Joseph James DeAngelo, one of the most prolific serial killers and rapists in California history, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder on Monday, June 29.
DeAngelo’s string of brutal crimes, which included home invasions and tying up his victims, lasted from 1974 to 1986. In April 2018, law enforcement captured DeAngelo, who himself is a former police officer.
DeAngelo was dubbed the “Golden State Killer” by the now-deceased true crime writer, Michelle McNamara, whose March 2013 article in Los Angeles Magazine helped spur greater interest in the unsolved crimes.
While McNamara died years before DeAngelo was caught, her book about his crimes (and her investigation of them) has become a seminal account of the Golden State Killer and is believed to have helped lead to his arrest.
The Golden State Killer pleads guilty
To ensure adequate social distancing measures during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, DeAngelo was brought before Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman at the Sacramento State University Union Ballroom on Monday. Though DeAngelo is believed to have committed hundreds of robberies and dozens of rapes, due to the statute of limitations, DeAngelo was only charged with murder and kidnapping.
DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances. In California law, special circumstances refer to aspects of the murder that worsen the crime (in this case rape and kidnapping), a distinction that in some cases may permit a death sentence.
California has the death penalty, or capital punishment, but has not executed a prisoner since 2006.
DeAngelo also pleaded guilty to 13 counts of kidnapping while formally acknowledging that he committed rape and burglary. He agreed to enter a guilty plea in order to avoid receiving the death penalty.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”
McNamara was a writer who, in 2006, began the true crime-focused blog True Crime Diary (though the site is still up, it hasn’t been updated since 2015). Her writings on various unsolved murders and cold cases – with titles like “The Boat at the Bottom of Lake Washington” and “Tracks in the Snow” – caught the attention of Los Angeles Magazine.
McNamara was commissioned to write an article, “In the Footsteps of a Killer,” about an unsolved series of crimes in which she had taken a particular interest. While her article described the crimes of a serial killer she called “the Golden State Killer,” it also peppered in personal details about her life with her husband and young daughter.
The success of the article led to a book deal in which she expanded on the article and her “obsessive” interest with the killer it would later be learned was DeAngelo. Referencing a threat DeAngelo made to one of his surviving victims, the book was entitled “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.”
The book jumps back and forth from the various crimes of the Golden State Killer throughout the 70s and 80s to McNamara’s present day research. To research, McNamara flew across the country to meet investigators who provided her with insights into the case.
McNamara’s research revealed to the public that a number of other infamous, uncaught serial rapists and killers, including the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were all, in fact, the same man: DeAngelo.
DeAngelo’s “sadistic” crimes
DeAngelo was born in Bath, New York in 1945. He served in the Navy before joining the police force of Exeter, California, a small town in the central San Joaquin Valley. He later moved to Auburn, California, just north of Sacramento, where he also worked as a police officer until he was fired in 1979 for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer.
DeAngelo’s crimes occurred across California, starting with burglaries, before escalating to rapes and ultimately murder. On some occasions, he would break into the home of a couple, tie up the man and place a stack of plates on his back. DeAngelo would then say if he heard the plates fall, he would kill them both. He would then rape the woman.
The East Area Rapist was a notorious figure in the Sacramento area in the late 1970s, whereas the Original Night Stalker was blamed for a series of killings in Southern California from 1979 to 1986. While many in law enforcement and the true crime community had speculated they were the same man, DeAngelo’s capture officially confirmed it.
At the time of his capture, DeAngelo, who is divorced, was living with his daughter and granddaughter.
McNamara’s lasting legacy
Sadly, before McNamara could finish her book, she unexpectedly died of an accidental overdose on April 21, 2016. She never learned the true identity of the Golden State Killer, nor is DeAngelo discussed as a possible suspect in the book. Nonetheless, her focus on the case has been credited with increasing public interest in solving the crimes.
Her husband, stand-up comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, wrote an obituary for her in Time Magazine, which discussed McNamara’s fascination with true crime writing as well as her social work, love of music and time spent working for Michelle Obama in Chicago, Illinois.
After McNamara died, Oswalt worked with McNamara’s researchers to complete the book, which was then published in February 2018, just months prior to DeAngelo’s capture.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” went on to become a New York Times bestselling book and was later picked up by HBO to be turned into a six-part documentary miniseries. The first episode of the series, narrated by actress Amy Ryan, aired on Sunday, June 28, the day before DeAngelo’s guilty plea.
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