Forty years after a sadistic suburban rapist terrorized California, a 74-year-old former police officer is expected to plead guilty Monday to be the elusive Golden State Killer in what investigators later realized were a series of linked assaults and slaying.
The deal will spare any chance of death penalty for 13 murders and 13 kidnapping-related charges spanning six counties for Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. In partial return, survivors of the assaults that spanned the 1970s and 1980s expect him to confess to up to 62 rapes that because so much time has elapsed, he may not be criminally charged.
But nothing is clear until he finally talks during the coronavirus pandemic in a Sacramento State University ballroom put into use as a courtroom to allow for social distancing.
“I’ve been on pins and needles because I just don’t like that our lives are tied to him, again,” said Jennifer Carole, Lyman Smith’s aunt, a lawyer who was murdered at the age of 43 in Ventura County in 1980. Charlene Smith’s 33-year-old wife was also raped and killed.
Early on, investigators linked certain crimes to an armed and masked rapist who would break into the suburban homes of sleeping couples at night, binding the man and piling up the dishes on his back. If he heard the plates fall while he raped the woman, he would try to kill both victims.
Survivors included Gay and Bob Hardwick.
Today they look forward to DeAngelo admitting to the crime in 1978. At any rate, the death penalty was never possible, she said, despite the age of DeAngelo and the moratorium on executions by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“He certainly does deserve to die, in my view, so I am seeing that he is trading the death penalty for death in prison,” she said. “It will be good to put the thing to rest. I think he will never serve the sentence that we have served — we’ve served the sentence for 42 years.”
A guilty plea and life sentence prohibits a jury hearing, or even the expected week-long trial. The victims plan to meet him at his August sentencing, where it is estimated that it will take several days to inform DeAngelo and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman what they have suffered through.
Ron Harrington’s younger brother, Keith, had been married to Patti Harrington for just three months when a rapist, then identified as the Original Night Stalker, bludgeoned them to death in their Orange County home in 1980.
All four brothers were successful, but “Keith, the youngest of all of us, was the smartest,” he said. “It’s just such a loss. And every time this comes up I think of all the lives he would have saved as an emergency room doctor.”
Two days later their father found out the couple.
“It was so gruesome,” Harrington said. ”My dad was never the same.”
Over the decades the murderer racked up a series of monikers for his crimes.
Yet it was not until years later that police traced a string of attacks in central and northern California to subsequent slayings in southern California and searched for the elusive perpetrator whose crimes spanned 11 counties from 1974 to mid-1986 under the umbrella Golden State Killer label.
The mystery ignited curiosity around the world, a best-selling book and a six-part HBO documentary, “I will Be Gone in the Dark,” which premiered on Sunday.
It was only the innovative use of modern DNA methods that led authorities to DeAngelo, who was fired from Sacramento’s northeast Auburn Police Department in 1979 after he was found shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. He had previously served in the Central Valley city of Exeter from 1973 to 1976 as a police officer, near where the Visalia Ransacker hit more than 100 homes south of Fresno.
Investigators painstakingly created a family tree through a common online DNA database, connecting decades-old crime scene DNA to a distant relative. They eventually narrowed in on DeAngelo with a process that has since been used nationwide in other cases, but said they only confirmed the link after suddenly collecting its DNA from its car door and a discarded tissue.
Golden State Killer: Since then, his defense attorneys have publicly lobbied for a deal that would spare him the death penalty, though they did not respond to repeated requests for comment before the hearing on Monday.
In agreeing to consider the plea bargain, prosecutors who had sought the death penalty cited the massively complicated case and the advancing age of many victims and witnesses.
“Death doesn’t solve anything. But him having to sit though a trial or preliminary hearing, that would have helped,”said Carole, who said she and her slain father did not believe in the death penalty.
She was so committed to seeing the case that she moved temporarily from Santa Cruz to the Sacramento home of her adult daughter, where she slept in a spare bedroom on an air mattress. Via podcasts called The Lawyer’s Daughter, she has shared the story of her father’s death and her own recent experience.
But she said it “absolutely” makes perfect sense for prosecutors to agree to a life sentence without parole, both to spare older victims and witnesses who are most susceptible to coronavirus from having to appear in court, and to save taxpayers the projected $20 million in trial costs.
Golden State Killer: Harrington supports the death penalty, but also agreed with prosecutors’ decision “just to give some degree of closure.”
“This will be a relief for all of us, to move on with our lives,” said Hardwick. “We’ve dealt with the effects of the attack for 42 years.”
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