HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
The Secret Suburban Life of James DeAngelo, the Suspected Golden State Killer
By day, he was a cop. By night, authorities say, he broke into homes before raping and murdering dozens. Neighbors say he still exhibits some of the killer’s behavior.
“James DeAngelo Jr. believes that without law and order there can be no government, and without a democratic government there can be no freedom. Law enforcement is his career, he says, and his job is serving the community,” The Exeter Sun reported in August 1973 about the central California town’s newest cop.
But authorities say around this time DeAngelo began breaking into homes, and then raping and murdering women. On Wednesday, DeAngelo, 72, was charged with eight counts of murder and publicly accused by law enforcement of being the Golden State Killer, who committed 12 murders and at least 45 rapes across California from 1976 to 1986.
While investigators, reporters, and amateur detectives desperately pored over thousands of names in a decades-long search for the killer, the suspect was living a quiet suburban life not far from most of the attacks, working at a grocery store distribution center.
Though the killer ostensibly stopped in 1986, the same year DeAngelo’s second daughter was born, DeAngelo allegedly continued to exhibit behaviors in common with the Golden State Killer: a hatred of dogs, a quick temper, and a habit of prowling.
DeAngelo’s neighbors in Citrus Heights, just outside of Sacramento, say the suspected killer was at times “helpful,” but that he was also prone to angry fits—and yelled profanity so loudly that you could hear it down the street.
“He would have outbursts on the driveway and yell and scream, when he was looking for his keys,” one neighbor told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “He hasn’t thrown a tantrum in about a decade. I figured he mellowed out with age.”
Another neighbor told The Sacramento Bee that DeAngelo left the family a voicemail threatening to “deliver a load of death” over their barking dog.
In September 1979, a man believed to be the Golden State Killer sliced open the belly of a barking dog while prowling along a Sacramento neighborhood. Just a few months earlier, in July 1979, DeAngelo was caught shoplifting dog repellent from a store.
“This guy just had this anger that was just pouring out of him,” another neighbor told the newspaper. “He’d just be yelling at nothing in the backyard, pacing in circles.” He was totally normal, “except for that quirkiness of getting mad,” another said.
Another neighbor described DeAngelo doing the type of prowling—and fleeing—that the Golden State Killer was known for.
Eddie Verdon told The Daily Beast he heard footsteps around the side of his house one night a few years ago and ran out to find DeAngelo running away from his side yard, taking off on a bicycle.
“He made sure I never seen him again. And if I did see him, it was because his garage was open.”
According to Michelle McNamara’s bestselling book on the killer, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, “When [the Golden State Killer] zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors.”
He was known for casing homes, prowling their areas, staring into windows, and hiding in hedges. The killer often ran away when he was discovered, and he sometimes fled on stolen bicycles, according to McNamara’s book.
DeAngelo was arrested late Tuesday after officials said they confirmed his identity as the Golden State Killer using DNA evidence. DeAngelo was charged with the murder of Lyman and Charlene Smith in 1980 and in the killing of Brian and Katie Maggiore in 1978. The Smiths were bludgeoned to death in 1980 at their home in Ventura, and the Maggiores were shot while walking their dog in Sacramento in 1978.
Hours later, the Orange County district attorney announced DeAngelo had also been charged in the 1980 killing of Keith and Patrice Harrington, who were bludgeoned to death in Dana Point; the death of Manuela Witthuhn, who was raped and murdered in her Irvine home in 1981; and the death of Janelle Cruz, who was raped and bludgeoned to death in 1986 in Irvine.
No one knows what sparked DeAngelo’s alleged desire to kill, but his life began inauspiciously in Bath, New York, in 1945. He obtained his GED in 1964, then joined the Navy and served in Vietnam, according to The Sacramento Bee. When he returned from Vietnam in 1966, DeAngelo reportedly went to Sierra College and then Sacramento State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1972.
DeAngelo joined the Exeter police in 1973, where he investigated burglaries, and left in 1976—the same period the Golden State Killer was ransacking homes in the area.
Three years after he moved to the Auburn Police Department, DeAngelo was fired for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer at a drugstore in 1979. He was convicted for the crime and fined. DeAngelo was terminated when he “failed to answer any of the city’s investigations and did not request an administrative hearing,” the city manager said at the time.
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones said Wednesday that DeAngelo “was committing crimes while he was employed as a police officer” from 1973 to 1979.
An FBI profile described the Golden State Killer as likely having an “interest in the military, or had some military training, leaving him familiar and proficient with firearms.” Investigators thought he may have served in the Navy based on a nautical knot he sometimes used to “hogtie” his victims.
“We always suspected he was law enforcement or had some kind of special-forces training or both,” Wendell Phillips, who was working as a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy when the Golden State Killer was stalking and raping his victims, told The Bee. “The guy obviously knew escape and evasion tactics, what to do when a perimeter was set up, how to avoid being discovered inside a perimeter.”
In 1990, DeAngelo began working at the Save Mart grocery distribution center in Roseville until his retirement last year, according to The Bee. It’s not publicly known what DeAngelo did in the years between his firing in Auburn and job at the distribution center, or what made him abandon his alleged life of crime in 1986, but Sheriff Jones said he didn’t believe the 72-year-old had any recent criminal record.
Coworkers told reporters they believed DeAngelo was an unsmiling “regular Joe.”
“None of his actions in the workplace would have led us to suspect any connection to crimes being attributed to him,” a company spokesperson told the newspaper. “We are working with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office on their investigation.”