There was a man in the window.
The boy in the bed could see him, a head hanging over the eaves, the tassled top of a knit cap bobbing. And he could hear him, thudding on the roof.
Then came the sweep of a flashlight beam across his bedroom.
The terrified 4-year-old ran to his parents’ bed.
It wasn’t until morning that Inspector Richard Shelby woke to the story from his son.
Shelby was a lead detective on the East Area Rapist case. There was no question in his mind who had been on his roof. His Rancho Cordova home was in the heart of where the EAR — as the police called him — was operating; in fact, the rapist would later stage his 44th assault just four blocks away.
What Shelby didn’t know was whether the rapist knew he lived in that house. Was he casing his next victim or targeting the detective trying to catch him?
It was May 1977, a month in which five attacks would be reported. The month the rapist began to openly taunt police.
“Tell those [expletive], those pigs,” the EAR swore that month between clenched teeth in his 21st home invasion rape, “if I hear about this I’m going to go out tomorrow night and kill two people. People are going to die.”
Women were terrified
Center for Sacramento History
Another detective on the case, Carol Daly, was tasked with taking victim statements at the crime scene. After one attack, she arrived at a house and recognized the husband of the rape victim. Seven months earlier, he had stood up at a crowded community meeting to berate police for failing to catch the rapist.
With few exceptions, Daly interviewed every woman in Sacramento raped by the serial attacker. They told of two- and even three-hour nightmares in which couples were bound, threatened with maiming and death, the women repeatedly sexually assaulted.
Daly kept styled wigs at the ready so that when the predawn call came she could roll with composure.
Her way with rape victims instilled trust, made them feel safe despite their bathrobes, the crime not yet washed off their bodies, their wrists still raw and their homes filled with officers dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence.
To Daly they confided the horrific details, every sexual position used, the size of his penis, his words, his smell. Her reports were exhaustive narrations of terror.
Then she took them to the hospital for the rape exam, and back home, or, if they were nauseated from the long night, through the drive-in for a breakfast sandwich.
With the 21st attack, the month the prowler appeared on Shelby’s roof, he made it clear police were also his target.
The sheriff’s department installed a floor mat at Daly’s house wired to the city’s police department.
Her kids tripped the alarm. The dogs tripped the alarm. After three days, Daly grew tired of rushing to the phone to stop city police before they swarmed her lawn, Code 3 with guns drawn. She asked for the alarm to be removed.
The East Area Rapist came uncomfortably close anyway. He raped a 15-year-old babysitter a short walk from Daly’s house, in an upscale river subdivision far from his usual territory.
Daly took that call too, comforted the terrified, embarrassed girl, drove her home for fresh clothes and to the hospital to be examined.
The sheriff’s department came under immense pressure from angry citizens. The sheriff leaned on Daly, putting her out front at standing-room-only community forums to calm the public.
At first she urged women to lock their doors and, if they found themselves assaulted, to fight. “Don’t be polite, ladies,” she said.
Injure to incapacitate.
Det. Carol Daly told women to defend themselves
Center for Sacramento History
Later, Daly urged women against struggling. Comply with the rapist’s demands, she said. He’s too dangerous.
But Daly was not allowed to share all the details with the public — such as his stalking patterns.
The terror fed into larger social and political tensions. An angry women’s group marched against the politically vulnerable sheriff, demanding to know more, demanding the installation of a 911 emergency service. Spilling over to the Capitol lawn, they demanded tougher laws against rape. The cause was picked up by George Deukmejian, a Republican senator from Long Beach who parlayed anti-crime legislation to win election as attorney general, then governor. And a turf war broke out between the sheriff’s department and Sacramento’s first rape crisis center; the sheriff persuaded the state to cut the center’s funding while his department publicly accused the rape counselors of being “anti-male” and “lesbian.”
In the heart of the storm, Daly was frustrated — and overwhelmed.
“Sometimes I … cannot even imagine the fear, the long hours of waiting for the rapist to go away, the fight to get free,” she would later say.
