Growing up in Hollywood, Ellen Jane Hover and I were first cousins; she was like a second little sister to me.
Our homes were blocks apart on the quiet streets of Beverly Hills, where homes were draped with bougainvillea vines, and movie stars were our neighbors, picking their newspapers off their dewy lawns just like everyone else.
Our fathers were brothers-in-law: mine, a neurosurgeon; hers, the owner of Ciro's, the most glamorous nightclub in town.
I hid Snow White figurines in the palm fronds by her swimming pool, and I smiled as she discovered them, wide-eyed and delighted.
I created a monthly paper-clip-bound magazine named Ellen, a serene, brown-haired girl, had her swarthy father's dark eyes and her showgirl mother's delicate lips, high cheekbones, and long legs. She looked up to me, her cheerfully bossy older cousin; she believed that all I said was so.
Little girls are sweet almost by definition, but Ellen was especially—almost heartbreakingly—sweet. When Ellen was 23, living in New York City after college in the late 1970s, she jotted down a man's name in her date book.
Her sweetness was a trait you sensed was permanent, an odd purity within what would become a rocky family. He was a photographer with a fine-arts degree from UCLA; he had studied film under Roman Polanski; he'd recently taught art at a summer camp.
All these things were true, and he most likely told them to her when he approached her with the offer of capturing her loveliness with his camera. She had no idea that this man, who went by the name John Berger, with his rock-star good looks and near-genius IQ, had brutally raped an 8-year-old girl nine years earlier.
He was "pressuring her to have lunch with him," as a close friend of hers remembers it. He'd nearly killed that child after striking her with a steel pipe—yet had served only 34 months for the crime before being set free.After that, he was arrested and jailed for giving marijuana to a minor, for which he served two years in prison.Ellen is believed to be among the very first fatal victims of this man, whose real name is Rodney Alcala, now known as the "Dating Game Killer," thanks to an appearance he made as a contestant on the TV game show. Lucky for her, she never went on the date.) He may well have tortured and murdered dozens of women throughout the '70s.This past February, he was finally convicted of five of those murders; after the conviction, it took the jury all of one hour to recommend the death penalty, to which a judge—in March—forcefully agreed.Meanwhile, police released more than 100 photos that Alcala had taken of girls and young women; the photos were found in a Seattle locker that he had rented.The images have been posted online, in the hopes that family members will be able to identify missing loved ones.