By Sam Stanton, Darrell Smith, Dale Kasler, and Molly Sullivan
The Sacramento Bee
Forty-five years after committing his first murder, Joseph James DeAngelo admitted Monday he was the Golden State Killer: serial killer, rapist and author of one of the worst crime sprees in California history.
Looking frail and speaking in a halting voice, DeAngelo entered a string of guilty pleas in a Sacramento State ballroom that was converted into a courtroom for the day.
DeAngelo, 74, admitted to a 12-year binge of murder and sexual assaults from the Sacramento area to Orange County that captivated the world’s attention and spawned a multitude of nicknames for the disgraced former police officer: Golden State Killer, East Area Rapist, Visalia Ransacker, Original Night Stalker and more.
Wearing a jailhouse orange jumpsuit, and a face shield to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, DeAngelo agreed to plead guilty to a total of 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnap for robbery, starting with the Nov. 11, 1975, shooting death of college professor Claude Snelling in Visalia in 1975. He also was scheduled to admit to 62 rapes and other crimes for which he wasn’t formally charged.
He admitted to Snelling’s death, and the other crimes, with a simple but feeble, “Guilty.” When the uncharged counts were read aloud, he said, “I admit.”
Prosecutors from around the state read aloud the excruciating, horrific and sometimes bizarre circumstances of each case, such as DeAngelo’s rummaging through the refrigerator of a Santa Barbara County couple he he had just killed in December 1979, Debra Manning and Robert Offerman. DeAngelo sat impassively at the defense table, flanked by his public defenders, as the gory details of his crimes were recited.
Under a plea bargain deal reached two weeks ago, DeAngelo is expected to be sentenced in August to life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors agreed to forego seeking the death penalty in order to save the cost of taking DeAngelo to trial in what would have been one of the largest and costliest prosecutions in California history. Given DeAngelo’s advanced age, the ages of witnesses and investigators, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s imposition of a moratorium on executions, prosecutors decided it was time to accept a plea deal and not conduct a death penalty trial.
“The familiy members of murder victims have waited decades for justice,” said Amy Holliday, Sacramento County’s assistant chief deputy district attorney. “The time for justice stands in front of us now.”
DeAngelo, who has been confined to the Sacramento County Jail since his arrest in April 2018 at his home in Citrus Heights, arrived at the makeshift courtroom at the University Union about 20 minutes before the hearing began. He was trucked to the campus’ University Union in a burgundy van that was backed up to a loading dock.
More than 150 people attended, including DeAngelo’s victims and relatives of victims, media representatives and prosecutors from all over the state, forcing courtroom officials to seek a large enough venue that could allow for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the lawyers, family members and others wore masks; boxes of Kleenex were stacked up for victims and next of kin.
The Sacramento State ballroom, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people, was configured for a court hearing, with plastic chairs spaced far apart and a stage set up at one end. Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman sat in the middle of the stage, with DeAngelo and his public defenders at the right and a succession of district attorneys, led by Sacramento’s Anne Marie Schubert, at the left.
In a perverse testament to the statewide sweep of DeAngelo’s crimes, prosecutors from multiple counties read aloud the facts underlying each of the murders, rapes and other charges to which he pleaded guilty, as well as the 62 uncharged counts.
Law enforcement personnel swept the building and the area outside with search dogs at 6 a.m. More than 20 sheriff’s deputies arrived at the ballroom a little more than an hour later, more than two hours before the hearing began.
Among those savoring the moment was Margaret Wardlow, who was 13 when she was attacked by the man known as the East Area Rapist at her home on La Riviera Drive, just minutes from Sacramento State.
It was Nov. 10, 1977. Wardlow was DeAngelo’s youngest victim. Now, nearly 43 years later, Wardlow waited to see her attacker and hear his plea.
“He’s going to plead guilty to my crimes as well as others,” she said, relishing a bit of irony. DeAngelo had attended Sacramento State for a time. “He went to university here. I bet he had no idea that this is the way he’d visit his alma mater. Hopefully, this will give some closure.”
Wardlow remembered how the East Area Rapist’s reign of terror gripped — and — changed the Sacramento region. As a 13-year-old living in Sacramento, she followed accounts of the crimes obsessively, preparing in her mind how she would fight back if the time came. It did and she would.
“I was very defiant. I read every single article. I was always reading the newspaper,” she said. “By the time he got to my house, I told him I didn’t care. I don’t think he enjoyed visiting my home.
“All of Sacramento was a victim of that man,” Wardlow said. “Everyone was in a fit of panic. It was a time of sheer terror.”
Among the very few people who gathered outside the building was Todd Jearou, a retired law enforcement chaplain, who as a teenager in the 70s had just moved to a Carmichael neighborhood with his family when the East Area Rapist attacked one of his neighbors.
“He struck seven houses down,” Jearou said. “We believe he was in our front yard for sure.”
Jearou said the fear of the East Area Rapist was a “very huge deal” during his childhood and young adulthood, and completely changed the way his family lives their lives.
“We couldn’t go anywhere by ourselves anymore,” he said. “Everybody knew he was very very violent.”
Jearou said he’s been “hooked” on the case ever since.
Everything about the DeAngelo case has been extraordinary, including his arrest. Schubert, the Sacramento district attorney, made finding a suspect a priority. She spearheaded the use of DNA evidence from old crime scenes, including semen found inside Charlene Smith, a woman DeAngelo killed in Ventura County in 1980, to create a new investigative technique that plugged that evidence into genealogical websites looking for a match.
Eventually, investigators found a potential relative on a website called GEDmatch.com and began building out a family tree that led them to Citrus Heights. DeAngelo had been living in the suburb for years after being fired from the Auburn Police Department and becoming a truck mechanic.
Thienvu Ho, a Sacramento deputy DA, recalled that DeAngelo was living a vigorous life, racing around town on a motorcycle, as he was being tracked by investigators. But when they arrested him, “he feigned feeble incoherence.”
The case has spawned a best-selling book and a six-part documentary series on HBO that debuted Sunday.