Rodney Alcala: Attractive Serial Killer Seen on TV

Our case last week dealt with vigilante justice in 1933 California. You may recall that mob dragged the confessed kidnappers and killers of Brooke Hart from jail and lynched them in a public park. Our case this week is also from California, that of serial Rodney Alcala. In the day, Alcala was good-looking enough to earn a slot on television’s The Dating Game. But no one at the time knew he was an active serial killer.

Rodney Alcala

Rodney Alcala was born Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor in San Antonio, Texas in 1943. In 1951, his father moved the family to Mexico but abandoned them three years later. His mother later moved Rodney and his two sisters to the Los Angeles suburbs.

Rodney Alcala
Rodney Alcala

Alcala joined the U.S. Army in 1961 when he was 17. He served as a clerk for about three years before he had a nervous breakdown and went AWOL. The Army gave him a medical discharge.

Rodney Alcala, Criminal

On September 25, 1969, a witness called Los Angeles police after seeing Alcala lure an eight-year-old girl into his apartment. Tali Shapiro was alive when police arrived. But Alcala had beaten her with a steel bar and raped her before fleeing before fleeing.

To avoid arrest, Alcala moved to New York and enrolled in the NYU film school. In 1971, he managed to get a job as a counselor at an arts camp for children in New Hampshire. In June of that year, two children from the camp recognized his picture on a wanted poster. Extradited back to California, he received a three-year sentence for child molestation.

Paroled after 17 months, Alcala was rearrested when he assaulted a 13-year-old girl to whom he offered a ride. He went back to prison but was out in two years.

During this period, Alcala convinced numerous young men and women that he was a professional photographer. Many posed for him. However, most of the models were nude and the photos were usually suggestive. Police feel that many of Alcala’s photography subjects may be cold case victims.

Alcala Appears on The Dating Game

In 1978, Rodney Alcala appeared on the TV game show The Dating Game as Bachelor Number One. Host Jim Lange introduced him as a successful photographer who was into skydiving and motorcycling. On air, he was witty and charming, and the female contestant, Cheryl Bradshaw, picked him.

Cheryl Bradshaw and Rodney Alcala during Alcala’s Dating Game appearance

Backstage, however, Alcala was anything but charming. Bradshaw called the show’s office the next day and refused to go on the date. She said she felt “weird vibes” coming from him. Fellow contestant Jed Mills, who sat next to Alcala as Bachelor Number Two, described him as a “very strange guy” with “bizarre opinions.”

Alcala Arrested, Tried, and Convicted

On June 20, 1979, 12-year-old Robin Samsoe disappeared on her way from the beach to ballet class. Her body was found 12 days later. Robin’s friends said a man approached them on the beach and asked to take their pictures. Police circulated a sketch of the photographer, and his parole office recognized it as a sketch of Rodney Alcala.

1997 prison mugshot (California Department of Corrections)
1997 prison mugshot (California Department of Corrections)

Police arrested Alcala in July 1979 and held him without bail. At his trial in 1980, the jury convicted him of the Samsoe murder, and he received a death sentence. The California Supreme Court overturned that conviction because jurors heard improper testimony concerning Alcala’s prior convictions for sex offenses. The second trial in 1986 was essentially a repeat of the 1980 trial and ended with the same result.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the 1986 conviction as well. The State of California tried Alcala for the third time in 2010. This time, there were five counts of murder. In the years since his second trial, investigators had traced the murders of four additional women to him. These women were: Jill Barcomb, 18; Georgia Wixted, 27; Charlotte Lamb, 31; and Jill Parenteau, 21.

The California victims. Clockwize from top left: Jill Parenteau, Charlotte Lamb, Jill Barcomb, Robin Samsoe, and Georgia Wixted.
The California victims. Clockwize from top left: Jill Parenteau, Charlotte Lamb, Jill Barcomb, Robin Samsoe, and Georgia Wixted.

At his third trial, Rodney Alcala acted as his own attorney. This rarely goes well, and it didn’t go well for Alcala this time. He ended up convicted on five counts of murder and with another death sentence.

Alcala at his third trial
Alcala at his third trial

Epilogue

In 2013, Rodney Alcala pled guilty to two homicide charges in New York. Police identified him as a suspect or person of interest in murders in Washington State, San Francisco, and Wyoming as well. The total number his victims is likely far greater than the seven women he was convicted of killing.

New York victims Cornelia Crilley (L) and Ellen Hover (R)
New York victims Cornelia Crilley (L) and Ellen Hover (R)

Rodney Alcala died of unspecified natural causes on July 24, 2021. He was 77 years old and still awaiting execution.

