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Golden State Killer's shift to Southern California remains enduring mystery even after arrest

Why did the Sacramento attacker suddenly veer south?

In decades of searching for the Golden State Killer, investigators have been puzzled by one mystery more than many of the others.

Why did the prolific attacker, who raped and killed in dozens of neighborhoods in Sacramento, the East Bay and the Central Valley, suddenly veer so far south, beginning anew in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties?

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With the arrest last week of a suspect in the notorious case, some of the questions posed by countless detectives and amateur sleuths seemed to get answers. Others, notably those relating to the Southern California slayings, so far have not.

Investigators long believed the attacker had lived in the Sacramento area. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., spent years in the city's eastern suburbs, where many of the attacks occurred in the 1970s.

A popular theory held that the attacker also had some connection to Cal State Sacramento, which appeared to be geographically central to many of the early attacks. DeAngelo had graduated from there.

Detectives also puzzled over how the attacks in Sacramento could be connected to a similar string in Visalia. Now, authorities note that DeAngelo was a police officer in the nearby town of Exeter during the Visalia attacks, then moved to the Auburn Police Department, near Sacramento.

Keith and Patrice Harrington
Keith and Patrice Harrington (KTLA)

Why the Southland?

But the connections to Southern California remain far less clear.

Authorities have not said whether they believe DeAngelo lived or worked in the region during the time of the killings, nor are they sure what might have drawn him to seemingly random locations: A hillside neighborhood in Goleta. The Northwood subdivision of Irvine. A gated community near the ocean in Dana Point.

Larry Pool, who for decades tracked the killer for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said DeAngelo does have "friends and relatives" in Southern California who might have drawn him to certain communities. But he said investigators are still not sure whether those ties line up with the areas where the victims lived.

"We're exploring the relationships between the killer and family and friends. We're exploring all the relationships in his life, and how those may have connected him to Southern California," Pool said.

He declined to elaborate because he didn't "want to taint anything with regard to" the investigation.

"We can probably say more about that farther down the road," he said.

In a sign that police are trying to build a case, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department this week issued a plea to the public for information about any sightings of DeAngelo during the period of the killings.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Sheriff's Department is reviewing cold cases to see if any unsolved crimes match the Golden State Killer's modus operandi. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is doing the same, though officials stressed there are no known homicides associated with the serial killer in L.A.

Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the lack of an obvious connection to Southern California was "very mysterious." He said killers usually strike in communities where they have roots, and speculated that the suspect might have had a job that kept him constantly moving, like a salesman or a trucker.

Or maybe he just liked to vacation in the area, Cooley said.

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Detectives have said little about the investigation beyond that they uncovered a DNA link several months ago. Cooley said the investigators will almost certainly reconstruct DeAngelo's life. "Putting him there through some other evidence corroborates the case," he said.

Article chronicle the attacks
Article chronicle the attacks (Los Angeles Times)

A reign of suburban terror

Authorities arrested DeAngelo, 72, last week, saying they had matched his DNA to crime scene evidence from the attacks that terrorized communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Police believe he raped at least 46 women and killed a young couple in the Sacramento area before heading to Southern California, where he crept into homes at night and brutally killed 10 more.

Before retiring last year, DeAngelo worked for 27 years at the Save Mart Supermarkets distribution center in Roseville, fixing its trucks. He and his wife — an attorney — raised three daughters, one a physician, another a graduate student.

DeAngelo had been fired from the Auburn Police Department in 1979 for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer, several years after the attacks began in Northern and Central California. It's unclear what he did after that, and whether his work or personal life sent him to Southern California.

Months after DeAngelo was fired, the sound of gunshots shattered the silence in Goleta, a town just north of Santa Barbara, at 3 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1979.

Sheriff's investigators said the killer had entered orthopedic surgeon Robert Offerman's home through a sliding glass door and brought a dog with him. With Offerman that night was Alexandria Manning, a clinical psychologist from Santa Maria.

The killer found them sleeping in bed. He tied their hands behind their backs with twine and killed them.

They were found the next morning by Offerman's tennis buddy, who had come to pick him up for a match.

Just four months later and 35 miles to the south, the killer struck again in Ventura. He tied up Lyman Smith, 43, and his 33-year-old wife with a drapery cord, securing it with his signature diamond knot. He then raped Charlene Smith for hours before bashing the couples' heads in with a fireplace log.

They were found the next morning by Lyman Smith's 12-year-old son.

The next four victims were killed in Orange County.

Keith and Patrice Harrington were bludgeoned to death on Aug. 19, 1980, inside the family's Dana Point home. There was no sign of forced entry, nothing was taken from their home and a weapon was never found.

Then on Feb. 5, 1981, the killer struck again in Irvine. Manuela Witthuhn, 28, was bludgeoned to death and found the following day by her father when she did not report to work.

The Golden State Killer went quiet after that — until May 4, 1986, when 18-year-old Janelle Cruz was found beaten to death in her family's Irvine home. She had just started a new job and had wanted to become a psychologist or legal secretary.

Pool said investigators still don't know why the killings stopped after that — or for sure whether they did.

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No easy answers

Those who have explored the Golden State Killer case over the years have struggled to make the connection between the Northern California and Southern California crimes. Author Michelle McNamara, in her book "I'll be Gone in the Dark," said she looked through Goleta cemetery records and Irvine high schools documents seeking clues.

Writer Michelle McNamara became obsessed with the case and spent years researching it. She wrote an article for Los Angeles magazine and was turning it into a book when she died in 2016. Her widower, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, helped complete the book, which is now a bestseller. He discussed the book recently at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Paul Holes, the now retired Contra Costa County district attorney who probed the case for years, said the reasons for the shift to Southern California remain far from clear.

Attorneys for the Los Angeles Times and several other news outlets are suing for court records related to the arrest of DeAngelo and the search of his Citrus Heights home.

The news outlets have requested that a judge unseal any executed warrants and supporting affidavits, along with lists of property seized during the investigation. The motion was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court.

Many questions remain about how investigators tracked down DeAngelo and linked him to the 12 killings between 1978 and 1986. Authorities have said they tapped into a database of DNA profiles on a genealogy website, a practice that could have significant implications for other cold cases.

Attorneys argue that the investigative technique has privacy implications for people who submit their DNA to commercial genealogical websites to trace their family history. "The importance of public access to the warrant information sought here cannot be overstated," attorneys said in the filing.

It's possible a full answer as to why the Golden State Killer moved south will prove elusive.

"You have to remember, serial killers love to troll for places to kill." Pool said. "It is a classic evolution of a serial killer."

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