In 1978 The Dating Game host Jim Lange stands on stage – a floral motif bedecking the set behind him. Then he points to his left to present the eligible bachelors who want to date the woman of the hour. And Lange subsequently introduces the first suitor as Rodney Alcala, whose appearance on the popular ABC show feels chilling once you become aware that this man is in fact a prolific serial killer. At this time, though, he hasn’t yet been caught.
It’s important to point out that exactly what constitutes a serial killer remains a topic of some debate. However, most experts agree that a person dubbed as such derives some kind of psychological pleasure from committing murder. Such individuals tend to act on their own, too, and they also each kill more than one person over a time frame spanning in excess of 30 days.
As a consequence, then, many consider Jack the Ripper to be modern history’s original serial killer. The notorious criminal roamed the streets of London’s Whitechapel neighborhood – a part of the city that was known at the time for being dangerous. And it was there, in 1888, that Jack the Ripper selected his victims, murdering a minimum of five women – all of whom are thought to have been sex workers.
In an effort to catch Jack the Ripper, however, the Metropolitan Police came up with revolutionary techniques that are still employed today. The authorities gathered forensic materials, for instance, and interviewed those in the local area who might have seen or heard something strange. On top of that, a physician named Thomas Bond created a psychological profile of the Ripper – perhaps in a bid to both try and connect his different murders and anticipate his next moves.
Yet while history books may not universally remember Jack the Ripper as the world’s first ever serial murderer, his killing spree was undoubtedly the first to drum up massive media interest. Indeed, stories of his violent crimes – and of the poor people who had suffered at his hands – made headlines around the globe.
Interestingly, though, the type of press coverage that surrounded Jack the Ripper has arguably fueled more recent serial killers’ actions. Certain murderers, you see, actively strive for the Ripper’s level of infamy, while others hope that the news of their crimes will stoke similar terror in the general population. Notoriety isn’t all that spurs on these individuals, however.
If serial killers are not inspired by the potential for media notoriety, for instance, then they may cite financial benefits as their main motives. Another driving force behind multiple slayings, meanwhile, may be the desire for power. Some murderers who were molested during their childhoods fall into this category; in these cases, it’s theorized, the perpetrators want to reverse the sense of helplessness that they felt during youth.
Yet other serial killers may have experienced psychotic episodes that make them feel as though God, the devil or similar intangible forces have told them that they have to kill. And a further set of these murderers justify their acts by claiming that they’re removing unwanted people from society.
On top of that, some serial murderers commit their crimes because of how the act of killing itself makes them feel. This “hedonistic” group of individuals may experience rushes of joy when they carry out murders, for example, while lust-driven killers may have sexual motives.
However, despite all these theories, many questions remain as to why these people go so far as to kill in order to satisfy their desires. One school of thought hypothesizes that a serial murderer’s homicidal instinct is biological – in other words, that they are born that way. But other experts reject this notion, claiming that there isn’t yet enough evidence to prove whether or not a person’s genetic makeup plays a role in having murderous tendencies.
Other specialists, meanwhile, stand by the so-called “military theory.” In short, there may be a possible connection between military service and serial killers, although there is little proof to support this idea. And yet this notion should perhaps be kept in mind when it comes to the case of Rodney Alcala.
Alcala came into the world as Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor on August 23, 1943. His mother, Anna Maria Gutierrez, and his father, Raoul Alcala Buquor, lived in San Antonio, Texas, at the time, although in 1951 they would uproot the family to relocate across the border to Mexico.
And in 1954 Alcala would experience another huge change in his life. Raoul abandoned the family that year, leaving Anna Maria to raise the children – two daughters and two sons – on her own. When Alcala was approximately aged 11, then, the five arrived in Los Angeles, California, to start a new life.
Once Alcala had turned 17 years old, meanwhile, he decided to sign up for the U.S. military. Then, four years later, his time in the service came to an abrupt end. That’s because Alcala is said to have suffered a psychological breakdown in 1964, and this apparently rendered him unable to function in the army.
While in this fragile mental state, moreover, Alcala reportedly abandoned his post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and hitchhiked all the way to Anna Maria’s home in Los Angeles. Subsequently, a psychiatrist found that Alcala has a personality disorder. And Dr. Nicola Davies, a researcher behind the Health Psychology Consultancy website, explained how such a condition may have manifested itself in the young man.
