The Power of Pictures

Their hairstyles depict decades old fashion. Even though these women voluntarily posed for photographs it is what may have taken place afterwards that is troubling.   

Over 30 years ago, police seized more than 2,000 pictures of women — many taken in the nude — from a storage locker rented by Rodney Alcala. In late February, a California jury found Alcala guilty in the slayings of one girl and four women over a two-year period in the late 1970s.

Investigators believe that it is possible some of the women who had posed for Alcala became victims of the serial killer. 

Huntington Beach Detective Patrick Ellis believes Alcala is obsessed with the cache of pictures. Now in his mid-sixties, the since convicted serial killer represented himself at his latest trial where he sought courtroom discovery of the images.

“Now, why does he want all of this after 30 years?” Ellis pondered during an interview with AOL News. “Either he’s reliving his glory days or there’s a victim in here we don’t know about.”

Convicted of murdering Jill Barcomb, 18, in November, 1977; George Wixted, 27, in December 1977; Charlotte Lamb, 32, in June 1978; Jell Paranteau, 21, on June 14, 1979, all in Los Angeles County, Alcala sexually assaulted, bludgeoned, and, then, strangled his victims. A 12-year-old girl, Robin Samsoe, also fell prey to Alcala in June of 1979 near Huntington Beach, California.

While the photographs of the seemingly naïve women sensationalize Alacla’s acts of nefarious debauchery, serial killers routinely retain personal items from their victims. In this instance, these items — like the photographs themselves — are souvenirs. Based on the description of the crime scenes, Alacla is a classic power and control killer.  He relishes reliving the potent fantasies fulfilled by witnessing the victims’ pain, which is why Alcala rented a storage locker in far away Seattle to house the photographs and the other souvenirs taken from victims. 

Milwaukee’s infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, also kept souvenirs and trophies.  Psychologists do make a distinction between the two: souvenirs generally consist of personal items taken from the victim. Trophies are items used by the perpetrator to create a memorial — a serial killer’s hall of shame.  In Dahmer’s case, the skulls and genitalia served as trophies, while the photos of victims, taken in various stages of dismemberment, acted as souvenirs.

In the Alcala case, investigators believe there are more victims.  However, unless the state is willing to cut a deal sparing the former amateur photographer from the death penalty, the fate of the others may never be known. Orange County Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy has so far refused to make a deal in exchange for cooperation.  “We don’t make deals with people like Rodney Alcala,” Murphy told AOL News. 

I have a professional hunch that the prosecutor’s stance may change if the photographs identify a dozen or so missing women. The political pressure brought to bear by family members seeking closure may ultimately result in a commutation of the death sentence.  After all, information is power, and power and control is what Alcada will savor as he relives his crimes by describing them to investigators.


Steven Spingola is a former Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective and the author of The Killer in Our Midst: the Case of Milwaukee’s North Side Strangler.

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