SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The suspected “Golden State Killer,” accused of murdering at least 12 people between 1976 and 1986, was arraigned on murder charges Friday.
When authorities on Wednesday announced the arrest of the suspected serial killer and rapist that eluded California detectives for over 40 years, they credited his capture to advancements in forensic evidence and DNA technology.
What investigators didn’t mention was their crafty use of a fledgling online DNA matching website that ultimately led them to the front door of the Sacramento-area suburban home of Joseph James DeAngelo.
Investigators say they found the “needle in a haystack” by matching the suspect’s decades-old crime scene DNA to data uploaded to a Florida-based genealogy company called GEDmatch. For years, the answer to the investigation was shrouded in an evidence room, waiting for technology to catch up.
DeAngelo, 72, appeared in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday to face accusations that he killed Brian and Katie Maggiore in 1978. He arrived in court in a wheelchair, in front of dozens of local and national media cameras.
In the brief court appearance, the former Vietnam War veteran was appointed a public defender and did not enter a plea. He was denied bail and will next appear in court on May 14.
Along with the murders, officials say DeAngelo raped over 50 women and committed hundreds of burglaries during a crime spree across 10 California counties.
After the Sacramento Bee reported Thursday that detectives likely used commercial DNA analysis companies during their search for the killer also known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker, high-profile companies such as 23andMe and Ancenstry.com quickly denied participating in the investigation. Both companies claimed they don’t share customers’ data with law enforcement unless compelled by a warrant.
But GEDmatch’s open genetic database did not require a court order. According to Paul Holes, retired Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office investigator, the crime scene DNA in the department’s possession was linked to someone in DeAngelo’s family tree.
Holes says the positive hit spurred law enforcement to stake DeAngelo’s home, where they recovered “discarded” DNA samples to confirm the match.
While her office has confirmed the use of a genealogical website, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert hasn’t specified which service was used by investigators.
“The answer was and always was going to be in the DNA,” Schubert said Wednesday at a news conference.
GEDmatch confirmed that investigators used its database.
“We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer,” it said in a statement. “Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy.”
While DeAngelo is currently being held in the Sacramento County jail, the actual trial location has not been decided. He’s also been linked to murders in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties, opening the possibility of a coordinated trial.
Over the last three days, Sacramento residents and onlookers have flocked to DeAngelo’s home in Citrus Heights, approximately 20 miles east of downtown Sacramento. As of Friday afternoon, the FBI and other investigators were still there.
Neighbors have described the suspected killer, who has lived in the home for decades, as unassuming and “normal.” DeAngelo worked at a nearby grocery store distribution center for over 20 years before recently retiring.
“It’s a sigh of relief for the victims for sure, but knowing he was living a normal life in the suburbs for so long is disturbing,” said Sacramento resident Martina Jimenez outside of the arraignment hearing.
Included in the overflow crowd packed into the courtroom hallway and main jail entrance for DeAngelo’s first court appearance was Elizabeth Silva, who claims DeAngelo raped her in the 1970s when she was a teenager and he was a police officer in Tulare County. She never reported the crime.
The cold case gained nationwide attention after District Attorney Schubert announced a renewed push to find the serial killer in 2016.
The case has been featured in documentaries, podcasts and the best-selling book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” by Michelle McNamara.