As the East Area Rapist’s attacks throughout 1976 and 1977 escalated, so too did feelings of panic and worry for those living in eastern Sacramento County.
According to “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” Michelle McNamara's book about the attacker, residents blocked sliding glass doors with dowel rods and pruned trees to destroy his potential hiding places.
The East Area Rapist, as he was known then, was ultimately tied to more than 50 rapes throughout California and 12 murders. McNamara, who died while writing the book, ultimately redubbed him the Golden State Killer—a moniker that has stuck.
In April, James DeAngelo was arrested and has since been charged with all 12 murders. For many, his capture has once again conjured up the uncertainty and fear communities felt decades ago, when they were still unsure when the East Area Rapist would strike again.
Authorities now believe that DeAngelo escalated from breaking in and ransacking homes, to raping women, to then raping women while men where in the house. He would allegedly tie up the men during the crimes, at times stacking dishes on the men, threatening to kill both victims if he heard the dishes crash during the rape. DeAngelo allegedly would take his time tormenting his victims, often taking breaks to rifle around the house and eat snacks.
As reports of his crimes spread, people scrambled to stay safe.
“In one house tambourines were tied to every door and window. Hammers went under pillows. Nearly three thousand guns were sold in Sacramento County between January and May . Many people refused to sleep between 1 and 4 a.m. Some couples slept in shifts, one of them always stationed on the living room couch, a rifle pointed out the window,” the late author wrote.
Authorities believed the East Area Rapist would methodically stake out potential victims before eventually breaking in.
In May 1977, at the height of the panic, a group of 300 neighborhood men would patrol east Sacramento County with pickup trucks and CB radios, according to McNamara’s book. Many families beefed up security with hard acrylic panels they’d bolt behind windows and doors. Hardware stores went from selling 10 floodlights a month to 600, and deadbolts were on backorder. People stopped opening windows to let in a breeze.
Cheryl Brown was a teen in Auburn, California during these years, and often used to sneak out after dark until her mom, skittish about the East Area Rapist, implored her to stop.
“We’d walk everywhere at night, you never had fears. She’d go to bed and we’d get up and wander the streets,” Brown said. “We started hearing about the East Area Rapist on the news … I remember my mom saying, ‘That’s it. No more sneaking out.’”
This year, she learned that the East Area Rapist may have been closer than her mother ever suspected: Joseph DeAngelo’s backyard abutted her family’s property. They all called him “Crazy Cop Joe.”
“Finding out that the person accused of those rapes actually lived in our backyard … I get chills,” Brown said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around that.”
Charlene Carte, who owns Charlie’s Café in Citrus Heights, California, remembers being pregnant in 1978 and taking extra precautions because of the East Area rapist. She slept with the windows closed but took it a step further — she’d clothespin the curtains shut so no one could peep in.
Carte also had personal interactions with DeAngelo — he was a regular at Charlie’s Café. He was notoriously grumpy, so she would call him Mr. Happy to get him to lighten up.
Finding out her temperamental customer might be the same man who kept her community in terror all those years ago is still hard for her to wrap her mind around.
“I think he thought he got away with it,” Carte said. “After all these years he probably thought I’m home free.”
Brown is hoping the arrest and trial can bring some of the East Area Rapist’s victims some peace.
“I want them to have closure,” Brown said. “If they want to crack a window open to get a breeze at night, I want them to be able to do that.”
For an inside look at the evolution of the Golden State Killer, tune in “Golden State Killer: Main Suspect,” premiering on Saturday, August 4 at 7pm ET/PT on Oxygen.