From 1976 to 1986, the Golden State Killer terrorized the state of California. The notorious killer was a serial rapist, murderer, and burglar who committed at least 13 murders, over 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries. He was known for three crime sprees throughout the state of California. In the media, each crime spree generated a distinctive nickname until it was evident that the offenses were committed by the same individual. He was dubbed the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and finally, the Golden State Killer (ABC News, 2018).
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A former police officer named Joseph James DeAngelo was identified as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer in 2018. Joseph James DeAngelo was born in New York on November 8, 1945. DeAngelo grew up in an abusive household where his father would often assault his mother. During his childhood, he witnessed two men rape his sister in an abandoned warehouse which many believe is what led him to develop a preoccupation with rape and sexual assault. When DeAngelo and his sister confronted their mother and father about what had happened, and their parents told them to never talk about it again (ABC News, 2018).
After graduating high school, DeAngelo enlisted in the Navy and fought in the Vietnam War. Upon his return, he enrolled in college to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he worked as a police officer in Exeter, California from 1973 to 1976. In 1976, DeAngelo became a police officer in Auburn, California. Shortly after his arrival, he was fired from the police force as he was caught stealing a hammer and dog repellant from the local hardware store. The hiring and firing of DeAngelo from the Auburn Police Department made the press (ABC News, 2018).
In 1973, DeAngelo married Sharon Huddle, but later divorced. Prior to his marriage, DeAngelo was linked to a woman named Bonnie, who he was once engaged to. Some experts believe that Bonnie fueled DeAngelo’s resentment toward women. On multiple occasions victims would report DeAngelo yelling out Bonnie’s name while yelling and crying. Although Bonnie has never been mentioned by DeAngelo, it is evident that Bonnie played a significant role in the motive of Joseph James DeAngelo’s crimes (ABC News, 2018).
Many neighbors said that DeAngelo kept to himself but had a bad temper. On multiple occasions DeAngelo would yell at the kids in the neighborhood because he thought they were spying on him. In addition, he was labeled the yeller because he would stand in his front lawn and scream at nothing and no one. One of the neighbors received an ‘anonymous’ call from DeAngelo and he threatened, “If you don’t shut that dog up, I’ll deliver a load of death” (ABC News, 2018). Although DeAngelo was seen as a complicated man, no one ever thought that he would be capable of murder. His old colleagues were shocked to find that DeAngelo was the man behind the infamous Golden State Killer nickname.
DeAngelo’s reign of terror began in 1976 east of Sacramento. The main cities targeted were Carmichael, Ranchero Cordova, and Citrus Heights. Most of these towns were known as sleepy towns overflowing with friendly people. Before DeAngelo’s crimes alarmed these towns, everyone would leave their cars unlocked, and keys in the car. Nobody in the area was ever worried about their safety, that is until 1976. Once the crimes began, gun and lock sales had risen, and there was an obvious panic among the public (ABC News, 2018).
As has been noted before, the Golden State Killer instilled fear among the public. The crimes occurred at random, and the victims had no connection to the perpetrator or to each other. This provided the media an opportunity to thrive on the “anyone could be a victim” storyline because no one could predict who the next victim was or when the next crime would occur. When DeAngelo began committing crimes such as rape and sexual assault, he would prey on young women who were home alone. As his crimes evolved, he began targeting young couples. Many experts have pointed out that because he was targeting couples shows that he had high self-confidence in his abilities to be able to go into a house with the threat of a male presence and take control. Too, when the assaults took place, DeAngelo would be in the house for one to three hours. He would drink beer, make food, and make himself feel as if he were at home (ABC News, 2018). He was comfortable inside of the victim’s home and didn’t feel the need to flee the scene immediately after the assault.
The characteristics of the offender are important to note as it helped lead to the association between the East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer. DeAngelo was very much an offender who needed control over his victims. He would demand their silence and restricted their movement, and if they didn’t follow his orders they would be killed. Furthermore, DeAngelo was very predatory. He would often stalk his victims months prior to committing the crime. He would break into their houses the night before to become familiar with the layout. Also, he would taunt his victims after he had assaulted them. DeAngelo would call the victims and breathe heavily on the other side of the line, stay silent, or say things like, “Remember when we played” (ABC News, 2018). Although he never stated who he was over the phone, his victims knew it was him. DeAngelo even taunted the police department as he had called them on many occasions and sent them poetry.
