‘He disabled porch lights, unlocked windows and emptied bullets from his targets’ guns’
THIN and frail, his bald head marbled with age, Joseph DeAngelo had to be helped from his wheelchair to stand stooped before the judge. The tendons in his neck strained above his orange jail jumpsuit each time the 74-yearold’s hoarse voice repeated the stark word: “Guilty.”
He seems harmless enough today, but for 13 agonised years DeAngelo terrorised California as the Golden State Killer.
Citizen patrols roamed the night streets as panic swept the state, lavish bounties were offered, and thousands rushed to buy guns, guard dogs and door locks.
In court on Monday the former police officer pleaded guilty to 13 murders and kidnappings, and admitted 62 more rapes and abductions. From 1973 to 1986 he attacked at least 106 men, women and children, and raped 50 women and girls.
“I did all those things,” he confessed after his capture. “I’ve destroyed all their lives. So now, I’ve got to pay the price.”
His brutality was matched only by his cunning. DeAngelo staked out his victims, breaking into their homes to prepare the perfect crime scene.
HE DISABLED porch lights, unlocked windows and sliding doors, and emptied bullets from his targets’ guns. He often phoned them months in advance to learn their daily routines.
Chillingly, he hid shoelaces or nylon cords beneath cushions, to be used as ligatures later when he bound his victims.
For more than four decades he got away with it, frustrating detectives and an anxious public. And he would still be free today if not for the remarkable persistence of an amateur sleuth, and the development of new DNA tracing techniques.
For years, the Golden State Killer was so meticulous he left no fingerprints at a crime scene. DNA analysis found no matches in police files. But true-life crime author Michelle McNamara became consumed with finding the killer’s identity.
The wife of top US comedy star Patton Oswalt – he voiced the culinary-gifted rodent in Pixar’s 2007 animated movie Ratatouille – she helped focus fresh attention on a case that had long gone cold.
DeAngelo’s attacks had ranged over such a wide swathe of California – 350 miles – that police thought his prodigious crime spree was the work of several different psychopaths. His rapes and murders were attributed to the Original Night Stalker, the East Coast Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker and the Diamond Knot Killer.
It was McNamara who recognised similarities in the attacks and dubbed DeAngelo the Golden State Killer – all the more terrifying because his face was unknown. “He’s the fake shark in Jaws, barely seen, so doubly feared,” she said.
McNamara’s obsession became her bestselling book I’ll Be Gone in the
Dark, spawning an HBO TV miniseries, and taking over her life. “When I’m puzzling over the details of an unsolved case, I’m like a rat in a maze given a task,” McNamara admitted. “I want him captured. I don’t care who he is. I don’t care if I’m the one who captures him. I just want bracelets on his wrists and a cell door slamming behind him.”
But she admitted becoming “unhealthily obsessed” with finding the killer, waking at all hours of the night to dig into dusty police files – and it cost the author her life. She died in her sleep in 2016, at 46.
An autopsy found she had an undiagnosed heart condition and had taken a combination of prescription drugs. Her death was ruled accidental. Tragically, McNamara died before seeing the phantom killer captured. But her obsession forced police to look again at the Golden State Killer’s horrific catalogue of crimes, and in 2016 police launched a nationwide effort to bring him to justice.
DeAngelo usually struck at night. At first he focused on women living alone or single mothers. But as his confidence grew he switched to targeting couples, waking them at gunpoint and binding the men with shoelaces or rope. And he moved on from rape and burglary to murder.
FACE hidden behind a ski mask, the killer tormented victims with items from their own homes, tearing up bathroom towels into strips to blindfold and gag them. He bludgeoned to death his last victim, Janelle Cruz, in 1986, using a pipe wrench he had stolen from her back garden days earlier. Charlene and Lyman Smith were beaten to death in 1980 with a log taken from their garden.
DeAngelo would take dishes from the kitchen and place them on the helpless husband’s back, threatening to kill both victims if he heard the plates fall while he raped the wife.
One woman recalls DeAngelo aiming a knife at her with the chilling warning: “Make one move and you’ll be silent for ever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”
Others were killed with a shotgun. DeAngelo liked to spend hours terrorising his victims, ransacking their homes, drinking their beer,
DOGGED DETECTIVE WORK: Crime author Michelle McNamara