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Hundreds call police about Alcala's photo collection

Families of people missing for decades want to learn if there are ties to the convicted murderer.

March 20, 2010|By Paloma Esquivel

The day after a jury voted for the death penalty for serial killer Rodney James Alcala, police detectives released a trove of photographs of women and children they seized more than 30 years ago from a storage locker the killer rented just as police were closing in on him.

Detectives said they wanted to know who these people were and whether they might have gone missing during Alcala's murder spree in the late 1970s.

Since then, detectives have spent their days fielding a flood of phone calls from people whose loved ones have been missing for decades.

"It's tough," said Huntington Beach police Capt. Chuck Thomas. "This is about more than just catching the bad guy. This has a lot to do with being compassionate and understanding with people who are trying to find someone."

Hundreds of phone calls have come in since the photos were released and prosecutors said they are aggressively focused on the whereabouts of at least six women whose pictures were in Alcala's collection. But for detectives who work on the photo hotline, every call must be considered, every plausible story verified.

With the publicity of Alcala's trial still fresh, police said, they are hoping to awaken memories and determine whether his list of victims stretches beyond the young girl and four women he was convicted of killing.

Even before the photos were released, prosecutors said Alcala was probably the man who murdered three women in New York City in the 1970s, though it's not clear if he will be tried in those cases.

The photos were found in a Seattle storage locker Alcala rented soon after the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Robin Samsoe, 12, of Huntington Beach. The locker also contained what prosecutors called Alcala's "trophies" -- earrings that linked Alcala to Robin and another pair later linked to Charlotte Lamb, a Santa Monica legal secretary who was strangled in the laundry room of an El Segundo apartment complex.

Alcala was twice convicted of Robin's murder and sentenced to death, but the convictions were overturned.

Earlier this decade, he was linked by DNA, blood and fingerprint evidence to the murder of Lamb and three other Los Angeles County women between 1977 and 1979. Last month he was convicted of all five murders. During the trial, prosecutors described the UCLA graduate as a predatory killer who raped and tortured his victims and may have taken photos of the bodies.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures in the Alcala collection. Many are of young women, girls and boys, though there are also vacation shots and pictures of events Alcala was hired to photograph.

After the collection was publicized, detectives began receiving tips almost immediately. Some were from women now in their 40s and 50s calling to say they once posed for Alcala. Others were from family members of missing people, calling in hopes of finding answers.

One woman was hopeful and terrified when she called to say she thought she recognized her daughter in a photo. "It was a very difficult phone call for her to make," Thomas said. "She was afraid of what we might say."

But the woman's daughter had gone missing in 1982 -- when Alcala was already in police custody.

The news that her daughter's disappearance could not be linked to Alcala was wrenching because it gave no closure, the captain said.

"Our detectives are very committed," Thomas said.

"But they all have families. They all have brothers and sisters, moms and dads. . . . We sympathize with what these people are going through."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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