My Cousin Went to Lunch With a Stranger—and Then She Vanished

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 Jane Hover
(Image credit: Courtesy of Sheila Weller)

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.

Rodney Alcala

(Image 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.

Ellen Jane Hover

(Image credit: Courtesy of Sheila Weller)

Ellen's death changed my life in many ways over the years. For one thing, it altered my political philosophy. I've always been a liberal, but now my liberalism has a big asterisk hung on it—I'm the outlier at dinner parties who shocks my supposedly like-minded friends by disagreeing with the conventional wisdom that capital punishment is barbaric. I'll calmly say, "The death penalty? My problem with it is not that it exists, but that it isn't carried out swiftly enough."

Ellen shaped my career as well, inspiring me to become a writer specializing in crimes and injustice against women. I have spent more than 20 intense, gratifying years authoring three books and dozens of magazine articles on variations of that subject, and that entire output was for Ellen. During the 1990s, I also sat on the board of directors of a large domestic-violence agency—in Ellen's honor. 

Writing and advocating on behalf of women has been empowering (and has even made a difference in some lives), but none of these after-the-fact deeds can undo the telephone receiver I slammed down in the summer of 1977. The more I write about victims, the more I remember the one I unintentionally turned my back on saving. Why wasn't I nicer when my mother called? Sometimes you only get one chance to be nice in a way that counts; the problem is in knowing when it counts. 

Perhaps the most important lesson is one I learned this past January. When I heard that the new trial for Alcala was about to start, I felt a flood of anger—I'd actually thought that this man had been executed years earlier. (What right did he have to all this extra life?) I followed the new trial religiously, through daily clicks on the courtroom coverage. I started contacting Ellen's old friends; I wanted to follow this monster's trial along with them. I felt we needed to be a community for her, and they felt the same way. I also e-mailed Vicki, the half-sister whom Ellen and I shared. (My sister, Liz, and I had located Vicki in the late '80s and had been in intermittent touch with her over the years.) What I found was incredibly heartening.

To the people who had loved her, the memories of Ellen had never faded. Ellen's old boyfriend Bruce, whom she'd tentatively broken up with just before meeting Alcala, told me, "Ellen was the love of my life." My half-sister, Vicki, said in an e-mail, "She was my best friend, my confidante. She was pure love." Ellen's three close friends, Terry and Nina and Anita, regaled me with details about Ellen—her turns of phrase, her gestures, even her favorite Beatles song; they also suffered from their versions of the lifelong what-ifs that had plagued me. 

From all these raw, as-if-yesterday responses, I have come to see that there are two kinds of death: death in the flesh and death in the heart. Ellen stayed alive in the hearts of her closest friends throughout their lifetimes—lifetimes she herself was cruelly denied from sharing. If one can say that a murderer wins when he extinguishes not just life, but feeling, then Alcala lost.

"Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" my sister, Liz, an L.A. lawyer, said into my cell phone the moment she heard the verdict this past February. The guilty verdicts were for the five California murders; as for Ellen, it is almost impossible that Alcala will be extradited to New York and tried, or deemed responsible, for her death. When I wrote to DA Matt Murphy to congratulate him on the other guilty verdicts, he immediately wrote back: "One of the most frustrating aspects of this case is that we were precluded from including Ellen's murder in the penalty phase. She was such a stunningly beautiful and nice person, it just broke my heart."

Ellen, I am so, so sorry I didn't call you, not because it would have changed anything, but because I missed knowing you—the adult incarnation of the little girl who marveled at the Snow White figures in the palm fronds. The joy you would have spread in your life of medicine and music and friendship we can now only imagine. Because of Rodney Alcala, imagining will have to be good enough.

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