More than 40 years after the so-called “Golden State Killer” began terrorizing California, killing at least 12 people, authorities announced Wednesday that they had arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, charging him with capital murder, after a recent DNA match.
His arrest in a sleepy Sacramento suburb offered a shocking, abrupt development in what had long been one of the most notorious unsolved string of crimes in U.S. history.
The gruesome attacks unfolded across California for more than a decade during the 1970s and 1980s, shattering families and frightening communities. Then the crimes stopped, remaining a mystery for a generation, with little sign the case would ever be solved.
The trail suddenly and ultimately led authorities to DeAngelo, a former police officer living in Citrus Heights, a city outside Sacramento. Authorities said DeAngelo – who was an officer during the years when police believe the attacks began – was found through DNA evidence obtained in recent days. Though investigators declined to elaborate on what the DNA evidence was or how it was obtained, they said it clearly linked him to the crimes that had transfixed them for so long.
Authorities said DeAngelo’s name had not been on their radar at any point until last week, but that they were able to link him to homicides from decades ago.
“The magnitude of this case demanded that it be solved,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at a news conference in the California capital Wednesday afternoon. “We found the needle in the haystack, and it was right here in Sacramento.”
Sacramento County court records showed that DeAngelo was booked into jail early Wednesday morning on two counts of murder. No bail was set, and it was not known if he had an attorney.
DeAngelo was also charged Wednesday with four counts of murder in Orange County.
The string of attacks for decades were actually considered three separate sprees, beginning in the mid-1970s in Visalia, California, authorities said, when dozens of home invasions and burglaries led people to call the then-unknown assailant the “Visalia Ransacker.”
It wasn’t until 2001 that authorities connected the crimes via DNA evidence.
Through 1986, the FBI said, the attacker killed a dozen people. The victims were as young as 13 and as old as 41, they said.
Investigators had said they thought the Golden State Killer may have had a law enforcement background, and DeAngelo fit that bill. Between 1973 and 1979, DeAngelo served as a police officer in two different California police departments, said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.
The timeline meant that DeAngelo was a law enforcement official when the attacks began, learning how to be a police officer at the same time authorities now believe he was beginning an escalating reign of terror. It remains unclear whether this training and knowledge of law enforcement tactics played a role in how the case stayed unsolved for so long.
“Very possibly he was committing the crimes during the time he was employed as a peace officer,” Jones said Wednesday.
Jones said DeAngelo had worked for the Exeter, California, police department between 1973 and 1976, a department located about 10 miles east of Visalia. John Hall, the city’s police chief, said in an interview Wednesday that no one currently with the department was there at the time. Still, he said, the idea that DeAngelo might have worked for the department was a blow.
“It’s absolutely shocking as well as disheartening and disappointing,” Hall said. “Not only did he commit these horrific crimes, but he did it while wearing the uniform and enjoying the public’s trust.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Mark Berman, Avi Selk, Justin Jouvenal