Who Is the Golden State Killer?
The Golden State Killer is responsible for a series of burglaries, rapes and murders that took place across California in the 1970s and '80s. From 1976 to 1979, more than 40 rapes in northern California were attributed to an assailant called the East Area Rapist. In southern California between 1979 and 1986, a serial killer who was dubbed the Original Night Stalker took the lives of ten people. In 2001 DNA analysis revealed that these rapes and murders had been committed by the same perpetrator, whom crime writer Michelle McNamara labeled the "Golden State Killer." In 2018 Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer, was arrested and charged with 13 murders and other crimes linked to the Golden State Killer. In June 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty.
Before he became a rapist and murderer, the Golden State Killer was responsible for a series of burglaries in the northern California city of Visalia in 1974-75. The Visalia Ransacker took small trophies from the homes he broke into and also spent time going through women's underwear drawers. In 1975, the Ransacker attempted to kidnap a teenage girl; her father intervened and was killed.
In June 1976, the first reported rape that has been linked to the Golden State Killer took place in Sacramento County. This attack was followed by more assaults in the eastern part of Sacramento County. At this point in his criminal career, the Golden State Killer came to be known as the East Area Rapist. He would assault more than 40 women in northern California between 1976 and 1979.
During these crimes the Golden State Killer often spent hours in victims' homes, sometimes taking breaks from the assaults to eat or cry. He also stole personal items, such as jewelry or photographs. Initially, he targeted women and girls — two of his victims were just 13 — who were alone or with children, but by 1977 he was attacking couples. He would often break into a house, have a female victim tie up her male partner and place dishes on the bound man's back. The rapist would warn that he'd kill the couple if these items fell, then would go on to assault his female victim. Some victims were later taunted by phone calls from their assailant.
Attacks by the Golden State Killer were often preceded by hang-up phone calls. He seemed to surveil houses — usually single-story homes — and neighborhoods to get a feel for his targets before acting. As the rapes continued, terrorized residents in the Sacramento area went on high alert, buying new locks and arming themselves. An officer on the case later said, "The fear in the community was like something I had never seen before. People were afraid wherever they went."
In 1977, the Golden State Killer raped a victim in Stockton, outside of Sacramento. He soon went after victims in Modesto, San Jose and Contra Costa County. In 1978 he shot and killed a Sacramento County couple who'd been walking their dog. After 1979 the serial rapes in northern California ceased.
By late 1979, the Golden State Killer was targeting people in southern California. He continued to rape female victims, then brutally murdered them and their male partners (if present). Ten people — four heterosexual couples and two individual women — were killed by the Golden State Killer in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange Counties between 1979 and 1986.
Pursuing the Golden State Killer
Attacks by the Golden State Killer were linked by similarities such as the rapist usually wearing a ski mask and tying his victims' hands. Police believed they were looking for a young white male who wore a size 9 shoe, stood about 5 feet, 9 inches tall and had military or law enforcement training. However, DNA analysis wasn't available to track suspects, or even to confirm that one man was responsible for all these crimes.
The Golden State Killer's southern California murders took place in different jurisdictions, so it took time to link these killings. One slaying was initially attributed to the Diamond Knot Killer because of the intricate knots found on the murdered pair. The Creek Killer was said to be responsible for the deaths of two couples in Goleta, near Santa Barbara. Some who'd pursued the Golden State Killer wondered if their criminal had escalated into serial murder, but these suspicions didn't result in an official avenue of investigation.
Similarities between the killings in southern California eventually led investigators to group them together. They called their suspect the Original Night Stalker (to distinguish him from the Night Stalker, another California serial killer). And though many departments who'd investigated the Golden State Killer had destroyed evidence after the statute of limitations for rape — just three years in the 1970s — expired, enough remained available for DNA analysis to confirm in 2001 that the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were the same man. Around 2011, crime writer McNamara dubbed the still-at-large murderer and rapist the "Golden State Killer."
In June 2016, 40 years after the first known assault by the Golden State Killer, the FBI and the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office offered a $50,000 reward for help with the investigation.
Suspect: Joseph DeAngelo
DeAngelo served as a police officer in two different northern California communities between 1973 and 1979. He left the force after he was arrested for shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent in 1979.
Joseph James DeAngelo was born in Bath, New York, on November 8, 1945. He spent some of his childhood in the Sacramento area, served in Vietnam in the U.S. Navy, and studied criminal justice at California State University Sacramento. He was once engaged to a woman named Bonnie, a name one victim of the Golden State Killer remembered him crying about. He married another woman, with whom he had three daughters before the relationship ended in divorce.
DeAngelo worked at a supermarket distribution center as a mechanic for 27 years. He retired in 2017.
Arrest of DeAngelo
Investigators used the DNA evidence in their possession to create a genetic profile of the Golden State Killer. Late in 2017, they uploaded this profile to a genealogy database. This revealed a family link to DeAngelo. Authorities proceeded to collect "discarded DNA" from DeAngelo, which allegedly proved to be a match to DNA from the Golden State Killer's crimes. On April 24, 2018, the 72-year-old DeAngelo was arrested.
DeAngelo was charged with 13 murders and 13 counts of kidnapping for purposes of robbery. He could not be charged with any rapes as the statute of limitations had expired for those crimes.
In March 2020 DeAngelo offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors initially turned down the deal as they wanted to seek the death penalty, but in June 2020 news reports stated that an agreement had been reached for DeAngelo to be spared a death sentence in exchange for pleading guilty.
On June 29, 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty to all 26 charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In the Media
McNamara wrote online and for Los Angeles magazine about the Golden State Killer, which brought more attention to the then-unsolved crimes. In addition to her writing, McNamara was one of many civilian sleuths who tried to track down the killer and rapist. She authored a book about the case and her investigative journey: I'll Be Gone in the Dark. McNamara died from an accidental overdose in 2016 before her book was finished, but her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, oversaw its completion. It became a bestseller after it was published in February 2018.
A 2020 documentary, also called I'll Be Gone in the Dark, was based on McNamara's search for the killer.
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