The “suspicious circumstances” call caught Sgt. Richard Shelby’s attention. The night watch commander was sitting in his car, listening to radio chatter as the sheriff’s patrol he supervised cruised the middle-class suburbs of Sacramento County’s east side. Bored, Shelby decided to take a look himself.
A couple living in Rancho Cordova reported a prowler at a neighbor’s house, but when Shelby and deputies got there, the house was locked tight and the street quiet.
The sheriff’s detail left, and the couple called again. Minutes after police left, they saw a man jump from their neighbor’s roof, hit the ground in stride and vault over a fence. Shelby arrived first to walk the property. By the door of the garage he found a bloody stick of firewood. It was flecked with flesh.
“Here we go,” he thought.
The lanky, dark-haired sergeant entered the dark house alone, his flashlight off, prepared to catch a prowler by surprise. The rooms were in order, nothing amiss. He rounded a bed. Halfway under the frame lay the family’s small dog, disemboweled by the blows of the log.
It was the latest in a string of home break-ins in the eastern Sacramento suburb in which the intruder sometimes killed dogs. The burglaries unnerved the community, but police largely considered the minor thefts to be nuisance crimes.
The first victim to make the papers was Pups, an overweight 10-year-old hound who was a bit of a celebrity in his corner of Rancho Cordova. Children loved him and residents regarded the mongrel as a neighborhood alarm system, friendly but loud.
It was the old dog’s barking in February 1972 that annoyed a prowler trying to break into the house next door. The burglar reached over the 5-foot slat fence with a piece of wood and battered Pups, cracking his ribs, knocking out teeth and breaking his jaw.
The death was front-page news in the community paper, The Grapevine, which noted other canine killings in Rancho Cordova’s unexplained rash of home burglaries. A victim said deputies told her of dogs shot in the yard, then pulled into the living room and left to bleed to death on the floor.
Rancho Cordova was a new community, an unincorporated sprawl of tract homes that sprang up around Mather Air Force Base and its defense contractors. Most of the residents were young military families from elsewhere or new hires at the sprawling Aerojet rocket plant. People didn’t pay much attention to strangers in the dark of their unlighted streets, even behind the closely set homes.
The renter who moved into a vacant house directly behind the burglarized property Pups was trying to protect found that his place served as a nightly pathway for backyard intruders. He nailed his gate shut to put an end to the traffic.
The next morning, the gate was again ajar, broken by what looked like a kick.
The thief had a penchant for slipping in and out of homes while residents slept, what police call a hot prowl. He ignored items of high value that could easily be pawned, often just grabbing a purse and dropping it empty in the bushes outside. Three or more homes were hit in a night. More than 50 homes were entered in the first six months of 1973 alone.
Sgt. Shelby describes the thief’s habits
Sgt. Shelby figured the “Cordova Cat Burglar” was the work of kids. But there were signs something else was afoot. Sometimes the occupants woke to see a man in the bedroom. Once, a woman was startled by an intruder who fled after touching her breast. Other homeowners reported break-ins with nothing stolen.
Only the women’s underwear was disturbed.
The prowling ground of the Cordova Cat Burglar was also Joe DeAngelo’s childhood haunt.
A decade later, DeAngelo was still a regular in Rancho Cordova. He remained a part of the family that had all but adopted him during his lonely childhood, lending his Road Runner to “Mom” for runs to the grocery store, meeting up with the boys to go to the neighborhood bar for bourbon and Coke. He introduced then-fiancee Bonnie to the family, brought over her owl; when he took up the hobby of model building, he brought his radio-controlled boats to Folsom Lake to entertain the family’s grandchildren.
One of the siblings, Judy, regarded Joe as a kind of brother. She remembers him herding ducks with his 3-foot PT Boat, armed with cannons that fired BB pellets, one of the kids wading in behind.
But after graduating from Cal State Sacramento, finishing police academy and completing a six-month internship with the suburban police force of Roseville, DeAngelo followed his real mother and sister down the Sacramento Valley to Tulare County. He was now less James Dean and more clean-cut, with a swoop of blond hair plastered across his broad forehead; he was also getting stockier. His face became rounder and his neck thickened, lapping his collar.
DeAngelo landed his first police job on the 10-man force of Exeter, the small Central Valley farm town where his mother and sister had moved with their husbands. He dated the girlfriend of his best friend’s wife, a college girl attending Cal State Fresno.
