Some of the world’s most heinous crimes are meticulously planned out. While many are crimes of passion or opportunity, some are planned out by those who wish to reign terror over the people in their community. Sometimes, the biggest threat to your livelihood is the man who lives next door.
Dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” Joseph James DeAngelo spent years horrifying different individuals and couples throughout the Bay Area and Southern California between 1975 and 1986. He wreaked havoc on the lives of innocent people, showing no remorse along the way. His gruesome methods of committing his crimes seemed so personal, but his victims were all strangers.
Who Was the Golden State Killer?
Before being called the “Golden State Killer,” his crimes were given a series of other titles. Everyone knew it was the same person; they just didn’t have a singular label for the monster committing these crimes. He was known as the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker, and many other titles.
He was given the name of the “Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara, an American true crime author. As the New York Times wrote, “she hunted and was haunted by the Golden State Killer.” McNamara published a book on the hunt for this mysterious killer, entitled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Who Is Joseph James DeAngelo?
Joseph James DeAngelo spent years menacing his unsuspecting neighbors in northern California’s bay area, as well as other average households throughout Southern California. He was a former U.S. Navy man and was fired as a police officer in the Sacramento area. He committed some of the most terrifying crimes in California’s history.
In California, he committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries across the state. He had strange habits while he committed his heinous acts, such as taking a break in the middle of an assault to make himself something to eat in his victim’s kitchen.
The Start of It All
Between 1973 and 1979, Joseph James DeAngelo was working as a police officer. He started his career after his time in the Navy was complete. After beginning in Exeter, California, he transferred to nearby Auburn. He committed his first murder in 1975 while working as an officer, but not while in uniform.
His first murder was Professor Claude Snelling, who was shot and killed in front of his daughter in Visalia, California. Snelling was killed while trying to protect his daughter, who was kicked in the face three times by the assailant. While DeAngelo wasn’t caught in this case for years, his days as a cop were numbered.
You’re Fired, DeAngelo!
DeAngelo was fired from his role as a police officer, but not for what you may think. You might expect him to have been fired for the senseless murder of Claude Snelling, or maybe even for the atrocious acts of sexual violence he committed against innocent women, but that is still not what ended his career in law enforcement.
He was fired for shoplifting very basic items from a Pack’ N Save. He tried to steal dog repellant, as well as a hammer. Why on earth was he trying to steal a simple hammer? And why was he trying to steal dog repellant? He resisted arrest and was rather aggressive with the store clerk holding him down.
Tying Him Down
When DeAngelo was committing petty theft at his local Pack’ N Save (while working as an officer, no less), the store clerk who detained him was a young working at the store while waiting for an appointment with the Sacramento Police Department’s training academy for new officers.
That store clerk went on to become now-retired Sacramento police detective Jeff Gardner. He told reporters at the Sacramento Bee that DeAngelo resisted arrest and tried to fight back while they waited for the sheriff and his team to arrive at the scene. When he later became a police officer and investigated the case, he was surprised to discover that it was DeAngelo.
DeAngelo continually instilled fear in his victims, even long after committing his crimes. He would call the phone lines of his surviving victims and just breathe into the phone before saying some truly terrifying things. He would call his victims and repeat through gritted teeth – “I’m gonna kill you… I’m gonna KILL you….”
Sadism in itself, by definition, involves deriving pleasure from someone else’s pain. That’s what DeAngelo did to his victims; if he kept them alive, he did whatever he could to make them squirm until the very last moment. That was his act – he tortured them, even after the crime was committed.
It All Started Quickly
The Golden State Killer started committing crimes against Sacramento residents and the nearby Bay Area while he was still working as a police officer. He would break into the homes of unsuspecting individuals, starting with burglaries and sexual violence.
He stalked his prey meticulously, often for weeks, before making a move. His serial killing tendencies didn’t start until later, and it was noted that the majority of his murders began not long after he was fired from his post as a police officer. When he stalked, he learned everything there was to know about someone before attacking.
His M.O. Will Shock You
Starting in the summer of 1976, the eastern district of Sacramento County began being menaced by DeAngelo, though they did not know this at the time. He would break into homes by prying open a window that was already locked, removing a screen from a door or window.
He broke into these homes in the middle of the night wearing a ski mask, often leather, and usually not wearing pants. He would shine a flashlight in the face of his victims directly to disorient them before he attacked. His days as a police officer helped him learn the best way to stake out the people he planned to attack.
He Got to Know His Victims
No, he wasn’t taking them to dinner, hoping to learn about how many siblings the victim had and what they wanted to be when they grew up. He already knew those things about his victims; he would pick people out who he knew would be home alone. He knew their names, their family members, and so much more.
D’Angelo learned more about his victims than you’d think. He would stake out these people for weeks in advance. He would get to know their home by breaking in and scoping out the scene prior. He would sometimes even leave weapons in hiding places throughout the house before entering.
He Knew Details About Their Lives
DeAngelo’s victims did not usually have much in common; usually just their neighborhood and gender. He frequently went for younger victims, with some as young as 13 years old. In one case, he tried to make himself seem like an addict since he knew the victim’s father was a doctor. He told her to tell him where the “doctor pills” were.
