SACRAMENTO — After more than two decades of hunting the East Area Rapist, Paul Holes was sure he had his man a few weeks ago.
It was a white man with blonde hair. He was born in 1958, meaning he was in his late teens and 20s when the notorious crime spree took place. And he had an uncle who lived in the Cordova Meadows neighborhood of Rancho Cordova, giving him a possible geographical connection.
Everything fit, Holes said. Except for one key element.
“We just couldn’t place this guy in California,” Holes said, meaning they could never determine the man actually spent time here.
But they could place Joseph James DeAngelo in California. Better yet, they knew DeAngelo was living in the Sacramento area during the 1970s.
Both DeAngelo and the blonde man born in 1958 were on the same family tree as someone who loaded a DNA profile onto the open-source genealogy website GEDmatch. Police started to investigate them and three other white men of a certain age related to the GEDmatch user, who was at best a third cousin of the suspected East Area Rapist.
At first, Holes thought DeAngelo, now 72, was too old to be their suspect. And while investigators always believed the East Area Rapist could have been a police officer because he had evaded authorities for so long, Holes thought it would have been very difficult for DeAngelo to have committed attacks in San Jose, Contra Costa County and throughout the Sacramento area while serving full-time as a cop in Auburn.
“I thought that was a strike against DeAngelo,” he said.
Plus, DeAngelo’s name had never come up — not once — in the 15,000 pages of case files and the several thousand tips police received over the years.
But nuggets of information from DeAngelo’s past started to convince Holes and others he could be their suspect.
During a July 1978 rape of a 33-year-old housewife in Davis, the East Area Rapist “was sobbing and saying, ‘I hate you Bonnie, I hate you Bonnie,’” Holes said. “We thought that was significant.” After some searching, investigators discovered DeAngelo had been engaged to a woman named Bonnie in 1970.
On Holes’ last day of active duty in late March, he parked across the street from DeAngelo’s Citrus Heights home. He thought about doing what he’d done many times before.
“I’m just debating whether I should knock on this guy’s door,” he said. “Just tell him, ‘I’m looking at old cases, your name has come up, can we chat and can I have a sample of your DNA?’”
Later, Holes said police discovered DeAngelo had “numerous guns registered to him.” If he was their suspect, that meant he also had shot at a police officer during a chase in Visalia in 1975. And he had killed 12 people.
“In retrospect, it was a good decision to drive off,” Holes said. “This is a very dangerous man. My wife is extremely relieved by that decision.”
Police kept a close eye on DeAngelo for several days, increasing their surveillance in mid-April. He is 72, “but he’s moving around like a young 50-year-old man,” Holes said.
“He’s out riding his motorcycle, bombing down the freeway at over 100 miles per hour,” he said. “Stop signs are optional for this guy.”
On April 20, detectives picked up an item DeAngelo discarded in public and ran the DNA through the crime lab. It had some similarities to the East Area Rapist, but not enough for an arrest. Detectives grabbed another sample from something DeAngelo tossed on Tuesday morning. That one was a hit.
By 5 p.m. that day, DeAngelo was in custody. Despite Holes’ concerns for what DeAngelo might do if confronted by police after all these years, Sacramento sheriff’s detectives arrested him without incident.
After DeAngelo has spent several days in custody, investigators still don’t appear to have a clear picture of who he is.
They know he was a police officer in the Tulare County community of Exeter from 1973 to 1976 and in Auburn from 1976 to 1979, when he was dismissed after being charged with stealing a hammer and dog repellent from a Citrus Heights drug store, according at an article in the Auburn Journal.. They know he worked as a truck mechanic at a Save Mart distribution center in Roseville from 1989 to 2017.
They also know he is separated from his wife and has three adult daughters, one of whom lived with him at the Citrus Heights house — along with DeAngelo’s granddaughter. The other two daughters “are very bright, beautiful and successful,” Holes said. One is a doctor and the other is a PhD candidate at a University of California campus. They had no clue about their father’s alleged criminal past; in fact, Holes said they didn’t even know he was a police officer.
“For all three of these kids, another tragedy is to find out that their dad is the worst serial killer maybe in the nation’s history,” Holes said.
Other relatives have told The Sacramento Bee there was no reason to think DeAngelo was involved in this horrific crime spree. His sister, Rebecca Thompson, said Thursday she had “never seen anything to allow myself to think he could do such things.”
“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,” Thompson said.
There’s still a decade-long gap — from 1979 to 1989 — in which police aren’t sure what DeAngelo was doing or where he was living. He has been implicated in 10 murders and four rapes across Southern California between 1979 and 1986. Public records link him to addresses in Long Beach and the Los Angeles County city of Whittier in the 1980s.
“We don’t know a lot about him,” Holes said. “But between the investigative reporting and the online sleuths, all of that information will be filled in.”
As DeAngelo had his arraignment in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday, Holes was finishing up a week unlike any other in his 27 years in law enforcement. He went days without sleep and had done several media interviews.
“I had the one thing happen that I wanted to happen,” he said. “This case is solved. To talk with the victims, to hear their sobs of joy, it is such a pleasure to have it happen right now.
“Now I’m going to turn off my phone and enjoy my weekend.”