One of the longest-running serial killer cold cases in U.S. history may have finally been cracked Wednesday with the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, has been charged with two murders and is the suspect for a California crime spree that included at least 12 homicides and about 50 rapes between 1979 and 1986. The elusive killer was also known as the East Area Rapist at the time.
The case has mystified authorities for decades and led to no arrests or identified suspects until Wednesday.
Here's everything you need to know about it. You can learn more with a two-part Martinis & Murder podcast about the case.
A chilling pattern
The killer began attacking teens and women who were home alone or with young children before switching to targeting couples. He was known as the East Area Rapist at the time.
Police said he would stalk couples for weeks trying to figure out their habits and home security before attacking. When he struck, he would appear near the foot of his victims’ beds with a weapon in the middle of the night, often not wearing pants. He would force the woman to tie up the man, then he’d tie up the woman, police said.
Then he’d make the man lie on his stomach and put dishes on top of him, telling the man that if they rattled, he’d hurt or kill the woman he was raping.
After he was done, he’d sometimes stay in their house even longer, making himself a sandwich or having a beer, doing a little ransacking and rummaging for small keepsakes like a photo. All while his victims lied fearing for their lives and never certain when he left the house.
Down the coast
In Northern California, the crimes occurred from 1976 through 1979. At some point in 1979, however, the killer moved down the coast, and police treated these Southern California crimes as the work of a different person, whom the press called The Original Nightstalker.
The crimes dramatically changed. In Northern California, he had killed two people—but only to evade being caught. In Southern California, he killed 10, capping off his rapes by bludgeoning the women and their husbands to death.
DNA didn’t show that the crimes were connected until 2001.
What police knew
The East Area Rapist always wore a ski mask when he attacked couples, so it was hard to know what he looked like. Still, investigators believe he was a young, white man at the time of the attacks, close to 6 feet tall, with blonde or light brown hair.
He was slender and in good shape, but had an unusually tiny penis, police said.
Apart from physical description, the FBI believes it’s likely the East Area Rapist started out as the Visalia Ransacker, a man who burglarized about 80 homes before the East Area Rapist began his reign of terror.
“He may have an interest or training in military or law enforcement techniques, and he was proficient with firearms,” the FBI wrote in a statement last year. Police said DeAngelo is a former cop.
His phone calls
The killer would often call his victims before or after the attack, taunting or threatening them. He once called a victim and said “Merry Christmas, it’s me again!”
Another time he called the police to say, “You’re never gonna catch me! It’s the East Area Rapist, you dumb f---ers!”
Once, in 1977, he called the sheriff’s department and told them “I am going to hit tonight. Watt Avenue.” Police put patrollers out, and sure enough, they saw a man in a ski mask riding a bike over the Watt Avenue bridge, but he was able to escape.
Erie attack of town hall couple
In 1977, because so many women in the Sacramento area were being attacked, police started holding town hall meetings for concerned citizens. At one town hall, according to Crime Watch Daily, a man who was with his wife cast doubt on the case.
The man said “he absolutely could not believe that a rapist could come into a home and rape a woman while the husband was in bed with her," Carol Daly, who survived one of the first attacks by the suspect, told Crime Watch Daily. Seven months later, that husband and his wife were victims of the East Area Rapist.
"I believe the rapist was at the meeting," Daly said. "He may have followed them home and just waited. It was not random."
Mike Morford, a true crime podcast host who calls himself "True Crime Guy," has been recently tracking the mysterious killer and met with several victims. Oxygen.com spoke to him last year.
“When I first learned about this case, I noticed he had a much higher victim count than other serial killers in California,” Morford told Oxygen.com. “There were a lot of people in California who didn’t know who this guy was.”
Morford said keeping a spotlight on the case was a good way to ensure an answer would eventually come. Interest spiked again after author Michelle McNamara's book “I'll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” which is about the case, was posthumously published earlier this year. Her husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, credited her for helping to lead to the arrest.
DeAngelo had an odd arrest history before Wednesday. Investigative journalist Billy Jensen tweeted a picture of an old article that reveals that DeAngelo was once arrested for shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer in Sacramento. At the time, he served on the Auburn Police Department.
An answer at last?
Oxygen.com on Wednesday spoke to Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons, an author from Northern California whose writing helped solve a 37-year-old cold case murder in the Bay Area late last year. Some internet sleuths had theorized the Golden State Killer was responsible for that cold case.
“Paranoia was just there- all the kidnappings that happened in the late 70s and early 80s. It wasn’t just one boogeyman; it was several,” she told Oxygen.com. “I am thrilled about the arrest. I only wish Michelle McNamara was here to celebrate.”
Jane Carson-Sandler, who is believed to be a victim of sexually assault at knifepoint by the East Area Rapist in 1976, told The Island Packet in Bluffton, North Carolina Wednesday that she is overwhelmed with joy after the arrest.
[Photos: FBI sketches]