"48 Hours Mystery" brings you the story of Rodney Alcala, which is the last story reported by the late Harold Dow. Dow was a "48 Hours" correspondent for 22 years - as long as "48 Hours" has been on television. His passion and his generous spirit are deeply woven into the fabric of this broadcast.
He had spent more than a year working on this story, and was determined to bring this intricate tale to our viewers. He was just finishing it when he died suddenly on Aug. 21, 2010.
"I was out doing my patrols. We just started our shift that day. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard. And I had received a call," Los Angeles
Police Officer Chris Camacho recalls of that September morning in 1968. "A beige colored car with no license plates was following this little girl."
"Tali Shapiro was an 8-year-old girl walking to school back in 1968," says
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy.
"A good Samaritan, a witness, sees the little girl, the little 8-year-old Tali get in the car. Thinks it's suspicious… follows him and puts a call into LAPD," says Los Angeles Detective Steve Hodel.
"I went to that location," Camacho recalls. "And I started knocking. I said 'Police officer. Open the door. I need to talk to you.' This male appeared at the door.
"I will always remember that face at that door - very evil face.
"And he says, 'I'm in the shower. I gotta get dressed.' I told him 'OK. You got 10 seconds. Open this door I want to talk to you.' Finally, I kicked the door in.
"The image will be with me forever… We could see in the kitchen there was a body on the floor, a lot of blood."
"They say a picture says a thousand words," Murphy says, "and that image of those little white Mary Janes on that floor with that metal bar that he used to strangle her with… and that puddle of blood, it just looks like too much blood to come out of - a tiny little 8-year-old like that."
"She had been raped. There was no breathing… I thought she was dead. We all thought she was dead," Camacho recalls. "So I grabbed a towel and I picked up the edge of the bar and I - I laid it off to the side."
"We started searching the residence… there was a lot of photograph equipment," Camacho continues.
"All of us were amazed at the amount of photographs he had there of young girls, very young girls.
"We found - a lot of ID, picture ID of a Rodney Alcala. He was a student at UCLA - an undergrad student."
"That's one of the first times he ever turned up on the radar for law enforcement," Murphy says. "Rodney Alcala managed to give them the slip."
"Unfortunately," Camacho explains, "the other officers - when I kicked the front door - came running around to assist me and - the suspect went out the back door."
But moments later, when Camacho walked back into the kitchen where Tali was, he witnessed a miracle.
"She was gagging and trying to breath. And I thought, 'One for the good guys.' She's gonna make it."
Clinging to life, Tali was rushed to the hospital.
"Had it not been for that police officer, Tali Shapiro would have died on Rodney Alcala's kitchen floor," says Orange County Deputy D.A. Matt Murphy.
"When I was in Vietnam… and we were in combat I was trying to save this guy… and didn't do it. He died," he tells Harold Dow. "So with Tali, it was kind of like God gave me a second chance to save someone."
Soon after Tali healed, her parents moved her out of the country.
"I found out that they had moved to Mexico, that they did not wanna raise the daughter in this society any longer. And that was the last I heard of them," says Camacho.
The investigation was now in the hands of detectives. With Alcala in the wind, Los Angeles Det. Steve Hodel was grasping at thin air.
"All kinds of rumors. He'd gone to Mexico, he'd gone to Canada. He'd gone to Europe. But we kept coming up empty," Det. Hodel explains. "Back then, you know, we didn't have a lot of the forensics you have today."
Complicating matters, it seemed no one was willing to believe the gifted student could be responsible for such a heinous crime.
"He was a snake charmer," Hodel says. "I went and talked to his professor at UCLA. He says he wouldn't harm a fly… he truly believed that, you know. And a lot of people did."
Hodel says investigators went to the FBI. "…we said, 'This guy is going to commit other crimes, he's not going to stop."
In 1969, the FBI put Rodney Alcala on its Most Wanted List.
"We've got to find this guy, we've got to get him off the streets, we've got to bring him to justice," says Hodel.
Nearly two years later came the break they'd been waiting for.
"Two girls went to their local post office… and they looked and there was Rodney Alcala's photo - on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. And they looked up and said, 'Oh my gosh, that's Mr. Burger," says Murphy.
The girls knew Alcala as John Burger, their counselor at an all-girls summer camp in New Hampshire.
"They report it to the dean. …he calls the authorities. They arrest him, take him into custody," Hodel says. "I get a phone call from the FBI saying, 'We've got your man in custody, he's ready to be picked up.'"
In fact, Rodney Alcala had been hiding in plain sight for the last three years.
"Rodney Alcala, after raping and almost killing Tali Shapiro, he fled to New York," Murphy says. "He made friends, he charmed people. He got into NYU film school. And he was living the life, kind of Bohemian lifestyle of a film student in the early 70s."
In August 1971, with Alcala finally in custody, Det. Hodel had a chance to speak to him.
"I ask him, 'So tell me about the Tali Shapiro incident.' And basically he says, 'Oh, I want to forget all about that.' He said, 'I don't wanna talk about things that Rod Alcala did.' As if it was a different person."
But with Tali living abroad and unavailable for trial, prosecutors had no choice but to enter into a plea agreement.
"Part of the problem for the prosecution back then is that Tali Shapiro's family had relocated down to Mexico," Murphy explains. "So I think that created logistical problems for the D.A. back then."
In 1972, Alcala pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of child molestation.
"He ultimately was convicted of child molest," Murphy tells Harold Dow. "He received one year to life in the old indeterminate sentencing laws. One year to life and the parole board let him go after 34 months. … after what he did to Tali Shapiro."
Indeterminate sentencing meant a parole board, not a judge, would determine how much time an inmate actually spent in prison.
"The emphasis was on rehabilitation back then," Hodel explains. "And he was able to charm psychiatrists just like he charmed his victims. This guy should've never been released based on the crime itself."
Less than three years later, Rodney Alcala was a free man again. Murphy says he had no trouble charming his way back into the swing of things.
"He got jobs. He was hired by the Los Angeles Times as a typesetter… he took photos at weddings," he says. "And he was a registered sex offender during all of that, and nobody ever checked."
Rodney Alcala was even a contestant on TV's "The Dating Game" and was chosen by the bachelorette.
The decision to release Rodney Alcala would have catastrophic consequences.
"His thrill is seeking his prey, capturing, torturing, hurting. He's a sadist of the highest order," says Hodel. "What he learned in prison was I'm not going to let my victims live."