The Golden State Killer went before a judge Monday to admit his guilt in a string of murders, rapes and other crimes in the 1970s and 1980s, stretching from Sacramento County to Orange County, after reaching a plea deal to avoid the death penalty.
Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 74, admitted guilt in 13 murders in a hearing before a Sacramento judge that was livestreamed on YouTube. Throughout the day he spoke in a raspy, trembling voice just above a whisper, merely saying, “I admit” and “guilty.”
DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree of murder and murder during the commission of rape, robbery and burglary, 13 counts of kidnapping to commit robbery with sentencing enhancements for the use of a gun and a knife.
DeAngelo also admitted crimes prosecutors could not charge him with because of statute of limitations such as attempted murder, kidnapping to commit robbery, rape, robbery, first-degree burglary, false imprisonment and criminal threats.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who was in Sacramento for the hearing, took the defendant’s pleas Monday afternoon for the killings of 24-year-old Keith and 28-year-old Patrice Harrington on Aug. 19, 1980, in Dana Point; 28-year-old Manuela Witthuhn in Irvine in February 1981; and 18-year-old Janelle Cruz in Irvine in May 1986.
Under DeAngelo’s plea deal, the onetime Exeter and Auburn police officer is expected to be sentenced to at least 11 consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole and 15 concurrent life sentences.
Keith Harrington’s brother told City News Service it was a “totally surreal experience” hearing DeAngelo admit his crimes. He said he and his family still support the death penalty for DeAngelo, but believe the plea deal is the best form of justice they could get.
“This is the most amount of justice and most amount of closure we could ever obtain,” Ron Harrington said. “This guy is absolutely the worst of the worst… He is truly the poster child for the death penalty.”
But given the age of witnesses and investigators as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, it made the logistics of scheduling of even a preliminary hearing difficult to accomplish, Harrington said. Also, he noted, Gov. Gavin Newsom has put a moratorium on the death penalty in the state.
“The preliminary hearing in this case had 100 witnesses and the preliminary hearing was going to last literally months,” Harrington said. “And beyond that issue we’re also dealing with COVID-19. And how do you protect all these remaining victims and witnesses in the era of the coronavirus?”
The Harringtons, who lived in a single-story home in the gated Niguel Shores community, were attacked in their bedroom, according to Investigator Larry Pool of the Golden State Killer task force. Their bodies were found on their blood-spattered bed with ligature marks on their wrists and Patrice’s ankles, Pool wrote in a probable cause declaration.
Keith Harrington was a medical student and Patrice a pediatric trauma nurse, according to Spitzer, who said DeAngelo bludgeoned the couple to death and left the binds on the bed.
“They were newlyweds, having been married only three months,” Spitzer said, noting that Keith’s father, Roger, found the bodies.
Investigators in 1996 matched semen at the crime scene to the killer in the two other Orange County cases. The identity of the killer remained unknown until 2018, when investigators used a public genealogy database with DNA recovered from an item discarded by DeAngelo.
Witthuhn was attacked between 11 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1981, and 2 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1981. The cause of death was skull fractures from a beating, Pool said, adding that her parents discovered her body in a sleeping bag when they went to check on her. There was no evidence of a struggle and she had ligature marks on her wrists and on her right ankle.
Witthuhn’s husband, David, had been admitted to an area hospital due to a stomach virus, so she was alone for the night, Spitzer said. After she visited him at the hospital, her spouse called her to make sure she arrived home safely.
“That was the last time he spoke with her,” Spitzer said.
Witthuhn slept in a sleeping bag because she felt cold without her husband there and was eagerly awaiting his planned release from the hospital the next day, Spitzer said.
DeAngelo took the bindings, along with jewelry, a lamp and a cassette from an answering machine, Spitzer said.
Cruz was killed about 5 p.m. on May 5, 1986, in her bed in her Irvine home. Blood covered her head and neck and she was partially covered by her blanket.
Cruz had hemorrhaging in her eyes and bruises on the bridge of her nose, according to Pool, who said the killer knocked out three of her teeth — with two found in her hair.
Cruz had no ligature marks on her wrists like the other victims, but there were abrasions, leading investigators to speculate her killer squeezed her wrists so hard he left a mark, Pool said.
Cruz’s lower lip was swollen, her tongue bitten. An ultraviolet light spotlighted semen on the victim, according to Pool. No murder weapon was found, but a pipe wrench in the backyard was missing.
The cause of death was “crushing skull fractures,” he said.
Cruz’s family had gone on vacation to Mexico, leaving her home alone, Spitzer said. One of the victim’s male friends visited her because she was afraid to be alone, he said.
“About 11 p.m., prior to his leaving, they heard noises outside the house,” Spitzer said. “They attributed the noise to a cat or a washer and dryer.”
Spitzer turned to the defendant and said, “You, Mr. DeAngelo, unlawfully entered the Cruz residence… You attacked her, you beat her and you raped her… You murdered her in the first-degree, bludgeoning her multiple times in her face and head.”
The victim “swallowed a significant amount of blood,” Spitzer said.
At a news conference after the hearings, Spitzer teared up as he commented on how some of the victims were powerless to stop the killer, who would sometimes rummage their residences and eat their food in between repeatedly raping victims.
Sitting so close to the killer, Spitzer said he felt “a real weird aura” from DeAngelo.
“I swear I saw the devil today,” Spitzer said. “That is the devil… Anybody who could do what he did over and over again… is the devil.”
Spitzer also discussed how difficult it was to give up on the death penalty, but he said it was important to do for the sake of the victims, who wanted justice.
Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten noted that DeAngelo admitted 161 crimes involving 48 individual victims in 32 crime scenes.
Totten said he believes in the death penalty, but added that with such a large and complex case there would be “inevitable delays” in putting on a trial and then there would be “decade-long litigation” in the appeals “that would have ensured the probability given his age that the defendant would likely die before his trial and certainly before his execution could be carried out.”
Various prosecutors from across the state read detailed descriptions of DeAngelo’s crimes, starting with the murder of 45-year-old Claude Snelling on Sept. 11, 1975, in Visalia. DeAngelo shot and killed Snelling as he attempted to rescue his daughter, who the killer was trying to kidnap.
DeAngelo also pleaded guilty to attempting to kill Detective William McGowen on Dec. 10, 1975, as the then-Visalia officer attempted to arrest him for a series of burglaries attributed to the “Visalia Ransacker” from April 1974 through December 1975.
DeAngelo admitted to the beating deaths of Goleta residents Debra Manning, 35, and Robert Offerman, 44, on Dec. 30, 1979, in their home in Santa Barbara County, and the beating deaths of Gregory Sanchez, 27, and Cheri Domingo, 35, both of Goleta, on July 27, 1981. DeAngelo also raped Manning and Domingo.
DeAngelo also pleaded guilty to bludgeoning to death Charlene and Lyman Smith, both of Ventura, with a fireplace log on March 13, 1980. Lyman Smith, a 43-year-old former deputy district attorney, and his 33-year-old wife were found dead by his 12-year-old son. The killer also raped Charlene Smith and stole some of her jewelry, prosecutors said.
DeAngelo is expected to be ordered back to court in August, when victim impact statements will begin.
Prosecutors on the case announced in April 2019 they would seek the death penalty for the Citrus Heights resident, but multiple issues cropped up in the case, with many witnesses dying, a source told City News Service.
“Some key witnesses are 80 years old or above,” the source said, adding that includes many detectives who worked on the killings.
Support in recent weeks among the families of the victims was “overwhelming” for a plea deal, the source said.