A serial killer by many names

Open-source genealogical site used to track down former police officer to Citrus Heights home

Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were fatally assaulted in their Orange County home nearly 40 years ago, said the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer should bring victims some peace.

Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were fatally assaulted in their Orange County home nearly 40 years ago, said the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer should bring victims some peace.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

Almost every elected prosecutor had a personal story about the monster with many names.

Anne Marie Schubert remembered being a 12-year-old girl in the mid-1970s, when the one they called the “East Area Rapist” was terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento County. Nancy O’Malley was a volunteer rape counselor in Contra Costa County in the late ’70s, ministering to the survivors of a serial rapist who struck at least nine times before his trail seemingly went cold. Gregory Totten was a young law clerk with the Ventura County district attorney’s office in 1981, a year after Lyman and Charlene Smith were clubbed to death by someone authorities nicknamed the “Original Night Stalker.”

More than 40 years after California’s most notorious bogeyman carved a sadistic path through bedrooms across the state, Schubert, O’Malley, Totten and other districts attorneys took turns recounting what first got them invested in catching the serial rapist and murderer who has also been called the “Golden State Killer.” On April 25, they revealed the suspect’s true name: Joseph James DeAngelo.

The 72-year-old Citrus Heights resident and former police officer is suspected of carrying out upward of 50 sexual assaults and 12 murders over a 12-year span, said Schubert, now the DA in Sacramento County. On April 27, a wheelchair-bound DeAngelo was arraigned on murder charges for the serial killer’s first two known homicide victims—Brian and Katie Maggiore, gunned down outside their Rancho Cordova apartment complex in February 1978.

DeAngelo had been apprehended outside of his home just days earlier in what Sheriff Scott Jones called “a perfectly executed arrest” that Jones believed caught the septuagenarian by surprise. Responding to reporters, Jones confirmed DeAngelo worked as a police officer at the height of the suspect’s violent spree. Between 1973 and 1979, Jones said, DeAngelo was an officer in the Exeter Police Department in Tulare County and the Auburn Police Department in Placer County until he was reportedly fired for shoplifting.

It has long been rumored that the Golden State Killer might have been working in law enforcement, and that’s how he managed to stay ahead of investigators all that time.

Authorities say they only identified DeAngelo as their suspect in the decades-old cold case six days before his arrest, thanks to a relative’s decision to upload their genetic profile to an open-source genealogy research site called GEDmatch. The profile bore similarities to DNA samples authorities had collected from sexual assault victims, making them think their suspect was a blood relative. Jones said officers began surveiling DeAngelo, and retrieved two discarded DNA samples that resulted in a hit inside of Sacramento’s crime lab, outside which last week’s press conference was held.

“We found the needle in the haystack and it was right here in Sacramento,” Schubert told reporters.

Authorities credited a June 2016 press conference on the 40th anniversary of the East Area Rapist’s first known sexual assault for jump-starting the case. Jones said the multi-agency team that was created to find the suspect who had long eluded them consisted of the “best and brightest” investigators, who were given “virtually unlimited resources” to pursue fresh leads and thaw old ones. Sean Regan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento office, acknowledged the public’s enduring interest in the case for keeping it at the forefront of law enforcement’s minds. Jones noted that his office still receives phone calls and tips on a regular basis.

O’Malley, the Alameda County DA, used her time at the podium to remind the public—and law enforcement—of the importance of taking rape kits out of evidence lockers and testing their contents.

“This case is one example of so many, but a very stark example,” O’Malley said of the importance of using the kits to identify serial predators.

According to Totten, now the DA in Ventura County, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that authorities recognized through the evolving science of DNA forensics that “we were dealing with a serial killer.”

The logistics of DeAngelo’s trial are still being worked out. He was assigned a public defender last week, but most of the suspect’s murder victims were residents of Southern California.

“This defendant’s been able to live free in a nice suburb in Sacramento,” Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas told reporters last week. “Our team’s going to make sure to never let him out.”