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May 20, 2010

The Day My Cousin Vanished

Sentenced to death this spring for murdering five women, Rodney Alcala, also known as the "Dating Game Killer," posed as a photographer to lure his victims. Sheila Weller’s cousin Ellen was among them.


ellen hover newspaper clipping

The disappearance of Ellen Jane Hover made headline news for months.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sheila Weller

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Growing up in Hollywood, Ellen Jane Hover and I were first cousins; she was like a second little sister to me. Our homes were blocks apart on the quiet streets of Beverly Hills, where homes were draped with bougainvillea vines, and movie stars were our neighbors, picking their newspapers off their dewy lawns just like everyone else. Our fathers were brothers-in-law: mine, a neurosurgeon; hers, the owner of Ciro's, the most glamorous nightclub in town. Back then, at age 8, I assigned myself the role of Ellen's mentor and entertainer. I hid Snow White figurines in the palm fronds by her swimming pool, and I smiled as she discovered them, wide-eyed and delighted. I created a monthly paper-clip-bound magazine named Magazette, just for her. Ours was a very fortunate life in a very innocent world.

Ellen, a serene, brown-haired girl, had her swarthy father's dark eyes and her showgirl mother's delicate lips, high cheekbones, and long legs. Striking beauty lay in her future. She looked up to me, her cheerfully bossy older cousin; she believed that all I said was so. Little girls are sweet almost by definition, but Ellen was especially — almost heartbreakingly — sweet. Her sweetness was a trait you sensed was permanent, an odd purity within what would become a rocky family. Everyone who met her sensed her trusting heart. I'm sure her killer sensed it too.

When Ellen was 23, living in New York City after college in the late 1970s, she jotted down a man's name in her date book. He was a photographer with a fine-arts degree from UCLA; he had studied film under Roman Polanski; he'd recently taught art at a summer camp. All these things were true, and he most likely told them to her when he approached her with the offer of capturing her loveliness with his camera. He was "pressuring her to have lunch with him," as a close friend of hers remembers it. Ellen was too nice to say no. She went on that lunch date, and never came back. She had no idea that this man, who went by the name John Berger, with his rock-star good looks and near-genius IQ, had brutally raped an 8-year-old girl nine years earlier. He'd nearly killed that child after striking her with a steel pipe — yet had served only 34 months for the crime before being set free. After that, he was arrested and jailed for giving marijuana to a minor, for which he served two years in prison.

Ellen is believed to be among the very first fatal victims of this man, whose real name is Rodney Alcala, now known as the "Dating Game Killer," thanks to an appearance he made as a contestant on the TV game show. (And, yes, he got the girl on the show. Lucky for her, she never went on the date.) He may well have tortured and murdered dozens of women throughout the '70s. This past February, he was finally convicted of five of those murders; after the conviction, it took the jury all of one hour to recommend the death penalty, to which a judge — in March — forcefully agreed. Meanwhile, police released more than 100 photos that Alcala had taken of girls and young women; the photos were found in a Seattle locker that he had rented. The images have been posted online, in the hopes that family members will be able to identify missing loved ones.


Tips have been pouring in over the past few months about these photos of women, their faces frozen in the hair and makeup styles of the '70s, their prettiness framed in blue and brown Brady Bunch hues. How many had been written off as runaways or doomed acid-trippers but were really dead by Alcala's hand? It's hard to know. The girls' parents, now in their 80s, if they're alive at all, may not even be aware of the array of online photos.

I'll never forget the phone call from my mother, telling me that Ellen had disappeared. It was July 1977 — a hot summer day in those pre-Giuliani years of Manhattan's flamboyant filth and chaos — and I was a young single woman in New York, trying to make my way amid the city's grime and crime. I hadn't talked to Ellen in years. That's because when I was 12, my father had cheated on my mother — with Ellen's mom, of all people. When Ellen's dad found out, he came to our house with a gun and threatened to kill my father. The two men survived the fight — barely — but the damage was done. My parents divorced, Ellen's parents divorced, and my father married Ellen's mother.

After that, my father, whom I had unrequitedly worshipped, moved across the country to New York with his beautiful, aloof new wife. My cousin Ellen became my stepsister. She lived with my dad and her mom. I stayed in California with my mother and my sister, Liz. Pained over my father's betrayal, I wrote a furious letter to my father's new wife — and as a result, he disowned me. My little-girl closeness with Ellen faded away; our fairy-tale childhood was crushed.

More than a decade later (after my father had died and Ellen's mother had remarried), my mother called me in New York one day and said, "Ellen is living near you now. She graduated college. She broke up with her college boyfriend, and she has her own apartment. Would you like to call her?"

I snapped back, "No."

I wanted to punish Ellen's mother. But I was really punishing Ellen herself.


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