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The killer of the Golden State. How DNA 44 years later helped track down a former policeman, a rapist and a robber

More than 45 rapes, at least 13 murders and over a hundred hacks. From the mid-1970s, for a dozen years, American California was terrorized by the Assassin from the Golden State. In 1986, he last brought sorrow to someone’s family, after which he disappeared. Was he killed, put him in jail, committed suicide? A year ago, the real identity of the rapist and killer with several nicknames was uncovered – the 72-year-old old man and former police officer Joseph James Deangelo was arrested.

Psychological picture

White male athletic build with a military background. Smart and well dressed, what does not attract the attention of passers-by. So the experts described later in the 1980s a possible psychological portrait of a serial killer from California, who was nicknamed The Real Night Hunter in the media. According to the report,  he carefully planned crimes and adapted to the changing environment. He had a flexible work schedule and a stable income, as he did not take money and jewelry from the crime scene. He clearly had an illegal entry experience. And he knew the difference between good and evil, did not suffer from delirium and was aware of the reality of what is happening

Photo: FBI

Experts have noted its method. The killer did not allow blood to get on the clothes, covering the bodies of the victims. Each crime was built according to a similar scenario: it arrived with a set of “tools”, spied on victims, raped women and killed all those who were on the spot. The report says that he seemed to be holding a grudge against women, using sex and physical strength as a means of punishment and humiliation


Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The serial killer was meticulous to the details: he scrolled through his head the crime scenario, the choice of weapons, the ways of entry and retreat. He preferred only solid houses in the middle class areas with quick access to the highway. And not only because it was easier to escape from there. He felt that the sacrifices in these areas were worth his efforts.

First blood

The criminal way the future serial killer started breaking into homes. “Robber of Visalia” from 1974 to 1975 penetrated homes, scattered lingerie, stole personal belongings, and often ignored money and other valuables. As it is supposed, it is this burglar who is responsible for the murder of a journalism professor while trying to kidnap his daughter.


Photo: FBI

– I feel sad when I think about how wonderful grandfather he would be for my children. He was not there to lead me to the altar … We lost so much.

These are the words of 60-year-old Elizabeth Happ. On September 11, 1975, at two o’clock in the morning, she woke up in her bed from a person wearing a ski mask hanging over her. In a whisper and threats of murder, the stranger demanded that the 16-year-old girl silently leave the house with him. She began to cry, not understanding what was happening. The criminal pushed Elizabeth into the backyard when a father woke up from the noise noticed them from the kitchen window.

“I heard a scream and saw my dad pop out through the back door.” The offender threw me and shot twice at my father. Then he aimed the gun at me.

The robber hit the girl and ran away, leaving her with his dying father in his arms. Claude Snelling died on the way to hospital at the age of 45. 500 people gathered for the funeral of the professor.

“My mom always said that it doesn’t matter … Even if there were 20 guys with pistols, he would still rush to save me.”

The rapist of the eastern regions came to taste

After the first murder, it is supposed that the robber moved closer to Sacramento, where he changed his profile from simple hacks to rape. At first, he tracked only single women, sometimes with children. And then he began to attack the couple. Two attacks each in January, February, March and April, five in May, one each in September, November and December, three in October. These are statistics on rape only in 1977.

Deangelo forced women to tie up men, and then took them to a separate room, where he raped several times over long hours. The criminal used plates as an original alarm system. He put the bound men on all fours, laying several plates on their backs: “If I hear any sound, I will kill everyone in this house.”

He could spend hours in the house, walking around him like a master. If there was a beer in the fridge, the criminal took it, went to the backyard, sat down more comfortably in the chair and drank a bottle.

Margaret Vardlow was 13 years old. On the evening of November 10, 1977, she and her mother went to their neighbors for dinner. The doors were not locked at home, as the dog remained there, and their area was extremely calm. At two o’clock in the morning, an unknown masked person woke her with a flashlight in her face. He tied her up, then his mother in the next room and returned.

– I just did not want to show him what he wants. My fear.

Deangelo tied her arms and legs so tightly that the girls swelled blood vessels. Blindfolded and asked if Margaret had had sex before … Her mother screamed behind the wall. When it was all over, the criminal left the room. The police, who arrived at the scene without delay, could not find him


Photo: FBI

In 1979, the Rapist of the eastern regions retired. In the same year, south of the rapist’s fishing grounds in Santa Barbara, murders began, which were carried out according to the same scenario and were attributed to the Real Night Hunter. Between 1979 and 1986, he attacked 12 people in their homes and killed 10 of them: shot some, killed others.

Goleta’s couple was lucky, they managed to raise the alarm and scare the criminal. Robert Offman’s neighbors heard the shots, but did not attach importance to them. Charlene Smith and Patrice Harrington were raped before their murder, and their husbands were beaten to death. Covered with blankets, bloodied bodies were found by relatives. Sometimes a few days after the murder


Charlene and Lyman Smith

Arrest 44 years after first kill

On April 25, 2018, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones spoke to the press: “During the last few days, when the information began to point to this particular person, we began to observe. We managed to get some DNA samples.And we were able to confirm what we thought we knew for sure. We went on the right track. And yesterday afternoon, during an ideally carried out detention, my detectives arrested 72-year-old James Joseph Deangelo, who lives in the city of Sitres Heights. ”

Orange County Prosecutor stressed that the detainee was held in the police under several names.

“They called him the Violent Oriental, the Robber of Visalia, the Real Night Hunter and the Assassin from the Golden State.” Today we are happy to call him a defendant.

Ventura County Prosecutor Gregory Totten filed the detainee with murder charges of Charlene and Lyman Smith in March 1980 with aggravating circumstances: multiple murder, murder during rape and murder during burglary. A series of murders from other districts was added to the charges of the district attorney.

