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Cold case gone hot: The Golden State Killer book's lead researcher and the OC DA speak about the case

A photo of accused rapist and killer Joseph James DeAngelo, who is believed to be the the East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State Killer, is displayed during a news conference on April 25, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
A photo of accused rapist and killer Joseph James DeAngelo, who is believed to be the the East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State Killer, is displayed during a news conference on April 25, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and Sacramento District Attorney’s offices announced Wednesday the arrest of a suspect in the decades-old serial murder case commonly referred to as the “Golden State Killer.”

Authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, at his home in Sacramento during the early hours of Wednesday morning. DeAngelo was linked through DNA evidence to two Ventura County victims — Charlene Smith and Lyman Smith — as well as two Sacramento County victims, Katie and Brian Maggiore. Since the arrest, he has also been charged with four additional special circumstances murders through the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

The four murders occurred between 1980 and 1986 at various locations throughout the region, according to OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Patrice and Keith Harrington were the first victims, a young married couple murdered in their Dana Point home in 1980. The third victim was Irvine resident Manuela Witthuhn, who was brutally raped and murdered in 1981. The final victim was Janelle Cruz, a 19-year-old who was raped and killed while her family was on vacation in 1986.  

Rackauckas spoke about that period of time, as well as the years after — when the killer remained unknown:

These poor people, the way they were treated and what happened to them, the way they were terrorized, a lot of folks felt like he could show up at the door, he could show up at the house at any time. There was a lot of fear.

Considering the geographical scope of the crimes, determining where exactly to hold DeAngelo’s trial is proving complicated, but Rackauckas remains hopeful:

[The Orange County District Attorney’s Office is] going to listen to what the other DAs have to say and what they think is important, and hopefully we can make this decision without arguing or power plays. We can just get together and decide — and I think we can do that.

How a book renewed interest in the case

Interest in the Golden State Killer (also known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker) saw a recent resurgence with the success of the late Michelle McNamara’s book ,“I'll Be Gone in the Dark.”

Patton Oswalt (L) and Michelle Eileen McNamara attend LACMA Art + Film Gala Honoring Clint Eastwood and John Baldessari Presented By Gucci at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Nov. 5, 2011.
Patton Oswalt (L) and Michelle Eileen McNamara attend LACMA Art + Film Gala Honoring Clint Eastwood and John Baldessari Presented By Gucci at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Nov. 5, 2011.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LACMA

The book outlines major details of the case, which began in the early 1970s, and maps out connections between locations, victims and types of crimes. Though McNamara tragically passed before the publication of the book, her husband Patton Oswalt teamed up with investigators and researchers to finish it, including lead researcher Paul Haynes.

Haynes was blindsided by the news this week, but couldn’t help reflecting on the unique position the book holds in the capture of a suspect:

I don’t think the push to solve this case would have had the same level of thrust had Michelle not become involved. Michelle really put a spotlight on this case, which had somehow eluded it until the better part of the aughts. It blew my mind and was astonishing to Michelle that a case of this scope could fly under the radar as it had.

After dedicating years to investigating the case, it’s no surprise that Haynes is a wealth of knowledge regarding dates and particulars. The Golden State Killer is thought to be responsible for 12 murders and 49 rapes across the state of California, and Haynes can recite their patterns as if by heart:

He would break into the home in the middle of the night. He would startle the sleeping couple, or in some cases an individual, typically by shining a flashlight into the face of the victim. He would order the female to bind the male, and [the killer] would then bind the female and re-tie the male.

He would typically, at least in Northern California, separate the two. He would bring the female into the living room, he would stack dishes on the back of the male and would instruct the victim: ‘If I hear these dishes move, I’ll kill everything in the house.’ And then he would return to the female victim, sexually assault her, and sometimes spend upwards of two hours on the property, ransacking and terrorizing the victims before quietly slipping away.

The horrifying nature of these crimes was one of the many reasons why it had a particularly haunting effect on the law enforcement teams and independent investigators who worked the case. The big blank spot where a killer’s face should be didn’t help morale much either.

But McNamara took years of dead ends and unanswered questions, and flipped them on their heads. First task on her list — give the killer a name.

Her mission was to bring this case to a broader public awareness, and this is partly why she re-christened the offender the 'Golden State Killer.’ His previous sobriquet — ‘The East Area Rapist-Original Night Stalker’ — was cumbersome, it didn’t really stick in the mind and this is the sort of case where you think, why does the Zodiac have the level of notoriety that it does, while this case sort of languished in obscurity?


Now that a suspect has been named, Haynes has some more digging to do. As more details emerge regarding Joseph James DeAngelo, more connections seem to be made to the Golden State Killer and his patterns and locations. Particular significance has been given to DeAngelo’s 1979 arrest, which not only ended his career as a police officer but also opened a window into potentially darker motivations. Haynes commented on the two items stolen — dog repellent and a hammer:

Both, I’m sure, were tools that he intended to implement in his prowling and burglary activities. We know that dogs were a problem for him. There was a dog bludgeoned in Rancho Cordova I think in 1975. In Goleta, in early September 1979, there was a dog that had been stabbed ostensibly by a prowler. And if you are a prowler, dogs are just an occupational hazard. When he [DeAngelo] was arrested for that, he refused a hearing, he declined to answer any of the investigating committee’s questions and he just accepted his firing. In retrospect, that should have raised a red flag.

And the connections between DeAngelo and the killer don’t stop there.

I should also add that between 1973 and 1975 he was working as a police officer for the City of Exeter, which is in Tulare County, one city away from Visalia, and it has long been suspected that the East Area Rapist was also an offender known as the Visalia Ransacker, who is a serial burglar who operated in Visalia from 1974 to 1975.

The Visalia Ransacker was a window peeper and prowler, whose series of burglaries ultimately escalated to the murder of a college professor who intervened as the Ransacker attempted to kidnap his teenage daughter. Haynes predicts that DeAngelo will ultimately be charged in that crime, but only time (and DNA) will tell.

As with most tragedies, the closing of one door has sparked the opening of another. Though the public now has a suspect’s name, a slew of new questions are arriving with each hour. Certainty can breed more uncertainty, but there is at least one thing to be sure of, and Michelle McNamara stated it herself in a 2013 interview on AirTalk:

“There’s a good likelihood that he is still alive and he’s out there, and they really do feel that getting this information out there is what’s going to lead to an arrest.”

Turns out that both in life and death, she was right on his tail. 


Tony Rackauckas, Orange County District Attorney

Paul Haynes, lead researcher and contributing writer for “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (HarperCollins, 2018) by the late Michelle McNamara; he tweets @ThePaulOfHaynes