You can read more about the case in Victoria Best’s More Than Just a Pretty Face and Rodney James Alcala: Occupation: Serial Killer a.k.a. The Dating Game Killer by J.R. Knowles.

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Vigilante Mob Drags Kidnappers of Popular Man from Jail

Last week, we featured Tom Horn, a hired killer from the waning days of the old west. We stay in the West this week, but we flash forward to 1933. In that year in San Jose, a vigilante mob dragged the confessed kidnappers of Brooke Hart from jail. The mob then lynched the two men in a public park.

Brooke Hart Kidnapped

It was just before 6:00 p.m. Thursday, November 9, 1933, in San Jose, California. Brook Hart, the 22-year-old son of prominent department store owner Alexander Hart retrieved his car from a parking lot. Hart’s car, a 1933 Studebaker President roadster had been a graduation gift from his parents. The lot was behind the Hart & Son department store at Market and Santa Clara Streets.

Brook Leopold Hart. His kidnapping nad murder incidted the vigilante mob.
Brook Leopold Hart. His kidnapping nad murder incidted the vigilante mob.

At 9:30 that night, the oldest of Brooke’s younger sisters answered the telephone. A soft-spoken man told her Brook had been kidnapped and that instructions would follow. An hour later, a caller that sounded like the same man spoke with another sister. He told her the kidnappers would return her brother if paid $40,000 (worth about $851,000 in 2021).

The Hart & Son department store in Sna Jose, California
The Hart & Son department store in Sna Jose, California

The Investigation

The San Jose Police Department, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, and the Division of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) all joined the investigation. After a few days of telephone calls and mailed notes, police were able to trace a phone call. It came from a payphone just 150 feet from the San Jose Police station. There they arrested Thomas Harold Thurmond just as he was hanging up the phone.

Thomas Harold Thurman. The vigilante mob hanged him first.  (San Jose Police Department)
Thomas Harold Thurman. The vigilante mob hanged him first. (San Jose Police Department)

At 3:00 a.m. on November 16, Thurmond signed a confession. It named John Holmes as his accomplice. Ominously, he told police the pair had tied Brooke’s hands with wire and tossed him off the San Mateo Bridge. Holmes was arrested and signed a confession at 1:00 p.m. the next day. It wasn’t until November 26 that two duck hunters discovered Brooke’s badly decomposed body. He had died from drowning.

John Holmes mugshot (San Jose Police Department)
John Holmes mugshot (San Jose Police Department)

Rumors and Signs of a Vigilante Mob

The Hart family was prominent in San Jose. Hart & Son had been in business since 1866 and the family was well-known and well-liked. Threats of a vigilante mob caused Sheriff William Emig to move the pair to the Potrero Hill police station in San Francisco for their safety. In a front-page editorial, a San Jose newspaper called for “mob violence.” And when the pair returned to San Francisco after questioning, cries of “lynch them” issued from the crowd surrounding the jail.

A grand jury indicted Thurmond and Holmes on charges of extortion, using the mails to extort, and conspiracy. The accused men returned to the San Jose jail on November 22. The next day, California’s Republican governor, James “Sunny Jim” Rolph announced he would not call out the National Guard to protect the pair.

Governor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph refused to call out the National Guard to control the vigilante mob
Governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph refused to call out the National Guard to control the vigilante mob

A volatile vigilante mob grew daily outside the San Jose jail. Holmes’ attorney, San Francisco lawyer Vincent Hallinan, called Governor Rolph and asked that he deploy the National Guard if a vigilante mob should attempt to lynch the Holmes and Thurmond. Rolph responded that he would “pardon the lynchers.”

Holmes' attorney, Vincent Hallinan (Marion County Voters' Pamphlet)
Holmes’ attorney, Vincent Hallinan (Marion County Voters’ Pamphlet)

A Vigilante Mob Runs Amok

The discovery of Brooke Hart’s body on November 26 was the catalyst that incited a lynching. All day that Sunday and into the evening, radio stations announced that a lynching would occur that night in St. James Park in San Jose.

Rolph had plans to attend the Western Governors’ Conference in Boise, Idaho. At 9:00 p.m., he canceled those plans. This was specifically to prevent his Lieutenant Governor (and rival) Frank Merriam from calling out the National Guard. At about the same time, the crowd outside the jail got restless. They demanded the Sheriff release Holmes and Thurmond to the vigilante mob. At 10:30, Sheriff Emig called Rolph, asking him to deploy the National Guard to protect the prisoners. Rolph again refused.

