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Forty-five years after murdering his first victim, Joseph James DeAngelo admitted Monday he was the Golden State Killer: serial killer, serial rapist and author of one of the worst crime sprees in California history.
Seated in a wheelchair, looking frail and speaking in a thin, squeaky voice, DeAngelo entered a string of guilty pleas during a painstaking, hours-long hearing in a Sacramento State ballroom that was converted into a courtroom for the occasion.
DeAngelo, 74, admitted to a 12-year binge of murder, rapes, burglaries and other crimes from the Sacramento area to Orange County that captivated the world and garnered him a multitude of nicknames: Golden State Killer, Visalia Ransacker, Original Night Stalker and, as he was known in Sacramento, the East Area Rapist.
The disgraced former police officer pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping to commit robbery, starting with the September 1975 shooting death of college professor Claude Snelling in Visalia. DeAngelo also admitted to 62 rapes and other crimes for which he wasn't formally charged because, in most instances, the statute of limitations had expired.
DeAngelo wore a jailhouse orange jumpsuit and an acrylic face shield to guard against the spread of the coronavirus. As Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman read each charge aloud, DeAngelo responded with a simple but feeble-sounding, "Guilty." When the judge read the uncharged counts, he said, "I admit."
Prosecutors from across the state read aloud the excruciating, horrific and sometimes bizarre circumstances of the crimes that occurred in their jurisdictions. They recounted the savage, fatal bludgeoning of Keith and Patrice Harrington in their home in Dana Point, Orange County, in August 1980; DeAngelo's rummaging through the refrigerator of Debra Manning and Robert Offerman shortly after murdering the Santa Barbara County couple in 1979; the guzzling of beer from an unidentified rape victim's refrigerator in Carmichael in September 1976. They recalled how he often wore a ski mask, used shoelaces to tie up his victims and ran off with cash and jewelry.
Venus Johnson, an assistant district attorney from Contra Costa County, recalled a 1978 rape in Concord in which he employed a signature tactic — breaking into a family's home, tying up the husband and putting dishes on his back so he could hear if the man struggled while DeAngelo raped his wife. Thienvu Ho, a Sacramento County deputy DA, described Katie Maggiore's futile cries for help as she tried to flee DeAngelo in a quiet Rancho Cordova neighborhood in February 1978. Moments later, he shot her to death, just as he had murdered her husband, Brian a few minutes earlier. The couple had been out walking their poodle.
DeAngelo sat impassively at the defense table, flanked by his public defenders, as the gruesome details of his crimes were recited.
But his victims were anything but.
At one point Amy Holliday, Sacramento County's assistant chief deputy district attorney, was describing how DeAngelo broke into the duplex of an unidentified couple living east of Watt Avenue in Sacramento in October 1977 to rape the woman. Suddenly, the male victim stood up and asked Holliday to use his real name. Bowman told him he could identify himself while speaking at DeAngelo's sentencing in August. The man kept standing. After DeAngelo admitted his guilt, the man yelled "coward" and finally sat down. The man identified himself to The Sacramento Bee as Victor Hayes.
A few minutes later, as Holliday was recounting another rape case in Sacramento, about 30 women stood up in solidarity with a victim who was hospitalized Monday and couldn't attend the hearing.
One of the victims, Jane Carson-Sandler, approached the defense table and stared at DeAngelo as Holliday spoke. "I was hoping he would look at me," she said afterward. "He didn't, he just kept his head down."
Holliday kept talking as Carson-Sandler stared at the defendant, recalling that many of DeAngelo's rape victims had described him as having a small penis. Carson-Sandler gave the prosecutor a thumbs-up sign and many in the audience broke into laughter.
Holliday's colleague, Ho, said DeAngelo committed 50 rapes in addition to the 13 murders and inadvertently confessed to his crimes shortly after his 2018 arrest. After being confronted with evidence and then being left alone in a law enforcement interview room, DeAngelo was observed muttering to himself, "I did all those things. I've destroyed all their lives."
Sitting in that interview room, DeAngelo also said he was forced into his crimes by some sort of inner demon. "I didn't have the strength to push him out," he said, according to Ho's account. "He made me."
Under a plea-bargain deal reached two weeks ago, DeAngelo is expected to be sentenced in August to life in prison without parole. The sentencing hearing, which will be dominated by testimony from victims, could take two days.
Prosecutors agreed to forego seeking the death penalty in order to save the cost of taking DeAngelo to trial in what would have been one of the largest and costliest prosecutions in California history. Given DeAngelo's advanced age, the ages of witnesses and investigators, and Gov. Gavin Newsom's imposition of a moratorium on executions, prosecutors decided it was time to accept a plea deal and not conduct a death penalty trial.
"The family members of murder victims have waited decades for justice," Holliday said. "The time for justice stands in front of us now."
DeAngelo a 'pure sociopath'
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who led the task force that brought DeAngelo to justice, told reporters after the hearing, "This has been a very long journey for justice. ... This journey of passion and persistence finally led to this day, this day of reckoning."
Schubert, who grew up in the Sacramento area, has spoken often of the indelible mark the East Area Rapist left on the community.
"He was the boogeyman," she said Monday.
"He is the real-life version of Hannibal Lecter," a reference to the monstrous fictional serial killer from "The Silence of the Lambs."
She called DeAngelo "a cruel, intelligent, sadistic serial killer. He is pure sociopath. He is a master manipulator."
But while the case became personal for Schubert, the DA reserved her most impassioned comments for DeAngelo's victims. She said Michelle Cruz, whose sister Janelle was murdered by DeAngelo in Irvine, told her that DeAngelo's arrest gave her a feeling of safety she hadn't felt in decades.
