James DeAngelo: How The Golden State Killer Was Finally Caught

By Gabi Conti

Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected "Golden State Killer," appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For more than 10 years, California was terrorized by a serial killer and rapist who burglarized more than 120 homes between 1974 and 1986. Because he committed his crimes all over the state, he was known by many names: the East Area Rapist, the Night Stalker, and the Original Night Stalker after Richard Ramirez used that moniker later in Southern California. Upon realizing that these criminals were actually all the same guy, the murderer was given a name that would stick: the Golden State Killer.

Initially, the Golden State Killer was little more than a petty burglar, curiously ignoring expensive items in favor of trinkets or simply vandalizing the house. Police noticed that women's underwear in particular was often scattered around the bedrooms after these strange break ins. Soon, he upped the ante by attempting to kidnap a teenage girl, only to be stopped be her father, who tragically lost his life in the incident after being shot twice while saving his child.

Additional sketches of the suspect. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

From there, the Golden State Killer only grew more bold, and the burglaries escalated to a series of brutal rapes. Initially, he only attacked women when they were alone or home with their kids, but eventually, he began attacking couples at home together, binding or threatening his victims so they were forced to witness his assaults. He is known to have raped at least 50 women during this time. Even years after the attacks, some victims reported receiving creepy phone calls from the familiar voice who simply breathed heavily before asking, "Remember when we played?" In the late '70s, the Killer arrived in Southern California, where his attacks on couples continued, though by that point, he almost always murdered them.

Despite his bold attacks, the Golden State Killer left surprisingly little evidence, and he was smart enough to leave misleading clues behind, often telling his victims lies about himself. The only real lead investigators had was the consistent description of an abnormally small penis, so they asked local doctors for information on any patients exhibiting the medical condition of a micropenis, but nothing ever came of it. Several suspects were investigated, but it seemed like none of them were capable of committing the expansive crimes.

DeAngelo as an Exeter Police Department officer in 1973. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office/Wikimedia Commons)

Strangely, the brutality simply ceased in 1986, and some wondered if the Killer had died. The cases went cold, and the identity of the Golden State Killer seemed like it would be lost to history until writer and true crime researcher Michelle McNamara became obsessed with the story, publishing the article "In The Footsteps Of A Killer" in a 2013 edition of Los Angeles Magazine. She connected the dots of many details across the scattered jurisdictions and teamed up with investigator Paul Holes to probe the possibility of DNA testing.

Unfortunately, McNamara died before her book about the Killer, I'll Be Gone In The Dark, was released, but her research proved impactful all the same. California detectives reinvestigated based on her many leads, and Holes used the DNA they collected to find a familial match on the family ancestry website 23andMe. Armed with this new evidence, police finally arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer himself, on April 24, 2018. He pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and is currently incarcerated at the California Corcoran State Prison.

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Gabi Conti