In Plain Sight, At Not Enough Remove

Rodney Alcala has been in jail for almost as long as I have been alive. And yet it took three tries and three decades to get the death penalty to stick: a technicality tossed the verdict, rendered in the rape and murder of 12 year old Robin Samsoe, in 1986, and again in 2001. DNA’s tied Alcala to additional killings, and based on the number of photos in his possession of unidentified women, that number should climb higher.

Comparisons to Ted Bundy are all too easy: the same rough time frame, similar appearance, frighteningly parallel pathologies all the way to their final victims, on the lowest threshold of puberty, meeting their deaths only days after the same fate befell other pretty co-eds. But Bundy’s been dead for twenty years, a symbol of what America thought it was – full of free love, hitchhiking, adventure-seeking and open roads – and what it mutated into, a country where fear trumps nearly everything, especially at a time of economic strife.

Killers haven’t become more or less scary, but when everything is social networked to the hilt, so too is violent death, to the point where death row inmates have hundreds of Facebook friends and children who kill other children have Twitter accounts. Even when there’s a massive backlog at the nearest lab, DNA testing offers the promise of a quantifiable answer of who did it down to the base pair. “Unsolved” and “disappeared” are words of mystery, offering knowledge for those who can’t figure out how to seek it, but when there is too much information to sift through, and when hundreds of millions leave some kind of trace of themselves, their intimate details casually broadcast to strangers, the mystery can’t help but fade.

Which is why I keep coming back to the 1970s. It was not a decade of fun, not at all, not with Vietnam, Watergate, domestic and international terrorism (when that word conjured up hijackings and not suicide bombs) and, for one eighteen-month period in Santa Cruz, three brutal serial killers trawling for fresh meat. But its decided lack of fun was the flip side of the breadcrumbs of the 1960s, the precursor to the Dancing Queens and Disco Divas, the rise and fall of Punk and the sneak peek at New Wave. It felt fun, for those who lived through it, enough to make the risk worth it until it wasn’t worth it anymore.

I look back at cases from that era, both unsolved murders and missing people, and they come from a time period so long ago and yet not far enough to be distant past. YouTube offers plenty of found footage, grainy and pristine, of the news reports people would have watched, but mostly it’s a text and image show, a far cry from the multimedic spectacle that accompanies the Amber Alerts going out with contemporary abductions and killings. 

I offer all this as feeble explanation for why I keep coming back to Alcala’s winning 1978 appearance on THE DATING GAME, an episode that would have been produced about halfway through his killing years. It offers skin-crawling “what might have been” voyeurism, since we, viewing it now, know the ending – or at least a piece of it. These photos Alcala took of dozens of still unidentified women may fill in additional blanks. Alcala may turn out to be Bundy’s true comrade in arms, or he may just be a pale imitation.

What is clear is that Rodney Alcala bridges then and now, the dichotomies of both generations and the lessons many of us have likely forgotten. As Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy told the LA Weekly’s standout crime reporter Christine Pelisek shortly before Alcala’s

third trial got under way, it was amazing “[h]ow naive people were about these sexual

predators. Notice how many serial killers we had in the ‘70s or ‘80s? We

don’t have that many active today. Do you know why we don’t have them

now? Because of the Three Strikes law. They are going down on their

first time. … They aren’t given chance after chance after chance.” If that’s true, it only exacerbates the fear factor those on-the-loose bogeymen still inspire.