Joseph James DeAngelo has pleaded guilty to the crimes that terrorised a state, and left an entire generation scarred for life.
It’s a cathartic conclusion to a long and winding road – one that seemed dead-end for years. People had given up hope at one point in time. His arrest, and plea, have finally began to heal the wounds on those who he harmed so profoundly.
DeAngelo’s long, gruesome, and repugnant career in crime began over 45 years ago, and his evolution from small-town thief to serial murderer was as frightening as it was sickening.
Phase I – The Visalia Ransacker
DeAngelo’s progression into murder didn’t happen overnight. For years he trained himself in home invasions in the town of Visalia, California. Dozens of homes were invaded, trashed, and burgled as the man known as the Visalia Ransacker came to attention.
The first of these instances occurred on March 19, 1974, when the Ranscaker stole $50 in change from a piggy bank. As more and more homes began to be targeted, the Ransacker’s unique hallmarks (such as rummaging through bedroom drawers, collecting and arranging women’s undergarments, and causing more destruction than was necessary to break in to the home) began to come to prominence. This odd MO made it clear that every break-in was the work of one person. Although the assailant was destructive, the Ransacker had yet to physically hurt anyone during his break-ins. After police tied the multiple burglaries together, a witness sketch was created:
The Ransacker’s crimes took a macabre turn on the evening of September 11, 1975. When breaking in to the home of Claude Snelling – the Ransacker attempted to kidnap his 16-year-old daughter from her bedroom. Mr. Snelling heard a struggle and immediately rushed downstairs where he was shot twice in the back. Snelling later died from his wounds as the Visalia Ransacker graduated from a petty thief to an out-and-out murderer. Now, the hunt for the suspect was seriously on.
The assailant had a young face and short blonde hair. He was able to avoid detection by escaping through a complex network of parks, gardens, and hiking trails. A vehicle, if used, was never described by witnesses and it seemed the Ransacker made most of his getaways on foot or on a bicycle. He’d obviously done his homework – as Ted Bundy had recently been caught and his infamous Volkswagen Beetle was instrumental in his apprehension. Although the Ransacker could sprint and scale fences, he was almost always described as heavy-set. His young face made it difficult to estimate his age, but a conservative guess had him between 23-28.
The Snelling murder frightened the local community. One would assume that such a high-profile incident would have forced the Ransacker to move on, but his approach only got more brazen as time went on. His hubris almost backfired one night in late 1975 when he broke in to the home of a woman who lived alone. After she discovered fresh shoe prints under her window, she called the cops – who were staked out in her garage. Remarkably, the Ransacker showed up to the same home the following night.
Officer William McGowen rushed out of the garage and confronted the Ransacker. The assailant shrieked in a terrified falsetto and McGowen saw his face clearly. ”Don’t shoot!” the suspect pleaded. He then feigned surrender as McGowen moved in to arrest him. As he got up close, the Ransacker pulled a gun out of his waist and fired it at the officer, smashing his flashlight in the process. The suspect then sprinted away in the darkness, outrunning a bloodhound and scaling a large fence.
McGowen, luckily, was unhurt. However, the luck of the Visalia Ransacker continued.
Phase II- The East Area Rapist (EAR)
The McGowen incident marked the end of the Visalia Ransacker’s reign of terror. There was nowhere to hide after a police officer had seen his face up-close, so the assailant packed up and moved hundreds of miles away to Sacramento in either late 1975 or early 1976. As the United States was celebrating its 200th anniversary, one of its most notorious criminals had entered phase II of his macabre manifesto.
His MO was the same as before. He would break into the homes of women who lived alone and who, preferably, lived near an open space such as a park or nature trail. However, this time, his crimes went one step further – as he assaulted his victims this time.
June 1976 marked the beginning of such assaults. Once broken into the home, the EAR would aim a flashlight into the sleeping victim’s face and tie them up with ligatures that he had planted at the home in the days before. After his assualt was over, he would often help himself to snacks – and would sometimes remain in the home for hours at a time, leaving the victims wondering if he was still there or not. As if that wasn’t revolting enough, he would often call his victims after and taunt them whilst at work. Although several witnesses spotted him, he, somehow, evaded capture yet again.
One defining, often repeated detail of the EAR was his extremely small penis. This was reported by the majority of his victims, and it’s a shame that the nickname the Tiny Dick Assaulter never stuck in the public memory.
As the EAR’s crimes continued, he began to target couples. It’s suspected that he conducted a long stalking process before his crimes, learning victims’ routines and daily chores, following them to work ,and sometimes sizing up the neighbourhood around them to look for areas to make a getaway. Once he broke in, he would tie the male up, rest dishes and plates on his back, and threaten to kill him if he heard the plates crash. He would then assault the female, sometimes repeatedly, before staying in the home for an indefinite amount of time.
Fifty women were assaulted by a man who always seemed to be one step ahead of the police. It was obvious he had some knowledge of investigative techniques because he always made sure no hard evidence was left behind. He also seemed to know where police were staked out and avoided those areas. As murder began to enter the equation, the EAR rarely used guns to avoid ballistic evidence. A massive police investigation was taking place, and the suspect’s almost miraculous run of luck once again continued.
Phase III- The Original Night Stalker (ONS)
Once again, the area that the EAR terrorised soon returned to normality as the perpetrator seemingly vanished in to the night. Although he had scarred dozens of people for life and left a lasting impression on the community, the public consciousness in Sacramento had seemingly moved on from the EAR after his attacks stopped.
