True crime lovers help stop the Golden State Killer

True crime lovers help stop the Golden State Killer

Maggie Harvey


Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of rape, assault, and murder.

On June 18, 1976, at 4:00 a.m., Jane Carson-Sandler snuggled into bed with her three-year-old son in their Rancho Cordova home. Her husband had just left for work, and she and her little boy were dozing when the light of a flashlight abruptly woke her. A man wearing a ski mask stood in the doorway, brandishing a butcher knife. He tied both Carson-Sandler and her son with shoelaces and gagged them. After removing her son from the bed, the man untied Carson-Sandler’s ankles and raped her. This man would become known as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and, finally, the Golden State Killer.

42 years, 311 days, and 8 hours of professional and amateur sleuthing later, authorities revealed that they had apprehended 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, who has been tied by DNA evidence to murders the FBI is confident were committed by the Golden State Killer. DeAngelo worked as a police officer from 1973 to 1979, for Exeter and Auburn, before they fired him for shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer from a drug store. He is currently being held without bail in Sacramento for capital murder and other counts, in relation to the murders of Lyman and Charlene Smith, and Katie and Brian Maggione.  The Smiths were murdered in their home in March of 1980, and the Maggiones in 1978. According to CNN, discarded DNA evidence from DeAngelo’s home was matched with the genetic evidence found at the crimes.

After the initial rape of Carson-Sandler in 1976 and the continued spree, the suspect in those crimes was dubbed the East Area Rapist (EAR) by the Sacramento authorities. He committed almost fifty rapes and robberies in Sacramento and the outer Sacramento area until 1978. The police believed that he would stalk middle class neighborhoods at night, focusing on women who lived alone in single-story houses. He also focused on homes that were next to parks, trails, or other similar public areas so that he could have a quick escape route once he left the homes.  Later, he evolved into invading the homes of couples, where he would tie both the husband and the wife up, and place stacks of plates on their backs so he could be alerted if they tried to escape while he left the room to steal random baubles and valuables from the homes.

The first attributed murder committed by the EAR is the murder of Katie and Brian Maggione, a couple who were out walking their dog on the night of February 2, 1978. It is believed by authorities that the couple observed the EAR before he broke into a home while they were out walking. The suspect chased them down the street and shot them after catching up with them. The EAR continued his home invasion and rape spree for the next two months, until he disappeared from the Sacramento area.

Then a spree of crimes started in the Southern California area, and local authorities were baffled with the lack of evidence. The suspect raped, and eventually murdering couples, starting with the murder of the Smiths in 1980. Initially, his spree was marked by the home invasion of a Goleta couple in October of 1979, where he tied the couple up and began chanting, “I’ll kill ‘em” to himself. When he left the room where he had tied up  the couple, the man and then the woman attempted to escape, during which the woman screamed. Hearing the scream, the suspect fled the house on foot. His footprints were later tied to a murder that occurred in December of that year.

From then until 1981, the suspect continued a spree that earned him the title of “the Original Night Stalker” (ONS), a reference to Richard Ramirez. Ramirez was dubbed the Night Stalker after a spree of home invasions, rapes, and murders in California. The suspect was dubbed the “original” because he committed his crimes first compared to Ramirez, who began his spree in 1984. After the murder of Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez, his tenth and eleventh  victims, in July of 1981, the ONS remained dormant for five years until May 1986, when he killed Janelle Lisa Cruz.She was bludgeoned to death, supposedly with a pipe wrench that was reported missing from the home, and was his twelfth and final victim. This is the last reported crime associated with the ONS.

When these crimes were being committed, the many police departments in charge of investigating then did not have access to DNA analysis. So despite the  suspicions that the EAR and the ONS crimes were related, it was not definitively proven that the same person committed some of the crimes until 2001, using the DNA pinpointed by authorities in the murders of Domingo and Sanchez. With further analysis of all of the crimes based on DNA, modus operandi, and victimology, it was determined that the suspect in the East Area Rapist spree and the Original Night Stalker spree were one and the same, and had committed 12 murders, 45 rapes, and more than 120 residential burglaries from 1976 to 1986. In addition the suspect wrote several letters sent to media, including a poem titled “Excitement’s Crave” sent to the Sacramento Bee in 1977. Authorities thus had plenty to investigate, but the case eventually went cold. That is, until Michelle McNamara began researching the case in 2007.

McNamara was a writer. Not a criminologist or a lawyer, just a writer with a lot of time on her hands. McNamara took up the case in 2007 after beginning her crime blog, True Crime Diary, in 2006. She began an obsessive search for the killer that led her to coin his new name, The Golden State Killer (GSK), in 2013. McNamara, who unfortunately died in 2016 due to an unknown heart condition, was a true crime nerd to the core. Her hobby was investigation, and according to her, “the part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths,” she says in her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. The book is an accumulation of years of research on the GSK. She referenced case files, victim reports, phone call research, fellow Internet sleuths, professional researchers, journalists, and more in her hunt for the GSK, and, like any good group of people bonded by a shared interest, they finished the book for her after she died. Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, provides a forward to the book, the afterword is by her husband Patton Oswalt, and her fellow researchers Paul Haynes and journalist Billy Jensen wrote the finishing chapters based on research McNamara and they had accumulated.

After McNamara’s death and renewed interest in the case, the FBI offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could provide information that would lead to an arrest. The original description of the GSK was that he was close to 6ft tall, with light brown or blonde hair, and an athletic build. He would have interest or training in military or law enforcement and proficiency in firearms, according to authorities, and in the present he would be approximately 60 to 75 years old. Tips flooded, in according to authorities, but none of them mentioned the name of Joseph James DeAngelo until a week ago.

According to Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, the arrest was based off of DNA evidence and surveillance. The authorities apprehended DeAngelo as he exited his home, and reported that he seemed surprised by their presence. According to CNN and the LA Times, neighbors described DeAngelo as somewhat of a quiet recluse who seemed odd to others.

Families of victims and investigators from the case are overjoyed. “It is time for the victims to begin to heal,” Bruce Harrington, the brother of one of the victims, told the LA Times on Wednesday. Jennifer Cole, the daughter of Lymann and Charlene Smith, also spoke with the LA Times, saying she was shocked that the killer was still alive. “In my mind, I thought he was dead the whole time,” Cole told the Times. “I’d compartmentalized it. But to find out … he’s been in Sacramento, where all my family lives … it’s unbelievable. How can he have just been here?”

This case relied heavily on the help of the true crime-obsessed. We, as humans, are fascinated by what we cannot understand, as evidenced by people like Michelle McNamara, or Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark of My Favorite Murder, or Aaron Manhke of the Lore podcast and TV show. We want to understand the unknowable, the deepest facets of the human mind that tell a person to kill. But most of all, we want the thrill of catching them, and the collective sigh of relief when a killer is put behind bars. It is like the end of a movie when the good guys win, but we are the good guys, and sometimes we’re saving lives.

And guess what? We somehow did it. I do not know exactly how, but McNamara’s book sparked something in all of us that made us decide “we are going to catch him.” We came together, latching on to the smallest details, to find the needle in the haystack. He could have been dead for all we knew, but we kept looking. We have a collective power to do some right in the world.

Since the news broke, I have been thinking about a quote from McNamara’s book: “The tables have turned,” she says in a letter directly addressing the Golden State Killer. “A ski mask won’t help you now.”