Millions of people have submitted their DNA to genealogy websites in the innocuous hope of learning more about where they came from.
It was one of those profiles that authorities say led them to the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, who is believed to have killed 12 people across four counties. The killer, alternatively known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, also raped at least 45 women in a crime spree that spanned more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, of Citrus Heights, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of murder in the 1978 shooting deaths of Brian and Kate Maggiore. He is scheduled for arraignment in the Maggiore case Friday afternoon.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Rancho Cordova couple were walking their dog the night of Feb. 2 when they were accosted by a man in a ski mask.
They were shot to death in a backyard near their apartment, the Times said.
DeAngelo has since been charged with six additional murders in Ventura and Orange counties, Reuters reported. The Ventura County Star reported that his DNA matched a profile found at the scene of the March 1980 slayings of Lyman and Charlene Smith.
The Smiths were found bludgeoned to death in their Ventura home, the Star reported. They had been bound together with drapery cords and beaten with a log from their fireplace.
The couple’s bodies were discovered by their 12-year-old son.
In Orange County, DeAngelo has been charged with murder in the August 1980 killings of Keith and Patrice Harrington, who were beaten to death in their Dana Point home. He is also charged there with the rapes and murders of Manuela Witthuhn and Janelle Cruz, both of Irvine.
Witthuhn, 28, was slain in February 1981 while her husband was in the hospital, and Cruz, 18, was killed in May 1986 while her family was on vacation.
DeAngelo faces sentencing enhancements in Orange County for multiple murders, lying in wait and murder during the commission of rape, robbery, burglary and sodomy, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
Following the DNA
Steve Grippi, chief deputy district attorney for Sacramento County, confirmed Thursday that DeAngelo was tracked down using a genealogy website similar to Ancestry.com and 23andMe. The Sacramento Bee reported that investigators in the DA’s office and crime lab technicians pored over online family trees, looking for profiles that were similar to the one obtained from DNA left behind by the East Area Rapist.
Major websites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe do not give law enforcement agencies their data without a court order, the Mercury News in San Jose reported. Investigator Paul Holes, a cold case investigator who recently retired from the Costa County District Attorney’s Office, told the newspaper that the data the Golden State Killer investigative team used to crack the case came from GEDmatch, a free, “open-source,” Florida-based website that collects genetic profiles that people share publicly.
The decades-long investigation heated up last week when DeAngelo was identified as a potential suspect, the Bee reported. He was a former police officer, which meant he would have had the sophistication to pull off the crimes without being caught, and he lived in the areas of the attacks when they occurred.
He was also in the right age group to have committed the crimes four decades ago.
Investigators with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office began watching DeAngelo as he went about his business in his Citrus Heights neighborhood, the Bee reported. They obtained a DNA sample from something he discarded and had the sample tested against DNA left behind at crime scenes.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert told the newspaper that she was at a high school fundraiser last Friday when Grippi called her and said they had a DNA match to murder scenes in Ventura and Orange counties.
“I probably used a few words I wouldn’t put in a newspaper, but basically said, ‘You’d better not be lying to me,’” Schubert said.
A second sample obtained the same way confirmed the results Monday, she said. Investigators acted quickly and quietly to make an arrest, which came as a surprise to prosecutors in some of the jurisdictions where DeAngelo is suspected of rape and murder.
“I think it’s a fair statement that it was closely held,” Schubert told the Bee. “There were concerns about public safety in terms of if he figured out something was going on.”
DeAngelo was arrested Tuesday outside his home, where he was working on a woodworking project in his garage, the Times reported.
As detectives took him into custody without incident, he asked if he could take a roast he was cooking out of the oven.
Neighbors described DeAngelo as a cantankerous man who could be heard going on expletive-laced tirades when something didn’t go his way, such as when he misplaced his car keys. Natalia Bedes-Correnti told the Times that she and her husband had nicknamed their neighbor “Freak” because of his bursts of anger.
“A lot of the neighbors know that about Joe,” Bedes-Correnti said. “He was a screamer and a curser.”
Despite his temper, he appeared to live a quiet life over the years with his wife, an attorney. The couple, who are now separated, had three daughters, the Times reported.
One daughter is an emergency room doctor, while another is a graduate student at the University of California at Davis.
Along with his swearing, DeAngelo was known by his neighbors for his attention to his lawn.
“He’d get down on his hands and knees and trim around each rock by hand,” Bedes-Correnti said. “And he mowed. He kept up that lawn meticulously.”
To protect and serve -- and to prey?
DeAngelo is a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He became a police officer in Exeter in 1973.
The Times tracked down an article in the Exeter Sun about DeAngelo as a police officer.