A vigilante mob estimated to be as large as 10,000 people surrounds the santa Clara County Jail, November 26-27, 1933
A vigilante mob estimated to be as large as 10,000 people surrounds the Santa Clara County Jail, November 26-27, 1933

The Vigilante Mob Lynches Homes and Thurmond

By midnight, thousands of people were outside the jail. Sheriff’s deputies fired tear gas at the growing vigilante mob but that only made them angrier. After the first round of tear gas, the mob raided a nearby construction site for materials to throw at the jail. Vigilantes then fashioned a battering ram from a heavy pipe. Sheriff Emig ordered deputies to abandon the first two floors of the jail, where Thurmond and Holmes were. Emig, nine deputies, and eight state patrolmen were all beaten, choked, or trampled during the riot.

A vigilante mob uses a heavy pipe as a battering ram to breath the Santa Clara County Jail, November 27, 1933
A vigilante mob uses a heavy pipe as a battering ram to breath the Santa Clara County Jail, November 27, 1933

A vigilante mob estimated to be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people now stormed the jail. They dragged Holmes and Thurmond by nooses tied around their necks across the street to St. James Park. There they stripped the two prisoners, then beat and otherwise tortured them before hanging them. The mob hanged Holmes from the branch of an elm tree and Thurmond from a mulberry tree. Members of the mob took pieces of the trees as souvenirs as they exited the park en masse.

Epilogue

“Sunny Jim” Rolph was publicly criticized by President Franklin Roosevelt and former President Herbert Hoover, among others, for advocating “lynch law.” Rolph responded by saying, “I would like to parole all kidnappers in San Quentin to the fine, patriotic citizens of San Jose.” He also promised to pardon anyone involved in the lynching case. However, Rolph died on June 2, 1934, after suffering several heart attacks.

Editorial cartoon by Edmund Duffy criticizing Governor Rolph and  the San Jose lynchings (Baltimore Sun)
Editorial cartoon by Edmund Duffy criticizing Governor Rolph and the San Jose lynchings (Baltimore Sun)

No one was ever convicted in connection with the lynchings. Seven people were eventually arrested but none were convicted. One young man was charged after publicly boasting that he led the vigilante mob, but those charges were dropped. The Santa Clara County grand jury met in 1934 but, despite thousands of witnesses, returned not a single indictment.

St. James Park in 2016. Holmes was hanged from an elm tree that once stood near the William McKinley memorial (San Jose Mercury News)
St. James Park in 2016. Holmes was hanged from an elm tree that once stood near the William McKinley memorial (San Jose Mercury News)

Brooke Hart’s brother, Alexander J. Hart, Jr., sold the Hart & Son department store in 1975 and died in 2010 at the age of 89.

In 1994, former San Jose Mercury News reported Harry Farrell published Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town. Initially praised at the time (it won an Edgar award), it came under fire from writer John D. Murphy. In Jury Rigging in the Court of Public Opinion, Murphy criticized Farrell’s approach, especially his uncritical acceptance of Holmes’ and Thurmond’s confessions as truth.

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Tom Horn: Colorful Hired Killer Spreads Terror in Wyoming

Last week we saw serial killer Donald Gaskins have his budding career cut short. This week’s case is that of Tom Horn, one of the authentic “hired guns” of the American west. Horn rose to fame (or infamy) as a hitman during the fading days of the Old West.

Tom Horn—Scout, Rancher, Detective

Thomas Horn, Jr. was born on his family’s farm in Scotland County, Missouri in the northeastern corner of the state. The fifth of eventually 12 children, young Tom was a lonely child who often suffered abuse from his father. At 16, he traveled to the Southwest where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout and packer. His performance as a scout earned him praise and promotion. By 1885, he was chief of scouts at Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. While with the Army, he witnessed Apache leader Geronimo’s final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886.

Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.
Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.

Geronimo’s surrender marked the end of the Apache Wars in the Southwest. Horn took the money he had earned as a scout and started a small ranch in Southeastern Arizona Territory. However, one night, thieves attacked the ranch and stole his 100 head of cattle and 26 horses. The theft left Horn bankrupt. It also marked the beginning of his intense hatred for thieves

Following his failed attempt at ranching, Horn wandered about, holding a number of jobs. Most often he worked as a cowboy, where he was expected to use his gun to watch over the stock. In 1889, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired him because of his reputation as a tracker and for being cool under pressure.

Tom Horn Becomes a Hired gun

The so-called Johnson County War was essentially a class conflict between the big (and wealthy) cattlemen and small homesteaders. It was fought mostly over land and water rights. Ranchers who raised sheep were especially targeted; sheep supposedly destroyed the common grazing lands. Typically, the cattlemen would accuse a small rancher or farmer of rustling, often falsely. Lynch mobs often dispatched the “rustlers.”