Six months later, they got married.
A year after DeAngelo’s move to Exeter, a fetish burglar began operating in the Tulare County seat a short drive away, Visalia.
Suburban houses near Visalia’s community college were the first hit. The burglar ransacked bedrooms and dumped the contents of drawers onto the floor. But like the Cordova Cat Burglar, he stole little. He took single earrings, wedding bands, coin banks, trading stamps and the occasional handgun.
He hit as many as 13 homes in a weekend, strewing women’s underwear about the bedroom. One time the garments were inside-out, as if they had been put on and taken off. Police found evidence that he sometimes masturbated. And he left what officers saw as calling cards: a pile of lingerie on the pillows, a window screen on the bed.
The Visalia Ransacker was careful. He balanced perfume bottles on doorknobs, apparently to sound the alert if someone entered. He opened doors and windows to create quick escape paths.
Neighbors saw the prowler frequently enough to give Visalia police a solid description: a round-faced man, heavy but agile enough to leap a fence with one hand. They tracked his footprints between burglarized houses and lifted fingerprints from the crime scenes but could not find a match.
On Sept. 11, 1975, he sneaked into a home on Whitney Lane. A 16-year-old girl woke up to a man on top of her. He was heavy. His short, stubby fingers were clamped over her mouth and nose so she could not breathe, she told police. A ski mask on his head exposed only “mean” eyes.
“You’re coming with me,” he said in a rough whisper. “Don’t scream or I’ll stab you.”
Beth Snelling whimpered and struggled as he forced her out the back door and toward the carport of the Visalia ranch house. Her father, a college journalism instructor named Claude Snelling, awoke and spotted her through his kitchen window. He yelled and came out the back door to her rescue. Her attacker fired at Snelling, spinning him around, and pointed the gun at the girl, but kicked her face instead. Then he ran.
Snelling went back into the house to head him off but collapsed inside. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Officers canvassing the neighborhood to identify witnesses came across account after account of prowlers and earlier break-ins; in one case, Snelling himself had chased off a man crouched beneath his daughter’s bedroom window. A month before the attack, she was in her bedroom, joking with her boyfriend about the man in the window — he might be there even now.
Not possible, her boyfriend said. We would hear something.
Beth stood up as if to change the station on the television, then reached up and jerked the curtain aside. There was the man. His face was one of shocked surprise, and she screamed. Her boyfriend and father ran out to chase him, but once again he was gone.
The gun that killed Snelling, police soon determined, was stolen 11 days earlier in a burglary in which the Ransacker fashioned a stepping-stone path down the hallway made up of the owner’s undershorts.
At this point, Visalia police had reports of 85 Ransacker attacks in 15 months. Now he also had taken a life.
Beth and her family struggled to remain in their home. Volunteers came and replaced the bloody carpet and repainted Beth’s room. But for months she and her brother could sleep nowhere but in their mother’s California king bed.
A few days after her father’s funeral, Beth reached for a piece of her past, as a Letterette with the Mount Whitney High School Marching Band. Beth was to carry the “H.” The band was set to march for the opening of the Tulare Fair, the county’s big event of the year.
Don’t participate, the police and her mother said. It’s too risky — you are his only witness.
But she needed this. So a unit of officers in plain clothes marched alongside, in step with the high school procession.
The death of Claude Snelling brought only a brief pause in the Ransacker’s prowlings.
At the end of that six-week lull, a distressed man fatally shot one of Exeter’s police officers. DeAngelo, promoted already to investigator, was assigned the case. In dress uniform, he helped carry his dead comrade’s casket.
Hours after the funeral, the Ransacker jumped back into action. He broke into four homes that night.
Visalia detectives plotted the break-ins on maps and tracked the Ransacker’s footprints from house to house, window to window. They tried to deduce the patterns of his movements and sent out special patrols to intercept him.
Their best chance came in December, when shoe tracks from a ransacking led to a cluster of homes with signs of prowling beneath the windows and pry marks on the doors. Someone was peeping into the bedroom of a 19-year-old woman. Her parents were told to rake the dirt beneath her window.
When the inevitable footprints appeared, an officer staked out the house, hiding in a garage. The prowler returned on cue.
Confronted by the cop, the man squealed and feigned panic. Pocketing his ski mask, he drew a gun and fired. The shot blew out the officer’s flashlight and the Ransacker disappeared into the night.
