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Golden State Killer suspect appears in court, handcuffed in a wheelchair

Golden State Killer suspect appears in court, handcuffed in a wheelchair
Police sketches of the suspected Golden State Killer. (FBI)

The man authorities say killed 12 people and raped dozens of women in a string of attacks across California decades ago made his first court appearance Friday.

Handcuffed in a wheelchair and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arraigned on charges that he killed a Sacramento County couple in 1978 — the first of many killings he allegedly committed between Northern California and Orange County, earning the moniker the Golden State Killer.

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He sat expressionless and occasionally closed his eyes as Judge Michael W. Sweet listed the charges against him. DeAngelo responded in a soft voice that he had a lawyer and understood the charges against him. He did not enter a plea. Sheriff's officials said he is being housed in isolation while in custody.

In addition to two murder charges in Sacramento County, he also faces two counts of murder in Ventura County and four counts of murder in Orange County.

His crimes graduated from burglaries in 1976 to rapes and murders by the time he was done in 1986, officials say.

The assailant known as the East Area Rapist and Golden State Killer stayed a step ahead of detectives during his reign of terror in California, authorities said. The planning and execution of his crimes — and the fact he was virtually impossible to identify — led authorities to believe the killer had law enforcement or military training. DeAngelo is a former police officer.

After 42 years of searching, detectives submitted old DNA evidence into a publicly accessible genealogy website to find potential relatives of the killer, prosecutors said. They then cross-referenced all of the killer's potential relatives identified on the site until it homed in on DeAngelo.

Investigators then put DeAngelo under surveillance, surreptitiously obtained two DNA samples from him and found they matched the DNA evidence from one of the killings. He was taken into custody Tuesday at his home.

The fact that detectives used commercial DNA and genealogy websites to catch a suspected serial killer from 42 years ago — after the federal criminal DNA database failed to yield results — is revelatory, said Ruth Dickover, director of UC Davis' forensic science program.

"This was a shot in the dark, definitely," Dickover said, "If that's what they did, that approach is very new and innovative and explains how they were able to crack a case when the more traditional types of DNA testing couldn't."

GEDmatch is a crowdsourcing website where the public can submit DNA and genealogy screening results they may have received from other sites such as 23AndMe and Ancestry and cross-reference those findings with other collected data for a more complete picture of their genetic background.

A relative of the suspected killer must have submitted their DNA to one of the sites at some point for authorities to have been able to use it and find him, Dickover said.

"Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in Site Policy," GEDmatch's statement said.

It continued, "While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes …. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove your DNA that has already been uploaded."

DeAngelo is charged with eight counts of murder in three counties but is believed by authorities to be responsible for another four, along with more than 46 rapes and 100 burglaries. All those crimes occurred between 1976 and 1986, many while he was a police officer in rural California cities. Books have been written about the manhunt, the FBI dedicated an entire website to the case, and many of the detectives who worked on the investigation retired or died long before a suspect was apprehended.

St. John reported from Sacramento and Serna and Winton from Los Angeles.

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For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

UPDATES:

2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details from DeAngelo's first court appearance.

This post was originally published at 10:25 a.m.

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