The Day My Cousin Vanished
By Sheila Weller
Photo Credit: Splash News/Newscom
A few weeks after that call from my mother, Ellen met Rodney Alcala and went on her fatal date. "Nightclub Heiress Goes Missing," blared the New York tabloids through the muggy months during which the Son of Sam killings also took place. Ellen's case became one of the longest unsolved missing-persons cases in the city's history.
Eleven months later, my mother phoned, drew a deep breath, then said, "The detective just called." She paused. "It's the worst." Ellen's bones had been found at the old Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York. It was a favorite photo-shoot location for Alcala.
Even before that definitive day, during the months when police had concluded that Alcala had been the last known person to see Ellen (and yet still he evaded arrest), the painful what-ifs had set in for me. What if I'd called Ellen, as I should have? I would have gone to her Third Avenue walk-up, where a baby grand piano filled the small living room, and watched her long, center-parted hair fall over her shoulders as she played. She was a gifted pianist who loved music and a biology major with med school in her future. I would have come upon what I know now were our similarities: She loved the movie Lady Sings the Blues so did I. She was so enamored of the counterculture of the late 1960s (of which I'd proudly counted myself a member) that her best friend, Nina, nicknamed her "Flover" ("flower power" plus her last name, "Hover"). She'd just spent time in Lake Tahoe to sort out her feelings about the long-term boyfriend she had recently broken up with, a guy some of her friends felt was too possessive. At exactly her age 23 I'd had a similar experience.
But, above and beyond the similarities, I would have seen Ellen's kindness: When her friend Nina didn't get asked to her senior prom, Ellen went as Nina's "date." And when Ellen's other close friend Anita had a baby, Ellen planned to drop everything and move in with Anita for a few weeks to play baby nurse. My cousin, such a soulful, conscientious young woman.
Ellen's mother and my father had had a baby, and so Ellen and I had a mutual half-sister, Vicki, whom Ellen adored and whom I had never met. I might have learned, if I had reunited with Ellen that summer, that the complexity of our family was as embarrassing to Ellen as it was to me. Ellen might have confessed to me something I only learned recently: that she'd told no one not even her best friends about her mother's three-year marriage to my father. We would've bonded over our badly broken, weirdly reconfigured family.
We would have walked around my neighborhood, the West Village. We'd have stopped for white-wine spritzers at postage-stamp-sized tables at sidewalk cafés, surrounded by bums. Having lived alone a hard few years, I might have heard enough about her ex-boyfriend, Bruce, to feel that maybe, with a few guidelines from me, Ellen should give him another chance. Even if that were not in the cards, I would have said, "Be careful. Don't go out with just any cute guy," and she would have listened to me. She might have then rebuffed "John Berger." She would be alive, and maybe, chains of circumstances being random, he'd have slipped up on his next attempt: been arrested, prosecuted, convicted and stopped.
These are the thoughts that have tortured me over the years.
After Ellen disappeared, we now know, Rodney Alcala (aka John Berger) drove across the country and started a California killing spree each attack preceded by sexual assault and involving strangulation or beating, or both. (Unbelievably, during this time, under his real name, with his criminal record for that brutal rape of a minor attached to it, he was able to get a job as a typesetter for the Los Angeles Times, as well as go on The Dating Game.) In November 1977, he killed 18-year-old Jill Barcomb; a month later, his victim was Georgia Wixted, 27, a cardiac-care nurse. In June 1978, he murdered 32-year-old legal secretary Charlotte Lamb. Almost exactly a year later, in June 1979, he killed Jill Parenteau, 21, a computer-program keypunch operator. And then, a week later, he intercepted a 12-year-old girl riding a bike to her ballet lesson. He murdered that girl, Robin Samsoe, but he finally made a mistake: He was seen. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. (No one then knew of his role in the previous four murders or of his almost-certain killing for which there is now DNA evidence of Cornelia Crilley, 23, in New York.)
Alcala entered San Quentin prison and went on to become one of the most successful system-beating inmates in the state of California. A legend. A nightmare. His conviction for Samsoe's murder got overturned on a technicality, so he was retried. He was convicted again, but that conviction was reversed on another technicality. (After that, he remained in prison awaiting a new retrial.) He fought for years against having his DNA tested as more cold-case files were reopened. He published a book, You the Jury, which proclaimed his "innocence." He sued the state on a slip-and-fall claim and for failing to provide him with a low-fat diet. Finally, this past January, Alcala went on trial for the murders of the four other known victims; the indictments had been made through blood evidence and the DNA matches that he had fought for so long. At the same time, he was retried for the murder of Robin Samsoe. (As for my cousin Ellen, her bones were so decomposed when they were found that the police could not, and still cannot, perform DNA testing.)
Matt Murphy, the district attorney who won the five death sentences against Alcala, is among many seasoned crime fighters who believe Alcala's murder toll will turn out to be greater than that of Ted Bundy's, who confessed to killing more than 30 women and was executed in 1989. Already, police believe that two women murdered in Seattle were victims of Alcala. As the photos continue to circulate, the police tip lines keep ringing.
NEXT: HONORING ELLEN'S MEMORY