Who is the Golden State Killer? How an ex-cop is suspected of inflicting a reign of terror on California

To his neighbours, Joseph James DeAngelo seemed 'a nice old grandpa'. Now he is suspected of being a prolific serial killer

Adam Lusher
Thursday 26 April 2018 18:18 BST
Sacramento DA: 'we found the needle in the haystack' after Golden State Killer caught in Sacramento

At first they called him the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Night Predator.

Not even the dogs barked when he slipped into houses and back yards. Victims would be woken by a masked man shining a flashlight in their faces, ordering them to obey or die.

“Make one move,” he told one victim, “And you’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

The haunting phrase, “I’ll be gone in the dark” formed the title of a book by the author Michelle McNamara published two months ago.

She called the suspect the Golden State Killer, after his California area of operations.

So obsessed had she become by her determination to catch him that some said the stress contributed her death from an undiagnosed heart condition, aged 46, in 2016.

It was perhaps no surprise that her posthumously published book became a bestseller. Because it was grim testament to the fact that despite being hunted for nearly half a century, after committing at least 12 murders and 45 rapes between the years of 1976 and 1986, the Golden State Killer was still at large.

He was, they said, “California’s most prolific uncaught serial killer”.

Until now.

On Tuesday, inquiries led police to a suburban house with an immaculately tended lawn in Citrus Heights, Sacramento County, California, to an inhabitant regarded by his neighbours as “a nice old grandpa”.

By Wednesday morning Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, had been charged with two counts of murder in northern California and four counts of murder in Orange County, in the southern part of the state.

If the prosecution can prove that the “nice old grandpa” DeAngelo is also the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker and possibly the Visalia Ransacker, it will finally resolve a mystery that has tormented, not to say tortured, Californian law enforcers for 42 years.

As was clear from the possibly prematurely triumphant statement of Orange County district attorney Tony Rackauckas.

On Thursday, way before any trial verdict definitively established guilt or innocence, Mr Rackauckas declared: “He’s been called the East Side Rapist. He’s been called the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker and the Golden State Killer. Today, it’s our pleasure to call him ‘defendant’”

They first became aware of whoever it was that committed the crimes in the summer of 1976.

According to McNamara’s book, at 5am on 18 June 1976, police received a call from a 23-year-old woman in Rancho Cordova, Sacramento.

She was speaking into a telephone as best she could while lying on the floor with her hands bound so tightly behind her back that she had lost the blood circulation in them.

The masked man had attacked her in her bed, pressing a four-inch knife against her head and telling her: “If you make one move or sound, I’ll stick this knife in you.”

He bound, gagged and raped her, without once removing his gloves.

Over the next six months, it is believed, the East Area Rapist struck at a rate of more than one sex attack a month. By the end of the year he had forced, or attempted to force himself on eight women.

Jane Carson-Sandler was one of them.

At 6.30am on 5 October 1976 the then 30-year-old nursing student and air force reservist was sitting up in bed at her home in Citrus Heights, Sacramento.

Her Air Force officer husband had just left for work. Her three-year-old son was sleeping next to her.

She saw a light outside, then heard someone running towards the bedroom.

The masked man shone a flashlight in her eyes and hissed through clenched teeth: “Shut up, shut up, shut up or I’ll kill you.”

As he did so he scraped a butcher’s knife across her chest, leaving behind drops of blood.

The attacker blindfolded, gagged and bound both Ms Carson-Sandler and her son. He picked the three-year-old boy up and either took him to another room or placed him on the floor.

When he started untying her ankles, Ms Carson-Sandler knew he was going to rape her.

In 2014 she found the courage to write a book, Frozen in Fear, about her ordeal and how it affected her. Just last month Ms Carson-Sandler retold her story to the Island Packet newspaper in the hope that it would help bring the rapist to justice.

She told how after he raped her, the attacker returned her son to the bed with the words: “If you move, I’m going to come back and kill you.”

Leaving the terrified pair in bed, he went into the kitchen, opened the fridge and rattled pots and pants, for all the world as if he was cooking himself something to eat.

Then he returned to give Ms Carson-Sandler a parting message: “You looked really good in the Officer’s Club.”

The attacks continued: two in January 1977, two in February, two in March.

Certain patterns seemed to be developing. The rapist would always threaten his victims through clenched teeth, as if trying to disguise his voice.

As the “Officer’s Club” remark to Ms Carson-Sandler indicated, he seemed to stalk his victims before striking, even breaking into their homes days or weeks before the attack itself.

After the attack he might ransack the house, taking souvenirs, notably coins and jewellery. He might spend hours in the residence, even, as he appears to have done with Ms Carson-Sandler, cooking himself meals.

Sometimes the rapist left souvenirs taken from one victim at the home of another.

Eventually, he stopped confining himself to lone women and started attacking homes where men were present too. He would tie both the man and the woman up.

Then he would pile dishes on the man’s back. If he heard plates crash to the floor while he raped the woman, he warned, he would kill them both.

His victims ranged in age from 13 to 41.

And as he continued to attack and continued to escape justice, Sacramento County found itself living in fear of the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker.

“He inspired vigilante-like patrols, attracted the attention of network news, caused safety lock sales to quadruple, pushed the county’s eastern suburbs to burn floodlights through the night and propelled hundreds of housewives into pistol training,” the Sacramento Bee recalled in 1981.

“This one man prompted what is believed to have been the most intense manhunt in the county’s history.”

If for some law enforcers the hunt for the Golden State Killer has become personal over the years, that’s because they remember how it affected their childhood.

