Law Enforcement Takes Unearned Victory Lap for Capture of One of Their Own — The Golden State Killer
It has been over a week since California law enforcement announced what many have waited to hear for more than 40 years — that they identified and captured the man they believe to be the Golden State Killer, thought to be responsible for at least 12 murders and nearly 50 rapes between northern and southern California from the mid-1970s to 1986.
On April 24, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, where six of the crimes occurred. He was formally charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in three counties.
“The answer was always in Sacramento,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at a press conference the day after DeAngelo’s capture. But Schubert and her colleagues, including Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas offered few answers about the DNA testing methods used to identify DeAngelo. Instead, they used much of their time at the podium to repeatedly praise the “dedication,” “persistence,” “dogged determination,” “visionary and innovative leadership,” and “unrelenting efforts” of police and prosecutors — the very same people who have been stumped by the case for decades.
“At a time when law enforcement is unfortunately under so much criticism, I want the public to know that the work on this case reflects the very best, the very highest standards in the noble and dedicated and courageous police profession,” said Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten.
It wasn’t until the end of the nearly hour-long press conference, when reporters were permitted to ask questions, that officials acknowledged what many already knew, thanks to social media — that DeAngelo himself was once a law enforcement officer. Employed by the Auburn Police Department from 1976 to 1979, DeAngelo was employed as a police officer during the same time frame when the Golden State Killer, then known as the East Area Rapist, attacked women and couples in their Northern California homes. DeAngelo was fired from the Auburn Police Department in 1979 after he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer from a drugstore in Citrus Heights.
A few months later, on December 30, DeAngelo allegedly shot to death Robert Offerman, a doctor, and Alexandra Manning, a clinical psychologist, in their home of Goleta, a suburb of Santa Barbara. Offerman and Manning were allegedly the Golden State Killer’s first victims in Southern California.
“Very possibly he was committing the crimes during the time he was employed as a peace officer,” said Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, “and obviously we’ll be looking into whether it was actually on the job.” He also noted that from 1973 to 1976, DeAngelo was employed by the Exeter Police Department, just 30 minutes from where a series of break-ins were committed—crimes also believed to be the Golden State Killer’s work. And yet, investigators said, DeAngelo was never on their radar, despite years of speculation that the offender had a police or military background.
But a failure to bring justice in the long unsolved serial murder case did not stop District Attorney Schubert from using DeAngelo’s arrest to promote her re-election campaign. On May 1, Schubert’s campaign debuted a new 30-second spot hailing her as a “groundbreaking DNA expert who led the investigation that solved the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist case.” The tagline? “She protects us.”
Tell that to the family of Stephon Clark, the unarmed Black man who was shot to death by Sacramento police officers while he was standing in his grandparents’ backyard in March. Clark’s family and activists from around the country have urged Schubert to file charges against the officers, or issue a statement about it, but she has declined to take action. On April 20, Schubert responded to four weeks of protests outside her office by erecting a 10-foot cyclone fence in front of her office and around the employee parking lot.
Schubert had already been criticized for her refusal to pursue criminal charges against the police — since taking office in 2015, according to theSacramento News & Review, she “has declined to file charges in 21 shootings involving police and also in 13 cases of death of people in police custody.” Late last year, Schubert also refused a state auditor’s request that she charge Sheriff Jones with a misdemeanor for “deliberately releasing information that he was specifically told he could not release, despite multiple verbal and written warnings.” A recent investigation by the Intercept revealed that one-third of the funds Schubert has raised for her two campaigns for DA (in 2015 and now, as she runs for re-election) came from law enforcement sources.
Schubert isn’t the only law enforcement official taking victory laps over the apparent resolution of the Golden State Killer case who is facing accusations of protecting the police. Between 2010 and 2015, Orange County DA Rackauckas accepted $23,500 from individual police officers and police PACs, contributions that came against the backdrop of his office’s history of declining to prosecute police killings, including the 2008 shooting death of a 20-year-old man by the Anaheim Police Department which led to a $1.5 million settlement with his widow. And just weeks before Rackauckas appeared on the HLN network to laud law enforcement’s work in the Golden State Killer case, his office was sued by the ACLU over its network of jailhouse informants which was allegedly used to win “countless convictions based on unreliable information.”
As Schubert and Rackauckas ride the tidal wave of positive publicity from the Golden State Killer’s arrest, there is growing criticism of law enforcement exuberance around the case, as if DeAngelo wasn’t one of their own — especially in Sacramento, where the community is already up in arms over a more recent death at the hands of a police officer.
As Schubert noted, the answer to the Golden State Killer case was likely always in Sacramento. But to find what she called “a needle in a haystack,” investigators turned to advanced DNA testing. In the late April presser, law enforcement officers were vague about the methods used to finally identify DeAngelo, even as they ebulliently praised their own work in the case.
“The fact that they didn’t disclose in that press conference their methods I found really disingenuous,” said Erin Murphy, a professor at the New York University School of Law and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. “There was no investigative reason they couldn’t have told everyone. I mean, the press asked them a million different ways. I knew … something smelly was going on. If it was just a familial search, they would have said. I think it’s really telling that they felt they couldn’t share their methods at that time.”
In the weeks since DeAngelo’s arrest, it has been revealed that investigators used a new form of genetic fingerprinting to search for distant relatives of the then-unknown offender in a variety of state, private and public databases, including the genealogy database GEDMatch.
The revelation has raised privacy concerns among the legal community, privacy advocates, and genealogy website users, many of whom were unaware of the ways their own DNA could expose their entire family tree to law enforcement scrutiny. While the terms and conditions of these public sites all vaguely warn of potential privacy risks, the average user is unlikely to be familiar with specific forensic advancements used by police — especially if, like in California, they don’t publicize them.
GEDMatch, however, is where investigator Paul Holes and his fellow investigators got their hit. Using other public records, they assembled a family tree and narrowed down the list of potential suspects within the genetic line. There was at least one near-miss — in March 2017, Holes successfully persuaded a judge to issue a DNA subpoena for a 73-year-old nursing home resident in declining health. He wasn’t a match.
At some point, “DeAngelo kind of bubbled to the surface,” Holes told the San Jose Mercury News.
A timeline of DeAngelo’s known history and whereabouts during those 10-plus years of terror makes clear that he was never far from reach. In just a few short weeks, scientific advancements and a crazy amount of luck accomplished what conventional police work failed to do for the last 40 years. As significant as finally solving this case may be, California law enforcement should quit their showboating and instead reflect on why it took so long to apprehend one of their own.