The California sun caught the light in Bonnie Colwell’s long, honey-blond hair as she stood in the gravel commons of Sierra College.
It was her sophomore year. She worked as a lab assistant in the science department, responsible for a small menagerie of rats, rattlesnakes and orphaned birds. She had brought two of her charges, a young great horned owl and a starling, to practice flying.
The owl, not yet fledged, grabbed Bonnie’s shoulder as the starling launched from the top of her head and wildly into the air, only to return to the safety of the teenager’s loose hair.
The spectacle drew the attention of a stocky, grinning man Bonnie had never noticed before. Joe DeAngelo was thick-muscled and dough-faced, with an odd jounce to his gait. He was five years older than the 18-year-old sophomore. He made a beeline across the open space to her.
Soon, the 23-year-old Vietnam War veteran was showing up at the science lab where Bonnie worked, joining conversations with her and other students. By the end of the first week, he asked Bonnie out.
She said yes to this easy talker, a suitor with an appealing swagger and a penchant for muscle cars.
To Bonnie, he was an energetic and worldly Vietnam vet, an impression strengthened by the fingertip he said was clipped by a bullet during river patrol in the Mekong Delta. Stray fire, he explained coolly.
From Joe, Bonnie learned the rituals of bullfighting on late-night television. He taught her how to lean into canyon curves as she sat behind him on his Honda motorcycle, her nose buried in the smell of English Leather, and how to drive his royal blue Road Runner with the growling engine.
He handed Bonnie a Browning .22 rifle and took her dove hunting by the American River, and she followed nervously as they jumped the fence onto a defense contractor’s property to illegally spear frogs. She once saw Joe shoot a vulture out of the sky.
Joe became Bonnie’s guide to life outside her sheltered, sometimes stifling home. He coaxed her to take risks and to experiment, to scuba dive (which she did) and join him in the pitch-black holes of wells (which she refused). He pushed further, ignoring her boundaries of fear and discomfort. He had an air of superiority, as if he was above the rules. Bonnie saw in him both the light and the dawning dark.
Soon, there was a ring and an engagement. And a night of terror.
Almost half a century later, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 73, stands accused of being one of America’s most prolific serial killers. The ex-cop turned truck mechanic is said to have unleashed an extended spasm of violence in the 1970s and ’80s: Nearly 60 home invasions; 50 rapes; 13 murders. At least 106 victims. When and if there is a trial — the multi-county case is years from going to a jury, and DeAngelo is noticeably deteriorating in jail — prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty. He has not entered a plea.
Prosecutors say he ranged across the state, from Sacramento to Orange County. At every stop in his alleged evolution from burglar and prowler to dog killer, rapist and serial murderer, they say, he escaped detection to start anew under another sobriquet: the Cordova Cat Burglar, the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Creek Killer, the Diamond Knot Killer, the original Night Stalker.
Hundreds of articles were published on the East Area Rapist and the crimes sweeping Southern California.
In the long sweep of crimes, dogs were bludgeoned to death in the same manner as people — with a log. He locked children in bathrooms or tied them to a headboard while he repeatedly raped their mothers.
Attacks sometimes lasted hours; he raped and sodomized women again and again. He tortured men, their hands and feet bound so tight the skin turned black. He promised to bring them the ears of their wives and girlfriends if the perfume bottles he balanced on their backs should topple. He hovered over his blindfolded victims in silence, watching.
Bonnie was at home in Italy, helping two American friends navigate the country’s train system, when DeAngelo reentered her life in April 2018.
Her former husband called.
“What was the name of the guy you dated before me?”
“Do you mean Joe DeAngelo?”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” her ex-husband said. The county prosecutor had just called him. “I need to let you know they are arresting him as the East Area Rapist.”
Even before she returned to the United States, Bonnie was hunted by reporters, her private life suddenly public, her travel blog and Facebook pages repackaged as an instant book on Amazon. Her children devised elaborate plans to get her past the waiting television crews and into a hotel. Satellite trucks clogged the driveway outside her home, near Sacramento.
The shock deepened and became more personal when she learned that during the course of the 37th home invasion, after the rape and sodomy of a Davis woman, the attacker broke down and wept on his victim’s pillow.
“I hate you, Bonnie,” the woman told police her rapist sobbed that night in July 1978. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”
July 6, 1978
‘I hate you, Bonnie’
A Davis rape victim told police her attacker sobbed into her pillow and threatened to kill her kids.
