The one who got away

She faced the East Area Rapist as a teen and escaped to tell the story

Charlene Davis stands in the empty Rancho Cordova field where a mysterious car would later follow her.

Charlene Davis stands in the empty Rancho Cordova field where a mysterious car would later follow her.

Charlene Davis was home alone on the night she came face-to-face with California’s most twisted son.

As best as she can recall today, it was the fall of 1976. She was about 15 and the evenings were still of the slow-cooked variety that clung greedily to the sun. It was a different kind of weather than Charlene was used to from her childhood in Tacoma, Wash. More than the weather was different in Sacramento, though.

The grownups here were all transfixed by stories of a man who broke into homes and tortured the people inside. Such a thing would happen just blocks away to a girl from Charlene’s school. The victim came home to grab a change of clothes for a sleepover. A male attacker sexually assaulted her and fled. She was 16.

The authorities would eventually call the perpetrator the East Area Rapist. In less than a year, investigators believed he was responsible for 22 home-invasion rapes and the nonfatal shooting of an 18-year-old man who tried to stop him. But no one did—and the violence escalated in both permanence and depravity. In 1978, he committed his first known murders with a gun. By 1986, when his trail went cold, authorities would attribute approximately 50 rapes and a dozen murders to him. Few who encountered the East Area Rapist escaped unharmed.

Charlene didn’t know that yet.

Danger on the edge of suburbia

A few years earlier, Charlene moved with her mother and older brothers to the small suburb of Rancho Cordova, an unfinished outpost on the eastern side of a slow-sprawling county. Charlene’s two older brothers were already off living adult lives, so it was just Charlene, her mom Barbara and their black poodle Pierre at the one-story house on Grayson Way.

People who grew up in the 1970s mistakenly think of the decade as some golden era, when doors could be left unlocked and kids could wander free range without consequence. Charlene had already learned this was a myth.

One evening, she was walking her dog in the big empty field behind her home when she heard the gravelly register of tires on an asphalt blacktop. She stiffened as the car stopped where the half-paved road dead-ended and the unkempt yellow grass began. Charlene felt watched. Her gut crawled. Her mind reached back a few years and about 800 miles north to the last time she had this feeling:

This was back in Tacoma, when she was 12. There was a big field at the end of her street, beyond which spread a lake and stood an abandoned mental hospital where she and the other kids would play.

One day, Charlene and a friend were returning home from feeding the ducks and registered something approaching fast behind them. Charlene remembered thinking deer when the stranger grabbed her and her friend by the back of their necks and shoved their faces into the sodden ground. They scratched and pinched as they struggled to breathe through the dirt in their nostrils and mouths. Charlene squirmed loose first and scrambled through the tall brush. Their attacker rammed a fist into her friend’s face, but the girl staggered to her feet and caught up to Charlene. The two clasped hands as they flushed into the street where their neighbors could see them. The stranger piled into a van with an accomplice and drove away.

“This was gonna end bad,” Charlene reflects today.

Charlene remembers the local police acting cavalier about the attack, telling the two girls that they must have been pretty “alluring” to attract the kidnapper’s attention. Her mom was livid. The event changed Charlene. At 12 years old, she became a little suspicious, somewhat jaded.

“So I had my guard up,” she says. “That already happened to me. And that was not going to happen again.”

Standing in the field, Charlene half-turned. She got “that gut feeling” from the driver whose face she couldn’t quite make out. The car just sat there breathing. She didn’t wait to hear the door click open. She sprinted through the field and cut through a yawning fence into a neighbor’s yard, so the man wouldn’t know where she lived, and waited there until he left. Once she got back home, she teased the curtain back on the front window and peeked outside. The same car drifted by.

’He looked right at me’

On the night in question, Charlene remembers her mother left unexpectedly to deal with an issue at a house she had recently purchased in Elverta some 20 miles away. So the teen flipped on the television set and nestled into a recliner for what she thought would be an uneventful night. Her poodle rose up on its haunches and began pacing, growling and agitated. Charlene went to the front window nearest the fireplace. She moved her face to the glass and focused her eyes through the pane. A man stood in her flower bed and stared back. A black knitted ski cap was folded up to his hairline. He wore dark clothing and there was something in his hand. His eyes were a terrifying blue.

