SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A former police officer who terrorized California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to murders attributed to a criminal dubbed the Golden State Killer.
Joseph James DeAngelo, Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he uttered the word “guilty” in a hushed and raspy voice multiple times in a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.
DeAngelo, 74, has never publicly acknowledged the killings but offered up a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an inner personality named “Jerry” that had apparently forced him to commit the wave of crimes that ended abruptly in 1986.
“I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said.
“I didn’t have the strength to push him out,” DeAngelo said. “He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he’s a part of me. I didn’t want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I’ve got to pay the price.”
The day of reckoning had come for DeAngelo, Ho said.
DeAngelo, seated in a wheelchair on a makeshift stage in a university ballroom that could accommodate hundreds of observers a safe distance apart during the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledged he would plead guilty to 13 counts of murder and dozens of rapes that are too old to prosecute.
“The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said. “Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”
The large room at Sacramento State University was made to look like a state courtroom with the seal of the Sacramento County Superior Court behind the judge’s chair and U.S. and state flags on the waist-high riser that served as a sort of stage for a proceeding that had a theater-like feel. Large screens flanked the makeshift stage so spectators in the ballroom could follow the live-streamed hearing.
DeAngelo was wearing orange jail scrubs and a plastic face shield to prevent possible spread of the virus. Temperatures were taken of everyone in the room and even the judge wore a mask when he wasn’t speaking.
DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on the radar of investigators who spent years trying to track down the culprit.
It wasn’t until after the crimes ended that investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.
DeAngelo was caught after police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database and then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They then tailed DeAngelo and were able to secretly collect DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant.
The retired truck mechanic was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburbs – the same area he terrorized in the mid-1970s, earning the title East Area Rapist. Victims described a masked prowler who slipped into homes through open windows and tied them up at gunpoint.
He tied up husbands and boyfriends and told them he’d kill them if they made a sound while he assaulted the women. Eventually, he slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and even managed to evade police who at times believed they came close to catching him.
DeAngelo knew the territory well.
He had started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he is believed to have committed his first burglaries and first killing.
DeAngelo was among the officers trying to find a serial burglar in the neighboring city of Visalia responsible for about 100 break-ins.
Community college professor Claude Snelling was killed by the suspected “Visalia Ransacker” after trying to prevent him from kidnapping his 16-year-old daughter.
After three years on the force, DeAngelo moved back to the Sacramento area, where he got a job with the Auburn Police Department in the Sierra foothills. He held that job until 1979 when he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer – two items that could be of use to a burglar.
Victims’ family members were anxious about what to expect before the court hearing began.
“I’ve been on pins and needles because I just don’t like that our lives are tied to him, again,” said Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, a lawyer who was slain in 1980 at age 43 in Ventura County. His wife, 33-year-old Charlene Smith, was also raped and killed.
A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial or even the planned weeks-long preliminary hearing. The victims expect to confront him at his sentencing in August, where it’s expected to take several days to tell DeAngelo and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman what they have suffered.
Gay and Bob Hardwick were among the survivors looking forward to DeAngelo admitting to their 1978 assault.
The death penalty was never realistic anyway, Gay Hardwick said, given DeAngelo’s age and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions.
“He certainly does deserve to die, in my view, so I am seeing that he is trading the death penalty for death in prison,” she said. “It will be good to put the thing to rest. I think he will never serve the sentence that we have served – we’ve served the sentence for 42 years.”
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