Forensic psychologists say serial killers are driven by complex forms of mental illness, and that the Golden State Killer followed a textbook path of sexually driven perversions that probably began in boyhood. None of that mattered after a retired case investigator, courting the media and book and TV deals, pointed to Bonnie as the likely source of the killer’s rage, the woman who “dumped him.”
The low point came when the London Daily Mail ran a story with Bonnie’s photo and the lurid headline:
“Is this the woman who broke the Golden State Killer’s heart and sparked his murderous rampage?”
Bonnie came from a family of academic achievers. Her father was a tough principal at a high school for second-chance students in Sacramento. Her mother was a former teacher. Her three brothers were class presidents at a small country school amid the rolling farms in the foothills north of Sacramento. Bonnie was class treasurer. An academic standout, she played the piano and once a week drove with her girlfriends to console the recovering Vietnam veterans at a Navy hospital in Oakland.
Boys didn’t pay much attention to her at Del Oro High School. By the time she arrived at Sierra College, Bonnie was bright and inexperienced. Dating Joe represented a kind of unshackling.
DeAngelo had just finished four years in the Navy, three of those on tour in Vietnam. The story he told Bonnie about losing his fingertip conjured images in her mind of a hardened four-man boat gliding through the jungle with machine guns, and cast him in the same favorable light as her convalescents in Oakland. But Joe saw no such action. Navy records show he served as a carpenter aboard large ships that shelled Viet Cong strongholds from a safe distance. His fingertip, a family friend said, was sliced off when Joe didn’t get his hand out of the way of a rolling drum below deck.
Bonnie was the kind of honors student professors asked to tutor others. Between college classes she worked as a lab assistant, tending to animals and preparing lecture aids for the science faculty. DeAngelo was studying political science and had no reason to be in the building. Soon, though, he was at her side, sitting for hours while she mounted slides, chatting his way into her heart and then into her large family.
DeAngelo’s own family past was fractured and rootless. He grew up following his father to military bases in Germany and across the United States. By junior high they had landed in Rancho Cordova. Joe’s father, an Air Force officer, bought a small tract house with mortgaged furniture; even the children’s bunk beds and the radio were on loan. But childhood friends never saw Joe’s father around, and when the Air Force transferred him to Korea and then Florida, his wife and four children stayed behind.
Joe’s mother, a waitress at Denny’s, started seeing a traveling welder with a wife and children of his own in Southern California. The job of minding the younger siblings — fixing their meals, washing their clothes, getting them to school — fell to Joe. He had epic shouting matches with his mother.
Joe DeAngelo yearned for the warmth and stability of family, said a childhood friend, Judy. So he adopted hers.
Joe started coming round as a schoolmate of Judy’s brothers. In no time, he was calling Judy’s parents “Mom” and “Pop.” They treated Joe like their 10th child, even put his class picture on the shelf next to the rest of the kids. The boys had the run of Rancho Cordova, not yet an incorporated town, half of it still in abandoned grape vineyards. They jumped fences, ran canals, gigged frogs and shot rabbits. Joe beat up a jerk at school.
He took one of Judy’s girlfriends up to a cabin, where he proposed; the young girl rejected him. He sneaked sips of sloe gin from a bottle in his pocket. He worked on cars.
Judy’s mother sat Joe down with the rest of the boys for discussions about girls. She thought of him as her sixth son. Judy’s oldest sister became the closest thing to a confidant. But in the nearly 50 years she and her siblings knew Joe, he never really talked about himself or his feelings.
It never crossed Judy’s mind, living later as a young woman in her parents’ Rancho Cordova house during a rash of Peeping Tom activity, that the hooded face she saw at her window one night, paralyzing her with fear, could be DeAngelo.
Joe’s best friend was Judy’s oldest brother. He quit high school his senior year to enlist in the military. The next year, Joe did the same. He wanted to fly planes, but the Navy put him in the galley, then below deck as a mechanic. DeAngelo spent the next unremarkable three years at sea, on the Canberra and the Piedmont, then a year in the Naval Reserve before being honorably discharged back to California. His mother had now married the welder, and Joe moved in with them in the hills outside Auburn.
June 1, 1967
Returning from Vietnam
This notice in the Auburn Journal announces Joe docking in San Diego following the first of two tours off the coast of North Vietnam.
At Sierra College, DeAngelo did not come off as a particularly strong student; Bonnie tutored him to a passing grade in astronomy. Classmates thought the pair an odd match not only in intelligence but also style. Bonnie favored the brainy lyricism of Simon and Garfunkel. Joe moved to a singular soundtrack: the acid lust of the Doors.
Her friends saw Joe as someone trying hard to fit in with the younger students. But he was considerate and easygoing. He laughed a lot. He draped his thick arms around people he’d just met. He gave off a whiff of James Dean badness, slouching in jeans and a T-shirt, with suede ankle boots.