“He looked right at me,” Charlene recalls. “I remember very piercing eyes and this very determined mean look on his face. … My heart froze and I thought, ’I have to get out of here.’”

Like she had done twice in her young life already, she ran.

This time, she raced through the kitchen, tore open the back door and fled into the yard, where she grabbed hold of a lawn chair and scrambled over the fence, falling into the neighbor’s yard. She ran to the door and pounded on it. It opened. She plunged inside.

The neighbors phoned the police and then Charlene’s mom. They all met back at the house, where Charlene gave her statement. She remembers the officers hanging on every word, scribbling notes as they asked her to describe the suspect and exchanging astonished looks with each other.

“Their eyes just got wide open,” Charlene says. “I could see them look at each other like, ’Damn, man.’”

They finally told Charlene and Barbara that the teenager’s description synched up with what authorities knew about a violent perpetrator that was responsible for several sexual assaults in the area. Charlene doesn’t think they had named him yet. They may have just referred to him as “the rapist” or “that guy.”

“It was so early on,” Charlene says. “He went on to lots more [attacks].”

No sketch was commissioned based on Charlene’s description and soon the family was alone in the last place the suspect had been seen. Charlene’s brother Ernie came armed with a pellet gun. Or maybe it was a shotgun.

“It’s been so many years,” Charlene says. “As time goes by, memories fade.”

The three of them set about booby-trapping the house with glass along the windowsills. Other families at that time in that part of Sacramento used fishing wire, and went to sleep with baseball bats within arm’s reach. Some bought guns. For a few years, terror was the new normal.

“We lived in a safe neighborhood up until that point,” Charlene says. “We didn’t think anything could happen to us. … It really affected everyone’s life.”

The killer that time forgot

Charlene did her best to move on with hers. Soon, news outlets were reporting that the perpetrator’s savage attacks had migrated to the Bay Area and then down into Southern California. Charlene says there was a palpable sense of relief when people realized the East Area Rapist had left Sacramento. People flinched with shame that their safety came at the expense of other people’s horrors, but what could you do?

In her 20s, Charlene had a good job with Safeway that allowed her to follow her brother and his wife first to the Bay Area and then to Las Vegas. She and her daughter returned to the area in the late ’90s, settling in north Sacramento. That’s when she learned the East Area Rapist had never been caught. Whoever he was, he was still out there or dead. It upset her to think he went on living his life, feeling like he got away with it.

In 2016, local and federal authorities announced they were resuming the hunt for the serial predator, who had also been christened the Original Night Stalker and Golden State Killer. The FBI interviewed Charlene at her home about 18 months ago. She credits the agents with jogging her memory and connecting the man in the car to the one at her window.

“The FBI were the ones that kind of drew it out of me,” she says. “Never put the two together.”

Last month, Charlene awoke to several messages from friends alerting her that the person believed to be the East Area Rapist was caught. Authorities had arrested a 72-year-old Citrus Heights man by the name of Joseph James DeAngelo. The former police officer in Exeter and Auburn had been living in the eastern part of the county for three decades. Authorities linked him to the crimes by using an open-source genealogical website that found similarities in the DNA from long-ago crime scenes to someone in DeAngelo’s bloodline. So much had changed—including the culture.

Back when she was a girl, society was still learning how to treat survivors appropriately.

“Not blame women and not blaming victims,” Charlene says, thinking about those Tacoma cops. “There was just a thinking back then that was different.”

Now they’re catching suspected serial killers with a gob of spit and a website. It was so surreal.

“It’s mind-boggling to me how they were able to do all this,” says Charlene, now a doting babysitter to her 5-year-old grandson. “I hope it holds up.”

But some things haven’t changed. Asked if she sees anything in the mugshot of DeAngelo that reminds her of the man at her window 40 years ago, Charlene answers quickly.

“The eyes,” she says. “The piercing eyes. Kind of that tilt up of the head. He was obviously so much younger, but the eyes stand out. They just look right through you.”