By JACQUELINE PRIMO | Reporter
PART 5 IN A SERIES
Most people have photos of their family and loved ones on their desks at work—LAPD Detective Luis Rivera has a photo of 11-year-old smiling, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Rachel Hanna Ziselman on his.
Paper-clipped beneath her photo is a “Missing Person” bulletin featuring Rachel from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Rachel has been missing from Pacific Palisades since she disappeared on the afternoon of Sept. 5, 1977 while walking from Hughes Market (now Ralphs), headed to her home on the 1000 block of Monument.
Rivera, a detective in the Cold Case Homicide Unit of the Robbery Homicide Division (RHD), has had custody of her case since 2012.
Rachel’s disappearance is one of two missing persons cases in Rivera’s custody—alongside nearly 50 cold case homicides.
Follow a maze of corridors, elevators and stairways through the massive downtown LAPD station (with police escort and the right set of keys and fingerprints, of course), and you arrive at the RHD. There, behind multiple sets of locked doors and on a long line of industrial shelving, Rachel Ziselman’s case book sits among hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
Rachel’s photo is taped to the inside cover of the binder—a constant reminder that the papers, photographs, interview notes and newspaper clippings in the book concern a real person, and not just a name on a shelf, Rivera told the Palisadian-Post during an interview at the station.
“When it’s a child victim…we spare no expense. We do the most we can,” Rivera, 52, said solemnly but with a matter-of-factness that comes from 26 years with LAPD and the resulting awareness of how callous people can be.
Rivera worked as a homicide detective from 2001-2008 when he switched to cold cases.
“The only dead bodies I see now are pictures,” he added.
PERSONS OF INTEREST
Despite how large Rachel’s case book is (roughly five inches thick), Rivera acknowledged that investigators have very little to go on regarding what happened to the bubbly girl after she was last seen walking home with groceries on Monument that sunny afternoon when she seemingly vanished just short of her home.
“The Bay Theatre near Monument, according to this information, is where she was seen and [told a witness] that she was having difficulty carrying the grocery bag,” Rivera said, looking at a page of notes in the book.
Rivera said the witness saw Rachel about 100 yards from her house, close to the underground parking garage by the medical building on Monument.
“Then she disappears, and that’s it. That’s all you have,” Rivera said. “We had a missing person and there was no evidence of a crime, no physical evidence, other than she’s there one minute and gone the next…[Investigators] could never come up with anything at all and basically that’s when the case went cold.”
Rivera said from that point on, detectives and law enforcement have been working to compile information on criminals who are known to have been active in or around the Palisades at the time of Rachel’s disappearance.
“A person becomes a ‘person of interest’ in this case if they were actively committing crimes against children (or young adults) and/or suspected of kidnapping, sexual assault or child annoying [in the area before or after the crime]. Sometimes all of these take place at the same time,” Rivera said.
The Department of Justice started tracking registered sex offenders in the 1940s, and Rivera said that testing DNA from the ’60s and ’70s is not uncommon in these investigations.
“In this case we don’t have any evidence at the scene or witnesses [to a crime]. We rely on the probability that [Rachel] did not leave the area of her own free will. And since she has not been found, we have to assume that a crime has occurred, although we don’t know if it’s murder,” Rivera told the Post.
One of the “persons of interest” in the case, however, is convicted serial killer Rodney Alcala, who Rivera said has been a person of interest since Rachel disappeared (Alcala was a registered sex offender at the time).
Alcala is currently serving a death row sentence at San Quentin State Prison for, among others murders, the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Huntington Beach resident Robin Samsoe in 1979.
A booking photo of Alcala from 2003 is among the pages of Rachel’s casebook, along with information on dozens of other area criminals active at the time of her disappearance.
“Rodney Alcala is a person of interest because of the Huntington Beach case,” Rivera said in reference to Robin Samsoe’s murder. “Although we have nothing to date showing that he was near the scene of Rachel’s disappearance.”
Rivera confirmed that he and his partner, Detective Veronica Conrado, have possession of a photo that was taken at the Village Green a few weeks before Rachel disappeared. Rivera, who collected the photo from its owner in April of this year, said the photo’s owner claims the photo may have been taken by “someone who’s incarcerated right now.”
The photo has been sent out to the DNA lab and criminologists to be tested for fingerprints and swabbed for DNA.
“It may turn out to have no prints or anything,” Rivera acknowledged.
Former Palisadian Lisa Sutton believes the photo taken of her and friend Linda Frasier on the Village Green in 1979, when they were teenagers, may have been taken by Rodney Alcala—who was known for passing himself off as a photographer as a way to lure young women to go with him. This possibility prompted Sutton to contact LAPD in April and hand over the photo for analysis.
“The photograph that was released to the police will have to be examined before we can determine if [Alcala] is the person who took the photo and gave it to the witness,” Rivera said of Sutton’s suspicion.
“We have no positive identification from the witness at this time.”
Rivera confirmed that information on Alcala has been in Rachel’s casebook since 1977, including newspaper clippings.
Now that Sutton claims she may have encountered Alcala in the Palisades shortly before Rachel’s disappearance, Rivera said he wants to interview Alcala and get access to the hundreds of photos that were found in a Seattle storage locker (under Alcala’s name) in July of 1979 to see if the photos contain any images of Rachel or the Palisades. The photos are currently in the possession of the Huntington Beach Police Department.
“I don’t know what [Alcala] will say, since he has been convicted and sentenced in the murder case from Huntington Beach,” said Rivera, who is trying to get an interview with Alcala at San Quentin.
“He is in custody and there are legal steps I have to take to be able to interview him. Ultimately, it’s up to him. Since a witness places someone believed to look like Alcala near the scene, I have to follow the lead to its conclusion,” he added.
Alcala was never interviewed about Rachel, Rivera said. And while detectives are looking into all possibilities, including that Rachel was killed, she is officially listed as a missing person.
“In order for us to classify this as a homicide, we have to have credible information that it was a homicide. You hear all the time about kids who get snatched and 30 years later are found,” Rivera said.
“How can we classify something into homicide without evidence?”
The DNA databank includes samples from Rachel’s deceased parents, which could be used to identify any physical remains that may be found. The databank also includes the DNA of convicted criminals.
All the case needs now is physical evidence to link one to the other.
Still, while Rachel Ziselman has been missing for 38 years, neither her family nor her hometown of Pacific Palisades has given up hope that she will either be safely returned, or that a criminal will be brought to justice.