Bonnie’s father, Stan Colwell, had been a tough truant officer before being promoted to principal at a second-chance high school. He did not approve of an older man dating his teenage daughter. He had rigid ideas about the roles of men and women and their paths in life, putting him at odds with the rapidly changing times. There was often tension in the family farmhouse when Colwell clashed with his increasingly independent daughter.
Still, Stan Colwell was a World War II hero who went behind enemy lines to rescue downed pilots, and he warmed up to Joe when he learned of his Vietnam tours.
DeAngelo was brought into the fold, big brother to Bonnie’s four younger siblings, who piled into his royal blue Road Runner with the Hemi engine to head to the drive-in theater. Joe hung out at the family farm, bringing his stepfather’s Saint Bernard. He delighted Bonnie’s youngest brother by offering to fix a junked radio-controlled airplane, and they laughed uproariously when it caught fire instead.
He slipped Bonnie’s Del Oro High class ring onto his little finger, with the innocence of a high school sweetheart.
It was a different relationship when they were alone, when Joe put the Doors on the stereo and sought sex.
Bonnie was a virgin, with little point of reference, but even to her Joe seemed “insatiable.”
Decades later, Sacramento prosecutors and investigators would twice bring Bonnie in for questions about her relationship with DeAngelo. They focused on Joe’s sexual habits as they looked for a connection to a rapist who had terrorized and killed on an unimaginable scale.
“Did you ever feel forced or coerced? Were you ever tied up? Did he ever ask you if he could tie you up?”
Each time, Bonnie answered no.
But Bonnie told them sex with DeAngelo was exhausting and often painful. Just as he was climaxing, he would break away from her, then return minutes later and resume intercourse, ejaculating again. He repeated the pattern four or five times over a three-hour period. Joe seemed oblivious to Bonnie’s pain. He boasted that he “trained himself” to have mastery over his body.
For investigators, those details were important. It was a pattern disturbingly similar to that of the East Area Rapist.
Not long after they started having sex, Joe gave Bonnie an engagement ring.
Bonnie does not even recall a proposal. There was no wedding date. To her, the ring was Joe’s way of staking a claim against the young clinic doctors he warned her to stay away from. But she did not object. The engagement notice that ran in the local paper was her declaration of independence, a way out of her father’s house.
It was the ring itself that troubled her.
DeAngelo told Bonnie he had brought the diamond back from Vietnam, a large half-carat stone that would have been outside the budget of a college student doing welding jobs and moonlighting as a commercial diver. Joe presented it to Bonnie in what he insisted was the “perfect” setting, a thin white gold band with the solitary stone set so impractically high that it snagged on everything.
Bonnie turned it around, so that when she pulled on latex gloves to fix a catheter, the diamond pressed into her palm.
There was no consultation about what Bonnie wanted, just a decision made for her.
May 14, 1970
Engaged without a date
Joe and Bonnie announce their engagement in the Auburn Journal. Bonnie did not recall a formal proposal.
She was an honors student and her heart had been set on medical school, but there was no family money for that. Girls went to universities to look for husbands, her father insisted. Bonnie had settled on junior college and then nursing.
DeAngelo was determined to join the California Highway Patrol, and it was clear he was not the type to settle.
Bonnie began to believe Joe felt superior to those around him. He acted as though he was above the rules. He courted risk and thrills — speeding on the road, poaching game. And he enjoyed instilling fear.
One day, as they were cruising on Joe’s motorcycle, he suddenly veered off the asphalt, plummeting down a steep slope, Bonnie clinging to him for dear life. Only slowly did she realize this was no crash, that she was not about to die. Joe had taken an off-road trail where bikers tested their courage against a formidable hill, climbing until the heavy machines threatened to topple. Bonnie was boiling mad, but Joe seemed delighted with her fear. He stoked it again and again, so that she knew to grab on a little tighter whenever they passed the spot.
He could act with swift decisiveness. A German shepherd often chased them along their route, snapping at the motorbike. The day the dog got too close, Joe kicked a foot out, snapping its neck. The dog crumpled to the pavement, dead.
And he loved hunting, teaching Bonnie marksmanship, then taking her on a dove hunt. Bonnie dropped a dove with a single shot from the Browning rifle he had given her. Joe lauded the kill, but Bonnie watched in horror as the dying bird convulsed. Joe picked it up and, as he usually did, field-dressed the dove with his fingers, pulling out the breast meat and dropping the carcass to the ground. Bonnie presumed it was to hide the illegal kill from a game warden.