DeAngelo’s primary goal in committing his crimes was to inflict pain, suffering, and fear. He thrived off of seeing the fear in the victim’s eyes. He would often make slow and calculated moves to instill fear in his victims. He would come into the house with a ski mask, gloves, and no pants on. He would then carefully rip the bed sheets in front of his victims and tie their wrists and ankles together, blindfold them, and gag them. Experts believe that Joseph was extremely OCD as each crime scene was exactly the same. There was no differentiation between each crime scene. DeAngelo’s MO (modus operandi) is what led detectives to link the East Area Rapist and Golden State Killer crimes (ABC News, 2018).
Over a course of ten years, DeAngelo committed numerous crimes. He sexually assaulted more than 50 people, burglarized over 100 homes, and murdered 13 people. His first victims were young women, and his last victims were couples. His victims ranged from 13 to 41-years-old. One crime in particular led to the discovery of Joseph James DeAngelo. On March 16, 1980, Charlene and Lyman Smith were found bludgeoned to death by their 12-year-old son (Egel, 2018). The coroner on the scene took two rape kit samples. As one rape kit was used as evidence, the other rape kit sample sat in the freezer for almost 40 years, untouched. This played an extremely important role in the discovery of the Golden State Killer.
The Golden State Killer went unknown for over 40 years. There were no leading suspects or clues to who it was. For all they knew, the offender was lurking among them. Although the investigation seemed to lead to dead ends, the police force never stopped searching for the serial killer and rapist. Throughout the Golden State Killer’s crime spree, the police engaged with the community through community-wide meetings where they worked to ease the fears of the public (ABC News, 2018). After 1986, when the last known crime was committed, the police and community fell silent. It was almost as if they were frozen in their tracks with no final resolution.
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As far as leaving evidence went, the Golden State Killer was very smart not to leave his gloves, ski mask, or any other belongings behind, but he did not account for his DNA. At that time, very few people knew about DNA and how it could be used, and thus, the Golden State Killer was careless when it came to leaving DNA at the crime scene. With Michelle Macamara’s book about the cold case and the advancement of DNA websites, it led detectives to reopen the case one more time. As mentioned above, a team composed of detectives and genetic genealogists used the DNA left at the Lyman and Charlene case from 1980 to capture the Golden State Killer.
The detectives used a website called GEDmatch which is a public data base containing DNA for more than 950,000 individuals (GEDmatch database). The largest DNA databases are Ancestry with 10 million entries, and 23andMe with 5 million records (ABC News, 2018). Websites like Ancestry and 23andMe have made it so law enforcement cannot submit a sample, which purposely makes it difficult for law enforcement officials to use the site for capturing criminals. Subsequently, GEDmatch allows anyone to enter their DNA information and use any data on the site. Accordingly, the detectives took the DNA from the 1980 crime scene rape kit, made a fake profile, and input the information into the database. With this fake profile and DNA evidence, the investigators were able to find a list of individuals that shared DNA with the offender. They were able to narrow it down to five individuals. At first, Joseph James DeAngelo was not a prime suspect, but because he looked better than the remainder, they took a further look (Stanton, 2019). In order to match the 1980 DNA sample, the investigators needed a fresh sample from DeAngelo. So, a surveillance team watched DeAngelo for a few days and when he went to a public location and discarded some of his DNA, they collected it. They were able to obtain DNA from the discarded item and it matched the 1980 sample. The police then arrested Joseph James DeAngelo on April 25, 2018, as the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker. Although investigators believe he was responsible for more than 50 rapes, he is facing 13 counts of murder and 13 counts related to sexual assault (McDonell-Parry & McDonell-Parry, 2019). Some are even advocating for the death penalty.
