He went by a variety of names over the years, but by the time he was finally arrested at the age of 72, Joseph James DeAngelo was best known as the Golden State Killer. A former Navy man and police officer, his reign of terror began in the mid-1970s when Visalia, Calif. was hit by a spate of increasingly violent burglaries. Dubbed the Visalia Ransacker by the press, the mystery man vanished from the area altogether when a police officer caught him prowling late one night and gave chase. This coincided with DeAngelo moving to Sacramento, where his crimes would earn him the nickname the East Area Rapist.
The Vietnam vet terrorized Sacramento and Contra Costa counties until the late ’70s when he relocated to southern California and evolved from a serial rapist into a serial killer. DeAngelo’s heinous actions during the early and mid-1980s eventually led to the creation of a new moniker, the Original Night Stalker, after fellow California serial killer Richard Ramirez. DNA evidence proved that the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker were one and the same in 2001, but he was largely forgotten about until true crime author Michelle McNamara coined the name Golden State Killer in 2013. Her thorough investigative work shone a new light on the case, though McNamara sadly died before DeAngelo was identified in 2018.
DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder in 2020, though he destroyed many more lives during his sadistic — and often bizarre — crime spree.
He told police exactly where to find him
By 1977, Joseph James DeAngelo was high on confidence. He’d successfully evaded capture during his Visalia Ransacker days, and now he was taunting the authorities on his new stomping ground. On March 18, a man called the Sacramento County Sheriff’s office and identified himself as the serial rapist they were looking for. “I have my next victim already stalked and you guys can’t catch me,” he added. The attacks continued through the end of the year when police got a tip-off — supposedly from the rapist himself.
On December 10, the Sheriff’s Department received two identical calls from a male who said: “I am going to hit tonight. Watt Avenue.” Later that night, a man in a faceless ski mask was spotted near Watt Avenue bridge. He fled when approached by police, who (according to local reports) weren’t convinced that he was really the East Area Rapist, despite the fact that the serial offender had attacked a woman while wearing this exact type of mask earlier that year.
In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the 2020 HBO series about Michelle McNamara’s hunt for the killer, DeAngelo’s nephew revealed he once saw a man in a ski mask lurking in his house late one night. “I always wondered all these years who was talking to me through his teeth, saying, ‘Don’t turn around; go back to sleep,'” Wes Ryland said (via Oxygen). “I wonder if he used our house as a safe haven.”
He apparently held a longstanding grudge against his sixth grade teacher
Detectives on the hunt for the man who was then known as the East Area Rapist came across a bizarre find after he struck on December 9, 1978. Using dogs, they tracked the offender from the scene of a rape in Danville, Contra Costa to some nearby railroad tracks. Investigators discovered three sheets of paper that appeared to have been ripped from a notebook around the spot that the scent trail went cold, which told them that the rapist had likely dropped the papers as he hurriedly got into his escape vehicle. Those three pieces of paper would later become known as “the homework evidence”.
One of the three sheets of paper seemed to be part of an assignment on General Custer, who the author called “a man well admired but a man hated very much by many who served him,” per Michelle McNamara’s Los Angeles Magazine piece. There was a hand-drawn map with the word “punishment” scrawled on the reverse next to a series of female names (the neighborhood shown on the map was never located), and there was also what appeared to be some kind of diary entry about the author’s “dreadful” experience in sixth grade. They were apparently in regular trouble with their sixth-grade teacher, who would punish them by making them write lines. “Mad is the word,” the handwritten rant reads (via People). “I never hated anyone as much as I did him.”
The Golden State Killer cried a lot
He liked to talk aggressively through gritted teeth while committing his abominable crimes, but several of Joseph James DeAngelo’s victims reported hearing him break down in tears after he had entered their home and raped them. According to The Mercury News, one survivor revealed that she heard “deep sobs” coming from her kitchen after she was sexually assaulted in 1978. DeAngelo snapped out of it to threaten her bound husband after he let the dishes that the intruder had balanced on his back (a favorite trick of his) tumble to the floor, and then went back to weeping. Earlier that year, another woman had told authorities that her attacker started crying into her pillow when he was done. “I hate you, Bonnie,” he said. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”
DeAngelo was referring to a woman named Bonnie Colwell, his former fiancee. Colwell was 18 years old when she met DeAngelo, a Vietnam vet five years her elder. She quickly fell under his spell. “He was the Alpha,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “He was in charge. It was, I won’t say ‘My way or the highway,’ because there was never the option to choose.” They were engaged before she knew it, but she began to have doubts when her future hubby started exhibiting cruelty towards animals. When she broke it off, he showed up late at night with a gun and had to be talked down by Colwell’s dad.
