For victims of Golden State Killer, the horror never ended
In that time, those who survived his attacks — and the grieving loved ones of those who did not — tried to find ways to cope.
Some set out like detectives. They searched for clues that could help capture a man suspected of raping 46 women and slaying 12 people in a rampage across California.
Others looked to God and went to therapy. They installed alarms and cameras in their homes and dared not leave a door unlocked.
Jennifer Carole of Santa Cruz and her brothers liked to think that the killer of their father and stepmother was dead. This was the only way to justify his escape.
“I’ve compartmentalized it,” she said.
This month, when news came forward of the suspected serial killer’s arrest, survivors and their families found themselves feeling an onslaught of emotions.
Above all, after so many years, relief.
Margaret Wardlow was 13 years old when a man crept into her bed one winter night and tied her up.
First, she thought it was a neighbor and that it was all part of a prank.
Moments later Wardlow realized this was not someone she knew. It was someone she’d read often about in the news: the East Area Rapist.
He wore a ski mask, dark jeans and boots. When he spoke, he hid his voice in a harsh whisper:
“Do you want to die? Do you want me to kill your mother?”
“I don’t care,” Wardlow told him.
The teenager knew the East Area Rapist had not killed any of his victims. This helped her remain calm.
“You’re going to get raped, but you’re going to get out of this,” she thought. “You’re going to be OK.”
That night, from start to finish, unfolded like a dark play — one that the Golden State Killer had rehearsed many times.
He went to the family’s Sacramento home late that night in 1977. He popped open the lock on the sliding glass door and tied up Wardlow’s mother, Dolores McKeown.
Then he came for Wardlow. He tied her up with her own shoe laces and raped her.
He spent an hour and a half in her home, walking in and out of her bedroom. When she shivered from the cold, he covered her with a blanket.
At some point, the young girl heard him go into the kitchen to get a pile of plates. He then walked to her mother’s room and stacked them on her back. If the plates rattle, he told McKeown, he would kill them both.
He turned on the stove exhaust fan and the kitchen faucet. This way, his victims wouldn’t know when he left.
Decades later, Wardlow, 54, would watch this night repeat in a television reenactment about the East Area Rapist and his victims.
The program showed her rapist’s look-alike walking room to room in a house set up to look exactly like Wardlow’s.
She watched it over and over, getting more upset each time.
All she’s ever wanted was to move on.
But the rapes kept happening through the 1970s and ’80s. Everyone at school knew she had been a victim. Some kids bullied her and call her “Eastside.”
These days, Wardlow has a daughter of her own. She lives in San Diego with her husband.
Her mother is 97, and her mind is clouded by dementia.
She visited her recently and told her about the arrest. She’ll keep repeating it, she said, hoping her mother understands.
For so long, McKeown agonized that she couldn’t save her daughter.
Wardlow always assured her she was OK.
“What he did to me did not define who I was,” she said.
For more than two decades, Michelle Cruz White slept with the lights on.
She locked her bedroom door and shoved dressers against her windows.
That way, the serial killer who raped and murdered her 18-year-old sister Janelle Cruz in Irvine could not come after her, too.
The sisters were best friends, born one year and five days apart. They celebrated their birthdays together and opened Christmas presents side by side.
“When she was killed I lost my identity,” said Cruz White, who now lives in Georgia. “I had to learn who I was after she was gone.”
In 2009, she found a site online that helped her move forward.
It was a message board devoted to the Golden State Killer. The forum was filled with dozens of amateur detectives, all hunting for clues that could lead to his capture.
Soon, Cruz White, 49, became one of them.
“We need to solve the case,” she remembers thinking.
When people on the forum learned that Cruz White was related to one of the serial killer’s victims, they began to send her leads.
Strangers sent her dozens of tips about men they suspected in their own lives — roommates and former friends.
One man told her he used to break into houses with a burglar who admitted he’d been by the home of two of the victims.
Cruz White took down every tip. She also pursued her own leads.
Like the young man who tried to sell her sister a kitten near a neighborhood pool the day before she was killed.
For six years, Cruz White searched for that “Kitten Man.” She tracked him down by searching for a woman she heard he used to date. Her name was Amber and she worked at Coco’s Bakery in the 1980s.
“That was a tiring one,” she said. “I emailed a lot of Ambers.”
Over time, she taught herself to do background checks, create timelines and comb the internet for the tiniest details.
Cruz White said she investigated nearly 100 men in nine years.
“I didn’t want to die not knowing who killed Janelle,” she said.
She became so consumed with finding her sister’s killer, her detective work did not stop for Christmas Day and Easter.
Eventually she pursued a degree in criminal justice. (Today she works in security for a large company, watching surveillance cameras for potential thieves.)
The hunt came at a price.
Her family worried for their safety. Her four children, now 12 to 22 years old, hardly spent time with their mother.
“They don’t have a mother, basically,” she said. “I gave up a lot … I had to do it, I had to do it.”
When rumors began to swirl online that the killer had been arrested, Cruz White messaged an investigator right away.
Is it true there’s good news, she asked.
“Yes,” the investigator told her via email.
Cruz White bowed her head and buried her face in her hands. She wept for hours.
The following nights she hardly slept because she was too excited, too busy taking calls from old friends and family.
She no longer feels the need to lock her bedroom door.
“I don’t have to worry about this guy anymore,” Cruz White said. “When I walk outside, I know he’s not there.”
Even after Jennifer Carole’s father and stepmother were brutally killed in 1980, she and her younger brothers did just what their father taught them.
They went to grade school, then to college and soldiered on.
“In our family, you do what you’re supposed to do,” Carole, 56, said.
For 20 years, the family assumed the man who bludgeoned Lyman and Charlene Smith to death with a log was a business partner or a stalker obsessed with Charlene.
Later, they learned their parents were slain by a serial killer who was still on the loose.
Smith was a prominent lawyer known around Ventura for his busy calendar and his political aspirations. Charlene had once been his secretary.
The aspiring judge taught his kids to be civic-minded, to lead by example, Carole said.
She can still picture him on the couch, Harvey Wallbanger in hand, reading the afternoon edition of the Ventura County Star.
Her brother Gary showed up to mow the lawn at his father’s house one Sunday morning and found his parents’ bodies. He was 12.
After the killings, Carole’s mother dutifully handled her ex-husband’s affairs. That included his properties and those belonging to his wife, the woman he left her for.
“My mom’s strength was really key,” Carole said. “She didn’t flinch. She didn’t crumble.”
When they found out about the Golden State Killer, they lived in fear for some time.
Then, as usual, they moved on.
Carole would check in with police to get updates on the case.
Every time the story came up in the news, she would have vivid dreams of her father and Charlene.
In these dreams, both are still alive. She just can’t tell where they are.
“It’s like they’ve been fine this entire time and I just don’t know where he’s living,” she said.
She’s careful to not let what happened define her life, or that of her brothers.
“We still have trouble with the idea that we’re victims,” Carole said.
For years, the family imagined that the killer had died.
Last week, they found out that he lives, and investigators said his name is Joseph James DeAngelo Jr.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.