This is one of the most notorious serial killer and rapist cases in history. For one, he starts off as a rapist, becomes a serial rapist, becomes a killer, and then becomes a serial killer (ABC News, 2018). As each crime was reported in the newspaper, the community literally watched the evolution of a rapist turn into a serial killer. With each passing day, a new victim would appear in the news media, and each crime would become more violent and more brutal. Another reason for the notoriety of this case is that the crimes stopped out of nowhere. This is fascinating because most serial killers do not stop, and they continue to kill. So, many people were questioning why this person had stopped and where he had gone. It left those within the Sacramento area with an uneasy feeling. He was a serial rapist and killer that was haunting the town—many called him the boogie man (Holt, 2019). After 40 years, investigators were able to use DNA evidence from a 1980 crime scene to solve the murder mystery. This alone, made the case infamous. It was one of the first times that a public database was able to pull enough information to connect distant relatives, 3rd or 4th cousins, to a criminal suspect.
In today’s society everyone is under surveillance. People’s privacy is always being infringed without any wrongdoing (Jewkes, 2015) After the Golden State Killer case, many were concerned that law enforcement officials using websites, such as GEDmatch to obtain data to find criminals. The Golden State Killer case caused a debate among individuals as to whether or not the acts of law enforcement were ethical. Was it okay for them to obtain data, create a fake profile, and input the suspect’s information into the website to find connections? Some may say yes, and others say no, but GEDmatch had warned users that genetic information could be used for other purposes. Therefore, it seems as though the law enforcement officers did not act in an unethical way. They used the resources they had to close a 40-year-old cold case.
The Golden State Killer case has been meeting the threshold for newsworthiness for over 40 years now. Multiple news values were incorporated into the reports on the Golden State Killer which helped keep it relevant. Some of which include risk, children, violence, sex, celebrity, and predictability (Jewkes, 2015). Everyone in the Sacramento area was terrified of becoming the next victim. The Golden State Killer was attacking everyone. One case in particular struck fear among the entire population. When a 13-year-old girl, the youngest known victim, was attacked, people realized that not even children were off limits. This circulated the news and created a panic among the public. Because the crimes contained children as victims, it made the story reach the threshold for newsworthiness (Jewkes, 2015). In addition, because he committed sick, violent acts just for the thrill of it, it met yet another news value. The level of brutality in these cases were over the top. It is what experts call overkill where there is more force instilled on the victims than there is needed to kill them. With each crime, the Golden State Killer became more violent and more extreme, which sent a panic throughout the surrounding communities. Also, each crime contained sex because at every crime scene at least one woman was the victim, and because sex sells in our society, it helped the story stay present. After the crimes were all said and done, the Golden State Killer was a sensation. Joseph James DeAngelo was nothing more than a 73-year-old man living in a Sacramento neighborhood, but once he was discovered as the Golden State Killer, he became a celebrity. His face has been seen all over the news and his crimes are still being talked about today. Lastly, predictability has kept the story in more recent news. The predictability of the trial has helped news reporters know when, where, and how they want to report on the event before it even happens (Jewkes, 2015). They are able to frame the story before it occurs. It is because this case continues to meet various news values that it achieves newsworthiness. There are numerous podcasts, documentaries, and books about the Golden State Killer which keep the story alive in today’s society.
The Golden State Killer was one of the most terrifying serial killers in history. He was always looking for his next victims, silently stalking and preparing. He preyed on men, women, and children. It provided the perfect ingredients for a newsworthy story. He started as a rapist and ended as a serial killer. Throughout the years, the public was informed by the media of each incident, so they saw the transformation unfold right in front their eyes. This case is sickening, yet intriguing because it sent the media into a frenzy after the closure of a 40-some year cold case. It is because of the relentless searching and the use of new technology that the boogie-man no longer haunts the Sacramento area.
- 20/20: 05/04/18: To Catch a Killer Watch Full Episode | 05/04/2018. Retrieved from https://abc.go.com/shows/2020/episode-guide/2018-05/04-050418-to-catch-killer
- Egel, B. (2018, April 28). Here’s the string of crimes tied to the East Area Rapist in years of California terror. Retrieved from https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/crime/article209788654.html
- Holt, K. (2019). Gothic Criminology. East Lansing.
- Jewkes, Y. (2015). Media & crime (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.
- McDonell-Parry, A., & McDonell-Parry, A. (2019, January 09). DNA Evidence Clears Alleged Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, of 1975 Murder. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/joseph-deangelo-golden-state-killer-dna-1975-murder-cleared-776696/
- Stanton, S. (2019, March 15). Exclusive: Sacramento cops arrested Golden State Killer suspect in 1996, then let him go. Retrieved from https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article227901874.html
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