“Being blindfolded, bound tightly, fear running through your thoughts, stomachs on fire with fear and having to lie there for so long.”
In bed at night, she closed her eyes and imagined opening them to the blinding flashlight of the East Area Rapist.
She woke each morning expecting her next call to be a homicide.
Wherever the attacks occurred, Joe DeAngelo was nearby.
During the reign of the Visalia Ransacker, he was in the town next door, Exeter. When the Sacramento-area attacks began, he’d moved back into the region, joining the police department in Auburn.
It was a homecoming of sorts. His mother had left Rancho Cordova for Auburn and was a popular waitress in the river town. His stepfather built a ranch on the outskirts atop the river bluffs, not far from the farm where DeAngelo had courted his college classmate, Bonnie.
DeAngelo worked swing shifts and parade duty. He collared kids for delinquency and ticketed a woman for parking illegally at the farmers market.
Nick Willick, who as a lieutenant hired DeAngelo, recalled his Auburn duty as unremarkable. “No significant arrests. No significant citations,” Willick said. The other officers dubbed him “Junk Food Joey” for the chips and soda he craved. He tried to be friendly but stood too close, so they joked, “Oh, he’s Italian!”
Nick Willick describes DeAngelo
When a resident complained to Willick about DeAngelo’s “attitude,” Willick sat in his cruiser to watch DeAngelo write a minor citation. He saw DeAngelo step close to the man, who backed away. DeAngelo pressed even closer.
Willick pulled DeAngelo aside to tell him his demeanor made people uneasy, but it also was unsafe, creating the opportunity for someone to grab his gun. He and other supervisors delivered other basic policing lectures to DeAngelo, and one wrote him up for slipping away while he was supposed to be on patrol. DeAngelo’s excuse was that he had gone home for coffee.
“He did not take criticism well,” Willick said. “He wouldn’t get angry. He would pout like a little kid, and he’d sulk.”
Then, in July 1979, two hardware store clerks caught DeAngelo shoplifting.
They wrestled him into a back room, tied him to a chair and pulled a hammer and a can of dog repellent from his pockets.
Willick, by then Auburn’s police chief, fired DeAngelo on the spot. The disgraced officer countered with a work-related injury claim against the city, alleging the police chief harassed him to the point of mental duress.
Shortly after, Willick woke to find his 4-year-old daughter sleeping on the floor beside his bed. Melissa Willick said she had been frightened awake by the sight of a man at her bedroom window, shining a flashlight.
The police chief checked and found footprints beneath his daughter’s windows. But the house was new, with carpenters still finishing detail work, and the chief thought that perhaps the footprints were theirs.
Willick didn’t think more about it until a city insurance adjuster investigating DeAngelo’s stress claim told him the fired officer had been required to meet a therapist — and confided that in his distress he had gone to the chief’s house with a gun.
In a voice so soft and low the therapist had trouble hearing him, DeAngelo said he intended to kill Willick. But he couldn’t find the window for the chief’s bedroom.
The chief did not investigate. Willick said he was certain the tale was fabricated to boost DeAngelo’s case for disability pay, “part of a ploy by Joe.”
But Willick’s young daughter remained fearful for years. Her mother would sometimes find the child asleep by the toilet, afraid to traverse the dark house back to bed.
An escalation in the violence was expected by investigators. Worried psychologists warned Shelby, Daly and the other detectives the rapist felt “a strong need” to kill.
The first shootings did not appear to be planned: the father killed while protecting his daughter in Visalia, a teen boy in the Sacramento suburbs shot in the stomach while pursuing a backyard prowler, and, in 1978, a young couple in Rancho Cordova slain while walking their poodle. They had surprised a prowler, who dropped a pre-tied shoelace ligature in his flight.
After the last two deaths, the rapist left Sacramento. He struck in towns west and south along the freeways, and victims said he was increasingly unstable, often gasping for air during his attacks and at times weeping, cursing “Mommy” and, one time, “Bonnie,” the name of Joe DeAngelo’s former fiancee.
