A former California police officer who lived a double life as the ‘Golden State Killer’ has been sentenced to life in prison for a string of murders and rapes in the 1970s and 80s that were solved through the use of public genealogy websites.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 74, was jailed for life on Friday following four days of emotional hearings in Sacramento during which his victims or their family members confronted him in open court.
Before learning his fate, DeAngelo, who had sat silently in his wheelchair throughout his trial, stood up for the first time and removed his mask before apologizing to his victims and their families.
‘I’ve listened to all your statements. Each one of them,’ he said. ‘And I’m truly sorry for everyone I’ve hurt.’
DeAngelo in June pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping that occurred between 1975 and 1986.
He also confessed to 161 other crimes – many of which were rapes – that he couldn’t be charged for because they took place outside the statute of limitations.
Prosecutors called his more than decade-long spate of crimes ‘simply staggering,’ encompassing 87 victims at 53 separate crime scenes spanning 11 California counties.
The case set several hallmarks.
To finally identify and arrest him in 2018, investigators pioneered a new method of DNA tracing that involves building a family tree from publicly accessible genealogy websites to narrow the list of suspects.
They linked nearly 40-year-old DNA from crime scenes to a distant relative, and eventually to a discarded tissue they surreptitiously sneaked from DeAngelo’s garbage can in suburban Sacramento.
The same technique has since been used to solve 93 murders and rapes across the nation, said Ron Harrington, the brother of one of DeAngelo’s victims.
‘It is probably the most important (recent) advancement by law enforcement in solving cold case murders and rapes,’ he said.
His family has been obsessed with solving the 1980 slayings of youngest brother Keith Harrington and his new wife, Patrice Harrington.
It led oldest brother Bruce Harrington to champion Proposition 69, passed by California voters in 2004, that expanded the collection of DNA samples from prisoners and those arrested for felonies and has since led to more than 81,000 identifications.
The brothers were among family members and survivors who gave three days of often heartbreaking testimony before DeAngelo is formally sentenced Friday by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman.
Most said they will never be the same, even as they told of their resilience and the bond they have formed since DeAngelo’s arrest.
The sweep of his crimes is measured by the mysterious stalker’s nicknames over the years, prosecutors said: the Visalia Ransacker, thought to be responsible for about 100 burglaries and one slaying in the San Joaquin Valley farm town; the East Area Rapist; the Original Night Stalker; and finally, the Golden State Killer when investigators linked the crimes that stretched across much of the state.
‘He started off as a Peeping Tom, a voyeur, somebody lurking around women´s bedrooms at night peering in. He then became a two-bit burglar, breaking into women’s bedrooms, stealing trinkets and women´s underwear,’ Ron Harrington recalled.
That escalated to raping single women, then to humiliating couples.
His technique became his trademark: He would force his victims at gunpoint to bind themselves with shoelaces, then balance plates on the man´s back with a warning that he would kill both victims if he heard the plates rattle while he raped the woman.
He killed three early Northern California victims when they interfered with his assaults on women. But he escalated again when he moved to Southern California, to 10 known murders.
Even DeAngelo’s ex-wife, Sacramento attorney Sharon Huddle, said in a court filing Thursday that she was fooled, though many victims have wondered aloud how she could not have known of her husband´s double life.
‘I trusted the defendant when he told me he had to work, or was going pheasant hunting, or going to visit his parents hundreds of miles away,’ Huddle wrote.
Many victims asked Bowman to make sure DeAngelo is sent to a remote prison and housed among other inmates instead of in protective custody, though state corrections officials said they will make the final decision on where and how he is housed.
‘You are finally going to prison and will remain there until you die,’ Jane Carson-Sandler, who was raped in 1976, told DeAngelo this week.
She recalled that he famously left behind a roast in the oven when police moved in to make their arrest on April 24, 2018. His survivors, she said, now plan to celebrate each anniversary of his arrest with a similar feast ‘in memory of your capture.’
‘Too bad you won’t get to enjoy it,’ she said.
DeAngelo Jr., a former cop, eluded law enforcement for decades until his DNA was linked to the crimes through GEDMatch.com, a genealogy website that one of his relatives had submitted their DNA to.
While his real identity remained a mystery until then, his crimes earned him a series of ominous names.
First, he was the Visalia Ransacker, a burglar who ravaged people’s homes from 1974-1975, stealing personal items and scattering women’s underwear around the crime scenes.
Next, he was the East Area Rapist, a shadowy predator who assaulted dozens of women between 1976 and 1979.
Between the burglaries and rapes, he started killing, earning himself the name of the Golden State Killer and the Original Nightstalker.
What triggered his sadistic tendencies remains largely a mystery.
