Photo: Associated Press/California Department of Corrections
In 1978, a pretty young drama teacher named Cheryl Bradshaw found herself on an American TV show called The Dating Game.You can watch the episode in the video below. Cheryl had to ask suggestive questions of three unseen bachelors and then pick one of them to take out on a date.
The contestant who stood out for his vivacity was a handsome fellow called Rodney Alcala, introduced by the game show host as, “a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13 … fully developed!”
His fellow contestants were less impressed. Bachelor #2 later said that he thought Alcala was a “very strange guy.”
Asked what his favourite time of the day was, Alcala replied, “Night,” slithering his tongue between his teeth. When Cheryl requested an impromptu response to the line “You’re a dirty old man!” he grunted and growled like an animal.
Game for a laugh, Cheryl said “I like bananas” and picked Alcala as her date. For Cheryl – “all teeth and curls”, as they used to say -the decision came with careless giggles. But the look of Alcala’s face was pure triumph. He had won.
In the green room afterwards, Alcala’s personality changed. The game show host remembered that he was “quiet, but at the same time he would interrupt and impose when he felt like it. And he was very obnoxious and creepy – he became very unlikable and rude and imposing as though he was trying to intimidate. I wound up not only not liking this guy … not wanting to be near him … he got creepier and more negative.”
Cheryl agreed with the host and politely declined the date. It was a lucky break. Before his arrest in 1979, Alcala would murder at least five people. Bachelor #1turned out to be one of the worst serial killers in US history.
Earlier this year Malcolm Gladwell wrote an attention-grabbing piece about the predatory tactics of paedophiles. Bucking the trend towards seeing child molesters as sad loners, Gladwell argued that they often hunt out in the open.
Jerry Sandusky, he contended, got away with his crimes with a mix of care and candour, all the while encouraging others to think of him as a loveable goofball. Sandusky was repeatedly accused of sexual misdemeanours, yet the complaints were dismissed as misunderstandings — as just “Jerry being Jerry.”
That some molesters can be so open and get away with it says something chilling about the way our children are protected by public institutions. To quote Gladwell, “When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if only they did their jobs. But that might be wishful thinking.”
Some serial killers follow a similar pattern. They can be extroverted, even attention-seeking. In the case of Rodney Alcala, it’s not only his behaviour in the green room that was creepy. His very appearance on this TV show – by a man who had already served time for raping a child – is an extraordinary instance of a psychopath testing his skills at acting in public, and getting away with it.
Crime profiler Pat Brown says that Alcala “was aware that he could say things that were considered sexy and funny and the girl would like that. He watched the game and he gave those answers and he won, so he learned some tricks.” But in the green room, once the performance was over, he had no need to be nice to poor Cheryl anymore. “He wasn’t acting at that time. [The other contestants] were his enemies, and he had to beat them to get the girl and he wanted to win. This guy probably literally hated them. This guy was going on the show to prove how special and wonderful he was. And his ego was riding on it.”
John Wayne Gacy was another killer who was happy to share his fantasy life with the outside world. A successful builder and a popular neighbour in Norwood Park, Chicago in the 1970s, Gacy was active in Democratic Party politics and even got himself photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. He joined a local “Jolly Joker” club and developed a clown character that he would perform at kids’ parties called Pogo.
Gacy applied his own make-up with distinctive sharp cornered lips that made him look like a grinning shark. He was often spotted in full makeup at his local bar – Gacy would claim that he had just been performing around the corner. It can’t have gone unnoticed that his construction company was staffed with dozens of attractive teenage boys.
Again, we’re treated to a surprisingly public performance, a performance that almost teases us with the awful truth. In Alcala’s case, The Dating Game was a proxy for what he might actually do to women: win their confidence and then rape them.
In Gacy’s example, the terrifying Pogo character and his indiscrete relationships with adolescents “disguised” a private penchant for strangling young men to death and then burying their bodies in the crawl space beneath his house.