He made a big scene of shaking the pills out and running water (for some reason). We know that he did not ingest any of these medications, even for recreational purposes, because even after he left home, he ditched the bag of soaking wet pills in a bush at a nearby neighbor’s house.
The Items He Stole
He would often break in and tell the victims that he would not kill them – that he just wanted their money. Sometimes he would take trophies from his victims, like jewelry, identification, cash, coins, and anything else of value that he could get his hands on.
In one case, he broke into the home of a woman whose husband had just left for the day to go to work at the local Air Force base. He attacked a woman while her young son snuggled up with her in bed at 6:30 in the morning. DeAngelo came into the home and removed her son from the room, taking the boy’s piggy bank with him.
He Cooked Meals
A strange part of his M.O. was related to food. When he broke into these homes, he would get to know the home’s layout, down to the food and supplies found in the kitchen. He would often stop his violent acts in the middle and cook a full meal for himself.
For a while, media officials reported on how this criminal was only attacking women. DeAngelo saw this as a challenge, as well as an invitation to harass the people surrounding him. He wanted to show that he could harm anyone he wanted to and was happy to prove the world wrong.
He tormented couples, too. He didn’t always murder them, either. Two couples got away, including Bob and Gay Hardwick. DeAngelo separated the pair, putting them in different rooms. He stacked plates on Bob’s back, telling him that if he moved, both he and his wife would be killed.
The Hardwick Attack
Gay and Bob Hardwick were a young couple in their late twenties Who were soon to be married. He was a divorce lawyer living in Stockton, California when they were attacked. They became the 31st and 32nd victims of DeAngelo and were lucky enough to walk away from it. Bob couldn’t bear to know that his fiancé was being assaulted in just the next room.
“I was the same way as any other man, that Gay was the real, the real victim,” Hardwick told the Los Angeles Times. “I felt bad that I couldn’t do anything about it.” In their interview with 20/20, Gay described how their home was never the same again; their peaceful sanctuary became the exact opposite of that.
The Town Hall
As DeAngelo terrorized his community in secret, everyone around him was writhing with discomfort. They were terrified of what was to come next. Naturally, no one wanted to be the next victim. During this community meeting, one man stepped up to say that it wouldn’t happen to him – he would shoot the perpetrator.
Little did anyone know, DeAngelo was sitting in that same meeting. He sat in the forum, learning about the fear he had instilled into people, and clearly, this satisfied him. The man who stood up and spoke his mind would be met with an untimely fate.
The Follow Up
The man who stood up at the community meeting, claiming it would be easy to stand up to this mysterious stalker of the night, would soon be met with a terrible fate. DeAngelo already had sights set on this man, so he was able to plan accordingly. After the meeting was over, he followed the couple home.
It is unclear how long it was between the man speaking out at the meeting and DeAngelo’s attack on the man and his wife. The man who criticized the investigation said something else along the lines of “how can anyone get away with raping a woman in front of her husband?” which ignited a spark in DeAngelo’s mind. They were attacked on May 17th, 1977.
A Creep in the Neighborhood
When you think of what you might do in the case of a neighborhood prowler entering your home in the dead of night, would you pull out a gun and shoot the assailant? What if the criminal had already staked out your home and knew more about you than you could have possibly known?
In the case of the couple from the meeting, the man went to grab his gun from his nightstand, only to learn that DeAngelo had not only already located the weapon but had unloaded it to take away the extra level of protection. The Golden State Killer somehow managed to stay a step ahead of his victims and law enforcement.
The Creepiest Guy Around
DeAngelo took many victims. The first of which, though she survived, received awful treatment. His first victim woke up to the usual flashlights in her eyes, but she got something more. What he did to kick off his crime will make your skin crawl.
This first victim was woken up in the middle of the night, as most of them would be. He started calling out her name and stood in the doorway, blocking any kind of exit. He continued to call her name and kept tapping the doorpost of the room… with a knife. How spooky is that?
“Bonnie Hates When I Do This”
Bonnie Colwell was engaged to DeAngelo for a while, not too long before starting his serial killing days. While assaulting a victim, he reportedly whimpered in the corner and cried, saying, “Bonnie hates when I do this.” It didn’t make sense until years later, and they were able to connect DeAngelo to his former fiancé.
In the HBO documentary, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Colwell reflected on her relationship with DeAngelo. She admitted to watching him kill several animals and how frequently he “pushed [me] toward fear.” His toxic and abusive behavior started coming out of the woodwork, and she knew she had to call off the engagement before she was a victim, too.
If we didn’t know that DeAngelo was a serial murderer and rapist, I might have said that his preferences for intimacy are up to him – everyone has a different style, after all. However, we know that he is not one for consent. Everything about this got weird.
Colwell confirmed that, when in bed, DeAngelo wanted only to have relations while they listened to The Doors.” Victims of his later reported that he didn’t even seem like he was getting any pleasure from committing the assaults. The most enjoyable part, to him, seemed to be the coercing of his victims.
