Woman's picture links serial killer to another cold case slaying

ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. -- Murder charges have been filed against a convicted California serial killer in the cold case murder of a young woman in Wyoming nearly four decades ago.

alcala.jpg

Christine Ruth Thornton, left, in an undated photo, and a 1979 booking photo of Rodney Alcala

Sweetwater County Sheriff's officials

It was one of the photographs of women found with the personal belongings of death row inmate Rodney Alcala, 73, that helped link him to the 1977 killing of Christine Ruth Thornton, sheriff’s officials and prosecutors in Sweetwater County, Wyoming said Tuesday. Police believe Alcala killed 28-year-old Thornton, of San Antonio, Texas, during the summer of 1977 and disposed of her body in a remote area northeast of Granger  in rural southwest Wyoming.

Human remains found by a local rancher in 1982 weren’t identified as Thornton’s until 2015. Though evidence located at the scene was dilapidated, it was determined that the woman had been a murder victim, Sweetwater County officials said.

Alcala was found guilty in 2010 of killing four women and a 12-year-old girl in Southern California in the 1970s. While pursuing an appeal in California, Alcala also indicted in the killings of two women in New York City in the 1970s, to which he pleaded guilty.

Alcala is a former photographer and a one-time dating-show contestant, sometimes known as the “Dating Game Killer,” who has been behind bars since 1979. “48 Hours” investigated the murders in the episode, “The Killing Game.”

WATCH: “48 Hours:” “The Killing Game”

But authorities have continued to voice concerns that Alcala may have killed others. Following his 2010 conviction, Huntington Beach Police investigators publicly released a series of photographs of women that was found in Alcala’s Seattle storage locker in 1979, in the hopes of identifying other potential victims.

According to Sweetwater County officials, a relative of Thornton who had been searching for her since her 1977 disappearance was looking through those photographs in 2013 when they recognized the young woman. Thornton’s siblings contacted authorities and submitted their DNA to a national database for missing and unidentified persons, and in 2015, the DNA was matched to the remains discovered in Wyoming.

Investigators in Sweetwater County determined the photograph of Thornton in Alcala’s possession was taken a short distance from where her remains. They say they have turned up additional evidence in their investigation that links Alcala to Thornton’s death.

It’s not known when he will be returned to Wyoming to face charges there. If convicted, he faces life in prison or the death penalty.

Anyone with information about the case, particularly anyone in contact with Thornton or Alcala during 1977, is asked to call 307-922- 5295.