"The Invaders," gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WO in May 1892)
“The Invaders,” gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County during the Johnson County War (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WY in May 1892)

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) hired Tom Horn as a “range detective,” a euphemism for hired killer. He also continued to work for Pinkerton’s when the agency was in the service of the WSGA or other cattle interests. Horn earned a reputation as a tough and fearless killer.

Tom Horn Kills Willie Nickell—Or Did He?

The Miller and Nickell families were neighbors near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Jim Miller raised cattle while Kels Nickell raised sheep. Conflict between the two families was inevitable. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep rancher Kels, was found murdered near the gate of the Nickell homestead. The violence continued. On August 4, someone shot Kels Nickell. The next day, Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe Lefors arrived in Iron Mountain. They arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus for the shooting of Kels Nickell. The trio bonded out the next day.

Kels P. Nickell and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State Archives)

Months passed. In January 1902, Deputy Marshall Joe Lefors questioned Horn about the Willie Nickell murder while discussing potential employment. Horn, still drunk from a bender the night before, allegedly confessed to killing Willie with his rifle from 300 yards away. The county sheriff arrested him the next day.

Willie Nickell
Willie Nickell

Horn On Trial

Horn’s trial began in Cheyenne on October 10, 1902. Because of Horn’s notoriety, the trial attracted large crowds and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Cattle rancher John C. Coble, a long-time friend and employer, funded the defense. However, ninety years later, writer Johan P. Bakker proposed that Horn had become expendable to the WSGA’s members. The trial became a way of silencing him before he could talk too much about their shady activities. Bakker theorizes that although WSGA members forked over $1,000 each for the defense, they made it clear they wanted a minimal effort.

The prosecution case against Horn leaned heavily on his supposed “confession” to Deputy Marshall Lefors. Circumstantial evidence placing him in the general vicinity at the time tended to support the “confession.” The defense called one Otto Plaga, who testified that Horn was 20 miles away at the time of the murder.

Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903
Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903

The jury got the case on October 23 and returned a guilty verdict the next day. Several days later, Judge Richard H. Scott sentenced Horn to death by hanging. A petition to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a new trial failed.

Epilogue

Tom Horn was hanged on November 20, 1903. People still argue his guilt today. Author Chip Carlson researched the case and wrote Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon. He concluded that while Horn could have killed Willie Nickell, he probably didn’t. Another writer, Dean Fenton Krakel, believes Horn did commit the murder but did not realize he was killing a boy. His book, The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen’s War, contends the real target was Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.

Rancher Jim Coble paid for Horn’s coffin and a stone to mark his grave. He was buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903.

Tom Horn's tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO
Tom Horn’s tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO

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Donald Gaskins: Strange Serial Killer, “Meanest Man in America”

One thing about crime, it happens everywhere, even in places you’d think were relatively safe. Crowded cities often breed crime, like the murder of Jenny Maxwell we learned about last week. This week, we discuss crimes that occurred in rural South Carolina, and we meet Donald Gaskins. Gaskins committed a series of murders in the 1970s.

Donald Gaskins, A Rough Start in Life

Donald Gaskins was born on March 13, 1933, to Eulea Parrott, the last in a series of illegitimate children. His mother neglected him, and the various men that drifted in and out of her life physically abused him. Small in stature, the family called him “Junior” or “Pee Wee.”

Donald Henry Gaskins
Donald Henry Gaskins

Attending school changed nothing. Donald fought constantly with other students and his teachers punished him frequently. At age 11, he quit school altogether. He worked on cars at a local garage and sometimes helped work on the family farm. All the while, he nursed an intense hatred toward people, especially women.

Gaskins met two other school dropouts about his same age while working at the garage. Together, the three formed what they called “The Terrible Trio.” The trio’s main enterprise was burglary, although they occasionally indulged in sexual assault, targeting younger boys.

Donald Gaskins’ Life of Petty Crime

Burglarizing a house at age 13, a girl he knew interrupted Gaskins and tried to attack him with an axe. He got the axe away from her and struck her in the head and arm before fleeing the scene. The girl lived, and Gaskins went on trial for assault with intent to kill. He was convicted and sent to the South Carolina Industrial School for White Boys until his 18th birthday.

Reform school was tough on young Donald. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally managed to escape. He got a job with a traveling carnival and married a 13-year-old girl. Inexplicably, he then decided to turn himself in and finish out his reform school sentence. He was released in March 1951 and went to work on a tobacco plantation, supplementing his earnings by setting “insurance fires” to barns for a fee.

