golden state killer
how dna sleuths solved a 40- year old cold case
On Wednesday 24 April 2018, police knocked at the door of an elderly man living in anonymous surroundings in the community of Citrus Heights, some 126 kilometres northeast of Sacramento in northern California. The septuagenarian was in the middle of cooking a roast dinner, but he would never get around to eating it. Instead, he was arrested and charged with an initial eight murders across four different Californian locations.
He seemed an unlikely murderer at first; 72 years old, not in the best of health, balding and with a mouth so downturned it made him look permanently glum. He was also a former policeman – surely a man who had worked on the right side of the law could not have committed murder? But then more facts emerged: Joseph James DeAngelo may have been a retiree with a quiet suburban life, but his police career had ended with an ignominious firing from the Auburn Police Department. He was now the main suspect in more than 175 crimes committed over a decade between 1976 and 1986, and it was the increasing popularity in the use of genealogy websites to locate individuals’ family members and ancestors that had finally led police investigators to him.
Six days before his arrest Joseph James DeAngelo went to visit his local craft store, the Hobby Lobby in Roseville, California. It was a day like any other; he drove from his home to the Hobby Lobby parking lot, but as he pulled up he had no idea that waiting nearby were a team of investigators. Once inside the store, he didn’t see the police make their way to his car to swab the driver’s side handle. It was this swab that would later prove crucial.
It was sent for testing and was matched to a sample recovered from one of the crime scenes of the notorious Golden State Killer. Five days later they found a tissue in DeAngelo’s trash can outside his house and sent that off to be examined. Both samples matched this elderly man to the scene of a crime that had gone unpunished for nearly 40 years – the rape and murder in 1980 of 33- year- old interior decorator Charlene Smith, who was killed alongside her attorney husband Lyman.
This was the last in a series of actions taken by police to locate and arrest a man suspected of being one of America’s most wanted criminals for decades. Earlier that year they had managed to compare genetic profiles from genealogy databases to crime scene DNA, and these had narrowed down their list of suspects.
Crime and punishment
The 1970s and 1980s saw a spate of rapes and murders that were originally attributed to four attackers – the Visalia Ransacker, the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker. All four, it is now believed, were the same solitary man. Initially, in the early to mid 1970s, this individual engaged in a series of burglaries in Visalia. Most of the offences involved ransacking, stealing personal items and generally ignoring money, although coins were sometimes stolen. However, it was also in Visalia that the first murder occurred – that of Claude Snelling, who was shot in the autumn of 1975 while attempting to stop his teenaged daughter from being abducted. In August 2018 murder charges were filed against DeAngelo in this case.
This sole murder marked the end of the crime spree in Visalia. This is because in 1976 DeAngelo relocated to the Sacramento area and was soon searching middle- class areas at night for women to rape. After identifying a potential victim, he might undertake a reconnaissance of their property, looking through windows or even break into them, unlocking the windows and planting items for him to use there later. He planned his attacks carefully in advance. He might ring the victim, pretending he had a wrong number, or simply learn their day- to- day routines.
As time went on he would choose couples over a single woman, breaking in at night and waking his sleeping victims with a flashlight or a threat. He would blindfold and gag his victims, then separate them in order to rape the woman. He would spend hours in their houses, ransacking their goods, eating their food, stealing their property. He would leave on
BOTH SAMPLES MATCHED THIS ELDERLY MAN TO THE SCENE OF A CRIME THAT HAD GONE UNPUNISHED FOR NEARLY 40 YEARS
foot or on a bicycle, exiting quietly in order to confuse his victims as to whether he really had left or was still in their home, ready to pounce once more.
Between June 1976 and July 1979, there were 51 reported offences with similar modus operandis across five counties. By this latter date the suspect had become a murderer. In February 1978, a young married couple, Brian and Katie Maggiore, were out walking their dog one night in Rancho Cordova, an area where five attacks had already been reported. They were confronted by an individual, and as they tried to run away they were shot dead. Their bodies were found in the backyard of a house in their neighbourhood.
In the summer of 1979, it appeared that the East Area Rapist had relocated once more, this time to southern California. First, a rape was reported, and then in October a couple survived an attempted murder in Goleta, Santa Barbara County. Between December 1979 and July 1981, nine people were murdered – four couples and one woman, Charlene Smith. There was then a five- year gap before a final murder – that of 18- year- old Janelle Cruz – in May 1986, in Orange County. Several of these murders had similarities to the Sacramento attacks, with couples being tied up, women being raped and the killer fleeing on a bicycle.
