The Eye of a Killer
updated 04/19/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/19/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Not long after they met, he picked her up in his car and drove her into a secluded canyon in Southern California. Out of the blue, he turned to her and said, "I could do anything I want to you, and no one would know." Cynthia Libby, then just 16, laughed it off-and even agreed to go out again with Rodney Alcala, then 36, an amateur photographer.
But on the night of one of their dates, more than 30 years ago, he didn't show. Later that weekend Libby's mother asked her for Rodney's last name. When Libby told her, she dropped the newspaper she was holding. In it, the shocking truth: Alcala stood her up because he'd been arrested for killing a young girl. "I couldn't believe it," says Libby, now 48. "I still have a hard time believing it. I could have been one of the dead girls."
This March 30 Alcala was sentenced to death for five brutal murders, including the 1979 slaughter of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, whom he abducted on her way to ballet class and killed in a Southern California canyon not far from where he took Libby. But police now fear there may be other victims of a five-year-long killing spree by Alcala. Investigators found hundreds of pictures of women Alcala photographed and have just made 120 of the photos public in an attempt to identify some of them. "We fear he is one of the most prolific serial killers on the West Coast in the 1970s, up there with Ted Bundy," says Orange County Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy. "He is a predatory monster, and when you see all these young women in positions of vulnerability with him, it makes you fear what happened to them."
So far about 20 women have come forward to cross themselves off the list, but most of them are too shaken or frightened to talk publicly about their encounters with the killer. PEOPLE spoke exclusively with two of the women, who shed light on the methods and madness of Alcala-a con man so slick and persuasive he was once even a winning contestant on The Dating Game. "He looked really young, and he told me he was 24," recalls Libby, a pet groomer in El Monte, Calif., who appears in three of the photos. "He was so easy to trust. He had a way of talking to people that really put them at ease."
Alcala, now 66, has been in prison since his 1979 arrest for Samsoe's murder. He was found guilty of murder twice before, in 1980 and in 1986, but both times the verdicts were later overturned because of technicalities. While prosecutors painstakingly built a new case against him, Alcala languished in prison. Surprisingly, the many photos police found way back in 1979-some in Alcala's Los Angeles home, most in a locker he rented near Seattle-were not introduced as evidence. Investigators were unable to identify the women in the pre-Internet days and feared the photos would only further slow down the case.
The man they finally convicted for good was born in San Antonio and raised by his Mexican-born mother (his father abandoned the family). Alcala, who claimed he had a genius-level IQ, earned a fine-arts degree from UCLA and studied film under Roman Polanski before his first brush with the law. In 1968 a motorist in Los Angeles saw him lure an 8-year-old schoolgirl into his Hollywood apartment. When police officers broke in, they found the girl-nearly beaten to death with a steel bar-but just missed Alcala, who escaped.
After that, he showed a remarkable flair for deceiving people. Alcala fled east and worked as an arts-camp counselor in New Hampshire, even as the FBI was putting him on its Ten Most Wanted list. He also persuaded dozens of women that he was a fashion photographer. "He said he was a professional, so in my mind I was being a model for him," says Liane Leedom, 48, a Connecticut psychiatrist who was 17 when she let Alcala take pictures of her in her parents' living room in 1979. Alcala showed her his portfolio, which in addition to shots of women included "spread after spread of [naked] teenage boys. I look back now, and I can't believe I was so trusting."
Alcala also proved an elusive target for prosecutors. He was arrested in 1971 and convicted of raping and beating the 8-year-old girl-yet served only two years in prison before being paroled. Arrested again in 1974 and convicted of violating his parole and giving marijuana to a 13-year-old girl, he served only another two years. But despite his crimes, Alcala was able to talk his way into a job as a typesetter for the Los Angeles Times. "He was a registered sex offender at the time," says Murphy. But somehow "he slipped through the cracks."
By then, however, investigators were beginning to tie him to several brutal murders, including the killing that finally got him arrested. On July 2, 1979, police discovered the decomposing body of Robin Samsoe. They also found her earrings in a locker rented by one of their suspects: Alcala. Police finally nabbed him in his mother's Monterey Park home. Prosecutors say he liked toying with his victims, strangling them unconscious, then waiting for them to come to before killing them.
At his sentencing, the relatives of his victims stared down an expressionless Alcala. "I know where my little Robin is now, and that's in heaven," said Samsoe's mother, Marianne Connelly. "She never again has to face the defendant because he is the devil's own, and I hope and believe he will rot in hell."
Since releasing the photos, police have received nearly 500 calls and have looked closely at more than a dozen cold cases across the country. Cynthia Libby, the young, smiling girl in photos No. 111, 185 and 193, can only wonder why she survived her meetings with Alcala and count her blessings that she did. During a recent interview with police, a detective "put his arm around me and said, 'I'm glad you're still with us,'" she says. "For the first time, I really realized how lucky I was."