SANTA ANA, Calif. – An accused serial killer who is representing himself in his death penalty case listened quietly Monday while a prosecutor delivered an opening statement outlining the grisly murder of four women and a 12-year-old girl.
Defendant Rodney James Alcala, 66, deferred his own opening statement until later in the trial.
He faces five counts of first-degree murder in the strangling and beating deaths of four Los Angeles County women and one Orange County child between 1977 and 1979, when he was arrested in Seattle.
Alcala, a photographer with a reported IQ between 160 and 170, was twice sentenced to death for the murder of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, but both convictions were overturned on procedural matters.
Prosecutors are retrying Alcala in that matter and added four Los Angeles County murders to the case in 2005 after DNA hits linked the cold cases to him. Alcala has pleaded not guilty and rejected special circumstance allegations of murder in the commission of rape, torture and burglary.
On Monday, family members of Alcala's alleged victims sobbed from the gallery as prosecutor Gina Satriano described the five slayings, beginning with 18-year-old Jill Barcomb in November 1977 and ending with Samsoe, whose mutilated body was later found in Angeles National Forest.
Barcomb was found bloodied, partially nude and kneeling on a dirt road in a Hollywood Hills canyon.
All the adult victims were raped and strangled with either panty hose, jeans, belts or shoe laces — some so forcefully that the blood vessels in their eyes burst and bones in their throat and jaw broke, Satriano said.
One woman, Georgia Wixted, was beaten in the face and skull with a metal-claw hammer, while Barcomb was beaten with a rock, she said.
Satriano said Alcala was not arrested until July 24, 1979, a month after 12-year-old Robin Samsoe disappeared while on her way to a ballet lesson in Huntington Beach in Orange County.
In that case, she said, prosecutors do not have DNA but have other powerful evidence.
Alcala's former defense attorney, Richard Schwartzberg, has said the Samsoe case is based on weak circumstantial evidence, and that Alcala has an alibi for the day Samsoe disappeared.
Satriano said Alcala spent June 20, 1979 approaching teenage girls on the beach and asking to take their pictures for what he said was a photo contest before he abducted Samsoe.
Evidence will include testimony from four other women who were approached by Alcala that day, as well as a 30-year-old composite sketch of Alcala done from recollections by Samsoe's friend and photographs taken by Alcala.
Samsoe's friend last saw her as Samsoe pedaled home to collect her ballet slippers on her way to her lesson. Her mother had arranged for her to answer phones at the ballet studio in exchange for free lessons.
"Robin never made it to her ballet lesson. In fact, she never made it home," Satriano said. "Bridgette never saw her friend again and never saw her bike again."
Alcala was arrested about a month later in Seattle, where he had moved abruptly after TV stations began running the composite sketch. Investigators found a jewelry pouch in a storage locker in Seattle that contained Samsoe's earring and another earring bearing the DNA of another alleged victim, 32-year-old Charlotte Lamb. authorities said.
"Some of this evidence is ... very difficult to see and very difficult to hear and to deliberate on," Satriano told the jury.
Investigators were never able to determine Samsoe's cause of death or if she had been sexually assaulted because of the condition of her body, which was found 12 days later.
Alcala's first conviction in the Samsoe case was overturned after the state Supreme Court found that allowing evidence about Alcala's previous record of rape and assault on young girls improperly prejudiced the jury.
His second conviction was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that his attorneys hadn't presented evidence of an alibi and hadn't properly developed other evidence.
In 2008, the state Supreme Court upheld the prosecutors' decision to combine the cases and try all five in Orange County.
Now, Samsoe's family is bracing to hear the graphic evidence for a third time — and hoping for some sort of closure.
"The only thing we get out of it now is that at least there are four other families now who know (the killer) isn't still out there, someone living next door to them or something," said Robert Samsoe, who was 13 when his sister vanished.
"For us, there's no closure, there won't be no closure until he dies in jail," he said.