At night, after residents in the Rancho Cordova neighborhood of Sacramento had gone to bed, he would open the kitchen or sliding glass door and quietly strike.
As he entered, he made sure to first plot out his escape and then often headed for the bedroom — where he would linger and watch unsuspecting homeowners sleep. Along the way, he’d grab purses and wallets and sometimes seek out special trinkets like coin collections, car magnets and photos of female residents.
In 1972 and 1973, in this eastern part of Sacramento, this prolific cat burglar struck more than 30 times.
Now decades later, investigators are increasingly convinced Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., who has been charged with 12 murders across the state, was this cat burglar. They believe this is where the man they now accuse of being the prolific Golden State Killer got his start, graduating over the next 14 years to increasingly violent and ultimately deadly crimes.
Was this the beginning?
If true, this would place the beginning of the string of crimes earlier than detectives previously believed. Though DeAngelo has not been charged with any of the Cordova cat burglaries, authorities said they are part of the investigation. Authorities say DeAngelo is responsible for a series of crimes that went under various names including the East Area Rapist, Visalia Ransacker, Original Night Stalker and Golden State Killer.
Sacramento detectives and experts in profiling these types of criminals say that not every peeping Tom becomes a serial killer, but that a progression from seemingly less violent crimes to, say, murder or sexual assault is not uncommon.
“Lots of serial killers develop gradually. A lot of them start with lesser offenses, develop to sex offenses and eventually murder,” said James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University and author of “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.”
In addition, investigators have long believed that given DeAngelo’s age, the crimes he is accused of committing in Visalia were not his first series of alleged burglaries. While they are focused heavily on proving the more horrific crimes — including homicide and rape — the investigators are now reconstructing DeAngelo’s entire life, according to a person familiar with investigation details but not authorized to discuss them.
A New York native, DeAngelo graduated from Folsom Senior High School near Sacramento in 1964 and joined the Navy that September. He did his training in San Diego before serving in combat on the cruiser Canberra off the coast of North Vietnam. After the Navy, DeAngelo attended Sierra College and Cal State Sacramento, where he received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1972. That was the same year the Cordova burglaries began a few miles away.
DeAngelo made his way down from Northern California and began working at the Exeter Police Department in 1973. Exeter is miles away from the tiny town of Visalia, where he allegedly committed what is believed to be his first killing.
“There is a strong possibility he is the Cordova cat burglar,” said Paul Holes, a forensic criminologist who spent years on the Golden State Killer investigation and is credited with using genealogy websites to pinpoint DeAngelo.
“He is going and doing the crimes in Cordova as the cat burglar before he goes down to Visalia. Whether we will be able to prove he is the cat burglar depends. We are talking about hundreds of crimes here over decades attributed to one man.”
In one particularly chilling episode in Rancho Cordova, which was incorporated as its own city in 2003, a sleeping woman was awakened to find a man standing by the door to her bedroom, according to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department website.
After she sat up in bed, the man said, “I just took a dollar off your dresser.”
The unidentified victim asked him to leave and not take the money. The man complied and left two dollars on the dresser before leaving. He walked down the hallway and stared at the victim’s 17-year-old daughter, and before he walked out of the house, he grabbed a quarter and a nickel off a table near the door, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
After one of these burglaries, a witness told investigators that they saw a suspect departing from one home in a green Opel sedan.
The descriptions of these burglaries, which don’t always include the date and exact address of the crime, come from a website put together by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department this year in an attempt to develop new leads about the murders of Brian and Katie Maggiore in 1978.
A similar pattern
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shaun Hampton said in an email that physical evidence and the suspect’s modus operandi were used to tie the Cordova cat burglaries to the East Area Rapist. He declined to answer follow-up questions on exactly when and where these crimes occurred.
During his string of burglaries the suspect was known to kill small dogs by blunt force as well, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
“When you have a cat burglar, there’s likely a different motive,” Sacramento County Sheriff’s Det. Ken Clark told a true-crime podcast about the investigation in February.
“It’s going to more likely be a sexual motivation, a desire to be in and among people that are not awake. There’s a thrill to operating in an environment where people are sleeping around you. These burglars have tended to be those who sometimes went on to commit much more serious crimes.”
Fox, the criminology professor, describes it as a kind of graduation theory, adding it is likely that the suspect initially got a thrill crawling through the neighborhoods as a cat burglar and watching, and that evolved to touching, confrontation, controls and sexual violence before finally moving to murder.
‘Develop over time’
“It is a matter of comfort,” Fox said. “Raping and killing people isn’t an easy task. But these killers over time develop systems and become less adverse.”
In the case of the Cordova cat burglaries, the suspect would hit several homes in a given night, according to the Sheriff’s Department. In several instances, the cat burglar would take only money and then leave the purses or wallets nearby.
“Occasionally they were left elsewhere in groups with other victims’ property from the same night,” according to the Sheriff’s Department website.
In another instance, the suspect fondled the breasts of an unidentified woman while she slept, but when she woke up and told him to leave, he complied.
These burglaries began in earnest in 1972, and at the end of that year there was a momentary drop-off. Then, by the spring of 1973, the suspect began again, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
But the next year, more than 200 miles away in Visalia, a serial criminal began working. From April 1974 to December 1975, the Visalia Ransacker prowled this small town’s streets and burglarized about 100 homes, local police said.
Like in Rancho Cordova, the ransacker would stick around for an hour or maybe two in some cases. He would also ignore most valuable items and instead go after trinkets and photos.
The burglaries escalated in September 1975, when Claude Snelling, a journalism professor at the College of the Sequoias, was fatally shot outside his home on South Whitney Lane. Snelling had awoken to a sound coming from outside the house and found a masked man kidnapping his teenage daughter.
The suspect in that case pulled a stolen handgun and escaped after opening fire, leaving the girl behind. After last month’s arrest of DeAngelo, the Visalia Police Department said it believes the ransacker and the Golden State Killer are the same man.
“Unfortunately that progression is something I’ve seen a lot of times,” said former FBI profiler Clinton Van Zandt.
May 11, 12:00 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify when DeAngelo began working in the Exeter Police Department
May 10, 3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the number of killings DeAngelo has been charged with.
This article was originally published May 10 at 8:20 a.m.