The most touching part of the press conference was the speech of Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were beaten to death in the third month after the wedding. About 20 years and about $ 2 million of his own money a man spent on reforming California legislation on the use of DNA in forensic medicine. Bruce addressed the victims of the abuser:

– It is time to heal wounds. Sleep better this night. It will not penetrate you through the window. He is in prison. He is already a story.

Prehistory deangelo

Police have long assumed that a serial killer is associated with the army or law enforcement. This was indicated by his patience, the surveillance of victims, the ability to avoid tracing and intricate knots on related victims


Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Deangelo actually served in the fleet in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. And in 1970 he received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Three years later, he married and got a job in the police.

From there, in 1979, he was fired: he was caught stealing a hammer and a dog repellent from a store. There were no more entries in his “work book” until 1990, when he got a job as a mechanic, in which capacity he worked until he retired in 2017. He split with his wife in 1991, when their three daughters were already quite old.

Before his marriage, Deangelo was engaged to Bonnie Coluel. Together they attended college, but the wedding was allegedly canceled on the initiative of the girl. Investigators believe that this could have influenced the motives of the offender, since during one of the rapes in 1978, he shouted: “I hate you, Bonnie!”

“He was an ordinary person, an ordinary Joe, ” recalled colleague Deangelo at the police station. He was not much different from other officers, no one could even think that this man was responsible for rape and murder.


Deangelo second to the left

At the time of the arrest, the suspect was living with his daughter and granddaughter in a house bought in 1980 near Sacramento. Neighbors noted that the man was very meticulous in caring for his lawn, was distinguished by outbursts of anger and did not hesitate to use foul language.

“We are very sympathetic to the victims and their families, ” Rebecca Thompson, the defendant’s sister , was only able to squeeze out of herself in a trembling voice.

DNA and genealogical site gave killer

Already mentioned brother of one of the victims, Bruce Harrington in zero, sought to modify legislation in California. He wanted law enforcement agencies to compulsorily create a DNA database of all the criminals who somehow went to prison. Bruce was sure that in this way he would be able to find the murderer, who could well be in prison on charges of a completely different crime.

And only in April 2018, a few weeks before Deangelo’s arrest, the California Supreme Court ruled that every adult arrested in a criminal case must have a DNA sample for later storage in a database. Opponents of this law argued that the DNA act would violate the right of individuals to the privacy of their genetic information


Detective Paul Holes. 
Photo: Laura Oda / Bay Area News Group

For all these decades, DNA samples from the Real Night Hunter, taken from numerous places of his crimes, were kept in police custody. In the 1990s, Paul Holes, now a detective, began working as a criminologist in California. Before him opened a huge field for work – the unsolved case of the Rapist of the eastern regions, about which he had not heard anything before. More than 50 incidents. In half the cases, the perpetrator purposefully decided to attack his victims in their home. His arrogance and at the same time impunity struck Holes.

DNA technologies in those years were still in their embryonic stage. Nevertheless, the criminologist began to analyze the samples of the Violent East regions and compare them with other samples in the laboratory. At the same time, his colleagues in another part of the state, who were investigating the case of the Real Night Hunter, also compiled the DNA profile of the criminal.

“It took four years to find out with the help of technology that both laboratories are engaged in the same DNA samples


Archival photo of Holes with evidence in the case of the Eaters of the Eastern Distributor (EAR). 
Photo: oxygen.com

In 2001, it was officially confirmed that the rapist and the hunter were the same person who had been operating in different parts of California at different times. After that, Deangelo got a new nickname – Golden State Killer (“The killer of the Golden State”). Investigators combined the cases, but over the next 15 years they did not come close to a clue.

However, over the years, genetic technology has noticeably improved and simplified. In the US, now anyone can donate DNA in order to try to find their distant relatives and ancestors, to make a family tree. One of the services that does this reconciliation is called GEDmatch. Users simply upload their own DNA information to the site to get on the trail of genetically similar people.

In early 2018, Detective Paul Holes realized that services such as GEDmatch could be the key to uncovering the “grouse”. First, he checked how it works with the help of his family’s DNA profiles, and then decided to send the Killer DNA information from the Golden State to the site. Of course, the service did not immediately indicate the suspect, but helped to find his possible distant relatives.

“They were only remotely connected with Deangelo, but this provided us with a launching pad for further searches, ” the detective stressed in an interview with ABC7.

With the help of professional genealogists, investigators began to check obituaries, cemeteries, population census documents, and other DNA databases to compile the killer’s family tree. Then they began to look closely at people who fit the criteria of the wanted person (their age and place of residence were taken into account). According to the results, the list of suspects was reduced to five people. Joseph Deangelo was among them

Former police officer who lived in Sacramento, was monitored. The detectives watched for a few days and waited for Deangelo to throw at least something into the trash that could be used to take a sample of his DNA.

“When people throw their DNA in a public place, we have all the legal rights to pick it up and analyze it.”

The investigators did not disclose exactly how the suspect’s DNA sample was obtained. But they state with confidence that the coincidence with the samples of the Real night hunter and the Violent of the eastern regions turned out to be perfect.

A few hours after the DNA test, Deangelo was arrested at his home in a Sacramento suburb. At the first court hearings, where he was formally charged, the 72-year-old was rolled up in a wheelchair.


Prosecutors believe that the case may be delayed for 10 years. It will cost taxpayers about $ 20 million. In addition, the suspect could only be charged with murder, since rape and robbery had expired. But this may still be enough for the death penalty, and for life


Photo: REUTERS / Fred Greaves / File Photo

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