By JACQUELINE PRIMO | Reporter
Lisa Sutton (née Kurtz) was 15 in the summer of 1977 when a man took a photo of her and her friend Linda Frasier (née Buffa) at the Village Green in Pacific Palisades.
“You guys are so beautiful, you could be models,” Sutton remembered him saying before he offered to take their pictures in his van parked nearby.
Sutton and Frasier politely declined to go to his van, but Sutton held on to the photo and tucked it into a scrapbook where it has remained for decades. The story of the strange photographer she met at the Village Green in 1977 never left her.
In 2010 a friend of Sutton’s pointed her to an LA Times article about the kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old Southern California girl with the headline Serial murder suspect’s ‘Dating Game’ clip shown at trial,’ prompting her to look up the game show episode on the Internet.
“I clicked on the ‘Dating Game’ video and I froze,” Sutton said, thinking, “Oh my God, all these years later I’m finding out the answer to this.”
‘Dating Game Killer’ in Pacific Palisades?
Sutton said she thinks Rodney Alcala, a convicted serial killer active in Los Angeles and Southern California in the 1970s and 80s, may have been the man who took her photo on the Village Green in August 1977.
Alcala is known as the “Dating Game Killer” because of his 1978 appearance (and win) on the TV game show.
Alcala worked as a typesetter for the Los Angeles Times from September 1977 to April 1979 despite having an extremely long criminal record, including child molestation (a charge that had been reduced from child rape and attempted murder).
At the time he was hired at the Times, Alcala was already a convicted sex offender and had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for the brutal rape and attempted murder of an eight-year-old girl named Tali Shapiro in LA in 1968.
While working at the Times, Alcala was known for passing himself off as a photographer.
Alcala had been seen on the beach in Huntington Beach with a 35mm camera with a 9-inch telephoto zoom lens and colorful strap in the late ’70s.
In July 1979, Huntington Beach police detectives found a stash of more than 100 photos in a Seattle storage locker belonging to Alcala. The photos were all taken before 1979 and appear to contain both candid and posed images of young women and girls, including a few men. Some photos have not been made public, police said.
(The photos are available for viewing online at: www.flickr.com/photos/scpr/sets/72157623600695928)
“Although numerous photos were seized, many of them are of the same person in a different pose. This is to be expected because Alcala was a professional photographer,” Huntington Beach Police Department Detective Patrick Ellis told the Post.
Alcala was eventually convicted of or indicted in seven murders (and is a suspect or accused in many others). His murder victims include the 1979 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, who lived in Huntington Beach. The Southern California surfing capital lies a little more than 50 miles southeast of Rachel Ziselman’s former home in the Palisades.
Robin and her friend Bridget Wilvert, both 12, were hanging out at Huntington Beach on the afternoon of June 20, 1979. Robin, a ballerina, and Bridget, a gymnast, turned cartwheels and played in the sunshine.
By the time Alcala approached Robin and Bridget, alone on the beach, with his camera in hand and a friendly smile, he had already hit on a handful of other girls and young women that day in the same fashion – under the guise that he was entering a photography contest and both he and the girls could win a prize if they let him take their photo.
Young and excited about the prospect of being photographed for a contest, Robin and Bridget eagerly agreed. The two posed for photos on the beach until a woman recognized Bridget as her neighbor and walked up to the group asking what the girls were doing.
Alcala quickly walked away.
The girls soon went their separate ways and Robin rode on Bridget’s bike, headed for ballet class.
Alcala was still in the area and spotted Robin on the bike.
“Very typical of [Alcala] he acted like, ‘Well we’ve already met, we’re old friends so now you can trust me,’” said Richard Farnell, a former Deputy District Attorney in Orange County.
Farnell was the first to secure a conviction and death sentence for Alcala in 1980 for the murder of Robin Samsoe.
“That was kind of the psychological mechanism he was playing on to get them to go with him. And so Robin, she was going to ballet class and he said, ‘Well, I can take you,’ and she thought, ‘Well, that’s okay.’ So he put her bike in his car, got her in the un-lockable passenger seat and instead of taking her to ballet, took her up the 605 to [Chantry Flats in the San Gabriel Mountains], and that’s where he murdered her,” Farnell told the Post in a May 2015 interview.
Bridget Wilvert worked with forensic artist Marilyn Droz to come up with a detailed sketch of the man she remembers taking her and Robin’s picture on the day she went missing. The sketch, broadcast on local news and plastered on flyers at the beach, led other young women and girls to come forward saying they had seen a man who matched the description taking their picture that day too.
Alcala’s parole officer called the police and identified the suspect from the sketch as Rodney Alcala. Detective Art Droz matched Marilyn’s sketch to Alcala’s mugshot, officially making Alcala a person of interest.
Robin’s skeletal remains were found on July 2, 1979 in a remote ravine off Santa Anita Canyon Road, according to a book on Alcala called “The Dating Game Killer.” She had been missing for 12 days.
