A man suspected of being the “Golden State Killer” responsible for killings, rapes and burglaries statewide since the mid-1970s, including four murders in Orange County, was behind bars today in Sacramento County, ending one of California’s longest manhunts.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer, was arrested Tuesday in the Citrus Heights area of Northern California in connection with a pair of 1978 murders in Sacramento and was being held without bail at the Sacramento County main jail.
“We found the needle in they haystack, and it was right here in Sacramento,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said.
The long-sought suspect, also known as the East Bay Rapist, the Original Night Stalker and the Diamond Knot Killer, is believed responsible for a dozen murders, about 45 rapes and multiple residential burglaries between 1976 and 1986 in the San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles areas, according to the FBI, which in June 2016 announced a reward of $50,000 for information leading to his arrest.
The emergence of DNA technology in the late 1990s helped local law enforcement link the suspect to four unsolved murders in the Southland, according to Irvine police Sgt. Sarah Tunnicliffe.
The first locally known victims were a husband and wife — Keith Harrington, 24, and his wife Patrice, 28 — in Dana Point. Their bodies were found in their home on Aug. 19, 1980.
On Feb. 5, 1981, Manuela Witthuhn, 28, was found dead in her Irvine home. The last known Orange County victim — 18-year-old Janelle Cruz — was found on May 5, 1986, in her Irvine home.
Late Wednesday, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged DeAngelo with all four killings, along with special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, lying in wait and murder during the commission of rape, robbery, burglary and sodomy. The special circumstance allegations open DeAngelo to a possible death sentence.
DeAngelo was charged earlier Wednesday with capital murder for the March 1980 killings in Ventura County of Lyman and Charlene Smith. Lyman Smith was a lawyer, and his wife was a court clerk. The pair were bludgeoned to death in their home.
“This 1980 murder has long been a source of fear and angst,” Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said.
Bruce Harrington, brother of Dana Point victim Keith Harrington, responded to the arrest by saying, “It is time for the victims to begin to heal, so long overdue.”
“For law enforcement, bravo, bravo, bravo,” he said. “Their tenacity, their patience, their unrelenting focus. … Today is also a reaffirmation of the power and the public safety that’s associated with forensic DNA technology.”
Harrington worked with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in 2004 to secure the passage of Proposition 69, which expanded the state’s criminal DNA database to every convicted felon in California.
“We’ve always believed, at least for many years, that this case would begin and end with DNA,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said. “… Our team is going to work hard to make sure he never gets out.”
The DNA tests in the late 1990s helped investigators link the suspect to murders in Ventura and the Santa Barbara area, according to Tunnicliffe, who previously said the suspect appeared to have been inactive from July 1981 through 1986 when Cruz was killed. Investigators theorize he may have been out of the country or in another state during that period.
The crime spree appears to have started in the summer of 1976 with a series of burglaries and rapes in Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento. The suspect would pry open a door or window and awaken victims with a flashlight and then tie them up. At times, their attacker would call the victims on the phone later.
In the Irvine cases, the killer broke into the homes, police said.
Tunnicliffe went to Sacramento, along with Detectives John Sanders and Jason Renshaw and Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel, to “help with the investigation and any follow-up,” said Kim Mohr of the Irvine Police Department.
Rackauckas said his office would be working with prosecuting agencies in other counties to determine where DeAngelo will be tried first and who would act as the lead prosecutor on the case.
The investigation into the case gained renewed interest with the recent publication of the book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by writer Michelle McNamara, the late wife of actor/comedian Patton Oswalt. McNamara died in 2016 while working on the book, but Oswalt helped finish the work, which was released earlier this year.
“She would be beyond excited about this,” Oswalt wrote on his Twitter page when news of the arrest broke. “I think this is the definition of `bittersweet.”’
McNamara’s book includes a passage envisioning the scene when the killer is ultimately arrested, saying he would hear a car pulling up outside and “footsteps coming up your front walk.”
“The doorbell rings. No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. `You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”
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