Picture of a knife, not the one in story.
Example of a knife, not the one used in the killings. Photo via Pixabay

The Golden State Killer, who sat stoically through three days of victim impact statements, apologized to his victims Friday before a judge handed down 11 consecutive life-without-parole prison sentences for a string of rapes and murders the former police officer committed from the Sacramento area to Orange and Ventura counties in the 1970s and ’80s.

Before Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman tacked on an additional life term and eight years in prison, 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. stood up from his wheelchair and turned to his victims, saying, “I’ve listened to all of your statements, each one of them, and I am truly sorry.”

After the hearing, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer called the apology a “sham.”

“Mr. DeAngelo tried to pull a fast one on all of us,” Spitzer said. “Who did he leave out? The people who say they love him. He didn’t just destroy your lives. Can you imagine being the daughter of Joseph DeAngelo going through life asking yourself if he passed on his genetic framework? … The same for his former wife, the betrayal to their marriage. … It was a sham. It was not remorseful. He failed to apologize to important people.”

Bowman said he accepted the plea bargain for the defendant, who had been facing the death penalty, because Gov. Gavin Newsom has put a moratorium on capital punishment in the state. The judge said the deal spared victims’ survivors the “unimaginable emotions by sitting through such a trial,” and “finally, taxpayers save tens of millions of dollars.”

Bowman added he was “not saying Mr. DeAngelo does not deserve to have the death penalty imposed,” but, “it will never come to pass.”

Spitzer, in a statement before sentencing, said when he got elected, he made it a priority to seek the ultimate punishment for DeAngelo.

He said he had hoped to see the killer strapped to a gurney for a lethal injection, “and watch you silently slip into the night… never again to take away anyone’s dreams you ruined or the nightmares you created. … You made it personal, and it was personal for me. I believe this person — not even a person, this beast — deserved the ultimate punishment of death.”

But Spitzer said given “the age of this case” and the problems posed to prosecutors in mounting a trial, “this was the right thing to do so we could all be here today.”

Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten said it was a “case about light and darkness.” He said the victim impact statements that began Tuesday “shined a very bright light on the magnitude of the crimes before this court and painted a picture of the immense impact these horrific crimes had on their lives,” but they also “brought to light their loved ones in doing so.”

DeAngelo, he said, represented the “darkness,” noting that he had a habit during his crimes of covering ambient light like TVs.

After the sentencing hearing, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert showed reporters recent video clips of DeAngelo in his cell, contradicting what she called a courtroom act trying to portray the defendant as a “feeble old man.” The clips showed DeAngelo at one point climbing up on a desk so he could use paper to cover some of the lights in his cell. One clip showed him exercising.

Schubert said investigators may never know whether DeAngelo stopped his crime spree in the 1980s or if there are more victims out there. But, she noted, a fellow prosecutor reminded her that the advent of DNA technology in forensics date back to 1986, so it may have been a deterrent to the defendant, who is a former police officer.

“The question needs to be posed to Mr. DeAngelo,” Schubert said.

DeAngelo’s attorneys read statements from a few of those who knew him, in an effort to show another side of the defendant. One childhood friend recalled how DeAngelo was like a sixth brother who often spent time at his home on an Air Force base and kept in touch throughout the years even after he joined the military, became a police officer and later got married.

A niece wrote a note extending the “deepest sympathy” to the victims, but saying she had trouble understanding how her loving uncle could inflict such cruelty.

“I do not know the person known as the Golden State Killer,” the niece wrote. “I know him as my Uncle Joe, who I love dearly. He was always my hero. … I always felt my uncle loved me and still does. … I feel like there’s someone else in him I don’t know.”

Finding out he was a serial killer was crushing news for her and her mother, she said.

“I no longer have trust in anyone,” the niece said. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact someone so loving and caring could do such things.”

The frail-looking defendant, seated in a wheelchair, faced survivors and relatives of his murder victims from Orange County and elsewhere in California over three days of statements that began with some of the many victims he raped when he was known as the Visalia Ransacker and then later as the East Area Rapist and original Night Stalker.

DeAngelo pleaded guilty June 29 to 13 counts of first-degree 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.

He also admitted to committing crimes for which he could no longer be prosecuted because of a statute of limitations — such as attempted murder, kidnapping to commit robbery, rape, robbery, first-degree burglary, false imprisonment and criminal threats.

The Orange County murders to which he admitted were 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.

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.

“The Golden State Killer is truly the worst of the worst,” said Harrington’s brother, Ron. “Thirteen murders, 60 rapes. The most prolific murderer-rapist ever. His crimes were so brutal, so heinous, so sadistic. He is just a violent sexual predator. Pure evil.”

Ron Harrington was critical of Newsom for putting a moratorium on executions. But he was philosophical about the plea deal, conceding the difficulties of holding a preliminary hearing that would have taken four months with many witnesses and victims now dead and a trial that would have taken 18 months.

“And we had COVID-19,” Harrington said.

Witthuhn was attacked sometime between 11 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1981, and 2 a.m. the following morning. 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.

Her husband, David, had been admitted to an area hospital due to a stomach virus, so she was alone for the night.

Witthuhn’s brother-in-law, Drew, said his brother “had to live for years under scrutiny” until DNA investigators ruled him out as a suspect in 2001.

“We’ll never really know what kind of a toll it took on him,” Drew Witthuhn said.

Cruz was killed about 5 p.m. May 5, 1986, in her bed in her Irvine home. Blood covered her head and neck and she was partially covered by her blanket. She 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.

An ultraviolet light spotlighted semen on the victim, according to Pool, who said the cause of death was “crushing skull fractures.” No murder weapon was found, but a pipe wrench was missing from the backyard.

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.

Snelling’s daughter, Elizabeth Hupp, recounted the terrifying experience when she was 16. She said her father caught him “peering through my window” twice and that he “tried to chase him down, but was unable to catch him.”

As a ski-masked DeAngelo was dragging the teen out of her home at gunpoint, Snelling heard the commotion and ran to the front door, where he was gunned down, Hupp said.

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.

McGowen’s daughter on Thursday recounted how her father, who died 15 years ago, never gave up on the case but grew hypervigilant in the ensuing years and “never traveled without a gun” and “never let his guard down.”

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.

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