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7 terrifying facts about the Golden State Killer

A graphic image showing a 'Welcome to California' sign with police tape digitally added around the signs base

For over a decade, the Golden State Killer was a continuous threat to the people of California. He broke into people’s homes, burgled, raped and murdered them, and committed crimes in ten different counties.

His last murder was in 1986 but for decades, the case went unsolved, until finally, in 2018, he was caught. Thanks to a family ancestry site and genetic testing, investigators were able to match the killer’s DNA with that already in the system. It led them to Joseph DeAngelo. He was arrested in 2018, aged 72, and sentenced to life in prison two years later.

It closed the case of one of the most prolific and infamous murderers in history. For the decades before he was caught, victims reported never feeling safe. Considering his MO, it’s not surprising. These are some of the most haunting details of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes.

1. He was supposed to be one of the ‘good guys’

DeAngelo served for years as a police officer before being fired for shoplifting. In fact, for some of the crimes he committed, he did so while he was still one. It’s likely his training and knowledge of police work helped enable his crimes.

Away from his work, he was also married with children. For years, he went unobserved, living a double life.

2. He was incredibly prolific

Between 1974 and 1986, DeAngelo committed 120 burglaries, 51 rapes and thirteen murders. He was so prolific, in fact, he was responsible for crime sprees in different areas that were originally attributed to different people, racking up monikers like the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker.

It’s thought that even earlier burglaries, attributed to the Cordova Cat Burglar and Exeter Ransacker, could be linked to him. Authorities only realised the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker were the same person in 2001 when DNA was tested.

As he moved around California, his crimes escalated, beginning largely with burglaries, although he would also disturb women’s underwear in the process. From there, he started to rape and murder. At one point, he was averaging two rapes a month.

3. He stalked his victims

DeAngelo was meticulous in his preparation. He made detailed maps of the areas in which his victims lived and then watched them for weeks or even months. He’d document their lives.

One victim reported feeling like she was being watched. She saw the same car drive past her home. Another reported a man claiming to be from a pet association knocked on their door and asked if they had any pets to register.

He broke into people’s houses when they weren’t home, studying the layout, family photos, learning people’s names. He even called his victims before he attacked them, finding their numbers when he was in their houses. In one call, a man believed to be DeAngelo just repeatedly asked ‘Is Ray there?’. For others, it was just silence. One woman was told he was going to kill her husband after weeks of silent calls. She was attacked the next day.

Evidence of his voyeurism became apparent to investigators: there were footprints outside the victims’ windows, which made it clear he had been watching them. He knew one victim would be home alone, even though her husband’s shifts had changed that day.

Before he left, he often took trophies: personal objects of the victims, like family heirlooms, driving licences, or engraved wedding bands.

4. He attacked at night

When it came time to break in, DeAngelo did so at night, when his victims were sleeping and vulnerable. He would find a way to get in, then go into the victims’ bedrooms and wake them up. One couple woke to see a man standing at their bedroom door. Often, he would shine torches into the victims’ eyes, ensuring they couldn’t see.

5. He originally targeted women alone

Early on, DeAngelo’s victims were largely single women who lived by themselves. He broke into their homes and raped them. One early victim said she was woken in the middle of the night by him tapping on her bedroom door and calling her name. His face was covered with a ski mask and he was naked from the waist down.

When he moved on to couples, he made sure he incapacitated the men before raping their wives. He would tie them up and lay them face down on the floor, often in a different room from the women. He then piled plates onto their backs and told them if they moved, he would hear the plates fall and then kill their wife, forcing them to remain completely still.

6. He stayed in victims’ homes after attacks

One victim heard DeAngelo crying in her kitchen for several minutes after he raped her. In other houses, he would eat their food or drink their beer. Some victims were left and told not to move at all while he was there, or he’d kill them. They were forced to wait, not knowing if he was in the house or not, before they risked moving to go for help.

7. He taunted his victims

The phone calls didn’t stop after he had attacked his victims. Survivors often reported getting them afterwards as well. There would be deep breathing down the line, then ‘Going to kill you’ whispered to them.