“Having [a personality disorder] diagnosis would have affected Alcala on a day-to-day basis in a number of ways,” Dr. Davies said on her blog. “His behavior would have been to resist social norms and laws, and he would have been incredibly deceptive and impulsive. Despite a total disregard for the rights of others, Alcala would have experienced no remorse for his [later] crimes.”
While further diagnoses later on would provide additional insights into Alcala’s character, the label of antisocial personality disorder was enough to have him discharged from the U.S. Army. Still, after leaving the military, he had the chance to shift the focus of his career path. And Alcala subsequently enrolled at the UCLA School of Fine Arts, from where he’d later graduate.
Incidentally, it was there in Los Angeles that Alcala perpetrated what authorities believe to be his first attack. In 1968 an individual contacted the cops, saying that they had looked on as Alcala had coaxed an eight-year-old child into his home. The future killer had allegedly assaulted and raped the girl, too, although she fortunately escaped death. Unluckily for the police, however, Alcala was nowhere to be found after the report came in.
In fact, Alcala had not only left the scene of the crime, but he had also left the state of California altogether. He moved to New York City, to be precise, and continued his studies at New York University’s film school. Alcala was now using the alias of John Berger, which allowed him to fly under the radar – in spite of the heinous crime he was alleged to have perpetrated.
Then in 1971 Alcala fled again, heading east to New Hampshire. Shockingly, his next line of employment saw him working at a kids’ camp as a counselor. But while Alcala changed his name once more – this time going by John Burger – he didn’t find it so easy to alter his appearance. And this turned out to be a big problem, since his face had appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list at the start of that year.
When a couple of Alcala’s young campers happened to recognize their counselor on a wanted poster, then, the game was up. He was subsequently apprehended and taken to California, where he would face charges for his alleged crimes against the eight-year-old girl. Yet Alcala’s case didn’t go as planned for the prosecution.
The family of the young girl whom Alcala had attacked apparently forbade her from giving testimony at the resulting trial, you see – and they had moved to Mexico, to boot. This meant that Alcala could admit to the more minor crime of assault and serve a much shorter sentence. And so, following less than 18 months in prison, the offender was granted parole, having reportedly shown signs of rehabilitation while behind bars.
However, Alcala’s supposed about-turn sadly turned out to be an act, with freedom seemingly only spurring him to commit more offences. In just a matter of weeks, in fact, police officers again had Alcala in handcuffs after he had assaulted a second young girl. But following another short stint in prison – this time lasting two years – the man was released into society once more.
Then, just after Alcala’s second prison term, he received an unexpected green light from his parole officer. The criminal was allowed to leave Los Angeles and visit New York City – an unusual allowance given his recent release from custody. And this proved to be a fateful decision. After all, police suspect that just days into Alcala’s 1977 trip to the Big Apple, he murdered 23-year-old Ellen Jane Hover.
Following Alcala’s vacation in New York, he returned to the City of Angels and managed to secure a job at the Los Angeles Times – despite his criminal record. He also took up photography as a side gig, although some of his colleagues noticed that his portraiture resulted in strange and often revealing photos of his subjects.
In 2010 one of Alcala’s ex-co-workers, Sharon Gonzales, talked to LA Weekly about the photography samples that he had brought into the newsroom. And she recalled that many of his snaps had been of young girls. “I thought it was weird,” Gonzales said. “But I was young; I didn’t know anything.” She did ask Alcala his reasons for taking said portraits, though – and the man had a curious answer.
“[Alcala] said their moms asked him to,” Gonzales recalled. Given that the girls had been photographed without clothes, however, this claim seemed very unlikely. And yet neither Gonzales nor her superiors alerted authorities after seeing Alcala’s collection of snapshots despite their uneasy feelings. “We thought he was a little different – strange about sex,” Gonzales explained.
According to Dr. Davies, photography played right into Alcala’s hand as a serial killer, too. She said, “[Taking photos] allows [serial killers] to hide behind the camera and to obsess over their potential victims without raising any suspicions.” And even more chillingly, Dr. Davies explained that Alcala’s pictures served as a “way of collecting mementoes of his crimes, which allowed him to prolong the pleasure of his monstrous acts.”
