SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Nearly 40 years after a decades-long robbery, rape, and murder spree that terrorized counties up and down California, former police officer and accused “Golden State Killer” Joseph DeAngelo entered a guilty plea that guarantees he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
On Monday, DeAngelo appeared before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman, where he pleaded guilty to 26 counts total — 13 charges of first-degree murder and 13 charges of kidnapping for robbery. Investigators also believe he committed 62 rapes, uncharged because of the statute of limitations.
DeAngelo was arrested in 2018 while standing in the driveway of his home in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights. Investigators used DNA evidence to link him to at least 12 homicides and dozens of rapes committed from 1976 to 1986 in the Sacramento area, the San Francisco Bay area, and Southern California. Tulare County prosecutors also tied him to the 1975 shooting of Visalia journalism professor Claude Snelling, bringing the number of murders he was accused of to 13.
Around 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1975, DeAngelo snuck into Snelling’s Visalia home and tried to kidnap his 16-year-old daughter Beth by pulling her out of her bedroom window. He made it as far as the front yard with Beth when Snelling confronted him. The College of the Sequoias journalism professor was shot twice and killed before DeAngelo sprinted away. It was the first in a 12-year string of murders and rapes that earned him the grisly monikers Visalia Ransacker, East Area Rapist, and Original Night Stalker.
DeAngelo was born in New York on Nov. 8, 1945, but grew up in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova. He served in the Navy and was a police officer in the small Central Valley town of Exeter, California, near Visalia, in 1973.
He joined the police department in Auburn, California, near Sacramento, in 1976. In 1979, DeAngelo was fired from that job when he was caught stealing a hammer and dog repellent from a Pay N’ Save store. He then moved to Southern California, but later returned to Sacramento.
DeAngelo’s deal with prosecutors spares him the death penalty, Sacramento County the cost of a lengthy trial, and his victims the trauma of having to testify in court. Even if he had received the death penalty, his execution was doubtful given Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions and the fact the state hasn’t carried one out since 2006.
Prosecutors from Tulare, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Orange, Ventura, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Alameda, Yolo, and Orange counties lined up Monday to recount DeAngelo’s crimes: how he snuck into homes and attacked dozens of sleeping couples, usually wearing a ski mask and wielding a knife. Before raping the woman, DeAngelo would tie the man up in a different room, stacking dishes on his back and threatening to “kill everyone in the house,” including their children, if he heard the dishes fall.
He sometimes stole jewelry, food, and beer from their homes before disappearing in the dark, later taunting his victims with phone calls where they could hear him breathing heavily before he hung up.
He was later nicknamed the Golden State Killer by investigators who linked, through DNA, the murders in Orange and Ventura counties to rapes and robberies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The killings stopped abruptly in 1986, and DeAngelo settled down in suburban Sacramento undisturbed. He eluded law enforcement for decades, despite leaving DNA evidence behind, because he did not appear in the FBI’s national database.
However, a then little-known ancestry database called GEDmatch, mostly used by people searching for long-lost relatives, yielded a match in 2018 to an as yet untouched DNA sample investigators had taken from the scene of a 1980 rape and double murder in Ventura.
Law enforcement spent four months narrowing down DeAngelo’s family tree, zeroing in on the man they believed to be the Golden State Killer.
They began following DeAngelo in April 2018, collecting trash from his garbage can. Testing from tissue found in that trash revealed a match between DeAngelo’s DNA and three Contra Costa county rapes and eight murders in Southern California.
The hearing was held in a makeshift courtroom set up in the ballroom at Sacramento State University, a venue chosen to seat the many victims, their families, and the media while allowing for social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
DeAngelo was wheeled into the ballroom — clad in an orange prison jumpsuit and plastic face shield — and sat open-mouthed with his head drooping as Bowman read the charges against him. When Bowman asked if he understood the terms of the agreement, the 74-year-old slowly leaned forward and croaked “yes.”
Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Thienvu Ho called DeAngelo’s apparent decrepitude an act, saying just a few hours before his April 24, 2018, police interview detectives spied him “vigorously working on his yard, jumping in and out of his truck and lifting heavy objects. Just a week before he was seen racing his motorcycle on the freeway, at high rates of speed, weaving in and out of traffic and performing sophisticated countersurveillance maneuvers.” Sitting in the interview room, however, Ho said DeAngelo “feigned feeble incoherence” — and it wasn’t the first time.
“When store security detained DeAngelo in 1979 for shoplifting dog repellant and a hammer, he pretended to suffer a heart attack and then fought with them to the point where they had to tie him down to a chair,” Ho said. “Later that day, DeAngelo admitted to the deputies that he just pretended to act crazy to avoid getting in trouble.”
DeAngelo will be judged and sentenced at a date yet to be determined by Judge Bowman.