Golden State Killer latest: Who is Joseph DeAngelo? The former police officer accused of 12 murders

The longer he thwarted authorities, the more he came to assume quality of an urban legend: a threat that always lurked at the edge of peoples’ consciousness

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Monday 14 May 2018 10:51 BST
Joseph James DeAngelo at his arraignment in California Superior court in Sacramento, California
Joseph James DeAngelo at his arraignment in California Superior court in Sacramento, California (Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench/Pool via REUTERS)

In the decade that he is believed to have terrorised California with a string of rapes and murders, the suspect acquired a roster of nicknames that testified to how large he loomed in the public’s nightmares.

The Visalia Ransacker. The East Area Rapist. The Golden State Killer. The Original Night Stalker.

As the list of crimes grew, accompanied by lurid details, the suspect came to haunt the public’s imagination. The longer he thwarted authorities and committed crimes that seemed designed for maximum horror, the more he came to assume the quality of an urban legend: a threat that always lurked at the edge of peoples’ consciousness, a reason to keep the doors locked at night.

“For us here in Sacramento, it was a time of innocence” before the crimes began, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said in announcing authorities had arrested a suspect, but then “it all changed”.

“The memories are very vivid. You can ask anyone who grew up here”, Schubert said.

“Everyone was afraid,” FBI special agent and Sacramento native Marcus Knutson said. “We had people sleeping with shotguns, we had people purchasing dogs. People were concerned, and they had a right to be. This guy was terrorising the community. He did horrible things”.

The breakthrough came at last in April, when authorities said they had arrested Joseph James DeAngelo and attributed to him a 10-year rampage of violence.

Mr DeAngelo has so far been charged in connection with 12 homicides, and the FBI believes he is also responsible for 45 rapes. But perhaps even more than the sheer number of crimes, the details helped lend the dread its enduring power.

Typically armed with a knife and wearing a ski mask, the suspect would tie women up and threaten to kill them if they protested. If a couple was home, he would bind husbands and then stack dishes on them, saying if he heard the plates rattle or fall he would kill them both. Then he would rape the wives. He was known to help himself to snacks in the homes he entered.

Sacramento DA: 'we found the needle in the haystack' after Golden State Killer caught in Sacramento

As the serial assaulter danced a step ahead of authorities, they received taunting phone calls from a man claiming to be responsible.

“I'm the East Side Rapist and I have my next victim already stalked and you guys can't catch me”, he told a Sacramento County Sheriff’s office operator.

The suspected spree can be divided into a few distinct eras. First came scores of burglaries in Visalia, a town in California’s agriculture-dominated Central Valley. Then came the cascade of home entries and rapes around Sacramento. Finally, a dozen murders around southern California that extended the terror statewide.

It took years for authorities to link those crimes to the same man. By the time a crime lab tied the murders to the rapes through DNA, the crimes had long since ceased (a definitive DNA link has not yet tied the suspect to the Visalia burglaries, but authorities say the same culprit is behind them).

In the end, it was DNA that again led authorities to the suspect: a man named Joseph James DeAngelo who was living a quiet life in a suburb of the California capital.

“The answer”, Ms Schubert said in announcing the arrest, “has always been in Sacramento”.

The answer, as it turned out, may also have been within the ranks of law enforcement itself.

In August 1973, the Exeter Sun carried a story introducing readers to a new member of the town’s police force, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War named Joseph DeAngelo.

“James DeAngelo Jr. believes that without law and order there can be no government and without a democratic government there can be no freedom,” the report said. “Law enforcement is his career, and his job is serving the community”.

A few years later, police were hunting for a masked man who had begun assaulting women around the Sacramento area. Mr DeAngelo was serving on the police force of Auburn, a Sacramento-area community where the Sierra Nevada range begins rising from the Central Valley.

From 1976 to 1979 – the rough period when authorities believe Mr DeAngelo was an Auburn cop – the rapes occurred with alarming frequency, sometimes multiple in the span of a week. In 1979 women in cities hours away from Sacramento were attacked by a suspect who fit the East Area Rapist’s pattern.

In that time, Mr DeAngelo did not avoid run-ins with the law entirely. An Auburn Journal story in the summer of 1979 noted an area police officer had been cited for attempting to steal a hammer and a can of dog repellant from a store in Citrus Heights – the same town where, more than 40 years later, Mr DeAngelo would be arrested outside his home.

That time, he would face consequences. He lost his job – and, authorities believe, headed south.

By the end of that year, four people in the coastal community of Goleta had been murdered. Eight more people would die in murders linked to the Golden State Killer until 1986.

And then it stopped. A generation of law enforcement had failed to track down a perpetrator.

Until now. Authorities redoubled their efforts, and the controversial decision to tap a public DNA database helped yield what Ms Schubert called the “needle in the haystack”. Hundreds of victims will now look to prosecutors for justice that once seemed out of reach.

“I don’t want him to be dead“, an anonymous woman identified as the rapist's first survivor told the FBI, ”because I think that would be the easy way out for him”.

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