Seattle cold-case detectives are investigating whether a convicted killer in California is connected to the slayings here of two teens years ago.
The similarities are too great to ignore.
In the late 1970s, two Seattle girls were slain within a few months of each other, their bodies found outdoors posed in awkward positions. One was sexually assaulted.
No one was ever arrested.
Not long afterward, Rodney Alcala, amateur photographer, UCLA graduate and former contestant on TV’s “The Dating Game,” rented a storage locker in Shoreline, filling it with photographs, photography equipment, jewelry and a motorcycle.
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Last month, Alcala, 66, was convicted of murdering four women and a 12-year-old girl in Southern California in the late 1970s. Police there say he sexually assaulted and tortured his victims and then posed their corpses, two of them outdoors.
A Seattle police detective now wonders whether similarities between Alcala’s California victims and the slayings of Antionette “Tony” Witaker, 13, and Joyce Gaunt, 17, in Seattle could help solve two decades-old mysteries.
Seattle cold-case Detective Mike Ciesynski is requesting a DNA comparison between the two Seattle victims and Alcala to determine whether he can be ruled out as the killer.
The timing and circumstances around the Seattle slayings give Ciesynski reason to believe Alcala may be involved.
“Bottom line is, I have to go see him,” said Ciesynski, referring to Alcala.
Meanwhile, King County sheriff’s Detective Jake Pavlovich, who is also on the department’s cold-case squad, plans to review some of the photos found in Alcala’s Shoreline storage locker to see if they match any of its missing-persons cases, particularly that of Cherry Greenman, 19, who vanished from Waterville, Douglas County, in September 1976. The Sheriff’s Office looked into her disappearance during the investigation into Green River serial killer Gary L. Ridgway but failed to find a link, Pavlovich said.
Greenman has never been found.
The storage locker was searched and the items seized after Alcala was arrested in 1979 in the slaying of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of his five confirmed victims.
Police suspect the photos and other items found in the locker may have been souvenirs from Alcala’s victims.
The Orange County, Calif., District Attorney’s Office recently released more than 100 photos in hopes that someone might recognize additional victims.
So far, police have not linked Alcala to any additional slayings, Lt. Tom Donnelly, of Huntington Beach Police Department, said Thursday.
“We have had a lot of contact from people who identified themselves in the photos, who said they are alive and well, and we have had contacts from other police departments,” Donnelly said.
Body found in Lake City
Antionette Witaker, 13, known by her friends and family as Tony, was a tough girl who would often fight with her mother and run away from home. But Tony had a romantic streak; she loved to write poetry and sign her work in elegant longhand, according to a 1978 Seattle Times story.
She had been living in a foster home when she walked out the door with the unknown man with long reddish-colored hair on the night of July 9, 1977.
A week later, her body was found, fully clothed and propped up on her hands and knees, in a vacant lot in the 2200 block of Northeast 95th Street in Lake City. Seattle police said it appeared that her body had been there for about a week.
The McClure Middle School student had been stabbed to death; there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted, news reports said.
Months after the slaying, Tony’s mother, Barbara Oliver, told The Times that she believed the case wasn’t a priority because her daughter was black. Records indicate that Oliver died in 1999.
Then-Seattle police Capt. John Leitch defended the department’s work, saying detectives had “worked long, and hard, on the case.
“It’s like all the rest of them up here — it’s taken personally,” Leitch was quoted at the time. “We try our best not to be involved in these things, emotionally, but on this one, I have to say I’m sorry, professionally and personally, that we haven’t solved it.”
On Feb. 17, 1978, Joyce Gaunt’s body was found at a picnic area at Seward Park.
The developmentally disabled teen had been beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted, according to media reports. She had been living in a group home on Capitol Hill.
While local media wrote little about Gaunt’s slaying, Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule wrote in her 2009 book, “But I Trusted You,” that Gaunt was “trusting and naive as a child of 8 or 10.”
On the night of Feb. 16, Gaunt called the group home around midnight and hung up after she was urged to come home, Rule wrote. It was unclear why she was in the park.
The next morning, Gaunt’s body was found in the park. She was nude and lying on her face; her skull was crushed.
Relatives of Gaunt could not be located for this story.
‘It’s a big red flag’
“When you have somebody posing bodies [like Alcala] and the time frame is the same, you have to look at it. It’s a big red flag,” Ciesynski said. “There may be a chance there is some DNA linkage. There have been updates in technology.”
After police released more than 100 of the images found in Alcala’s storage locker last month, Pavlovich, the King County sheriff’s detective, said he saw blog commentary on The Orange County Register’s Web site speculating that one of the photos looked like Greenman, a missing Washington state woman whose photo is posted on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children site.
Pavlovich said he’s waiting to receive additional photos from Huntington Beach police, and will compare the images with photos of Greenman. If he believes they are similar he will try to locate and interview Greenman’s family.
“I’ll take those photos to the family if I can find the family and if they say, ‘Hey, that’s my daughter,’ we’ll go down and talk to Alcala,” Pavlovich said.
In July 1979, Alcala rented a unit at a storage center in the 17800 block of Midvale Avenue North in Shoreline. His only apparent connection to Seattle was through a female acquaintance whose name and address he used without her knowledge to rent the storage unit.
The woman was interviewed after Alcala’s arrest and said that she had not had any contact with Alcala in more than two years.
But even though Alcala rented the locker two years after Witaker’s death and nearly a year and a half after Gaunt was slain, detectives are hopeful further investigation could determine whether he had been in the area earlier. At the very least, they would like to eliminate him as a possible suspect.
Nine women who are alive have been identified through the photos so far, according to The Associated Press. Huntington Beach police Capt. Chuck Thomas said one of them told authorities that Alcala molested her, but he said the statute of limitations in that case has expired.
Alcala was previously convicted and sentenced to death twice for the murder of Samsoe, the Huntington Beach 12-year-old, but both convictions were overturned on appeal.
In 2006, prosecutors refiled the case and linked Alcala to four previously unsolved slayings from Los Angeles County using DNA technology and other forensic evidence.
A California jury earlier this month recommended the death penalty for Alcala for the five murders.
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is contained in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com