Behind the Years-Long Hunt for the Golden State Killer — and What Finally Led to an Arrest
Wanted — for 42 Years
He is suspected to have progressed from rape to murder, wearing a ski mask as he committed his crimes and shining a flashlight into his victims’ eyes. Over a 10-year-period — from 1976 to 1986 — his distinctive methods made him a suspect in 12 murders, 45 sexual assaults and more than 120 burglaries from Sacramento in the north to Southern California's Orange County, according to the FBI.
But for 42 years, the suspect remained unidentified and at-large. That all changed on April 25, 2018, with the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer, whom authorities charged with four of those killings. Police sources say he may be tied to many more.
1976: The Spree Begins
Starting with a report about a sexual assault and rape that occurred on June 18, 1976, local authorities in Sacramento County began to track a related series of burglaries and rapes that summer and fall in middle-class neighborhoods on the county's east side.
Because of that geographic cluster, they initially dubbed the assailant as the East Area Rapist. The FBI said his escape route after attacks followed a levee along the American River beyond this fence (pictured), where the thick brush could shield him from view.
A Disturbing Pattern Emerges
Evidence and victim's statements suggested a pattern that became familiar to investigators. The assailant often wore a ski mask. He ransacked homes and took coins, jewelry and identification from his victims. After the media reported that he only attacked women who were home alone, he sought out couples, forcing the women by knife or gunpoint to bind the men with shoelaces he brought with him or found at the crime scene. He would then stack teacups or plates on the male’s back and threaten to kill everyone if he heard the items clatter during his assault on the women.
The First Murder — 2 Years After Initial Rapes
On Feb. 2, 1978, Brian Maggiore, a military policeman at Mather Air Force Base, was on an evening walk with his wife, Katie, and their dog in their Rancho Cordova neighborhood, where several of the previous attacks were clustered. Police said they were chased down and murdered.
“This threw a whole different light on the rape series,” retired Sacramento County Sheriff’s detective Ray Biondi said in 2016. “We have the rape series, do we also have now a violent criminal who is killing people?”
A Tie Between the Crimes
Evidence found at the Maggiore murder scene included a shoelace tied in a double-loop, which could serve as handcuffs or restraints, like the shoelaces used by the East Area Rapist. (Not until several years later would the FBI formally announce a link between the Maggiore's killing and the rapist.)
“Everyone was afraid,” FBI Special Agent Marcus Knutson, a Sacramento native, said in 2016. “We had people sleeping with shotguns, we had people purchasing dogs. People were concerned, and they had a right to be. This guy was terrorizing the community. He did horrible things.”
A Killer Adept at Thwarting Investigators
As authorities created files documenting the attacks, searching for any connecting threads that might lead to their man, the suspect worked hard to thwart them. On occasion, he would enter residences when no one was home days or weeks prior to his attacks so he could learn about his future victims. He spoke in fake accents, like German or Chinese, in an attempt to throw detectives off his trail.
None of the common tools that help solve crimes today -- DNA testing, neighborhood surveillance cameras, cell phone records -- were available in the early years of the case. Even 911 emergency call networks were only partly in place.
1979: Southern California Spree Begins
After a July 1979 attempted rape in Danville, the attacks in Northern California mostly ended. But starting with an attempted sexual assault and murder that October in Goleta, in Southern California, authorities there began to notice similarities in a new round of apparently connected sexual assaults, rapes and murders. Without a proven connection to the East Area Rapist, the suspect in that emerging spree was christened with a different nickname: the Original Night Stalker. Eventually authorities would link the two.
2016: Investigators Renew Efforts 40 Years After 1st Attack
In June 2016, on the 40th anniversary of the first attack, local authorities and the FBI offered a $50,000 reward for help leading to an arrest and conviction. The Golden State Killer's suspected victims by then ranged in age from 13 to 41 and included women home alone, women home with children, and husbands and wives. Among those he killed, some were shot, and others bludgeoned.
But inexplicably, his crimes had appeared to stop after May 1986, with the rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman in Irvine. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schuber — known for her prosecutions using DNA technology — convened a task force in 2016, and the cold-case investigation revved up again.
Suspect Identified Using DNA
Using DNA stored over decades from some of the crime scenes, authorities in April 2018 entered the suspected assailant's genetic profile into a public online genealogy database. It matched several relatives of Joseph James DeAngelo, a resident of suburban Sacramento who'd not even been on the radar of investigators until then.
But his age, 72, and local connections to the Sacramento area conformed with long-held suspicions about the possible assailant. Deputies then followed DeAngelo to collect DNA, which allegedly confirmed his connection to several of the killings.
'Needle in a Haystack'
DeAngelo, who lived in this house in suburban Citrus Heights, is described as a former police officer in both Visalia and Auburn who was fired for allegedly stealing and last worked as an officer in 1979. He initially was charged with capital murder for the 1978 Maggiore slayings and the March 1980 killings of Lyman and Charlene Smith. Authorities continue to investigate his link to other crimes.
“We all knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack, but we all knew the needle was there," Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said. "We found the needle in the haystack and it was right here in Sacramento.”