He also called different sheriff's offices, saying he was the East Area Rapist, laughing, then hanging up. Often, these came before attacks.

Unsurprisingly, victims have said they were unable to feel safe for years after the attacks. Many victims, or their family members, spoke at DeAngelo’s trial, hoping they could finally have peace.

By Amy Lavelle

How the Golden State Killer was caught

By Megan Grant

As technology has advanced, websites such as Ancestry and 23andme allow individuals to research their genetic background and find relatives by matching their DNA against publicly available profiles.

The use of genetic genealogy has been adopted by law enforcement, and this method has enabled them to capture some of the world’s most brutal killers and solve cold cases.

Genealogy and the Golden State Killer

The Golden State Killer was the moniker given to serial killer Joseph DeAngelo, who terrorised the state of California between the 1970s and 1980s, committing burglaries, at least 50 sexual assaults and murdering 13 people.

DeAngelo’s crimes remained unsolved for 40 years until he was captured using genetic genealogy. In the early 2000s, investigators obtained DNA from the crime scene of the 1980 double murder of Lyman and Charlene Smith, who were bludgeoned to death at their home in Ventura County, California.

After investigators started reviewing rape kits of victims from other jurisdictions, it was revealed that the crimes spanned across 10 counties.

How the killer was captured

A retired investigator, Paul Holes, lived in Contra Costa, one of the victim’s jurisdictions. He spent 25 years on the case and led the charge to use a genealogy website to finally track down the killer.

DNA from the unknown assailant was uploaded to the genealogical website GEDMatch. It's believed investigators prioritised this site as others have more restrictive policies regarding law enforcement access. Those who use GEDMatch agree to a privacy statement which informs them their genetic information is available for others to search and locate.

When GEDMatch was informed of the Golden State Killer case, the company updated their confidentiality statement, which informed users that their stored genetic information could be searched by law enforcement.

By using the genealogy website, investigators, with the help of genealogists, spent approximately four months building a family tree of the unidentified killer's relatives. Eventually, the investigators narrowed down the search for the killer by looking for characteristics, such as age and location, which led them to DeAngelo.

DeAngelo was placed under police surveillance, where investigators managed to obtain DNA samples without his knowledge. The samples matched the DNA found at the crime scenes, which led to the killer’s arrest.

How does genetic genealogy work?

The technique of genetic genealogy has been a breakthrough for law enforcement and has helped bring justice to those whose cases had remained unsolved for decades.

To start the process of genetic genealogy, investigators gather biological samples from crime scenes, such as blood or hair. These samples can contain DNA, which can be read through a technique named genetic sequencing. During this method, the DNA is cut into microscopic pieces and scattered across a ‘genotyping chip’ to see what remains. After several processes in laboratories, the chip will eventually hold a unique genetic variant that will create a genetic profile.

The unidentified assailant’s unique sequence is then uploaded on genealogy websites like GEDMatch, where law enforcement will see if the assailant is related to other individuals in the database.

Traditional genealogy techniques, such as finding birth certificates and more modern methods like social media, are combined with the DNA profiles to build a family tree of those who may be related to the offender.

Finally, when law enforcement identifies potential suspects, they can apply investigative methods to narrow them down.

The controversy

Despite the success of genetic genealogy, the widespread use among law enforcement has faced a vast amount of criticism.

A year before DeAngelo was arrested, the technique was used to identify a suspect in the murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls in 1996. DNA found from the crime scene was uploaded to a genealogical database in 2014.

A list of 41 potential matches from the sample was created, with one match being very close to the sample. Investigators received a warrant demanding that Ancestry hand over the name of the match. The person in question was the father of Michael Usry.

Upon further investigation of the family, the police discovered that Michael had links to Idaho and the filmmaker had themes of homicide in his work. However, he was later cleared in the case. Further testing revealed there was an 87.63% chance that the unknown killer’s DNA was not related to the Usry family.