Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., California’s alleged Golden State Killer, pleads guilty to murder

Black Lives Matter
Joseph James DeAngelo, center, charged with being the Golden State Killer, his helped up by his attorney, Diane Howard, as Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman enters the courtroom in Sacramento, Calif. Monday June 29, 2020. DeAngelo, 74, is expected to plead guilty 40 years after a sadistic series of assaults and slayings in California. Due to the large numbers of people attending, the hearing was held at a ballroom at California State University, Sacramento to allow for social distancing. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A former police officer who terrorized the Sacramento region as a serial rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people across California and then evaded capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to the first of 13 murders.

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he uttered in a hushed, raspy voice the word “guilty” to killing a community college professor in 1975, the first homicide in his decades of burglaries, rapes and other crimes that were later dubbed the work of the Golden State Killer.

DeAngelo acknowledged at the beginning of the hearing that he would plead guilty to 13 murders and acknowledge dozens of rapes that are too old to prosecute in exchange consecutive life sentences and no chance of parole.

The frail-looking 74-year-old sat in a wheelchair and spoke behind a plastic shield to prevent possible spread of coronavirus.

He was arrested in 2018 after authorities used DNA to track him through a popular genealogy website.

People gather in a courtroom set up in a ballroom where a 74-year-old former police officer is tentatively set to plead guilty Monday, June 29, 2020, to being the elusive Golden State Killer in Sacramento, Calif. The hearing comes 40 years after a sadistic suburban rapist terrorized California in what investigators only later realized were a series of linked assaults and slayings. The plea deal will spare Joseph DeAngelo any chance of the death penalty, but in partial return survivors of the assaults that spanned the 1970s and 1980s expect him to admit to dozens of rapes that could not be criminally charged because too much time has elapsed. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

A plea deal will spare DeAngelo any chance of the death penalty for 13 murders and 13 kidnapping-related charges throughout California. In partial return, survivors of the assaults that spanned the 1970s and 1980s expect him to admit to up to 62 rapes that he could not be criminally charged with because too much time has passed.

“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.

Investigators early on connected certain crimes to an armed and masked rapist who would break into sleeping couples’ suburban homes at night, binding the man and piling dishes on his back. He would threaten to kill both victims if he heard the plates fall while he raped the woman.

The man dubbed the Golden State Killer made incriminating statements after his arrest and indicated he was driven by an internal force he couldn’t control, a prosecutor said Monday.

Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said DeAngelo was alone in a police interrogation room in April 2018 when he began speaking to himself.

“I did all that,” DeAngelo said, according to Ho. “I didn’t have the strength to push him out. 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.”

Ho said the day had come for DeAngelo to pay that price.

“The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said, including nearly 50 rapes. “Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”

Victims may confront DeAngelo at August sentencing

Gay and Bob Hardwick were among the survivors.

They are now looking forward to DeAngelo admitting to that 1978 assault. The death penalty was never realistic anyway, she 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.”

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.

Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, believed to be one of the victims of the Golden State Killer, talks with reporters in August, 2018 after Joseph James DeAngelo's court appearance in Sacramento, Calif.

‘My dad was never the same’

Ron Harrington’s younger brother, Keith, was married to Patti Harrington for just three months when they were bludgeoned to death in their Orange County home in 1980 by a killer then known as the Original Night Stalker.

All four brothers were successful, but “Keith, the youngest of all of us, was the smartest,” he said. “It’s just such a loss. And every time this comes up I think of all the lives he would have saved as an emergency room doctor.”

Their father found the couple two days later.

“It was so gruesome,” Harrington said. “My dad was never the same.”

The killer racked up a series of monikers for his crimes over the decades.

Visalia Ransacker. 

East Area Rapist. 

Original Night Stalker. 

Diamond Knot Killer.

But it wasn’t until years later that investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to later slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant whose crimes spanned 11 counties from 1974 through mid-1986.

The mystery sparked worldwide interest, a best-selling book and a six-part HBO documentary, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” that premiered Sunday.

More:Doc tracing late wife Michelle McNamara’s quest for Golden State Killer is ‘bittersweet’

DNA was key to case

It was only the pioneering use of new DNA techniques that two years ago led investigators to DeAngelo, who was fired from the Auburn Police Department northeast of Sacramento in 1979 after he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. He previously had worked as a police officer in the Central Valley town of Exeter from 1973 to 1976, near where the Visalia Ransacker struck more than 100 homes south of Fresno.

Investigators painstakingly built a family tree by linking decades-old crime scene DNA to a distant relative through a popular online DNA database. They eventually narrowed in on DeAngelo with a process that has since been used in other cases nationwide, but said they confirmed the link only after surreptitiously collecting his DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue.

His defense attorneys have publicly lobbied since then for a deal that would spare him the death penalty, though they did not respond to repeated requests for comment before Monday’s hearing. 

Prosecutors who had sought the death penalty cited the massively complicated case and the advancing age of many of the victims and witnesses in agreeing to consider the plea bargain.

“Death doesn’t solve anything. But him having to sit through a trial or preliminary hearing, that would have helped,” said Carole, who said neither she nor her slain father believed in capital punishment. 

She was so committed to seeing the case through that she temporarily moved from Santa Cruz to her adult daughter’s Sacramento home, where she has slept on an air mattress in a spare bedroom. She has told the story of her father’s death and her own recent experiences through podcasts called The Lawyer’s Daughter.

But she said it “absolutely” makes sense for prosecutors to agree to a life sentence without parole, both to spare older victims and witnesses who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus from having to appear in court, and to save taxpayers the $20 million projected cost of a trial.

Harrington supports the death penalty, but also agreed with prosecutors’ decision “just to give some degree of closure.”

“This will be a relief for all of us, to move on with our lives,” said Hardwick. “We’ve dealt with the effects of the attack for 42 years.”

Alleged crimes

DeAngelo faces 13 rape-related charges and 13 murder counts. The charges linked to rapes were filed as kidnappings to commit robberies because the statute of limitations for sexual assaults has expired. Here are the charges that have been consolidated into one proceeding in Sacramento:

  • Contra Costa County: Four counts of kidnapping to commit robbery using a gun and knife between Oct. 7, 1978, and June 11, 1979, with the victims identified as Jane Does numbers 10-13.
  • Orange County: Four counts of murder in the Aug. 21, 1980, slaying of Keith Harrington, 24, and rape and slaying of Patrice Harrington, 27, of Dana Point; the Feb. 6, 1981, rape and slaying of Manuela Witthuhn, 28, of Irvine; and the May 5, 1986, rape and slaying of Janelle Cruz, 18, of Irvine.
  • Sacramento County: Two counts of murder in the Feb. 2, 1978, shootings of Kate Maggoire, 20, and Brian Maggoire, 21, as they walked their dog in their Rancho Cordova neighborhood. Plus nine counts of kidnapping to commit robbery using a gun and knife between Sept. 4, 1976, and Oct. 21, 1977, with the victims identified as Jane Does numbers 1-9.
  • Santa Barbara County: Four counts of murder in the Dec. 30, 1979, rape and slaying of Debra Manning, 35, and slaying of Robert Offerman, 44, of Goleta, and in the July 27, 1981, slaying of Gregory Sanchez, 27, and Cheri Domingo, 35, of Goleta.
  • Tulare County: One count of murder in the Sept. 11, 1975, slaying of Claude Snelling, 45, during an attempted kidnapping of the victim’s daughter from their home.
  • Ventura County: Two counts of murder in the rape and slaying of Charlene Smith, 33, and slaying of Lyman Smith, 43, of Ventura between March 13 and March 16, 1980. 

Leave a Reply