A former police officer who terrorised California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to murders attributed to the Golden State Killer.
Joseph James DeAngelo Jr had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he repeatedly uttered the words ‘guilty’ and ‘I admit’ as part of a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.
DeAngelo, 74, did not cooperate with authorities. But he muttered a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an alter ego named ‘Jerry’ that he said forced him to commit the wave of crimes that appeared to end abruptly in 1986.
‘I did all that,’ DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said.
‘I didn’t have the strength to push him out,’ DeAngelo said. ‘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.’
While prosecutors suggested DeAngelo had been faking a split-personality, Ho said his day of reckoning had arrived.
‘The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,’ Ho said. ‘Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.’
There’s no escaping now. DeAngelo, seated in a wheelchair on a makeshift stage in a university ballroom that could accommodate more than 150 observers at a safe distance during the coronavirus pandemic, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and dozens of rapes that were too old to prosecute.
All told, he admitted to 161 crimes involving 48 people, Ventura County district attorney Greg Totten said.
DeAngelo listed to one side and his mouth hung open as prosecutors read graphic details of the rapes and killings.
DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on investigators’ radar until just before his arrest.
Investigators didn’t connect a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California until about a decade after the last killing and eventually settled on the Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.
Police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They tailed DeAngelo and secretly collected DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant.
The retired truck mechanic was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburbs — the same area he terrorised in the mid-1970s, earning the title East Area Rapist.
Prosecutors detailed sadistic acts he committed after slipping into homes undetected and surprising couples in bed by shining a flashlight in their faces and threatening to kill everyone in the house if they didn’t follow his orders.
The masked prowler initially said he only wanted their money to earn their cooperation. He would have women bind their husbands or boyfriends face down in bed, and then he would tie up the women. Victims described being prodded by the barrel of a gun or the point of a knife.
He piled dishes on the backs of men and said they would both be killed if he heard the plates crash while he raped the women.
At a home in Contra Costa County in the fall of 1978, he told a woman he would cut her baby boy’s ear off if she didn’t perform oral sex after he had raped her.
‘I admit,’ DeAngelo said after the prosecutor read the description of that crime.
He stole whatever he could find. He slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and even evaded police who at times believed they came close to catching him.
DeAngelo knew the territory well.
He started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he committed his first killing.
DeAngelo was among the officers trying to find a serial burglar in the neighboring city of Visalia responsible for about 100 break-ins.
Community college professor Claude Snelling was killed by the suspected ‘Visalia Ransacker’ after trying to prevent him from kidnapping his 16-year-old daughter.
After three years on the force, DeAngelo moved back to the Sacramento area, where he worked for the Auburn Police Department in the Sierra foothills until 1979 when he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer — two items that could be of use to a burglar.
DeAngelo killed a couple walking their dog in a Sacramento suburb in 1978, but the majority of murders came after he moved to Southern California.
Orange County district attorney Todd Spitzer choked up as family members of the victims stood during his description of each of the four killings there. Spitzer, who wiped a tear at one point, diverged from other prosecutors to address DeAngelo directly when discussing the May 5, 1986, rape and slaying of Janelle Cruz, 18 — the final killing.
‘You attacked her, you beat her and you raped her,’ Spitzer said. ‘You murdered her in the first-degree, bludgeoning her in the face.’
A guilty plea and life sentence avoids lengthy and expensive litigation. Victims will be able to confront DeAngelo during a lengthy sentencing hearing beginning August 17.
Victims began to stand in the audience as accounts of their attacks were read. Nearly two dozen were on their feet in solidarity as a prosecutor from Sacramento — where most of his sexual assaults took place — detailed each case.
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