There had been an additional 40 break-ins by the time Visalia police met in February 1976 with Dr. Joel Fort — the flamboyant criminal psychiatrist who that year would serve as an expert witness in the Patty Hearst kidnapping trial and later conduct in-depth interviews with Charles Manson.
Fort told detectives the prowler probably had visited hundreds more homes than they knew, peeking in windows to identify candidates for future break-ins. A report on the consultation showed that Fort said the burglar was fixated on the prowl and peeping, not theft. His thrill was “seeing people’s intimate possessions.”
“The suspect may very well enjoy the high risk or danger of the whole matter,” he said. “The primary motivation for the crime is sexual.”
A psychiatrist’s consultation
Dr. Joel Fort, who conducted in-depth interviews with Charles Manson, wrote that the burglar’s thrill was “seeing people’s intimate possessions.”
One week after consulting with Fort, investigators discussed the case with a psychiatrist and a psychologist who worked with mentally ill sex offenders at Atascadero State Hospital. They reached the same conclusion as Fort, and suggested detectives look beyond Visalia for their culprit. In half of such cases, they said, voyeurs choose prowling territory 15 to 20 minutes from their homes. That radius would put the Visalia Ransacker in Exeter.
Moreover, they warned detectives, “the suspect can’t quit.”
The clinical term for the compulsion they described is paraphilia, a form of sexual perversion. The drive is associated with nuisance offenders who do no more than peep through windows or steal women’s underwear. And it is linked to some of the most infamous serial killers in U.S. history.
Most burglars enter a house for financial gain. For those with paraphilia, the burglary is a cover story. The motivation is sexual gratification. The thrill is in the creeping.
It can end there, but experts say the risk-taking that excites a paraphiliac can lead to violence. A deep body of forensic research documents the links between fetish burglary and sexual murder, and, at the far end of the nightmarish spectrum, erotophonophilia. Lust murder.
The connection between paraphilia and sexual homicide is so strong that a 1999 clinical study showed eight out of 10 woman raped and killed by a stranger at home were murdered by sexual burglars.
The voyeuristic burglars, cat burglars and fetish burglars who escaped early detection include a who’s who of serial killers: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler; Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker; Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper; and Dennis Rader, the BTK (“bind, torture, kill”) Strangler.
The compulsions are so strong that one serial killer got aroused just by looking at open windows. Another broke into 82 bedrooms to filch women’s underwear before sexually assaulting four women and killing two. At the time, he was commander of Canada’s largest military airfield.
Their ability to commit so many crimes without capture was partly the result of the limited forensic tools available to police. But it also helped that a lifelong need to disguise abnormal sexual drives made them practiced at deception.
Outwardly they appeared normal.
A month after Snelling’s slaying, weeks before the return of the Visalia Ransacker, the cat burglar returned to Rancho Cordova, 230 miles to the north.
He struck four homes in one night. On the block where Joe DeAngelo once lived, a couple and their two children slept as a prowler slipped in and took the woman’s purse, leaving the bag in the shrubs outside. Three days later, near the home where Sgt. Shelby had found the disemboweled dog a year before, a mother and her two daughters, 18 and 7, were sexually assaulted by a man with a knife.
The rapist wore a white covering fashioned like a surgeon’s mask. He pulled the mother into a room with her 18-year-old daughter, bound them together and repeatedly raped them. He sexually assaulted the 7-year-old. Between the assaults he ransacked the house, searching the same places again and again.
His victims told police he said little, but repeated one command over and over, hissed through clenched teeth: “Shut up!”
When he left, he took only two jade rings.
The double rape appeared to be an isolated crime. It would take nearly half a century for Shelby and the other detectives to connect it to the half-dozen dead dogs, the cat burglaries of more than 50 homes in Rancho Cordova, the 125 fetish burglaries and murder in Visalia.
But it was a turning point.
After Visalia police nearly caught the Ransacker, the fetish burglar struck three more homes, then stopped.
Joe DeAngelo left Exeter to return to the Sacramento area, joining the small police department in Auburn.
A half-hour away in Rancho Cordova, a string of even more horrific crimes was about to land on the desk of Shelby, now promoted to inspector and back in the detective division.
Sacramento would soon be terrorized in ways that even the fearful residents of Visalia could not imagine.
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Top section: Video and background photo from archival news footage covering the East Area Rapist. (Center for Sacramento History).
Credits: Digital production by Andrea Roberson. Additional production by Jessica Perez.