He went deep undercover ahead of his home invasions
Joseph James DeAngelo was working as a cop during his time as the Visalia Ransacker (he was part of a team of just 10 officers based in the nearby sleepy town of Exeter), and when he moved to Sacramento County, he joined the Auburn Police Department. According to former Orange County Sheriff’s detective Larry Pool, the work provided perfect cover for DeAngelo. “I don’t think this guy was really ever a cop,” Pool told the Los Angeles Times. “He used that to further what he really did.” Victims of the East Area Rapist recalled him behaving in a cop-like manner during their ordeals, and some officers suspected that he may have been one of their own when it became clear that he knew exactly how to evade them. Perhaps the biggest giveaway was how much prep he would do prior to an attack.
According to Michelle McNamara (via Los Angeles Magazine), the prolific rapist and killer would enter the homes of his victims to do thorough research before striking. He’d spend time “learning the layout, studying family pictures, and memorizing names,” arming himself with personal details about his chosen targets. When one man questioned how a woman could possibly be raped in the presence of her husband at a packed community forum, he and his wife were targeted in a particularly savage attack. “The rapist was there at that meeting,” retired Sacramento Sheriff’s detective Carol Daly said (via The Seattle Times).
He only stole items of personal value
According to Michelle McNamara, the Golden State Killer has never been interested in monetary gain. In her Los Angeles Magazine piece (a precursor to her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, published posthumously with the help of her former husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt), she noted how the then-unidentified killer would “rant to his victims about needing money, but he frequently ignored cash, even when it was right in front of him.” Instead of money and expensive goods, he would steal “items of personal value from those he had violated: engraved wedding bands, driver’s licenses, souvenir coins.”
Much of the jewelry was never recovered, but his former brother-in-law thinks he knows what might have happened to it — when Jim Huddle sat down with the Los Angeles Times in 2020, he revealed that DeAngelo had lumps of hand-cast gold hidden away in an antique stove. In the illuminating interview, Huddle recalled how he had to talk DeAngelo down after he was fired from his job with the Auburn Police Department for shoplifting (he was caught stealing a hammer and dog repellent) and started hatching a plan to murder the police chief. “I mean, my God, you’re just talking crazy,” Huddle told DeAngelo when he said that he wanted to kill his former boss. “You’re not going to get away with that, ’cause they’re gonna always be looking for the guy who did that.”
He would call his victims years after attacking them
Joseph James DeAngelo began taking extra care with his crime scenes after he started murdering his victims. “Whereas before he seemed to bask in the notoriety, now he took pains to hide any hint of a link between the murders, removing ligatures from the scene, even staging one murder to look like a robbery,” Golden State Killer expert Michelle McNamara wrote in Los Angeles Magazine. The last-known victim of DeAngelo was 18-year-old Janelle Cruz, who was bludgeoned to death after being raped in May 1986. The killings appear to have stopped after that (he called time on his spree when investigative technology became too advanced for his liking, McNamara theorized), but the phone calls didn’t.
Dozens of frightening phone calls have been attributed to the Golden State Killer over the years, many of them to former victims. He wished one a “Merry Christmas” in a chilling December 1977 call, while another survivor’s phone rang in 2001, 24 years after she was raped. “Remember when we played?” a man whispered. McNamara discussed the latter incident in her bestselling book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. “I imagine you dialing her number, alone in a small, dark room, sitting on the edge of your twin bed, the only weapon left in your arsenal the firing up of a memory, the ability to trigger terror with your voice,” she wrote (via The New Yorker).
His wife insists that she didn't suspect a thing
Joseph James DeAngelo wasted little time moving on after Bonnie Colwell dumped him. It was spring 1971 when he turned up at her window with a gun and tried to force her to marry him, but by the summer of that year, he was meeting the family of his new girlfriend, a 17-year-old named Sharon Huddle. Before long, DeAngelo (at the time 25) had moved in with his new partner’s brother, Jim Huddle. “He would say, ‘Yeah, that Bonnie, she broke my heart,’ and ‘She was the love of my life,'” Jim told the Los Angeles Times. “Apparently it tore him up so much he couldn’t love Sharon like he loved her.”
He may not have loved Sharon like he loved Bonnie, but he stuck with her. They were married for over 40 years, leading numerous victims to suggest that she must have known something about his true nature, a suggestion she denied at DeAngelo’s sentencing hearing in 2020. “I trusted the defendant when he told me he had to go to work, or was going pheasant hunting, or going to visit his parents hundreds of miles away,” her victim impact statement read (via the San Francisco Chronicle). “I now live everyday with the knowledge of how he attacked and severely damaged hundreds of innocent people’s lives.”
The rest of the family was equally oblivious. “We had no clue,” nephew Wes Ryland said in HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (via Oxygen).
