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As Rodney Alcala's third murder trial winds to a close, victim's brothers wait for closure, justice

A girl's murder tore her family asunder. Ensuing decades of trials and retrials gave their wounds little chance to heal.

February 24, 2010|By Paloma Esquivel

Day after day, Robert and Tim Samsoe sit together in the third row of a Santa Ana courtroom, united in grief, reliving a nightmare.

The man they believe murdered their little sister in 1979 after a day at the beach sits a few feet away -- on trial for a third time. Over three decades, Rodney James Alcala, 66, has been convicted and sentenced to death twice in the murder of Robin Samsoe, 12. Both convictions were reversed on appeal and Alcala was ordered retried. He spent the intervening years in custody.

During the first trial, they were teenagers -- Robert, 14, Tim, 16. For the second they were young men, just starting to live their own lives. They are 44 and 46 now. Robert is married and has five children; they have never been allowed to go with friends to the beach. Tim married Teresa, who has been his constant companion in a seemingly endless replay of testimony and arguments.

There have been times, the brothers said, that they've imagined walking away. But the need to be present for Robin overwhelms them.

Over the years, they have followed the case from trial courts in Orange County to appeals courts in Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco.

Since January, they've again heard the details of a case they know almost by heart. Again listened to the story of how Robin's small body was found decomposed and dismembered in the forest. Again watched the parade of witnesses, who like themselves have grown older, their memories faded.

But this trial is also different. This time Alcala is acting as his own attorney, cross-examining witnesses -- including their mother -- and discussing courtroom procedure with the judge and prosecutors.

And this time, they've heard about the four women Alcala also is accused of torturing and murdering.

As he watches the trial, Robert says, he can't help but wonder where it will go wrong this time. "Where are they making the mistake? Did I miss it? Will I catch it? Is this the part that's going to get it overturned?"

Marianne Connelly, then Marianne Frazier, her two daughters and two sons came to California from Wisconsin in 1977 to escape the cold and start a new life after her divorce. They settled in Buena Park and then Huntington Beach.

"At first we loved it," says Robert. "We didn't have to have 50 pairs of clothes just to go outside. We could feel our toes at night."

On June 20, 1979, Robin and her friend Bridgette Wilvert went to the beach. They were approached by a photographer who asked to take their picture for a contest. Soon after, Robin borrowed Bridgette's bike and headed to ballet class.

Her body was found two weeks later in the Angeles National Forest.

Rodney Alcala was a photographer with a history of violence against girls. In 1972, he had been convicted of kidnapping, raping and nearly beating to death an 8-year-old girl in Hollywood. He was paroled two years later. Soon after, he was caught smoking marijuana with a 13-year-old girl who said he kidnapped her. He was returned to prison and released again in 1977. A couple of years later, at the time of Robin's disappearance, he was awaiting trial in the beating and rape of a 15-year-old girl, for which he was later convicted.

His former probation officer saw an artist's sketch of the photographer who approached Robin and reported Alcala to police.

Prosecutors told the family the case was a slam dunk.

As the first trial got underway, Robert was starting his freshman year at Huntington Beach High School. For reasons the brothers still don't understand, their parents decided it would be best if Tim went to live with their father in Arizona. Their older sister was living on her own.

"We went from being a big giant family to just me and my mom," Robert says. The constant questions from teachers about the trial made school difficult, he says. He went to school 23 days that year.

The trial was swift. But it was also marred by problems. The evidence linking Alcala to Robin's murder was mostly circumstantial. Prosecutors relied on Robin's friend Bridgette and a handful of people who said they saw Alcala or a man who looked like him on the beach with a camera.

One witness, Dana Crappa, said she saw Alcala with Robin near where the girl's remains were found. But she revised her story repeatedly before trial.

When Crappa sat on the witness stand, her behavior was so bizarre that the judge considered ending the testimony. Defense attorneys believed she had been hypnotized -- a tactic prosecutors admitted using with other witnesses -- and her testimony induced.

The inconsistencies would later undermine the case against Alcala.

Prosecutors also relied heavily on Alcala's past. They introduced information about his previous crimes to show a pattern of abducting young girls and violently abusing them.

Alcala was convicted, and one year to the day after Robin disappeared, he was sentenced to death.

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