The EAR now had over a decade of experience under his belt from both this days in Visalia and Sacremento, and had accrued both the expertise and confidence to graduate to the third phase of his career of crime – serial killing.
After moving to Southern California in the late 1970s, the East Area Rapist would commit a string of murders that would lead investigators, still yet to tie all of his crimes together, to dub him the Night Stalker. Years later, after Richard Ramirez received the same nickname, he was referred to as the Original Night Stalker.
Just before his relocation to Southern California, the EAR comitted his second and third murders by slaying Brian and Katie Maggiore after an interaction on the street. Although police couldn’t be certain, they were convinced that the murderer was the EAR as he matched earlier police sketches, escaped on foot, and left a shoelace nearby.
With a taste for killing, the Night Stalker was born. From 1979 to 1986, he murdered 13 men and women in their homes, again scoping out his victims way in advance and escaping via foot or bicycle. He bludgeoned the majority of his victims, but sometimes used firearms and knives, too. Once again, he came close to being caught on a number of occasions, but escaped each and every time.
May 4, 1986, marked the last confirmed murder by the ONS. 18-year-old Janelle Lisa Cruz was found beaten to death in her home in Irvine after her parents had gone away to Mexico. The crime had all the hallmarks of a ONS crime, and some began to suspect that the East Area Rapist and the ONS were the same person. DNA, collected from the crime scenes, confirmed this in 2001. Around this time, the EAR/ONS confirmed to the public that he was still alive, and out of prison, by calling up a previous rape victim and asking them ”remember when we played?” before hanging up.
Phase IV – Identification, Arrest, and Conviction
DNA testing was brand new in 1986. The first recorded use of the technique occurred in the same year that the ONS seemingly retired from his life of crime. It was a lucky time to stop. Had the ONS’s reign of terror continued, it was inevitable that he would leave a ‘smoking gun’ behind for officers to catch him.
That smoking gun never arrived – and, as time, went on, it seemed likely that the ONS would go down in history as an unidentified murderer. Although his DNA was on file, finding a match in the most populated state in the country was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Nobody knew where the killer lived, what he did for a living, or even if he was alive or not. The rise of the Internet in the 1990s renewed interest in the case with amateur sleuths, and Michelle McNamara’s 2018 book I’ll be Gone in the Dark became a best-seller and helped popularise the moniker Golden State Killer. Sadly, McNamara passed away in 2016, and her novel was released posthumously.
The summer of 2016 marked a restart in the EAR/ONS investigation. At a June press conference, detectives announced they were conducting a new, more streamlined investigation using existing DNA evidence and new composite sketches.
Imagine what the suspect thought when he saw this billboard on the roadside. Perhaps he was scared to death, wondering if the new developments in DNA would finally catch him, or perhaps he was completely indifferent – if the police couldn’t catch him in the 70s, how would they get him now? Most likely, however, it was shrugged off with the arrogance that he almost certainly had in abundance. ”They’re never going to catch me!” I can imagine him saying before speeding off, as he did so often, in to the dark.
However, this time, his luck had run out.
Using the online genealogy service GEDMatch, which links uploaded DNA to distant relatives, the EAR/ONS sample matched to several relatives, alive and dead, throughout the country. From there, a team led by forensic investigator Paul Holes constructed a large family tree. Suspects were eliminated based on their age, location, and gender until only a handful of relevant suspects remained.
Three suspects were left. One had been dead since 1982, so he was off the table, and one of them, once considered a suspect, was ruled out by a DNA test in the 1990s. There was only one suspect to go.
A possible match came when Joseph James DeAngelo was uncovered. Authorities knew the DNA sample matched some of his familial DNA, but, without a full-sample from him, it was impossible to determine whether the EAR/ONS sample completely matched his DNA.
DeAngelo was an officer throughout Northern and Southern California for the majority of the 1970s. He became sergeant in 1976 and was head of Exeter’s burglary unit until his relocation to Auburn. He was fired in 1979 after shoplifting dog repellant and a hammer. Ironically, the store owner detained DeAngelo by tying him up in his store after he tried to escape. DeAngelo ranted to his brother-in-law after the shopfliting incident, threatening to kill the police chief who fired him – and he even broke in to his house and shined a flashlight on his teenage daughter’s window. Somehow, this incident was never reported and was dismissed as a professional argument gone wrong.
Whilst DeAngelo matched the witness sketches, and possessed the investigative knowledge the EAR/ONS was known to have, he couldn’t be arrested until there was a positive DNA match. In April 2018, two samples were collected from DeAngelos car door handle, and a tissue that he had discarded in his rubbish bin.
Both samples were a match. The Golden State Killer, East Area Rapist, and the Visalia Ransacker was finally caught – and he was one of the police’s own, after all. His response to detectives when they finally showed up outside his door?
”There’s a roast in the oven.” He said, before allegedly slamming his head in to a wall as the reality of his capture began to sink in.
DeAngelo, now thin and wasted, is at last behind bars. On June 29, 2020, he pleaded guilty to everything he is charged for. His performance as an old, vulnerable, mentally challenged, wheelchair-bound pensioner is as disgusting as it is transparent. His performance is fooling no-one, and it’s a pleasure seeing him facing justice for the lifetime of misery his crimes have caused his victims and their families.
DeAngelo will now spend the remainder of his life behind bars, whilst his victims’ families can finally receive closure as they move out of the darkness he caused.
They’re now free, at last, to walk in to the light.