Then the EAR was caught off guard. In the last reported attack, a Danville couple awoke July 6, 1979, to find a man in their bedroom. Instead of complying in fear, they jumped up and shouted at him, then ran out of their house.
Three weeks later, DeAngelo was arrested for shoplifting.
Aug. 29, 1979
Caught with a hammer and dog repellent
DeAngelo was fired after shoplifting accusations. As he awaited his trail, the rapes suddenly ceased.
Detectives were in some ways relieved by the EAR’s disappearance. But they also felt defeated. Daly asked to be moved to homicide. Away from the ceaseless trauma of rape.
Where she felt she could close a case.
But 420 miles to the south, a new terror gathered.
It began in October 1979, along a wooded creek in the upscale subdivision on the edge of Goleta. First there was a series of minor home break-ins. Then, an assault.
A hooded man startled a sleeping Goleta couple, forced the woman to bind her boyfriend, then dragged her to the living room. She heard her attacker ranting in the kitchen, “I’ll kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em,” no less than 12 times. The terrified couple broke free.
The next time, the prowler would kill his victims.
He returned to Goleta just before New Year’s Eve, broke into seven homes, ransacked bedrooms, stole jewelry, attacked a poodle. At the eighth house, he attacked a couple who had just made love in their bed. Police reports show investigators believe he shot them to death after the man escaped his bonds.
In the north, the EAR investigation had gone quiet. Much of the Sacramento task force was disbanded. Contra Costa Lt. Larry Crompton was ordered to “stand down” when the local rapes stopped. But Crompton kept poking around for similar cases, and when he heard about Goleta, he alerted his counterpart in Sacramento.
A Sacramento County detective still working the case and his lieutenant traveled to Santa Barbara to check out the Goleta attacks. After reading the case files, the detective was certain the attempted assault and the double murder were the work of their rapist. But the Sacramento County lieutenant leading the investigation, Lt. Ray Root, disagreed. In a recent interview with The Times, Root said he felt at the time that the Goleta killer was sloppy, unlike the East Area Rapist, who almost always kept control of his victims. Serial predators should get better with time, not worse.
Santa Barbara County’s sheriff came up north to discuss a joint investigation. The departments could merge their resources.
Root said he raised an additional objection to linking the cases: Publicity.
Sacramento’s top brass thought the city’s media had made a mess of the East Area Rapist case. Nothing good came of public hysteria. The sheriff’s department even ordered detectives to keep the existence of the last attack in Sacramento “quiet so the press will not overreact,” according to a case summary added to the file a day after the attack.
At that moment, Santa Barbara County was in the national spotlight. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan had set up camp at his ranch outside of Goleta to prepare for the Republican presidential convention. And the sheriff had just quieted public outrage after another serial murderer abducted, raped and killed three college students, dumping one of the bodies outside the Reagan ranch.
“If you want to connect those rapes and homicides,” Root said he told the visiting sheriff, “then stand by. Because that’s what you’ll get.”
Detectives on the case in Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, and even some in Santa Barbara, believed the rapes and murders were connected. But Root, who was at the meeting between the sheriffs, did not agree. He did not think the cases were connected, but even if they were, Root did not see an investigative advantage in publicly linking them. He thought the killings and rapes could be investigated independently by the local law enforcement agencies.
In the end, the sheriffs of Sacramento and Santa Barbara counties decided not to connect the rapes and murders.
A newspaper story in Sacramento announced the conclusion that the EAR and the Goleta Creek Killer were not the same man. Later the same day, the killer struck again, in the county just south of Santa Barbara.
Lyman and Charlene Smith lay dead in their carefully styled Ventura home for two days; a neighbor thought it odd to see a carton of milk out on the counter every time she glanced at their kitchen window. It was the Smiths’ 12-year-old son from his first marriage, who had come over from his mother’s house to mow the lawn, who found their bodies.
