Victims like Jane Sandler and Debbi Domingo may hold the key to finding the man responsible for a string of California crimes that include numerous murders and sexual assaults, and they’ve spent the last few years trying to piece together the puzzle of their attacker’s identity.
When Sandler speaks about the night she was raped, the questions come pouring out. She says an unidentified man attacked her in 1976, making her the fifth victim in a string of attacks in the '70s that are still unsolved. Domingo’s mother was killed by the same mystery man in 1981, when she was still in high school. Their fight to identify the faceless attacker has only just begun to pick up steam.
Last year, the FBI announced a $50,000 reward for any information on the identity of the infamous East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State Killer or Original Night Stalker. Police believe over 40 rapes and 12 murders can all be traced back to this one man, according to the FBI announcement.
Sanders said each day she hopes her attacker will be identified and captured — until then, Sanders and Domingo wait and wonder where he might be, what he’s doing now and why he did what he did.
Few facts are known about the attacker. His M.O. includes stalking — police estimate he spends days or weeks preparing for an attack before carrying it out, calling his soon-to-be victims, making prank calls and threats through clenched teeth.
The night of the attack, Sandler was home alone with her son when a man wearing a ski mask entered her house. A 30-year-old mother, she and her 3-year-old son said the man lingered in the kitchen, looked in the refrigerator, and ripped her bed sheets down the middle, all while they were both tied up. The now-infamous, faceless killer and rapist stood up and moved her son from the room before carrying out his attack on Sandler, she says. When she imagines her attacker, she lingers on one action — on the moment he moved her son out of the room before proceeding with the assault — and wonders if this and other details from that night could help identify him.
“His M.O. was the same almost every time. Speaking through the clenched teeth, wearing the ski mask, wearing the black gloves, either carrying a knife or a gun, and then tying his victims up and gagging them and blindfolding them,” Sandler said, describing the night of her attack. “That was the greatest emotion that day: fear. What’s he going to do to us? What’s he going to do next? Where’s my son been moved?”
Domingo was about to turn 16 when her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were murdered in Santa Barbara. For 20 years, Domingo believed her mom’s sudden death was random. Police questioned her, asking if her mom had any enemies or jealous ex-boyfriends as they searched for her mom’s killer, but the case went cold. It wasn’t until 2011 when police were able to connect Dee’s mother’s murder to the same man who allegedly raped Sanders and numerous other California attacks.
“For me just to have the truth, for all of us — the rape survivors and the other surviving family members of the murders — we just need closure and peace. We need to know that he’s done. And I know everyone’s like, ‘well, it’s been 30 years since his last attack.’ We don’t know that. He could be anywhere, he could still be hurting people,” Domingo told Oxygen.
Most of the mysterious man’s victims never got a good look at his face, Sandler said, and because he was typically wearing a ski mask when he carried out the attacks, she said she even doubts images the FBI has posted, saying, “These sketches that they put out, someone may have seen him pass by really quickly, but I don’t know how accurate they are.” Police and victims have to rely on the similarities in his attacks to try to identify him, along with any physical evidence, like DNA, he left at the scenes.
“Obviously he had plenty of strength to restrain people and beat people, but his greatest success -- if you can put the term 'success' on a serial killer -- his greatest advantage was always surprise and his prior planning and stalking and preparing,” Domingo said. “He always knew his script, he always knew exactly what he was going to do. The element of surprise and for him to be in control, I don’t care if he’s 70 or 75, he’s still able to do that. It’s still very, very real for me.”
Domingo said she’s spent the years since police contacted her in 2011 trying to connect the dots — she imagines what his career might have been, where he might be now and what kind of personality he might have.
“I think he had to have some kind of a job where it was acceptable for him to be out and about. I don’t know if that would have been mowing lawns or checking meter readers or installing cable TV, security guard… something. I think he had to have had some kind of a vocation where he could blend in and nobody would think twice about it,” Domingo said. “I think he maybe applied to police academies and washed out or got some kind of discharge for something stupid. I think there’s an unfulfilled need to be the controler kind of a guy. I think that stemmed from some kind of an unachieved career goal. That’s my personal feeling.”
The alleged killer and rapist may still being alive and living somewhere, still hidden from law enforcement or consequences, but even if he has died since his last attack, Sandler said just knowing that would bring her and the other victims peace.
“Even if he’s dead, we just need to put this to bed and know that. He could be in jail, he could still be out there. We have no idea. It would just be very comforting for everyone involved just to know that he’s been identified.”
Both Sandler and Domingo said they think about what it would be like to have answers to all of their lingering questions — to know what he looks like, how he was able to get away with so many crimes and where he is now — and both hope the day he is brought to justice will come soon.
“If and when he does get caught, I’d be curious to see his place. I imagine he has a place for everything and everything in its place,” Domingo said. “I would imagine that he’s very methodical… that he was very, very controlled in his environment. It wouldn’t surprise me if he would get frustrated… and that would come out. That there’d be glimpses of him.”
Sandler said she hopes to someday have the full picture, too.
“I would just hope someday that I can sit down and have a talk with him. I have a lot of questions I’d want to ask. Like how long was he stalking me? Did I know him before? Did we meet somewhere before? Why did he move my son from the bed before he raped me? He had this ritual of tearing sheets, very slowly and tearing mitotically. I’m thinking, what is he going to do, hang us? What’s the deal with him tearing these sheets?” Sandler said. “He was a very, very sick man.”
[Photo: FBI Handout, Jane Sandler]