Alcala, now 71, is currently on death row at San Quentin State Prison. He was twice convicted for the Samsoe murder, and the conviction was twice overturned. In 2010, Alcala was convicted a third time for Samsoe’s murder, along with the murders of Jill Parenteau, Charlotte Lamb, Georgia Wixted and Jill Barcomb, whom he killed between 1977-1979 in Southern California.
Alcala was sentenced to death.
He has since been indicted for the New York murders of Ellen Hover (1977) and Cornelia Crilley (1971), crimes he committed when he stayed for a short time in the city.
SUTTON CONTACTS POLICE
After Sutton viewed the Dating Game episode on the Internet, she contacted the LA Times reporter who wrote the 2010 article she had seen and told her what had happened on the Village Green in 1977. The reporter encouraged Sutton to call the police and she did, informing authorities she believed there might be a connection between Alcala and Rachel’s disappearance.
“The police said they were aware of Rachel, but right now were just looking for who was in the photos,” Sutton said.
When asked how sure she is that it was Alcala she encountered at the Village Green nearly 40 years ago, Sutton said, “The skeptic in me says my mind is filling in the blanks, but there’s just something that tells me it was [him]. I just thoroughly, really believe it was him. My reaction when I saw his picture – it was genuine. I got a hot flash. I showed it to Linda too and she said that’s the guy also.”
When asked about Lisa and Linda’s encounter with a photographer in the Palisades in 1977, former Orange County Deputy DA Farnell did not sound surprised.
“That’s his M.O., that’s for sure,” Farnell said, speaking of Alcala. “That happened over and over again where, ‘Well, he didn’t bother me the first time…so I can trust him.’”
Farnell said there were patterns to Alcala’s murders, beginning with his initial introduction as a kind and innocent photographer. Alcala would sexually assault and torture his victims before killing them.
“He had met [his victims] casually initially and in some public areas,” Farnell said.
Of the photographs found in Alcala’s Seattle storage locker, Farnell said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if, among those photographs, were people he did kill.”
Huntington Beach Police are asking for help identifying the individuals in Alcala’s photos, as the police – and Farnell – believe they may contain images of more victims.
None of the images released to the public is of Rachel or Robin.
OLD PHOTO, NEW EVIDENCE?
“The only way I could prove this was Alcala is the fact that I kept that photograph,” Sutton said.
Sutton initially contacted Palisadian Aleksandar Pavlović, who has been independently investigating Rachel’s disappearance. She had seen social media posts from Pavlović in March 2015 saying he had suspicions about Alcala.
“After doing a considerable amount of research on kidnappers who were active in Southern California during the late 1970s, I now consider Rodney Alcala to be a person of interest in Rachel’s disappearance,” Pavlović said in a May 2015 interview with the Post.
“[Alcala] was roaming free in Los Angeles in 1977, the year Rachel went missing. After researching the 1979 disappearance of Alcala’s last confirmed victim, Robin Samsoe, I found her disappearance has many parallels to Rachel’s,” Pavlović said, noting that both girls were of similar age and appearance. Rachel was 11, Robin was 12, and they both had blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Witnesses saw Alcala lure Samsoe by explaining that he was a photographer and wanted to take pictures of her for a magazine,” Pavlović added. “When Lisa contacted me about her encounter with a photographer in the Palisades matching Alcala’s description and similar style of approach to young girls, it only confirmed my suspicions further.”
Pavlović is not the only one who suspects Alcala may have been involved with Rachel’s disappearance.
After being contacted some years ago by Sutton about the photo at the Village Green, and later hearing the story recounted by Pavlović and learning of his suspicions about Alcala, Rachel’s brother Sam got back in touch with police in 2015.
“I told Detective [Luis] Rivera that [Sutton] may be able to place Alcala in Pacific Palisades within a few weeks of Rachel’s disappearance,” Sam told the Post.
Sam said that Alcala is now near the top of his personal list of suspects.
“I want to see the 900 photos not released to the public and find if A) I see Rachel, and B) if Alcala was on the Westside or in the Palisades,” Sam said. “I also want to see the inventory of the locker.”
Sam said he ultimately wants to question Alcala in person.
“The guy’s 71 years old. He can answer the same questions again,” he said.
When asked if there was any known link between Rachel and Alcala, Detective Ellis said, “I’m sorry but I do not have any information or physical evidence linking Rodney Alcala to the disappearance of Rachel Hanna Ziselman.”
LAPD detectives picked up the Village Green photo from Sutton on April 24, 2015 and are testing it for DNA and fingerprints.
If the photo tests positive for DNA or fingerprints of Alcala – or any other known criminal active in LA at the time – it could give detectives a lead as to who was in the area around the time of the September 1977 disappearance of 11-year-old Rachel Ziselman, said LAPD Cold Case Homicide Unit Detective Rivera, who was assigned Rachel’s case several years ago.
Rivera said newspaper articles on Alcala and the convicted killer’s booking photo are in Rachel’s casebook along with information on other criminals active in the area at the time of her disappearance.
Look for continuing updates in upcoming issues of the Palisadian-Post.
If you have any information or stories pertaining to Rachel’s disappearance or any memories of Rachel you would like to share, contact the writer Jacqueline@palipost.com.