The Golden State Killer wrote some truly terrible poetry
Serial killers have always had a thing about poetry (and even songwriting and music, such as the late Charles Manson), and the Golden State Killer is apparently no exception. In December 1977, media outlets in Sacramento received copies of a poem called “Excitement’s Crave” that is believed to have been written by Joseph James DeAngelo during his East Area Rapist days. In it, the author name-drops another notorious serial killer, Son of Sam (real name David Berkowitz), as well as the famous Old West outlaw, Jesse James (misspelling his first name as Jessie), seemingly indicating that what he actually craved was notoriety. He even went on to suggest that a film based on his violent exploits should be funded by authorities.
“Jessie James has been seen by all / and Son of Sam has an author,” the poem reads (via Good Housekeeping). “Others now feel temptations call / Sacramento should make an offer / to make a movie of my life / that will pay for my planned exile.” It offers a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who would indeed go into exile and elude capture for many years, but it’s not exactly Wordsworth. “I must first say, from a literary perspective — this poem is a**,” a poetry tutor and critic wrote on Reddit, where “Excitement’s Crave” has been dissected by true crime sleuths many times over. “Really, it is terrible, peppered with all the usual beginner’s mistakes and then some.”
The Golden State Killer was a family guy
By the time of his arrest, neighbors knew Joseph James DeAngelo as a “crotchety old man” who was liable to blow up if you messed with his meticulously maintained lawn. “When we were kids, he would yell at us because he thought we were looking over the fence at him,” Kevin Tapia, who lived next door to DeAngelo for years, told People, recounting the time he “came up banging on the door and screaming” at his mother over a tiny backyard leak. He had a reputation on his street, but he was apparently beloved by his family.
DeAngelo had three daughters with Sharon Huddle and he was actually living with one of them (along with a 15-year-old granddaughter) when he was identified and apprehended in 2018. His wife abandoned him instantly, and his family was left in a state of shock. “I still today have a hard time believing that he did it,” Lisa Ortiz, a cousin by marriage who saw DeAngelo as a father figure, said when she was interviewed for HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (via Oxygen). “I mean, Joe’s like an amazing person. He was loving and nice and just the dad that I always wished that I had had.” His former roomie and brother-in-law, Jim Huddle, expressed similar sentiments during his chat with the Los Angeles Times, saying: “It’s kind of a weird thing that someone could be so nice and so evil at the same time.”
He used to talk about his 'mommy' during his attacks
Sobbing uncontrollably wasn’t the only unexpected thing that Joseph James DeAngelo sometimes did after he violated his victims. According to Michelle McNamara, one survivor told of how her attacker retreated to an unoccupied room of her house where he could be heard saying, “mummy, mummy, mummy,” repeatedly. “Another woman said he told her that news reports of his crimes ‘scares my mommy,'” McNamara said (via Los Angeles Magazine). Authorities knew that they were dealing with a man who had some real mommy issues, but we wouldn’t know the full extent of those issues until DeAngelo was identified as the Golden State Killer in 2018.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News shortly after the arrest, DeAngelo’s nephew revealed that the serial rapist and killer’s mother, Kathleen, was often violent with her children. She was stuck with an abusive husband, and would apparently take her frustrations out on her three kids. “She would hit my mom all the time,” Jesse Ryland said. “I’m pretty positive they were all abused like that.” Ryland explained that his mother, Constance, only started to open up about her traumatic childhood the year before she died. She revealed to him that she was raped by two military men in an empty warehouse when she was a child — and her brother Joseph saw the whole thing. “That’s pretty crazy for a kid to see his sister be violated,” Ryland said. “Maybe that was the start of Joe going wacko.”
DeAngelo blamed the murders on an alter-ego called Jerry
In April 2018, more than four decades after his rape and murder spree began, the man who had become known as the Golden State Killer was finally captured. Investigators cracked the case after a breakthrough on GEDMatch, a genealogy website similar to Ancestry.com and 23andMe. “This investigative genealogy technique was everything to really catch him,” former detective Paul Holes, who spent years hunting the Golden State Killer, told Fox News. “This case would have likely been an unsolved case today if I hadn’t stumbled upon this technique while I was involved with another case.”
Once in custody, Joseph James DeAngelo admitted to the heinous crimes that he was being accused of — kind of. Sitting alone in an interrogation room, he began to mutter about a supposed voice in his head. “I didn’t want to do those things,” he was recorded saying. “I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life.” Prosecutors weren’t buying it, and neither were the families of DeAngelo’s many victims. “It’s too convenient,” Jennifer Carole, whose father and stepmother were killed by DeAngelo in 1980, told Oxygen. “If your alter comes forward, it’s usually not the minute you’re in jail.”
By the time his hearing came around in 2020, DeAngelo appeared to have dropped the Jerry act. He pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder in a plea deal that saved him from the death penalty and will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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