03/21/2010

Calif. cops seek more victims through killer's photos

The officers have released more than 100 photos of unidentified girls

Associated Press

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Police have been overwhelmed since they released more than 100 photos found in a serial killer's storage locker, more than 30-year-old pictures of unidentified girls and women in bell bottoms, bikinis and Farrah Fawcett hair.

They look like long-lost sisters, mothers and daughters to bereaved callers across the country and from as far away as Denmark. Police have gotten more than 400 phone calls in a little more than a week.

The photos had been in the possession of Rodney Alcala, who has been in custody since 1979 and was recently convicted of murdering four young women and a 12-year-old girl. Jurors recommended the death penalty this month.

Prosecutors say Alcala used his camera to lure his victims, and he was seen taking pictures of the girl before she disappeared. They fear some of the unidentified people in the photos released last week may have fallen victim to Alcala as well.

"The first thing is, 'Oh, my God, I hope these girls are OK,' and the next thing is, 'I wonder if any of them are victims.' Everyone has that question," prosecutor Matt Murphy said. "I can't imagine for a million years that we've got him for the only murders he's done."

The photos, available on the Orange County District Attorney's Web site, are just a fraction of the more than 1,000 images investigators found in Alcala's storage locker when he was arrested for the 1979 murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach.

They show leggy teenagers in bikinis and short-shorts on Southern California's sun-splashed beaches; young women in flowery blouses and hippie necklaces listening to music and smoking languidly; and girls wearing heavy makeup, apparently posing nude.

One photo shows a baby in a saggy diaper toddling near the shoreline, and another shows two young children in swimsuits washing off in an open-air shower on the beach.

Detectives have withheld about 900 pictures because they are too sexually explicit, while others have been cropped for release, said Huntington Beach police Capt. Chuck Thomas. He said he didn't know why his predecessors didn't release the photos years ago.

Releasing the pictures during Alcala's recent trial could have influenced the jury pool or could have jeopardized the verdict and death penalty recommendation on appeal.

Alcala was previously convicted and sentenced to death twice for the murder of Samsoe, but both convictions were overturned on appeal. In 2006, investigators refiled the case and linked Alcala to four previously unsolved murders from Los Angeles County using DNA technology and other forensic evidence.

During the latest trial, prosecutors outlined Alcala's penchant for torturing his victims: One had been raped with a claw-toothed hammer, another had her skull smashed in with a 7-inch rock and one was strangled so fiercely the pressure broke bones. Several of the victims were posed nude in sexual positions after their deaths.

A jury convicted Alcala, a 66-year-old UCLA graduate, of five counts of first-degree murder last month and took just an hour to return a recommendation of death after the penalty phase earlier this month.

Alcala, who represented himself at trial, did not respond to a request for a jailhouse interview about the newly released photos.

Police are now chasing leads from Seattle to Phoenix to Orange County, Calif. Even before the photos were released, Alcala was a suspect in several cases in New York City, where he lived from 1968 to 1971, and in New Hampshire, Murphy said.

Dozens of police departments across the U.S. are also combing through cold cases, looking for similarities between their unsolved murders or missing persons reports and Alcala's victims.

Detectives are fielding heart-wrenching calls from mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of women who disappeared years ago, never to have their killer found.

One woman who called told police she thought one of the photos may have been her daughter, who went missing in 1982. Police had to tell her that it wasn't possible: By that point, Alcala had been behind bars for nearly three years.

"It's horrible, it's absolutely horrible, and our thoughts and prayers go out to these people," said Thomas, the police captain. "These people are grasping for straws, they want to hold onto anything they can hold onto to bring them closure."

But while some calls are full of anguish, others bring relief. Every so often, a woman will call to say she recognizes herself in one of the pictures.

Liane Leedom, a 48-year-old psychology professor and author, had insomnia earlier this week and was watching CNN at 2 a.m. when she saw herself at age 17 in Photo No. 123. In the picture, Leedom poses in a white, strapless summer dress with a gold cross around her neck, looking down and away from Alcala's camera with a faraway gaze.

Alcala lived down the street from Leedom with his mother and befriended her in June 1979 - the same month he killed Samsoe, who disappeared while riding a friend's bike to ballet class.

Leedom said Alcala gave her a ride to work once and invited her to his mother's home to look at dozens of pictures he'd taken of other teenagers before asking to photograph her at her parents' house.

"I was a 17-year-old girl and I said, 'Oh, a professional photographer wants to take my picture! Of course I'll do it,'" she recalled.

Alcala bragged about how he was a member of Mensa, the organization for people with a genius IQ, and always wore a medallion around his neck that he said signified his membership in the group, she said.

"I think he was grooming me. He showed me all these pictures he had taken. He showed me pictures of nude boys and some of them were so striking that they stick in my mind today," Leedom said.

A neighbor saw Leedom getting out of Alcala's car and told her parents, who ordered her not to see him again. The adults around the neighborhood knew he had already served prison time for an attack on an 8-year-old girl and was awaiting trial on charges of raping a 15-year-old.

"It was super lucky," Leedom said in a phone interview from her Connecticut home. "I'm determined to do good things with the life I've been blessed with."

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