They were bound and bludgeoned, covered by a comforter. Between them at the foot of the bed was a bloody log of firewood — an echo of the bludgeoned dogs in Rancho Cordova. There was blood on the wall and the dresser.
There was evidence Charlene Smith had been raped, but police for years denied the fact. They told reporters and even Smith’s daughter that there was no sexual assault. A decade later, it was DNA from the semen taken from a vaginal swab of Charlene’s body that provided the genetic profile that linked all of the murders, and ultimately connected those killings to at least three of the rapes up north.
But before then, police focused on local suspects and filed charges against Smith’s former business partner. He wasn’t cleared until defense lawyers debunked the testimony of a witness against him. Even Smith’s teen daughter, Jennifer Carole, was asked questions while hooked to a polygraph. “I’m not sure for the life of me, what was the strategy?” she said decades later. “Even if it was a strategy not to talk about it, they shouldn’t have put me in a lie detector. Because I couldn’t rape someone.”
The sexual killings continued, moving next to Orange County. The modus operandi was identical — a prowler, shoelace ligatures, voyeurism, ransacking and rapes as in the East Area Rapist cases.
The authorities continued to publicly deny that any of the victims was raped, and Santa Barbara detectives maintained that their cases were not linked to the rapes up north.
But when a second couple in Goleta were killed, Det. Fred Ray immediately thought the killings, at least in Southern California, were the work of one man.
Those last Goleta killings signaled the apex of violence in the six-year string of bedroom invasions. The male victim was shot in the face, then bludgeoned 24 times in the head. His female companion was killed with a single crushing blow, then clubbed nine more times with what appeared to be a pipe wrench stolen from her tool shed.
Ray’s team dubbed this serial killer “The Night Stalker,” a full three years before serial killer Richard Ramirez got that moniker.
But Ray’s attempt to link the crimes was shot down, this time by investigators in Orange and Ventura counties.
Orange County Det. Darryl Coder told The Times in late 1981: “It’s not uncommon to have a male and female killed in bed together.”
Aug. 2, 1981
Night Stalker link disputed
Det. Fred Ray’s attempt to connect the killings in Southern California were shot down.
An even more crippling blow to the case was to follow. The Santa Barbara County sheriff appointed a new head of major crimes who vowed he could close the Goleta case in two months. The investigation shifted to local vagrants and burglars. One such young troublemaker, a dope thief named Brett Glasby, became the prime suspect after his death in Mexico, though no physical evidence was ever found linking him to the multiple slayings. Ray, Santa Barbara’s most seasoned detective, said he knew the young man was not the killer.
“I knew they were going in the wrong direction,” Ray told The Times recently. “They tried to kiss the case off on Glasby. … Nobody would listen to me. … I was told I was going to get kicked out … if I didn’t leave the problem alone.”
There would be one more murder five years later: the 1986 bludgeoning of a young woman in Irvine.
The sexual aspect of the killings was not publicly acknowledged until DNA linked five of the murders in Orange and Ventura counties in the late 1990s and a criminal profiler from Miami in 1998 told Orange County detectives the man they sought was a seasoned cat burglar, a voyeur driven by an “insatiable appetite.”
The profiler, Leslie D’Ambrosia of the Florida state police in Miami, described the cases not as murders, but rather rapes that ended in murder. The killer might still be peeping, his prime thrill, she warned.
By then, though, 12 years had passed since the last slaying. The advent of DNA evidence kindled hopes of finding the serial killer. In 2001, Crompton steered a Contra Costa County criminologist to the rape cases he always thought were tied to the killer, and the DNA pulled from three surviving rape kits proved him right.
But the trail was cold in Sacramento, where the bulk of the evidence was gone.
The statute of limitations on the first EAR rapes had expired in 1979, just as the killing started. By the 1980s, even if the rapist walked in and confessed, he couldn’t be charged. Lt. Root approved the property manager’s request to dump the evidence boxes, even though the lone detective then on the case thought kidnapping charges could still be pursued.
The last biological evidence from the Sacramento East Area Rapist cases remained with the coroner, who in 1992 announced he was going to throw out the vials with DNA unless someone wanted to take them.