“James DeAngelo Jr. believes that without law and order, there can be no government and without a democratic government here, (there) can be no freedom,” the article stated, according to the Times. “Law enforcement is his career, he says, and his job is serving the community.”
Investigators believe it was while working in Exeter that DeAngelo began preying on the community instead.
Police in nearby Visalia spent the three years that DeAngelo was an Exeter police officer trying to solve about 100 burglaries in their community. The offender, nicknamed the Visalia Ransacker, wore a mask while he tossed the victims’ homes.
The Ransacker is also suspected in the September 1975 killing of College of the Sequoias journalism professor Claude Snelling, the Visalia Times Delta reported. Snelling was shot to death outside his home after a man woke his 16-year-old daughter and forced her at gunpoint to leave their home.
Snelling, who looked out of a window and saw the man with his daughter, ran outside to stop the kidnapping. He was shot twice and collapsed in the front doorway of his home while trying to chase the man, the Times Delta reported.
Ballistics testing on the bullets that killed Snelling tied the killer to a previous Ransacker burglary, the newspaper reported.
DeAngelo moved on from Exeter in 1976, becoming a police officer about 250 miles north, in Auburn.
That’s when the East Area Rapist began his spree in and around Sacramento.
A timeline of violence and death
Victims told police that they would wake to find the man pointing a gun at them. If the women were not alone, he would force them to tie up their husbands or boyfriends with shoelaces or cords, and then he would bind the women himself.
The rapist would sometimes make the men lie with cups or plates stacked on their backs, telling them he would kill them if he heard the dishes fall, the Times reported. He would repeatedly rape the women, pausing to ransack their homes for valuables.
He would sometimes eat and drink beer during these breaks, the newspaper said.
Wendell Phillips, a former Sacramento deputy who was part of the East Area Rapist task force, told the Times that investigators long suspected that the man they were looking for had a military or law enforcement background.
“It was a lot more than a hunch,” Phillips said. “There was no doubt he was either military or law enforcement or both.”
Officers who sought to join the team looking for the rapist had to submit saliva for DNA analysis to ensure that the rapist was not one of the investigators, Phillips said.
The Maggiore killings in 1978 in Sacramento County were decades later tied to the East Area Rapist.
The crimes attributed to the rapist ended around July 1979, the Times reported. That was around the time DeAngelo, then an Auburn police officer, was arrested for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer. Convicted of misdemeanor theft, he was fired.
The deadly attacks attributed to the killer then known as the Original Night Stalker continued in earnest that fall with an October attack on a Goleta couple. Goleta was then an unincorporated area in southern Santa Barbara County.
When the couple escaped, the assailant fled on a bicycle.
The next attack came when Dr. Robert Offerman, 44, and Alexandria Manning were shot to death in December 1979 in Offerman’s Goleta home, the Times reported. The attacker broke in through a sliding glass door and tied the couple up before killing them.
Lyman and Charlene Smith were killed three months later in Ventura, followed by Keith and Patrice Harrington in August 1980 in Dana Point. Witthuhn was the next victim the following February in Irvine.
The Original Night Stalker was credited with the July 1981 slayings of Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez in Domingo’s Goleta home, just blocks away from where Offerman and Manning were slain two summers earlier. Though DeAngelo has not been charged with their deaths, DNA evidence at the scene linked the case to others with which he has been charged.
The killer took a five-year break in the violence until the slaying of Cruz in May 1986 in Irvine. That break puzzled investigators, but the Times reported that DeAngelo’s first child was born six weeks after the Domingo-Sanchez slayings.
Investigators linked all of the unsolved murders through DNA testing in 2000, the newspaper reported.
Holes -- who retired just over a month before the biggest case of his career was solved -- described the process of linking DeAngelo to the DNA in the case as a painstaking one that led the investigative team to a pool of possible suspects. He told the Mercury News that the investigators slowly eliminated people through circumstantial evidence until they had a short list of people, DeAngelo included.
“DeAngelo kind of bubbled to the surface,” Holes told the News. “We’d been looking at him and others for six weeks, and when others dropped off, the circumstantial evidence started to build up (against him) and we decided we needed to get his DNA.”
DeAngelo’s family expressed shock -- and sympathy for the victims and their survivors -- after learning that he was a suspect in the notorious murders and rapes that have haunted California residents for more than 40 years.
His sister, Rebecca Thompson, wept as she opened the door of her Exeter home briefly for a reporter Thursday night.
“We are very sympathetic to the victims and their families,” Thompson told the Times-Delta, tears running down her face.
Thompson also sobbed during a telephone interview with the Times.
“I’m pretty much in shock,” she said.
Thompson said she has always regarded her brother as the “kindest, gentlest man” with his children.
“I have prayed hard that some of this isn’t true,” Thompson said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.