DeAngelo grew up following his US Airman father around with his mother and sister.
Little is known about his upbringing beyond that they were, at one time, stationed in Germany.
His sister’s son, Jesse Ryland, has told in the past how DeAngelo would often see his father beat his mother, Kathleen.
He also claimed that he witnessed his sister being raped by two airmen when she was just seven and he was nine.
Ryland speculated that may have been the catalyst for his obsession with rape later in life. DeAngelo has never commented on it.
The family returned to the US and settled on the West Coast by DeAngelo’s teenage years.
His father was posted overseas in Korea later but he and his mother and sister stayed. His mother, according to a profile in the Los Angeles Times in 2018, started seeing a married man who had his own family.
It left DeAngelo in charge of caring for his younger siblings.
Former childhood friends told how he would try to fit in to their families as if they were his own.
He graduated from Folsom Senior High School in 1964 and joined the Navy, working as a damage control man aboard the Canberra during the Vietnam War.
No other details of his military career are known.
A 1967 article in The Auburn Journal, the local newspaper where his parents live, describes him as a 21-year-old due home on leave.
After returning to the US from Vietnam, he met Bonnie Colwell, a science student who ultimately broke his heart.
He and Bonnie were at one time engaged but she broke it off in 1971.
When he was arrested in 2018, Bonnie went into hiding.
DeAngelo’s next known milestone was not until 1972, when he graduated from California State University with a degree in criminal justice.
From there, he joined The Exeter Police Department where he worked as an officer on the burglary unit.
It’s in this job that he learned how to commit seemingly perfect burglaries himself.
It was also while he was working there that he married Sharon Marie Huddle.
The pair had three daughters, who are now all adults.
Between 1974 and 1975, a figure who became known as the Visalia Ransacker carried out more than 120 burglaries in the area. For decades, his identity was unknown.
When DeAngelo was arrested in 2018 for the murders and rapes of dozens of others, he was quickly tied to the Visalia Ransacker crimes and blamed for them.
His signature, when burglarizing, was to leave women’s underwear scattered at his crime scenes.
In 1975 was when he graduated from burglarizing to attempted kidnapping and then killing, shooting dead Claude Snelling who was protecting his teenage daughter, Elizabeth, from being kidnapped.
Elizabeth, 16, woke up at 2am on September 11, 1975, to see a man in a ski mask, standing over her bed, telling her to go with him or be killed.
He dragged her from her room and out of the family’s backdoor towards their carport but was stopped by Snelling who happened to be in the kitchen at the time.
Elizabeth later recalled: ‘I heard a yell and saw my dad charge out the back door.
‘The kidnapper] threw me down and shot my dad twice. Then he pointed the gun at me.’
DeAngelo hit her with the gun and kicked her but fled. Snelling died on his way to the hospital.
In 1976, he left the Exeter Police Department and started working for the Auburn Police Department.
That is when his relentless raping began.
Between 1976 and 1979, he raped dozens of women in the area.
It terrorized the neighborhoods where he picked his targets and earned him the name East Area Rapist.
One of the victims recalled how he lay down next to her after the attack and sobbed: ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you Bonnie.’
DeAngelo was fired by the police department in 1979 after being caught shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent from a drugstore in Citrus Heights, one of the areas where he would attack women.
He then spent 27 years working at a Save Mart Supermarkets distribution center, fixing trucks, before retiring in 2017.
It’s unclear when but he and his wife separated some time before his 2018 arrest which came as a shock to his neighbors and relatives.
It was the first time police had tested samples of DNA found at some of the crime scenes against DNA being stored by GEDMatch.
One of DeAngelo’s relatives had willingly submitted their sample to find out more about their ancestry.
Since his case, it has been used as a crime-solving technique hundreds of times.
DeAngelo’s neighbors described him as ‘cantankerous’, unlikable and a ‘curser’.
While he has been blamed for 88 crimes, he has also been exonerated in others.
Among his rapes is the attack of a 13-year-old girl who recalled in detail being assaulted while he shone a flashlight in her face.
‘In a very harsh whisper, he would say, “Do you want to die?
‘Do you want me to kill your mother? Do you want me to slit her throat?”‘ Wardlow said.
‘I answered him immediately, “I don’t care,” and he’d say, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”‘ Margaret Wardlow, who was raped by him in 1977, recalled to Inside Edition after his arrest last year.
DeAngelo’s wife and children have never spoken of his crimes.
His sister was stunned when he was arrested.
‘As stunned as I am – because I’ve never seen him display any kind of madness or anything like that – I just can’t believe it.
‘I’ve never seen anything to allow myself to think he could do such things,’ Rebecca Thompson, his older sister, told The Sacramento Bee at the time of his arrest.