Pressure on Bonnie
After noticing strange behavior from her fiancé and feeling continuous pressure – specifically after an instance when he kept trying to get her to cheat on a test –she confirmed (in the docuseries) that even when she said no, he told her she had to do it.
Colwell had enough and gave him his ring back. Just when she thought she was done with him, she awoke one night to DeAngelo pointing a gun at her through the window to her room. He demanded that she get dressed. They were going to Reno and would be married right then and there.
While Colwell was engaged to DeAngelo, she was still living at home with her parents. After she pulled back her thin curtains to find DeAngelo there with a gun, she managed to run out of her room to get her father. He was able to help deescalate the situation.
Her father insisted that she stay in the bathroom while he goes to sort everything out. A while later, she found that DeAngelo was gone. She never managed to hear her father’s explanation of what happened when he spoke with him. Naturally, she was spooked by the interaction. She even dropped out of school for a month and changed majors to avoid DeAngelo.
Spotlight on the Victims
It is believed that most of his murders began after he was fired from the police department. It would make sense – he had a lot of built-up anger and resentment that he wanted to release. In February 1978, DeAngelo shot and killed a couple in the Sacramento area. They were just out walking their poodle.
Brian and Katie Maggiore were attacked out of the blue by the Golden State Killer. Brian was shot first, as the couple was running away to safety. Katie tried running for help, but DeAngelo caught up to her and shot her in the head as well.
Methods of Murder
One of the main methods he was known for in his murders was clubbing his victims to death. Keith and Patrice Harrington were a young couple found bludgeoned to death in their home in a gated community in Dana Point, California. They were newlyweds, fresh with excitement for their lives together.
The couple was found in their home on Cockleshell Drive in the Niguel Shores gated community. Keith was a medical student at UC Irvine in the Newport Beach area of Orange County. Patrice was a nurse, and the two were found bound at the wrists and ankles by an attacker known for a while as the “Original Night Stalker.”
Manuela Witthuhn was a German-born beautiful young woman who was living with her husband in Irvine, California. She was still not entirely used to life in America, despite having lived there for much of her young life. DeAngelo attacked her while her husband was in the hospital with a viral infection.
He attacked her in the dead of night as she retired for the evening – her father was worried about her staying alone, so he had offered to bring their German Shepard over to make her feel better. She declined, and hours later, when her husband could not get in touch with her, Manuela’s mother rushed to check on her. She found her dead in a sleeping bag.
The Beginning of the End
For a few years, between July 1981 and May 1986, the Golden State Killer went quiet. In May 1986, he murdered his last known victim. Janelle Cruz was just 18 years old when she was found bound, along with all of the other tell-tale signs, and murdered in the comfort of her own home.
Her case went cold for decades. There would be no justice for Janelle, for Cheri Domingo, and Gregory Sanchez. There would be no justice for Lyman and Charlene Smith, who was also murdered in the comfort of their own homes. Or at least – that’s what they thought. Justice for these victims was around the corner.
Something to Tie Him To
It isn’t apparent how DeAngelo came back up on the investigator’s radar, but police decided to start looking into him again when his name came up in reference to the case in 2018. When he began his crime spree, DNA testing was nowhere near as successful as it is today. They had more resources now.
He was finally caught because someone in his family, somewhere along the line, submitted their DNA to a genetic genealogy site – one of those that helps people learn more about their family tree and heritage (though confirmed not to be 23 and Me, nor Ancestry.com). This technique was also new to the police.
Modern Genealogy Testing
Investigators identified DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer by connecting his DNA from a tissue left in the trash, collected after a ton of surveillance. They plugged his discarded DNA into their genealogy database and came back with a match with the DNA that was found the many, many crime scenes.
DeAngelo was arrested in April 2018 at his home in Citrus Heights, in Sacramento County. After he was taken into custody, he began repeating to himself in the interview room, “I did all those things. I destroyed all those lives,” which was used in court against him. Since his arrest, over 150 suspects have been identified through the same process.
The Guy Next Door
Sonja Langdon is a resident of Rancho Cordova, California. She grew up in the Bay area and was terrified of the man known as the Original Night Stalker, the East Area Rapist, and all of his other names. She lived in constant fear with her family and neighbors but never could have known what her future would bring.
Years and years later, long after the dust had settled and she wasn’t actively worrying about him and his acts, she learned some shocking news. She knew that a murder had occurred somewhere on her street in the past; she could never have guessed that her next-door neighbor, Joseph James DeAngelo, whom she lived next to for years, was the man she’d feared forever: The Golden State Killer!
The End of It All
On June 29th, 2020, DeAngelo officially pleaded guilty to his crimes committed as the Golden State Killer. He pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder, and ABC News reported that his plea deal required that he admit to uncharged crimes that were described in horrific detail by prosecutors.
The death penalty was taken off the table, but we know that he will spend the rest of his natural-born days in jail. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and he will remain in prison until the end of his days. At least now, the world can sleep soundly; we no longer have to fear the mysterious Golden State Killer.