He confessed to around 30 murders in 1978, although he later retracted. In a subsequent TV interview Gacy swore that he was 100 per cent totally innocent but then, when invited to by the interviewer, he cheerfully demonstrated his proficiency at the very knot that bound the hands of his victims. Again, he couldn’t help advertising his monstrosity.
Another disturbing similarity between Gacy and Alcala is that both were men with pre-existing criminal records, yet this didn’t impede them nearly as much as it should. In the 1960s, Gacy convinced several adolescent boys to perform oral sex on him under the guise of conducting a “public health” survey, and he was sentenced to 10 years.
He was a model prisoner and a capable politician; Gacy successfully lobbied to have a miniature golf course installed in the prison recreation yard. He was released after 18 months. In the next few years he narrowly escaped prison twice on the grounds of sexual assault. Throughout this career of molestation, he sustained two marriages and even had kids.
Alcala’s is also a tragic story of near misses perpetuated by a hopelessly liberal justice system. In 1968, he raped a child. The police pursued him but he escaped to New York where he joined the film school at NYU and even worked as a counselor at an arts camp for kids.
Two children at the camp noticed him on an FBI wanted poster and he was extradited back to California. The girl he raped refused to testify at his trial and he was given a lesser sentence for assault. Like Gacy, he was a model prisoner and got out after just 3 years. Upon release, he assaulted a 13-year old. Yet again, he was arrested, imprisoned and released early. It was around this time that Alcala stared calling himself a photographer, and he liked to show his photos to friends.
Most of them were of naked women, often underage. It’s possible that some were victims. The lines between normality, performance and public confession were blurry – but no one called the cops.
The incompetence didn’t end after Alcala’s arrest in 1979. In 1980, he was tried, sentenced and convicted to death. But the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction because the jurors had been improperly informed about his prior sex crimes.
In 1986, he was tried again and, again, convicted to death. Incredibly, an appeals court – again! – threw out the verdict because a witness had not been allowed to support Alcala’s argument that the park ranger who found the body of one of his victims had been “hypnotised” by the cops. It wasn’t until 2010 that he was successfully and finally sentenced to death.Now he shall die with his constitutional rights intact.
The takeaway from all this is that Gladwell’s thesis about the way that monstrous perverts live semi-openly extends even to those who kill. Of course, where and how they communicate their evil differs from case to case. Henry Lee Lucas’s outrageously prolific career as a murderer escaped attention because it was conducted on the margins of society where aberrant behaviour was less unusual (the same goes for prostitute Aileen Wuonoros).
By contrast, Gacy and Alcala were relatively well-presented and even middle-class (Alcala held down a job as a typesetter at the Los Angeles Times.) Yet both moved in and out of criminal society with shocking ease. One year, Gacy might be in jail for raping a boy. A little while later, he was meeting the First Lady of the United States. As Gladwell emphases that the paedophile is capable of adaptation and exploiting others, so it goes with killers.
It is rare that they skulk in basements, only coming out at night. And they usually give plenty of opportunity for the police to catch them much earlier than they eventually do.
A difficult question to ask is, what does it say about the rest of society that these men could tease us with their crimes and not be noticed? To return to Alcala’s appearance on The Dating Game, his answers might be sexually aggressive but they are germane within the context of the show and the era.
Watch the clip again and notice how Cheryl is introduced: “Here is a young lady with a wealth of experience! She once earned a living massaging feet, but she quit when her boss suggested that she work her way up…”
In a parallel with the case of TV host Jimmy Savile (who even assaulted women on camera), Alcala perhaps benefited from an era in which rules about sexual discourse were in a state of flux. What was and what wasn’t acceptable behaviour in the public sphere was still in the process of being negotiated.
Much as the appalling leniency of the courts consistently favoured them, Gacy and Alcala also enjoyed some degree of cover in a decade where predatory sexual behaviour was more tolerated. Thank goodness for feminism.
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