A former police officer who terrorised California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades has pleaded guilty to murders attributed to a criminal dubbed the Golden State Killer.
Joseph James DeAngelo Jr had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he repeatedly uttered the words “guilty” and “I admit” in a hushed and raspy voice as part of a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.
DeAngelo, 74, had never publicly acknowledged the killings, but offered a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an inner personality named “Jerry” who he said forced him to commit the wave of crimes that ended abruptly in 1986.
“I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said.
“I didn’t have the strength to push him out,” DeAngelo said. “He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he’s a part of me. I didn’t want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I’ve got to pay the price.”
“The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Mr Ho said. ”Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”
The large room at Sacramento State University was made to look like a state courtroom with the seal of the Sacramento County Superior Court behind the judge’s chair and US and state flags on the waist-high riser that served as a stage for a proceeding that had a theatre-like feel. Large screens flanked the makeshift stage so spectators in the ballroom could follow the hearing.
Temperatures were taken of everyone in the room and even the judge wore a mask at times when he was not speaking.
DeAngelo, who wore orange jail overalls and a plastic face shield to prevent possible spread of the virus, leaned to one side and his mouth appeared agape as prosecutors read graphic details of crimes where he raped and killed and then snacked before leaving.
DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on the radar of investigators who spent years trying to track down the culprit.
It was not until after the crimes ended that investigators connected a series of assaults in central and northern California to killings in southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.
Police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database then built a family tree that eventually led to DeAngelo. They tailed him and secretly collected DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant.
The retired truck mechanic was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburbs — the same area he terrorised in the mid-1970s, earning the title East Area Rapist.
The masked prowler initially said he only wanted money, then made the women bind their husbands or boyfriends face down in bed with shoelaces, and then he would bind the women. Victims described being prodded with the barrel of a gun or the tip of a knife.
He piled dishes on the backs of men and said they would both be killed if he heard the plates crash while he raped the women.
At a home in Contra Costa County in autumn 1978, he told a woman he would cut her baby boy’s ear off if she did not perform oral sex after he had raped her.
He stole whatever he could find, sometimes a few bottles of beer and cash, other times diamond rings. He slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and evaded police who at times believed they came close to catching him.
DeAngelo started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he is believed to have committed his first break-ins and killing.
After three years he moved back to the Sacramento area, where he got a job with the Auburn Police Department in the Sierra foothills. He held that job until 1979 when he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer — two items that could be of use to a burglar.
DeAngelo killed a couple walking their dog in a Sacramento suburb in 1978, but the majority of murders came after he left the police force and moved to southern California.
A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial and even a planned weeks-long preliminary hearing. Victims will be able to confront DeAngelo at length during an August sentencing expected to last several days.