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'Golden State Killer,' Suspected Of Terrorizing California For Years, Arrested

Joseph James DeAngelo, a suspect in a series of killings in California, was arrested Tuesday.
Sacramento County, Calif., Sheriff's Office via AP
Joseph James DeAngelo, a suspect in a series of killings in California, was arrested Tuesday.

A nameless faceless serial murderer, often known as the Golden State Killer, who terrorized several California counties from 1976 until 1986, now has a face and a name, officials say.

Authorities identified Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, of Citrus Heights, Calif., as the suspect Wednesday, more than four decades after the start of a crime spree consisting of about four dozen rapes and a dozen murders.

At a Sacramento press conference, officials said DeAngelo was arrested late Tuesday at his home outside the city, thanks to DNA analysis.

"Joseph James DeAngelo has been called a lot of things," said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

"He's been called the East [Area] Rapist. He's been called the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Nightstalker and the Golden State Killer. Today, it's our pleasure to call him defendant."

DeAngelo, reportedly a former police officer, was fired from the Auburn, Calif., Police Department in 1979, according to the Associated Press.

For decades, police had fielded frequent tips about a suspect in the highly publicized string of crimes, and in later years, a $50,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

But it was only over the last few days that information "started to point toward" DeAngelo, and police began investigating him, said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Jones did not specify what that information was.

"We were able to get some discarded DNA and we were able to confirm what we thought we already knew — that we had our man," Jones said.

While DNA evidence ultimately provided a key to unlock the case, Jones said, "I can't underscore enough the absolute human factor," citing the dogged work of detectives, district attorneys, the community and the victims.

The FBI said DNA as well as "patterns used in the crimes," led them to believe the same suspect committed "45 rapes, 12 homicides, and multiple residential burglaries" throughout the state.

The crimes apparently began with a series of burglaries and rapes in the communities of Carmichael and Rancho Cordova on the outskirts of Sacramento.

The suspect would gain entry to homes while the victims slept, awakening them with the beam of a flashlight in their faces, the FBI said. He was then said to tie up the victims, ransack their homes and rape the women.

A trademark of the crimes, the FBI said, was the suspect's theft of token items like coins. Some victims also reported having been contacted by the suspect by phone afterward.

Jane Carson-Sandler, who was sexually assaulted in California in 1976 by a man believed to be the East Area Rapist, told the Associated Press that a retired detective who had worked on the case emailed her to say they had identified and caught the rapist.

"I have just been overjoyed, ecstatic. It's an emotional roller-coaster right now," she told the AP. "It's just so nice to have closure and to know he's in jail."

By 1978, the suspect was thought to have moved on to murder, after a couple was killed while out walking their dog in Rancho Cordova.

He was then suspected of committing more rapes farther south in the East Bay area outside San Francisco as well as the Northern California cities of Stockton, Modesto and Davis, the FBI said.

The suspect was also "involved in the rape and murder of several individuals, including couples, in Southern California," who were tied up in the same manner as the Sacramento-area victims and whose homes were plundered in a similar way, according to the FBI.

After 1981, no known crimes were tied to the the Golden State Killer until May, 1986, when an 18-year-old woman was raped and murdered in Irvine, south of Los Angeles.

It was the last known crime linked to him.

And then, an unspecified breakthrough occurred in recent days.

"We knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack, but we also knew that needle was there," Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said. "The answer has always been in Sacramento."

She helped create a task force in 2016, pegged to the 40th anniversary of the first-known assault in Sacramento County. The task force has been credited with reinvigorating the case.

For Schubert, the work was also personal. She grew up in Sacramento County during a time she calls innocent.

"No one locked their doors. Kids rode their bikes to school. Parents let their children play outside." But then, in June of 1976, when she was 12, "it all changed."

DeAngelo has so far been charged in connection with four murders in Ventura and Sacramento Counties, but more charges are expected.

It "is just the beginning of the prosecution of Mr. DeAngelo," said Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten. He added several jurisdictions will be working together to charge and prosecute him.

"An immense investigation is ongoing as we speak," Totten said.

"We will, God willing, hold this man fully accountable for his crimes."

Author Michelle McNamara had conducted a thorough investigation of her own, in an attempt to pin down the killer for her true-crime book, I'll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.

She died before publication.

Her widower, actor Patton Oswalt, tweeted Wednesday, "If they've really caught the #GoldenStateKiller I hope I get to visit him. Not to gloat or gawk — to ask him the questions that @TrueCrimeDiary (McNamara) wanted answered."

Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered in Orange County in 1980, was at the press conference. "To the entire reservoir of victims out there, my sadness is with you," he said.

He also had a message for the rape victims.

"Sleep better tonight. He isn't coming through the window. He's now in jail and he is history," Harrington said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 25, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the suspect in the Golden State Killer case as James Joseph DeAngelo. He is Joseph James DeAngelo.
Amy Held is an editor on the newscast unit. She regularly reports breaking news on air and online.
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