Golden State Killer: Did middle-class life provide suspect a perfect cover?
To neighbors in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, Joseph James DeAngelo appeared to lead a perfectly unremarkable middle-class existence — one that may have kept the man believed to be the Golden State Killer from drawing suspicion for decades.
The Navy veteran and registered Democrat had recently retired from a 27-year career as a truck mechanic in nearby Roseville, and he shared his modest ranch home with one of his three daughters and a grandchild.
The former police officer kept meticulous care of his small front lawn — even getting down on his hands and knees to trim the grass around three decorative boulders — and occupied his free time with remote-controlled airplanes, a fishing boat and a dual-sport motorcycle.
But these trappings of the American dream hid a dark secret, according to authorities. From 1978 to 1986, he killed 12 people in attacks ranging from Rancho Cordova in Sacramento County to Irvine and Dana Point in Orange County, officials say. In Ventura, he allegedly tied up a couple with a drapery cord and raped the wife before fatally bludgeoning them with a fireplace log. In Goleta, he bound a doctor and his wife, a clinical psychologist, and shot them both, authorities say.
On Tuesday, authorities swept into DeAngelo’s quiet subdivision and arrested the 72-year-old as he was mowing his lawn. As he was taken into custody, DeAngelo told officers he had meat cooking in the oven.
The arrest, based on DNA evidence, stunned DeAngelo’s co-workers and family members.
“I’m pretty much in shock,” said a sobbing Becky Thompson, DeAngelo’s sister. “I’m in disbelief. It’s difficult to think about.”
Thompson said she holds out a hope that police are mistaken about her brother, whom she regarded as “the kindest, gentlest man” with his children. “I have prayed hard that some of this isn’t true,” she said.
Newspaper articles and interviews with relatives paint a portrait of a man who was surrounded by accomplished or high-achieving women.
The woman he married, Sharon Huddle, obtained a law degree in 1982 and has drawn national attention for her work in family law. Of his three daughters, one is a physician practicing at a Roseville emergency room. Another is a graduate student.
A New York native, DeAngelo graduated from Folsom Senior High School in 1964 and joined the Navy that September, according to an article in the Exeter Sun. He did his Naval 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 in Rocklin, and earned an associate of arts degree in police science in 1970, according to a newspaper article dated that year. He went on to Cal State Sacramento and received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
He joined the police department in Exeter in 1973, according to an article in the Exeter Sun that year.
“James DeAngelo Jr. believes that without law and order there can be no government and without a democratic government here can be no freedom,” the article reads. “Law enforcement is his career, he says, and his job is serving the community.”
DeAngelo also married Huddle that year, according to a 1973 announcement in the Auburn Journal.
One of the most chilling aspects of the case, investigators said, was their belief that that the killer might have been a cop.
“It was a lot more than a hunch,” said Wendell Phillips, a former Sacramento County deputy who was part of a team assigned to the original investigation. “There was no doubt he was either military or law enforcement or both. Police have tactics that are designed to isolate people so they can catch them, and he knew how to handle that.”
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office had a “good-sized unit hunting him every night,” Phillips said, but the killer was cunning. As surveillance teams would search through an area, he would go into “the biggest, thickest, nastiest bush he could find” and find a way to hide. Phillips said the man would cover himself with leaves as camouflage
“The search would go right over the top of him,” he said.
Deputies thought the killer must have been a Boy Scout or in the Navy because he tied diamond knots when he bound his victims.
For the three years DeAngelo worked as a police officer in Exeter, the police were befuddled by a spree of home ransackings and attacks in nearby Visalia, some 10 miles away. The culprit, who wore a mask, was dubbed the Visalia Ransacker. The incidents stopped in 1975 however, the year before DeAngelo moved to another job with the Auburn police.
DeAngelo’s police career there ended ignominiously. He was dismissed after a clerk caught him shoplifting a hammer and a can of dog repellent at a Pay N’ Save Store in Citrus Heights, according to local reports at the time. A jury found DeAngelo guilty of misdemeanor shoplifting in 1979, and he was given a $100 fine and six months’ probation.
Eventually, DeAngelo found work as a truck mechanic. Victoria Castro, a spokeswoman for Save Mart Supermarkets, said he worked in their Roseville distribution center and retired last year after 27 years. “None of his actions in the workplace would have led us to suspect any connection to crimes being attributed to him,” Castro said. “We are working with the Sacramento County district attorney’s office on their investigation.”
There were, however, those who found DeAngelo a bit odd.
Natalia Bedes-Correnti, who lives across the street from DeAngelo’s home, said she and her husband gave him a nickname after they realized he had a disturbing habit of swearing loudly whenever something annoyed him. Those things included misplacing his keys or finding something out of place.
“We had nicknamed him ‘Freak,’ my husband and I. He used to have temper tantrums,” she said. “A lot of the neighbors know that about Joe — that he was a screamer and a curser.”
Aside from the swearing, Bedes-Correnti said DeAngelo did little to attract attention. She did note however that he took a deep interest in his lawn.
“He was outside a lot. He was very meticulous about his yard,” she said. “He had some decorative rocks on the lawn. He’d get down on his hands and knees and trim around each rock by hand. And he mowed. He kept up that lawn meticulously.”
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