A killer’s private life
While these offences were being committed, DeAngelo maintained an image of an ordinary Californian man during the day. That is until one day in 1979, when he shoplifted a can of dog repellent and a hammer from a branch of the Pay ‘ n Save drugstore chain in Sacramento. This act led to him being fired from his job as a policeman. He had always been interested in crime, ironically, but as a young man had been more interested in the theoretical, getting a degree in criminal justice after an earlier career in the navy and a spell fighting in Vietnam. The New York state native had worked as a police officer in Exeter, California, from 1973 to 1976. Exeter is a city in Tulare County, and, significantly, the county seat of Tulare is Visalia. It was during the time DeAngelo was working in Exeter that the Visalia Ransacker
POLICE RESTRICTED THEIR SEARCH TO AGE AND LOCATION. oNE INDIVIDUAL WAS RULED OUT BY A RELATIVE’S DNA TEST, MEANING THERE WAS JUST ONE LEFT: JOSEPH DEANGELO
started committing crimes. In 1976, DeAngelo moved into the jurisdiction of the Auburn Police Department in the Greater Sacramento area. A series of crimes duly started in the vicinity.
DeAngelo’s private life had seemed like anyone else’s though. He had served in the military, gone to university, become a police officer. He had married his wife Sharon in 1973 and they had three daughters together. Sharon had then become an attorney. In 1991, the couple separated, later divorcing. At the time of his arrest, DeAngelo was still living with a daughter and granddaughter and working at a supermarket’s distribution warehouse. He was known by his co- workers as a serious, unsmiling man with a very short fuse, but he wasn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary, certainly not a violent man.
Meanwhile, the northern California rapes and the southern California murders became cold cases. Although some suspected the East Area Rapist was the same individual as the Original Night Stalker, nobody had been charged with being either. The search for the man responsible continued. In 2011, DNA technology had developed to the extent that the northern California rapes could be linked to the murders in the southern part of the state, and five years after that, in 2016, a task force was created by the Sacramento County DA, Anne Marie Schubert, to help find him. The FBI, which offered a $ 50,000 reward for information relating to the GSK, described him as being white, tall and of an athletic build and possibly with an interest in law enforcement techniques.
The description matched Joseph DeAngelo, but it was only in 2018 that a break in the case led police to him, and that was the use by police of genetic information on a ‘ consumer genealogy website’ that narrowed the list of suspects substantially.
Genetic genealogy – the use of DNA testing combined with older genealogical methods in order to find relations and ancestors – is a relatively new field but one that is growing in popularity. It is also regarded as part of forensic genealogy – the use of forensic techniques as applied to family history. Genealogical DNA tests have been offered for nearly 20 years, and over 12 million people, primarily in America, have so far had their DNA tested for genealogy purposes. Direct- to- consumer genetic DNA testing is offered by several companies, including AncestryDNA, a subsidiary of the Ancestry. com genealogy company, which claims to have 7 million customers. The tests are attractive because of their
simplicity – both Ancestry DNA’s kit, and that offered by another provider, 23andme, involve spitting into a tube before sending it off, and several weeks later you can access the results online.
Another provider, MyHeritage, requires a cheek swab rather than a saliva sample. The test results let you link to others with family trees or DNA results online, allowing you to locate relatives, from parents to distant cousins.
Although genetic genealogy originated as a benign way of finding out more about an individual’s family, it is also a logical way to help trace murder victims. One group, the DNA Doe Project, aims to help give a name to unidentified murder victims using volunteers from the genetic genealogy community to help generate information based on degraded DNA. The project recently established the identity of a young woman who was murdered in Ohio in 1981.
Known as ‘ Buckskin Girl’ for decades, DNA obtained from a blood sample during the victim’s autopsy was uploaded to a public genealogy database. From this, the project team was able to identify an individual and then looked for potential victims among the relatives listed on another genealogy website, Ancestry. The victim was subsequently identified as 21- year- old Marcia Lenore King of Arkansas.
The DNA Doe Project has showed the potential of genetic genealogy with unidentified victims, but law enforcers have similarly been recognising its value in identifying perpetrators of crime, as has been proved in the GSK case. Where these tests and results come in useful to police is in tying DNA from crime scene evidence to the DNA tests an individual may have done online using one of the genealogy sites, especially if they have then uploaded the results – the raw DNA data – to a site such as GEDmatch. Therefore, police detectives have been turning to genetic genealogy in order to search out distant relatives of the unknown perpetrator in a cold case by looking at the DNA that has been voluntarily submitted by others to a genealogy database. They can then locate distant cousins and narrow down potential suspects. In working this way, police do not need a suspect to have previously committed another crime or been arrested and had their DNA tested – they simply need one of their relatives to have been tested and uploaded their data.
