The Horrifying Story Of Rodney Alcala, The Serial Killer Who Won ‘The Dating Game’ During His Murder Spree

Published October 19, 2017
Updated August 21, 2019
Published October 19, 2017
Updated August 21, 2019

The "Dating Game Killer" killed at least four before his appearance — and would kill again soon after.

For most people, September 13, 1978 was an ordinary Wednesday. But for Cheryl Bradshaw, the bachelorette on the TV matchmaking show The Dating Game, that day was momentous. From a lineup of “eligible bachelors,” she chose handsome bachelor number one, Rodney Alcala:

But at that very moment, he was keeping a deadly secret: he was an unrepentant serial killer.

Bradshaw, if not for a healthy jolt of women’s intuition, would almost certainly be remembered today as one of Alcala’s victims. Instead, after the show ended, she conversed with Alcala backstage. He offered her a date she’d never forget, but Bradshaw got the feeling that her handsome potential suitor was a little off.

“I started to feel ill,” Bradshaw told the Sydney Telegraph in 2012. “He was acting really creepy. I turned down his offer. I didn’t want to see him again.”

Another one of the episode’s bachelors, actor Jed Mills, recalled to LA Weekly that “Rodney was kind of quiet. I remember him because I told my brother about this one guy who was kind of good-looking but kind of creepy. He was always looking down and not making eye contact.”

Had the popular dating show performed background checks on their bachelors, they would have discovered that this “kind of good-looking but kind of creepy” guy had already spent three years in prison for raping and beating an eight-year-old girl (he’d done the same to a 13-year-old too), which landed him on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List.

But sometimes a background check can’t even uncover the whole story. In Rodney Alcala’s case, the whole story consisted of at least four prior murders that he hadn’t been definitively linked to yet.

As you can probably imagine, Cheryl Bradshaw’s rejection likely only fueled Alcala’s fire. In total, before and after his television appearance, the sadistic “Dating Game Killer” claimed that he killed between 50 and 100 people.

Rodney Alcala

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesRodney Alcala. 1980.

Rodney Alcala was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1943. His father moved the family to Mexico when Alcala was eight years old, only to abandoned them there three years later. His mother then moved Alcala and his sister to suburban Los Angeles.

At age 17, Alcala entered the Army as a clerk, but after a nervous breakdown, he was medically discharged due to mental health issues. Then, the intelligent young man with an IQ of 135 went on to attend UCLA. But he wouldn’t stay on the straight and narrow for long.

Like many serial killers, Rodney Alcala had a style.

His signatures were beating, biting, raping, and strangling (often choking victims until the point of unconsciousness, then once they came to, he’d start the process over again). On his first known attempt at killing, he was successful at only two of these things. The victim was Tali Shapiro, an eight-year-old girl he lured into his Hollywood apartment in 1968.

Shapiro barely survived her rape and beating; her life saved by a passerby who’d reported a tip to police on a possible abduction. Alcala fled his apartment when the police arrived and remained a fugitive for years afterward. He moved to New York and used the alias John Berger to enroll in film school at New York University where, ironically enough, he studied under Roman Polanski.

After being recognized thanks to an FBI poster, Alcala was finally identified as the perpetrator in the rape and attempted murder of Tali Shapiro. He was arrested in 1971, but only sent to prison on charges of assault (Shapiro’s family kept her from testifying, making a rape conviction unattainable). After spending three years behind bars, he soon spent another two years in prison for assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

Then, authorities regrettably let parolee and flight risk Alcala travel to New York to “visit relatives.” Investigators now believe that within seven days of his arrival there, he killed a college student named Elaine Hover who was the daughter of a popular Hollywood nightclub owner and goddaughter of both Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

Soon after all of this, Alcala somehow got a job at the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter in 1978, under his real name, which was now attached to a substantial criminal record. A typist by day, by night he lured in young girls to be part of his professional photography portfolio — some of them never to be heard from again. Now go back and listen to Alcala tell bachelorette Bradshaw, “The best time is at night.” Absolutely chilling stuff.

The year after the Dating Game appearance, 17-year-old Liane Leedom was lucky enough to walk away unscathed from a photoshoot with Rodney Alcala, and she remarked how he “showed her his portfolio, which in addition to shots of women included spread after spread of [naked] teenage boys.”

Police have since released parts of Alcala’s “portfolio” to the public to aid in victim identification (the photos are still available to view). Over the years, a few have stepped forward to reveal their horrifying moment with this predator.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist, and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.