Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
There is now no doubt: Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., is the Golden State Killer.
On Monday morning, DeAngelo, 74, began the long process of pleading guilty to over two dozen charges — and admitting to many more uncharged crimes — in a Sacramento State ballroom, the unusual venue needed to safely accommodate the many victims, witnesses and media with social distancing.
In exchange for pleading guilty, DeAngelo will avoid the death penalty and instead spend the rest of his life in prison. He also agreed to waive his appellate rights and will pay to-be-determined restitution to his victims. A formal sentencing hearing will be held in August.
As prosecutors from Ventura, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Contra Costa, Orange, San Joaquin, Yolo, Alameda and Stanislaus counties recited the details of his murders, DeAngelo, looking disinterested, responded “guilty” to each charge. On allegations with no formal charge attached — the statue of limitations expired for rape cases — he simply said, “I admit.”
The former California police officer stalked such a wide swath of the state that he collected nicknames everywhere he went. In Central California, he was the Visalia Ransacker. In Sacramento and the Bay Area, he was the East Area Rapist. In Southern California, he was the Original Night Stalker. And, finally, he became the Golden State Killer after crime writer Michelle McNamara coined the moniker in 2013.
DeAngelo raped more than 50 women from 1975-86. He also murdered at least 13 people. Those killed were Brian and Katie Maggiore, Lyman and Charlene Smith, Keith and Patrice Harrington, Manuela Witthuhn, Janelle Cruz, Claude Snelling, Robert Offerman, Debra Manning, Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez.
After the brutal bludgeoning of Cruz in 1986, the Golden State Killer disappeared, leaving frustrated investigators chasing red herrings and dead ends for 30 more years.
In his wake, DeAngelo left countless traumatized families. Along with victimizing women, he subjected husbands and boyfriends to the horror of listening to their partners being raped while they were tied up in another room. DeAngelo sometimes placed dishes on their backs, warning if he heard a plate fall, he’d kill them. Some children slept through attacks, although others awoke to the unfolding nightmare and were forced back into their rooms, alone for hours as DeAngelo roamed the house.
The Golden State Killer was known for creating violating, personal connections to victims, calling women by their first names or telling them he’d stalked them before. It’s unclear if he really had links to them, however. DeAngelo broke into victims’ homes before he attacked, giving him ample access to photos, letters and other identifying details. Investigators believe DeAngelo would case streets for days or weeks before attacking, and he’d often target a single neighborhood repeatedly before selecting a new one. In the days leading up to an attack, residents would notice family photos moved, closed doors they’d sworn they left open and scratches on window screens.
The psychological terror did not end with rape. In some cases, police believe DeAngelo called his victims afterward. In one such call, a woman and children could be heard in the background, leading investigators to speculate the killer was a family man. One woman, at the request of police, kept her phone number for years in the hopes the attacker would call and reveal identifying information.
Decades after the last case went cold, investigators announced in 2018 that DNA led them to a break in the case. Detectives submitted the killer’s DNA to an open-source genealogy website called GEDmatch, where it found a hit with a DeAngelo relative who used the service. Detectives were then able to narrow their list of suspects, eventually arresting DeAngelo after a covertly obtained sample from his trash matched the DNA that linked so many crime scenes.
Left alone in the interrogation room, Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Thienvu Ho said DeAngelo began to talk to himself.
“I did all that,” he allegedly said.
For the last three decades, DeAngelo lived in a single-story home in Citrus Heights. During many of his crimes, he was an active duty police officer — specializing in burglary cases — in Auburn and Exeter. He was fired by Auburn Police in 1979 after a shoplifting arrest. Only in retrospect did the stolen items take on a dark significance: He’d lifted a hammer and dog repellent.
Until his retirement in 2017, he worked as a truck mechanic for Save Mart in Roseville. He had a wife and three daughters, although he and his wife separated in the early 1990s. Sacramento County jail records indicate DeAngelo rarely, if ever, receives visitors.
Capital punishment is suspended in California due to a 2019 executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The order put a moratorium on executions for the duration of Newsom’s governorship but in order to fully repeal the death penalty, state voters will have to weigh in. Given DeAngelo’s age, it’s highly unlikely he would have ever been executed by the state. But the plea bargain expedited the legal process, something both DeAngelo’s public defenders and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office pushed for given the strain it would place on victims and witnesses.
“Many of these people, all deeply affected by these crimes, may not be with us in time for a jury trial,” Sacramento County deputy district attorney Amy Holliday said Monday. “… The sexual assault victims have waited decades for justice.”
DeAngelo has been in jail since his arrest in April 2018.
He will now likely die there.
Katie Dowd is the SFGATE managing editor. Email her: email@example.com | Twitter: @katiedowd