In the case of the Golden State Killer, the DNA of this as- yet- unidentified individual was originally obtained after Lyman and Charlene Smith were killed in Ventura County in 1980, thanks to DNA being left at the scene of the crime. Police then compared this to DNA samples from other crimes, such as rapes, not just in the county but across the state of California. This unknown suspect was then linked to crimes across ten different counties. Investigators then input the DNA sample they had into GEDmatch, which contained profiles based on genetic information that had been voluntarily uploaded and shared. These profiles had generated family trees of genetically related individuals, and police went through these looking for leads. From this information they were able to identify between ten and 20 individuals who shared the same great- great- greatgrandparents as the suspect.
iN ADDITION, THERE IS SCOPE FOR EROR, WHICH MEANS THE WRONG PEOPLE COULD POTENTIALY BE IDENTIFIED AS SUSPECTS
They then restricted their search to age and location and were left with two individuals. One was ruled out by a relative’s DNA test, meaning there was just one left: Joseph DeAngelo. It was at this point that police put him under surveillance and matched him to Charlene Smith’s killing through the two DNA samples. The DNA obtained at the Smith crime scene linked one man with other murders attributed to the Golden State Killer: this man was now believed to be DeAngelo, who was arrested and charged.
Ethically, there are concerns about privacy through using people’s DNA results in this way. Individuals submit their DNA not to identify killers in their family but because they want to build their family history, or, in some instances, identify biological family ( some people have, for example, identified and tracked down their biological parents or siblings using such methods). Yet now, these family historians are discovering that their DNA could be used by police to identify a rapist or even a killer within their family. Leading genealogist at the Society of Genealogists ( www. sog. org. uk)
Else Churchill, has confidence in the system, however.
“The genealogist always has to balance privacy issues. I don’t think law enforcement overrides privacy issues, just as I wouldn’t say that genealogical research overrides privacy issues. Judy Russell, on her website www. legalgenealogist.
com, points out that all the major DNA genealogy testing companies make clear their privacy policies and rules for using the sites by law enforcement. Nobody, not even the police, is allowed to upload a DNA sample surreptitiously or use a fake name.”
On Ancestry, the DNA sample owner is said to control who sees their results; you have to ‘ share’ your results on your result page or invite other users to see them. You can also apply to receive a download of your raw DNA data. Then you can upload this to sites such as GEDmatch, thus enabling others to access it.
“I personally have no problem with law enforcement using my DNA information on sites such as GEDmatch… Nobody is forced to take a test, and I respect their wishes. If anyone has concerns though, I would draw their attention to the rules and policies of the genealogy websites.”
Since DeAngelo’s arrest, GEDmatch has reiterated to its users that if they give permission for their DNA to be used to build profiles, they might also be used by law enforcement. It has added in a statement to the press that any users who are concerned “should not upload…[ their] DNA to the database”.
In California, discussion is currently underway to explore whether the state’s database should collect DNA from people
convicted of certain misdemeanours ( a mandatory collection of DNA), and a 2004 law already allows for the DNA testing of those who have been arrested for certain felonies, even if they have not yet been convicted. There are undoubtedly human rights issues surrounding the collection and use of DNA profiles for law enforcement purposes, but adherents of the technique argue that the prevention of crime is what is important here, and this usurps concerns about privacy or the rights of those accused or convicted of offences.
Although the Golden State Killer is the biggest success to date, police and law enforcement officials have been trying to solve cases using ancestry websites for the past two years. In 2016, a woman who had been stealing people’s identities was identified partly as a result of one of her relative’s DNA profiles being submitted to an ancestry website.
Since DeAngelo was arrested and charged with 12 counts of murder, other cold cases also appear to have been solved with the help of genetic genealogy. In one case, Michella Welch, 12, was killed in the state of Washington in 1986. Her body was quickly located. She had been killed by a blunt force to the head and had also been sexually assaulted. Yet until June this year nobody had been charged with her murder. Things changed after DNA from the crime scene was matched to the profiles of people who had submitted their DNA to a genealogy database. One of their family members – by now a man in his 60s – was charged with Michella’s death.
The same month, a man was arrested in relation to the 1992 murder of teacher Christy Mirack after a DNA sample from the crime scene was analysed and uploaded to a genealogy database. It matched relatives of a 49- year- old DJ named Raymond Rowe, and when police managed to get DNA samples from Rowe’s water bottle, it matched the crime scene samples. And in a notorious cold case, the threedecade- old murder of eight- year- old April Tinsley has also appeared to have been solved by genetic genealogy.