Donald Gaskins Goes to a Real Prison

At the tobacco plantation, the boss’s daughter and one of her friends confronted Gaskins about the arsons. He flipped out, attacking both girls with a hammer and splitting one girl’s skull. The result was a five-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder.

Gaskin's Florence, SC mugshot
Gaskin’s Florence, SC mugshot

In prison, as in reform school, there were many predators. Gaskins had been a small boy and now he was a small man, only 5’ 4” tall. He couldn’t hope to intimidate would-be attackers with his size, so he opted for intimidating them with his actions. He managed to earn the trust of one Hazel Brazell, reputed to be the meanest man in the prison. Using that trust, he cut Brazell’s throat. Claiming self-defense, Gaskins spent six months in solitary confinement. But when he got out of solitary, the other prisoners left him alone.

In 1955, Gaskins’ wife filed for divorce, causing him to flip out again. Escaping once more, he joined another carnival and married a second time. This marriage lasted all of two weeks. Gaskins was soon back in prison, anyway.

Released in 1961, Gaskins returned to his previous “profession” of burglary. He married for a third time but then was arrested for statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl. He escaped and married for a fourth time, to a 17-year-old girl. His new wife ended up turning him in and he went to the Columbia penitentiary for six years. Paroled in November 1968, he vowed never to return.

Donald Gaskins Turns Serial Killer

Donald Gaskins eventually confessed to dozens of murders, but the proven count is much lower. His first confirmed non-prison murder occurred in November 1970. The victims were his own niece, Janice Kirby (15) and her friend, Patricia Ann Alsbrook (17). He claimed he became enraged by their drug use, but he probably tried to sexually assault them.

Gaskins next killed his supposed friend, Doreen Hope Dempsey (22) and her two-year-old daughter in June 1973. A blatant racist, he was upset that Doreen was pregnant with what would be her second biracial child. A year later, Gaskins shot Johnny Sellers (36) and stabbed his ex-girlfriend, Jessie Ruth Judy (22), killing both. Sellers was Gaskins’ partner in an auto theft ring and Judy was a potential witness.

Nineteen-seventy-four was a busy year, with Gaskins killing six more people. One, Silas Barnwell Yates (45) as a murder for hire. The others were criminal associates or people who know of his criminal activities. He killed them to prevent them from ratting him out to the authorities.

Arrest and Prison

Police arrested Gaskins on November 14, 1975. An associate (and ex-husband of one of his murder victims) named Walter Neeley reported him to police. On December 4, Neeley led authorities to land near Gaskins’ home in Prospect, South Carolina. There they found the bodies of eight of his victims.

Gaskins identifies a burial site to investigators from the Florence, SC Sheriff's Office and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division  (HeyThereChief)
Gaskins identifies a burial site to investigators from the Florence, SC Sheriff’s Office and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (HeyThereChief)

On May 24, 1976, Gaskins went on trial for murder. Four days later, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and he received a death sentence. He quickly confessed to the seven other murders to avoid additional death sentences. In November 1976, his death sentence was commuted to seven consecutive life terms following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the death penalty as it existed was unconstitutional.

Gaskins murdered fellow prisoner Rudolph Tyner on September 2, 1982. Tyner was on death row for murdering an elderly couple during a botched robbery. Tired of the excruciatingly slow legal process, the couple’s son hired Gaskins to kill Tyner. After failing with poison, he constructed a device that looked like a radio or intercom. When Tyner put the device to his ear, Gaskins plugged it into a wall socket and the C-4 explosive inside blew up. This stunt earned Gaskins a death sentence and the sobriquet “the meanest man in America.” It was the first time in South Carolina’s history that a white man received the death penalty for killing a black man.

Epilogue

Attempting to delay his date with South Carolina’s electric chair, Donald Gaskins began confessing to murders. Police could not verify his involvement in any of these additional murders.

On execution day, Gaskins slashed his wrists, but that failed to delay his date with the electric chair. He died at 1:05 a.am. on September 6, 1991.

The South Carolina electric chair in Columbus, SC photographed in 2019 (Credit: Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP.)
The South Carolina electric chair in Columbus, SC photographed in 2019 (Credit: Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP.)

Before his execution, Gaskins collaborated with writer Wilton Earle to produce his “autobiography.” Final Truth: The Autobiography of a Serial Killer is full of contradictions and unverifiable claims.

For more about Gaskins, you can read Charlie Lark’s The Meanest Man in America or Roger Harrington’s Donald Henry Gaskins: The True Story of the Meanest Man in America, part of the American Serial Killer Stories series.

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