"After 32 years, she could finally unlock her bedroom door," Schubert said.
She also praised Carson-Sandler, the Sacramento area rape victim who literally stood up to DeAngelo during Monday's hearing. Schubert said Carson-Sandler was able to "turn your pain into power."
Two of her fellow district attorneys, Ventura County's Gregory Totten and Orange County's Todd Spitzer, said they were frustrated that they couldn't pursue the death penalty against DeAngelo. Spitzer said he went along with the plea deal only after victims from Orange County told him they supported the agreement.
Spitzer also took a swipe at the "defund the police" movement that's sprung up after the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Spitzer said DeAngelo's arrest was the product of dedicated police work.
"I am scared about the direction this nation is taking and its lack of commitment to law enforcement," he said.
'All of Sacramento was a victim of that man'
DeAngelo, who has been confined to Sacramento County Main Jail since his arrest at his home in Citrus Heights, arrived at the makeshift courtroom at the University Union about 20 minutes before the hearing began. He was trucked to the campus ballroom in a burgundy van that was backed up to a loading dock.
More than 150 people attended — including DeAngelo's victims and relatives of victims, journalists and prosecutors from all over the state — forcing courtroom officials to seek a large enough venue that could allow for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the lawyers, family members and others wore masks; boxes of tissue were stacked up for victims and next of kin.
The Sacramento State ballroom, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people, was configured for a court hearing, with plastic chairs spaced far apart and a stage set up at one end. Bowman sat in the middle of the stage, with DeAngelo and his public defenders at the right and a succession of district attorneys, led by Sacramento's Anne Marie Schubert, at the left.
Among those savoring the moment was Margaret Wardlow, who was 13 when she was attacked by the man known as the East Area Rapist at her home on La Riviera Drive, just minutes from Sacramento State.
It was Nov. 10, 1977. Wardlow was DeAngelo's youngest victim. Now, nearly 43 years later, Wardlow waited to see her attacker and hear his plea.
"He's going to plead guilty to my crimes, as well as others," she said, relishing a bit of irony. DeAngelo attended Sacramento State for a time. "He went to university here. I bet he had no idea that this is the way he'd visit his alma mater. Hopefully, this will give some closure."
Wardlow remembered how the East Area Rapist's reign of terror gripped — and transformed — the capital region. As a 13-year-old living in Sacramento, she followed accounts of the crimes obsessively, preparing in her mind how she would fight back if the time came. It did and she would.
"I was very defiant. I read every single article. I was always reading the newspaper," she said. "By the time he got to my house, I told him I didn't care. I don't think he enjoyed visiting my home.
"All of Sacramento was a victim of that man," Wardlow said. "Everyone was in a fit of panic. It was a time of sheer terror."Authorities call DeAngelo's frail look an act
Among the few who gathered outside the building was Todd Jearou, a retired law enforcement chaplain, who as a teenager in the 1970s had just moved to Carmichael with his family when the East Area Rapist attacked one of his neighbors.
"He struck seven houses down," Jearou said. "We believe he was in our front yard for sure."
Jearou said the fear of the East Area Rapist was a "very huge deal" during his childhood and young adulthood, and completely changed the way his family lives their lives.
"We couldn't go anywhere by ourselves anymore," he said. "Everybody knew he was very, very violent."
Jearou said he's been "hooked" on the case ever since.
DeAngelo's saga has spawned a best-selling book and a six-part documentary series on HBO that debuted Sunday. Everything about the case has been extraordinary, including the investigation that led to DeAngelo's arrest.
Although he hadn't struck in decades, Schubert, the Sacramento DA, made finding a suspect a priority. She spearheaded a task force that used DNA evidence from old crime scenes, including semen found inside Charlene Smith, a woman DeAngelo killed along with her husband, Lyman, in Ventura County in 1980, to track him down.
The DNA evidence was plugged into genealogical websites in an effort to find a match. Eventually, investigators found a distant relative on a website called GEDmatch.com and were able to construct a family tree that led them to DeAngelo's home in Citrus Heights.
DeAngelo had been living in the suburb for years after being fired from the Auburn Police Department and becoming a truck mechanic. Investigators followed DeAngelo around in an empty garbage truck and matched DNA from trash he'd discarded with crime-scene DNA.
Ho, a Sacramento deputy DA, recalled that DeAngelo was living a vigorous life, racing around town on a motorcycle, as he was being tracked by investigators. But when they arrested him, "he feigned feeble incoherence." Schubert agreed that she believed DeAngelo was faking his frailties.
Law enforcement sources have scoffed at DeAngelo's seemingly frail demeanor and use of a wheelchair since the day he was arrested, and family members of his victims agree.
"Absolutely 100 percent, it's an act what's going on," said Jen Carole, daughter of Lyman Smith and stepdaughter of Charlene, the slain Ventura couple. "He spent his whole life trying to prove he was a man but he can't even 'man up' for this. He literally cannot sit there and act like a man."
As the details of her father and stepmother's death were read aloud by Cheryl Temple, Ventura's chief assistant DA, Carole said she kept her eyes trained on the prosecutor instead of DeAngelo.
"It was really hard in the moment but I feel much better now," Carole said. "I feel like, OK, I can let go of this."
Kris Pedretti, one of DeAngelo's rape victims, told reporters outside the ballroom that it was "empowering" for her and others to see DeAngelo.
"We want people to know there are survivors and we're not afraid to face him," said Pedretti, who was raped in her Carmichael home when she was 15. "We have a great support system. ... We're just surrounded by brave women. We support each other. We all know each other.
"This is not our shame," she added. "This is not our secret anymore."