Shelby briefly considered his home freezer.
The look that would bring to his wife’s face convinced him otherwise.
By then, Joe DeAngelo had retreated to the anonymity of the night shift.
The disgraced police officer dropped his work-related stress claim and left Auburn. He bought a ranch house in suburban Citrus Heights, miles from the prowling grounds of the EAR. He started work as a diesel mechanic for a grocery store chain. A few years later his wife left, taking their three daughters, but friends said DeAngelo was adamant about ferrying the girls to the usual lessons: music and riding.
Some neighbors recall him as a courteous man — the type, one said, who would borrow a cup of milk and “return a gallon.”
But Grant Gorman, whose backyard was next to DeAngelo’s, recalls a different person.
DeAngelo hollered and cursed when Gorman, then a child, played too close to the slat fence between their yards. The neighbor stormed over and screamed at Gorman’s terrified mother when she gardened. He hollered about lawn mowers. He hollered about cats. If they didn’t stop their Rottweiler from barking, he said on a message left on their answering machine, he would bring a “load of death.”
Gorman remembers waking up to DeAngelo’s rants
Gorman’s most frightening moments came the summer nights he and his siblings slept beneath the California stars on the backyard trampoline. More than once they were startled awake by DeAngelo on the small patch of grass outside his sliding glass doors.
“He would be circling. Maybe having a cigarette. Maybe a beer,” Gorman said. “He would be circling in a slow stroll, maybe some pointing, maybe some fist shaking.”
DeAngelo was alone, shouting fiercely. Obscenities. Expletives against women. Gorman heard the word “kill.”
After the storm of fury, DeAngelo would go inside, only to return minutes later to repeat the mad dialogue, sometimes hours past midnight.
The frightened kids created a joke.
“There’s Joe yelling at the aliens in his attic,” they said.
Detectives had run the DNA of the serial killer through government databases of convicted felons since 1997, but found no matches.
In 2017, they tried a new approach, loading the DNA profile onto genealogy websites. After a few false starts, a partial match came back — a distant cousin.
Months of work tracing the men on that large family tree brought them finally to Joe DeAngelo, a name that had never been on the suspect list. His first DNA sample was lifted off the handle of his parked car while DeAngelo was inside a hobby store. The second, cleaner sample came from a tissue stolen from his trash. Two days later, officers swarmed DeAngelo’s house, hoping to catch him by surprise.
Grant Gorman’s mother lived alone in the house overlooking DeAngelo’s the morning of the big arrest. She called her son, now 37. Over the top of the fence — raised a foot after the death threat on their answering machine — Gorman peered at the FBI agents scanning the yard with metal detectors and density sensors, planting surveyor flags for the holes they would dig. The word among detectives: the hunt for evidence came up empty. The many rings, coins and other tokens stolen by the EAR were not there. Even the walls hid nothing.
Gorman saw the rifles carried out and boxed for evidence and eavesdropped on the backyard detective meetings. His own first thought was of his Rottweiler, Brandy.
The dog died not long after the threat from DeAngelo, victim of a muscular weakness that seemed to come on overnight.
For the women who were raped, the arrest opened an unhealed wound. The day they heard the news, some collapsed on the floor and could not stop weeping.
In the end, the panty raids in Visalia, the shooting of Claude Snelling, the rapes and double murder in Sacramento, the homicides in Santa Barbara and beyond, had finally congealed into a single case. A year after the arrest, there has still been no preliminary hearing or airing of evidence. Prosecutors have told victims that a trial date is at least four years away. DeAngelo is charged with 13 murders and 13 counts of kidnapping for purposes of robbery, the only cases prosecutors say they can bring under 1970s criminal statutes.
The rapes can no longer be tried.
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Top section: Golden State Killer sketches (FBI). Screenshot of archival news footage covering the East Area Rapist. (Center for Sacramento History).
Credits: Digital production by Andrea Roberson. Additional production by Jessica Perez.