Her unease grew as he trespassed again and again over the law.
Bonnie was terrified of being arrested — and of her father finding out — when DeAngelo took her over the fence of a missile contractor to poach frogs. He speared fish illegally in Folsom Lake, shot a vulture for no apparent reason, and killed deer out of season, carving the bloody remains in his kitchen. Yet she remained his sidekick, jumping beside or behind him on the next thrill ride.
“He was the Alpha,” Bonnie said, looking back. “He was in charge. It was, I won’t say ‘My way or the highway,’ because there was never the option to choose. I was already committed before there was an option to choose.
“I just sort of had to throw my trust with him in many situations where I was initially uncomfortable with the choices he made.”
In the spring of 1971, when they were juniors at Cal State Sacramento, Joe finally found the boundary that Bonnie would not cross. He was failing Abnormal Psychology, a class he had to pass to graduate from the criminal justice program. He asked her to cheat for him. Bonnie, the daughter of schoolteachers, flatly refused. Just knowing Joe planned to crib answers from her test was cause to move to a desk away from him.
DeAngelo became obsessed with the matter. It was Bonnie’s obligation to her future spouse, he said. He brought it up in every conversation; “pressing harder and harder,” he would drop his voice lower as he grew more insistent.
Bonnie dug in. She called Joe to her father’s house.
In the living room, she told him they were through. She remembers the scene vividly.
“But I love you. We’re meant to be together,” Joe protested. “We’re perfect together.”
“We’re not a good fit,” she replied. “I’ve already decided.”
She gave him back the white gold ring with the high solitary diamond.
DeAngelo left the house visibly upset. As he walked to his car, he hurled the diamond into the tall grass behind her house. She searched in vain, with her siblings and friends joining the hunt. There was no ring to be found. They concluded Joe must have faked the throw.
Days later she saw him in psychology class, holding hands with an unfamiliar girl. Some heartbreak, she thought.
A few nights later, Bonnie was asleep when she awoke to a tapping on her bedroom window. She knelt on her bed and pulled aside the drape to see a handgun inches from her face. Behind it was DeAngelo.
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “We’re going to Reno.”
Bonnie bolted out of bed and ran to the end of the hall to her parents’ room, where she rousted her father.
“Joe is outside and he has a gun and he wants me to go to Reno with him and marry him right now!” Bonnie cried.
Her father told her to lock herself in the bathroom and wait until he came to get her.
Stan Colwell could have called police, but he did not. For the rest of his life, he never told his daughter why.
As best as they can guess, Bonnie and her siblings now believe that their father knew it would have taken a patrol car a long time to reach the hilltop farm, that he was practiced in disarming students at school — and that he knew picking up the phone would doom DeAngelo’s dreams of becoming a cop.
Bonnie shivered with fear and adrenaline in the bathroom while her father talked to Joe out in the darkness. It was almost two hours before he returned.
“You can go back to bed,” is all he said. “Joe’s left.”
They never spoke again about the incident. None of the five other people sleeping in the house — her mother, two sisters, two brothers — even knew it had happened.
Bonnie describes being woken by Joe
Bonnie was so frightened of Joe she dropped out of school for a semester and changed her major to laboratory sciences upon her return. In 1972, she married a young accountant. Joe DeAngelo, though, was not far away. A few years after he appeared at her window, he bought a house less than two miles from the couple.
But she saw DeAngelo again only once.
Bonnie was nine months pregnant and just released from bed rest when she spotted DeAngelo with his unmistakable gait at a shopping mall where she had gone with her husband. He was walking with a woman she didn’t know. Bonnie instinctively pulled her husband into the first open store to hide.
DeAngelo graduated with a criminal justice degree and in 1973 began a police internship in the nearby Sacramento suburb of Roseville.
Less than a year after Bonnie broke up with DeAngelo, police in Rancho Cordova, the eastern suburb where Joe had grown up, began getting reports of an unusual cat burglar. He sometimes appeared outside, a man standing at the window wearing no pants. Other times he slipped into bedrooms and touched sleeping women, running when they woke. He stole very little on these hot prowls — coins, rings, other keepsakes — but he struck multiple homes in a night.
And he killed family dogs.
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Top photo: This is the framed senior portrait that Joe De Angelo gave to his surrogate family. It remains on display along with photos of the couple's sons and daughters.
Top background photo: Sierra College campus as pictured in their yearbook. (Sierra College)
Newspaper clips from Sacramento Bee, Santa Maria Times.
Credits: Digital production by Andrea Roberson. Additional production by Jessica Perez.