But despite Alcala’s sinister tendencies, he was also a mastermind deceiver. You see, Alcala continued to outwardly present himself as a suave, witty and engaging man. And it was presumably this side of his personality that helped him charm his way into a spot on the popular television show The Dating Game. In fact, you can even watch him during his appearance on the 1978 episode – by which time he had already committed multiple heinous crimes.
Each episode of The Dating Game – which first hit screens in 1965 – usually featured one eligible woman who would have her choice of three men. But there was one catch: the trio would remain concealed from the single lady, leading her to ask questions in order to figure out which of the men she wanted to date. And the ABC show’s host, Jim Lange, would kick off proceedings by introducing the suitors.
On Alcala’s 1978 episode, then, Lange directs the audience’s attention toward the first man on stage. And he introduces him by saying, “Bachelor number one is a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the dark room at the age of 13 fully developed. Between takes, you might find him skydiving or motorcycling. Please welcome Rodney Alcala.”
Then, after the single woman, schoolteacher Cheryl Bradshaw, makes her way on stage, she starts asking amusing questions as a means to decide which guy she should date. “What’s your best time?” she asks the three men. And in retrospect, Alcala’s response can certainly be construed as chilling. “The best time is at night,” the killer replies.
“That’s the only time there is,” Alcala continues with an unnerving smile. “[Morning and afternoon] are okay, but nighttime is when it really gets good.” And when he’s asked what he would be if he were a food, Alcala fires back another curious answer. “I’m called ‘the banana,’ and I look really good,” he says.
Then, when Alcala suggests that Bradshaw “peel [him],” the Dating Game audience bursts out laughing – as does Bradshaw herself. The serial killer cracks a large grin, too, and giggles at his own joke. And with that response, Alcala seals his fate on the dating show.
Indeed, when Lange asks Bradshaw to reveal which lucky man she has her eye on, her answer is simple. “Well, I like bananas, so I’ll take [number] one,” she says, referring, frighteningly, to Alcala. And again, the murderer’s face lights up with a smirk.
After that, Alcala and Bradshaw finally meet each other on stage, and he plants a kiss on her cheek. The pair stand with their arms around each other’s waists, too, as Lange reveals the location of their first date. “Well, as far as I can see, Cheryl and [Alcala], it looks like the two of you may be involved in some sort of racket,” the host says. “So… you’ll receive tennis lessons.”
Yet as excited as Alcala and Bradshaw initially appear at the prospect of hitting the courts together, their date seemingly wasn’t meant to be. And Bradshaw explained to The Sunday Telegraph in 2012 – over 30 years after her appearance on The Dating Game – why she eventually opted out of meeting up with Alcala.
“I started to feel ill,” Bradshaw recalled of her experience after the cameras had stopped rolling. “[Alcala] was acting really creepy. I turned down his offer. I didn’t want to see him again.” What’s more, Alcala’s fellow bachelors on The Dating Game, Jed Mills and Armand Cerami, apparently got similar vibes, too. Mills, for one, told LA Weekly in 2010 that “[Alcala] was kind of a creepy guy.”
It goes without saying, then, that Bradshaw thankfully made the right choice in following her instincts regarding Alcala’s strange behavior. However, it’s possible that the serial killer’s unsuccessful experience on The Dating Game intensified his violent tendencies. “This rejection was likely to justify his lack of trust further – as well as increase his disregard for others,” Dr. Davies has explained.
After all, it was only the following year, in 1979, that police finally apprehended Alcala in connection with a murder. When 12-year-old Robin Samsoe had gone missing in Orange County, her pals had recalled a man asking to snap photos of them on the beach. Police subsequently had a sketch made of the individual whom the girls had described, and the resulting image looked enough like Alcala that his parole officer noted the similarity. Then, when cops searched a storage unit that Alcala had previously rented, Samsoe’s earrings were discovered inside the space.
Now in his 70s, Alcala remains behind bars on death row to this day, having committed at least five murders in California and two in New York. Investigators believe that his total victim count may be much higher, however – with some estimates pinning it at over 100 people. And while Alcala may be one of the most prolific serial murderers in the U.S., his disturbing appearance on a reality show secured his infamy – and earned him the chilling moniker “The Dating Game Killer.”