim: Christine Thornton

What year: 1977

Murder: Christine Thornton, 28, disappeared in the summer of 1977. Her remains were not found until five years later in a small village in Wyoming. The woman was six months pregnant when she died. The police later found a photo of Christine in Rodney’s possession, but he was not convicted of her murder due to insufficient evidence.

State: California

Victims: Seven between the ages of 8 and 31

What year: 1968-1979

Murder: Alcala committed the first serious crime in California when he raped and abused eight-year-old Tali Shapiro. Monique Hoyt, 15, was also beaten and raped but survived the attack. In addition, he abused and murdered at least five other women, but the police fear that his victims were actually far more.

Less than a year after his arrest, Rodney Alcala was sentenced to death for the murder of Robin Samsoe and placed on death row at the infamous San Quentin prison. At this stage, the authorities did not suspect that the killer had more murders on his mind.

The police did not realize man’s insatiable need to kill until shortly after the turn of the century, when genetic material found on victims of old murder cases began to be analyzed. DNA genetic material began to be used instead of fingerprints, which had been used around the world for years to identify criminals.

In the end, the police were able to prove that Alcala had been in close contact with no less than five murder victims in the 1970s. This new information led to a new criminal case against Alcala. The “date killer”, as reporters had called him, maintained his innocence, but the jury still found him guilty. Another death sentence was thereby added to the one he had received 30 years earlier.

“Rodney Alcala is one of America’s worst serial killers”.

The detective who investigated Alcala’s case

Detective Cliff Shepard worked on many of the criminal cases Alcala was ultimately convicted of, thanks to DNA samples. Cliff Shepard had no doubts about the importance of the study:

“Rodney Alcala is one of the worst serial killers to ever live in the United States.” The fact that he has been behind bars since 1979 has certainly saved many lives.”

In 2010, Alcala interrogated himself with a strangely distorted voice in yet another murder case.

Alcala defended himself in court

New DNA evidence led authorities to charge Rodney Alcala with more murders. The serial killer decided to defend himself during the trial. It was a big mistake.

In 2010, Alcala was found responsible for the murders of four adult women, nearly 30 years after he committed the crimes. Contrary to what happened in the 1980s, the police were now able to prove that Alcala had been in contact with the victims shortly before their deaths.

Like Ted Bundy and other serial killers who suffered from delusions of grandeur, Alcala made the decision to defend himself this time. When the public prosecutor had presented new evidence, it was Alcala’s turn. In a five-hour, highly unusual hearing, “Defendant Alcala” cross-examined “Defendant Alcala” in front of the stunned jury.

Alcala raised the following question:

“Well, Mr. Alcala, can you tell me where you were on June 20?” (when Robin Samsoe disappeared, ed.).

He answered the questions with long monologues. This strange method did not have a positive effect on the jury who found him guilty. Or as prosecutor Matt Murphy put it afterwards:

“The key to a good defense is to constantly try to figure out what surprises the jurors and what they want explained in more detail. Individuals with a personality disorder lack empathy and as a result are unable to put themselves in the shoes of others, their feelings and thoughts. For the trick, Rodney Alcala performed admirably in the role of the defender”.

Alcala died of natural causes in his California prison in 2021. He was 77 years old.

Three years earlier, police released 109 photographs of women photographed by the ‘date killer’.

The authorities hope that the women’s relatives will be able to identify them and say whether they may have been missing since the 1980s.

Reading material on “The Date Killer”:

S. Sands: The Dating Game Killer: The True Story of a TV Dating Show, a Violent Sociopath, and a Series of Brutal Murders , St. Martin’s True Crime, 2011

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