“It all changed,” said Sacramento County district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who was 12 when the East Area Rapist first started to terrorise her community. “The memories are very vivid. You can ask anyone who grew up here. Everyone has a story.”

And as news of the serial rapist spread from California to the whole of the US, the man himself appears to have turned murderous.

In May 1977 it was reported that the rapist told one victim he would kill two people if he saw stories about his attack on her.

It is believed that eight months and nine attacks later, he made good on his promise.

On 2 February 1978 newlyweds Brian and Katie Maggiore were walking their dog in Rancho Cordova. It is suspected that they came across the East Area Rapist. He is thought to have chased them down and shot them dead.

It is possible, however, that this was not the first time the East Area Rapist had killed.

Some suspect that, as his skill at entering homes suggested, he had begun as a prolific burglar before graduating to sex crimes.

Between 1973 and 1976, California’s San Joaquin Valley had been plagued by a burglar known as the Visalia Ransacker.

On 11 September 1975, a man strongly believed to have been the ransacker was nearly caught by journalism professor Claude Snelling, 45.

Awoken by noises in the middle of the night, Mr Snelling went to investigate and was confronted by a masked intruder in the process of trying to kidnap his 16-year-old daughter Beth.

The intruder fled, but not before firing two shots that killed Mr Snelling.

Today many believe the Visalia Ransacker and the East Area Rapist to have been one and the same.

And if the killing of Mr Snelling was not premeditated, it appears that other murders were – and that the attacker’s area of operations had shifted from north to south California.

In 1979 the police in northern California were relieved to note a precipitous drop in the number of sex attacks they were having to deal with.

But in southern California, a murder spree seemed to be starting. There were nine killings in Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties between October 1979 and August 1981, and they were savage – not shootings, bludgeonings.

Like the one on Cockleshell Drive.

On Thursday 21 August 1980 Roger Harrington opened the door of his home in Cockleshell Drive, Irvine, and found a scene of horror.

His medical student son Keith, 24, had been staying at the property with his wife Patti, 27. Mr Harrington senior found the couple dead in their nightclothes under a re-made bed.

Keith had been killed by a blow to the bed. Patti appeared to have been subjected to a frenzied attack. The bedding around her was drenched in blood.

DNA would eventually link the nine killings to each other, and to the rapes in northern California.

The attacks, though, petered out.

After a rape and murder in Orange County in 1986, the Golden State Killer appears to have stopped.

He faded from the immediate concerns of law enforcement. Perhaps he thought he had got away with it.

But in 2016, 40 years after this serial rapist and serial murderer first struck and affected some of their childhoods, law enforcers decided they were going to stop at nothing to catch him.

In the words of Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a new investigative team was formed and given “virtually unlimited resources and freedom” to track down their man.

But for two years, they slogged away, seemingly to no avail.

And then, the investigators said, the breakthrough came at “light speed” in the space of six days.

So far, they have been relatively guarded about what led them to suspect DeAngelo.

Mr Jones said detectives with “dogged determination” were able to get a sample of DNA from something DeAngelo discarded, but the sheriff would not say what that item was.

It is understood that the genetic material was not a clear match, but there were enough similarities for investigators to return for more and they said they were able to get a conclusive match.

The suspect’s biography, as pieced together by news reporters, also seems to suggest that DeAngelo might have been in the relevant places at the right time.

And it offers a potentially chilling revelation. When the East Area Rapist first started to terrorise southern California, DeAngelo was one of those tasked with catching him and protecting the public.

He was a California cop.

He worked for the Auburn police department between 1976 and 1979, and before that was a police officer in Exeter, in the San Joaquin Valley, from 1973 to 1976 – at a time when the Visalia Ransacker was active in the area.

The authorities are now said to be investigating whether Mr DeAngelo can be linked to any crimes committed when he was supposed to have been on duty.

In 1979, the same year that a precipitous drop in south California sex attacks was noted, DeAngelo lost his job as a police officer.

He was caught shoplifting a can of dog repellant and a hammer from a Pay ’N’ Save store in Citrus Heights.

The authorities are now said to be considering the possibility that he was stealing the items to use them as tools in the crimes he is suspected of committing.

DeAngelo is thought to have moved into the Citrus Heights house with the well tended lawn in 1983.

By that time the Golden State Killer’s career of crime was almost over.

To his neighbours,Joseph James DeAngelo seemed like ‘a nice old grandpa’

In Citrus Heights, DeAngelo, a US Navy veteran who had served in Vietnam, seems to have fitted in tolerably well.

He built model planes, kept his house perfectly painted as well as his lawn well manicured. He is thought to have lived in the house with an adult daughter and a granddaughter.

And in all the years that the Golden State Killer had been active, despite all the thousands of tips offered by the public, the name DeAngelo had never come onto law enforcement’s radar – until last week.

In response to repeated questions, Sheriff Jones was adamant that McNamara’s recently published bestseller had not led them to the suspect.

But the book had closed with many saw as an eerily prescient “letter to an old man”, about how she thought it would end.

“One day soon,” she wrote, “You’ll hear a car pull up to your kerb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk … The doorbell rings.

“This is how it ends for you.

“Open the door. Show us your face.

“Walk into the light.”

In fact, said Sheriff Jones, there was no ring on the door for the suspect DeAngelo.

Officers simply waited for him to walk out of his house.

“He was very surprised by that,” Jones said. “It looked as though he might have been searching his mind to execute a particular plan he may have had in mind ... but he was not given the opportunity.”

DeAngelo did tell the officers he had a roast in the oven, but they assured him there was no need for him to return to the house.

They would take care of it.

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