Such successes have increased speculation about other unsolved murders where genetic genealogy could help track down killers. The most infamous case where it could be used is that of the Zodiac Killer. This individual is believed to be responsible for several murders in the Bay Area of California in the late 1960s, including the shooting of teenagers David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen in December 1968. In 1969, the killer sent three letters to local newspapers demanding publicity. In a further letter, the individual referred to himself as the Zodiac, but despite extensive police work at the time, his identity has never been established.
Now, though, police in California are trying to get a viable DNA sample from evidence taken from the murder scenes of victims of the Zodiac Killer. Any such sample could then be uploaded to GEDmatch to see if genetic relatives of the killer could be found. In Vallejo, California – where Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were shot in 1969 – the local police department hopes that envelopes used by this killer to send letters to media organisations might contain saliva from which a DNA profile can be extracted. This profile would then be uploaded to an open- source database such as GEDmatch to see if a family tree can be compiled.
This is not a foregone conclusion given that samples may have been compromised due to prior mishandling, and it may be that they are not complete enough to be used for GEDmatch purposes. In addition, DNA testing of the envelopes was previously undertaken in 2002 to see if a link could be established to one suspect – Arthur Leigh Allen, who had died in 1992. This test came back negative, but it was then discovered that the DNA sample hadn’t been taken from the most valuable places – behind the stamp or on the envelope seal. Undertaking a new DNA sampling exercise from these places might discover a new link that could then be backed up by evidence from a genealogical website, which is an exciting possibility.
In a more recent case, it is possible that even the murder of pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey could be revisited. JonBenét, aged six, was found strangled in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home in December 1996, and the discussion over who killed her, and the provenance of a ransom note sent to her parents, has not stopped since. If relevant DNA samples found on the girl’s body could be uploaded to GEDmatch, they might exonerate members of her family who have been accused or suspected of involvement in her death. It’s clear that genetic genealogy could help with many unsolved cases where police had previously believed they had reached a dead end.
“Every day we hear of new developments on applications of DNA to medicine, and society is definitely having problems catching up,” Else told Real Crime. “DNA has already revolutionised the genealogical world, just as the internet was the game- changer 15 years ago. However, nobody would want to go back to the old days of genealogy, with unindexed, virtually inaccessible records in record offices that were hard to get to. I think most people will soon start their family history research with a DNA test – but they will need help from the genealogy educators to interpret those tests.”
In the case of the Golden State Killer, the statute of limitations in California with regard to sex crimes means that DeAngelo can’t be charged with the rapes he is suspected of committing in the late 1970s – the statute of limitations was ten years until 2016, and although the law was changed then it is not retroactive, meaning crimes committed prior to 1 January 2017 are still subject to the statute. However, DeAngelo’s rap sheet has steadily increased. He was initially charged with eight murders. That figure now stands at 13.
The continuing success in identifying named suspects as a result of genealogy databases means it is unlikely privacy concerns will result in restrictions. In cases where DNA profiles have been established from crime scenes but not matched with databases of known criminals who have their DNA profiles on file, it is another weapon in the police’s armoury that will help to bring dangerous criminals to justice and provide the families of victims with closure.
it is posible the murder of JonBenÉt ramsey could be revisited. jonbenÉt, aged six, was found strangled
in the basement of her home in December 1996
above Katie and Brian Maggiore, who were in their early 20s, were chased and shot dead in February 1978. They had been taking their dog for a walk at the timebelow Rancho Cordova in Sacramento County, northern California, where the Golden State Killer murdered Brian and Katie Maggiore back in 1978
above The use of pins to mark the locations of attacks shows how the East Area Rapist – later known as the Golden State Killer – committed offences in targeted ‘ clusters’above- Right The FBI previously issued a call for information in their search for the GSK, who had committed crimes over a decade yet had remained a free manbelow During the 1970s, the FBI collected various ski masks as evidence as they searched for the East Area Rapist – later known as the Golden State Killer
above- left A Sacramento home, burgled by the ‘ East Area Rapist’, later known as the Golden State Killer. He usually took coins, jewellery and, more worryingly, the victims’ identificationabove- Right Evidence found at the scene of one of his crimes included a knife, zip ties and a torch. The GSK would stake a property out, break in and stash items for him to use during his attack
Right Encouraged by the arrest of DeAngelo, private investigators in the US – such as Jason Jensen, pictured here – are now pushing for family historians to upload their genetic information to DNA databasesbelow DeAngelo served as an officer of the Exeter Police in California from 1973 to 1976 after completing 32 weeks of training
below- right In April this year, FBI agents and other law enforcement officials searched the Citrus Heights, California, home of 72- yearold Joseph DeAngelobelow- left FBI agents process evidence found at Joseph DeAngelo’s home. He lived a quiet life in Citrus Heights but would soon be in court on murder charges