The Hidden Toll of the Golden State Killer

It was April 2018, and Judy Gelein was seated behind the survivors in Courtroom 61 at the Sacramento County Jail, awaiting the entrance of a man accused of being one of the most elusive serial killers/rapists in history. A suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer, linked by DNA to rapes and murders all down the coast of California, had been arrested only three days before, right here in Sacramento, where his spree began. Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was in custody. And if authorities were right, he had been lurking among them the whole time — as Gelein’s sixth sense had always told her.

Gelein had been witness to the terror, living in Rancho Cordova in the 1970s, in East Sacramento, when the killer’s earliest violent rapes tore into their tiny neighborhood. He preferred to attack couples. He woke the victims, surprising them with a blinding flashlight and wearing a ski mask and gloves to conceal his identity. His modus operandi was specific, and he rarely deviated. “Shut up or I’ll kill you,” he would begin, pointing a gun at the victims. “I just want money and food.”

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He’d make the woman tie up her partner, then he would tie her up, then rebind and gag the man himself, sometimes dragging a knife’s blade down the length of the male victim’s spine. If children were present, he would bind and gag them in the same way. He would often ransack the house, copping trinkets, coins and family photos, helping himself to snacks and beer. But then he’d suddenly be back, standing there in his military-style waffle stompers, wearing a shirt and no pants, penis erect.

The attacker would typically march the woman alone to the family room, which he had lit with television static filtered by a towel draped over the screen. “Shut up,” he’d hiss in his awful, strangled voice, often with a gun ready, a knife sheering her nightclothes. He’d go back to the man and place stacked dishes on his back. “If I hear these dishes move,” he would threaten, “I’ll kill everything in the house.” More than 50 times he attacked, threatened, dragged, beat, bludgeoned, and raped, and yet left his victims alive to give their statements to police. Then he stopped leaving them alive; he began fulfilling his promise in earnest, killing everything in the house. From 1975 through 1986, the Golden State Killer brutally murdered more than a dozen people — though that number could still rise.

As we waited for the entrance of the alleged Golden State Killer, I got to know Gelein and the two friends who had come with her. “We go way back,” Gelein said. “We’re Rancho Girls.” Rancho Girls were a group of women who came of age in Rancho Cordova during the mid-Seventies. Just out of high school, they listened to Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and just hung out in the neighborhood and bonded through marriage, motherhood, and the shared terror of evading a relentless stalker and unstoppable rapist. “He was in the bushes again last night,” one would call to say. “Yeah, he was in my yard, too.”

I knew about Rancho Cordova, I told them. Even though I was raised in North Carolina, my mother had transferred her senior year from Folsom High, and I was born shortly after. The bogeyman I grew up hearing about was a masked man who would wait for you to fall asleep, and then climb into your window and tie you up. “Yep,” Gelein said. “Folsom High.” We would learn that was where DeAngelo had gone to high school. We had his name, had seen his mug shot, but there was still so much we didn’t yet know. He had been a faceless phantom until three days prior to this moment. And now, sitting in the room where he was about to make his first public appearance as the suspected Golden State Killer, we knew almost nothing about the man. He had a wife and three daughters, even a granddaughter. In the hours and months to come, a tidal wave of details would roll in, but that morning, waiting for him in person, we guessed, postulated, and puzzled, but it was low tide, and every question only amplified more questions. We didn’t yet know what we needed to know.

Though there’s a possibility the number could increase, DeAngelo — a former police officer who was living with his daughter and granddaughter in a suburb outside Sacramento — is currently charged with 13 murders. Multiple kidnapping and burglary charges are being added where legally applicable, in lieu of more than 50 rape charges, since the statute of limitations on those rapes has run out. Though he had yet to be tried, or even enter a plea, the sense of relief was palpable. Until his capture, it felt like there was always a threat. The killer was known to call and continue to stalk the victims through the years, and though he would repeatedly rape a victim during a single attack, he wasn’t known to return to attack the same woman twice. However, for the rest of the Rancho Girls, there was always the feeling of imminent danger, and each night was spent remaining still, listening for him, waiting. The toll of that endless fear on a community would not have been calculable. Their entire adult lives, until this day, the rapist was out there. “Put it this way,” Gelein says. “Last night was the first time in 40 years my husband and I were able to sleep with the window open.”

In reality, the threat was seismically worse
than the Rancho Girls could have initially imagined. In the Nineties, cold-case investigator Paul Holes worked with his counterparts in other counties to test DNA from disparate unsolved crime sprees along California, and was shocked to get a link. Police originally attributed each spree to a different offender. In Sacramento in the 1970s, the man was known as the East Area Rapist. Some suspected he had also been the fetishist home invader known in two towns: the Cordova Cat Burglar and the Visalia Ransacker. After his primary motive became murder, he was called the Original Night Stalker, a confusing moniker, though it was meant to distinguish him from Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who terrorized L.A. in the mid-1980s. For a while, this incomprehensible monster was called EARONS (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker) — a name more befitting a faraway dark star. But, it was one man. One man had left his semen all up and down the California coast — with the survivors, and with the dead.

It was not until writer Michelle McNamara renamed him the Golden State Killer in a 2013 L.A. Magazine article that the public got a true sense of the obscene reach of his violence. In her 2018 bestselling book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, McNamara describes in vivid detail his scent, his voice, the tiny souvenirs the killer ritualistically stole from his victims. She makes each event personal, unique, tactile for the reader. Her suspenseful literary style inspired empathy, fear, and outrage. The book was especially enthralling because there wasn’t a culprit, and her meticulous research was an ongoing effort to hunt him. She would have found him, if she had lived to see the book’s first anniversary. The book had been published following her sudden death at age 46.

After the book’s publication, thousands more internet sleuths took to the message boards, joining folks like Gelein in sifting through the banal details that grounded a mythic monster in human form. He had blue eyes; he hunted in a tight geographic area, then migrated south; he often used a stolen bicycle to make his getaway; he may have smoked Salems; during one or more attacks he lost his erection, wept, and said either “I hate you, Bonnie” or “I hate you, Mommy.” One victim thought it was definitely “Bonnie.”

Since law enforcement had never gotten a DNA match from CODIS, the FBI’s index of DNA collected from violent criminals nationwide, Detective Holes, on the verge of retirement, went looking for one. He worked with a genealogist to upload the suspect’s DNA to GEDmatch, a database that helps pair up long-lost relatives. Detective Holes knew the suspect would never knowingly upload his own DNA, but the detective’s team was hoping to find a close relative who had — a first cousin, maybe. They found very, very distant relatives. From these, the genealogist developed a family tree, and somewhere in that tree, a DeAngelo appeared, and our guy was in that branch. A short suspect list was made. Of that list, only one person had blue eyes. Authorities tested the DNA against a discarded tissue; they had a match.

A quick search of the name Joseph DeAngelo turned up an old newspaper engagement announcement to a woman named Bonnie. There was no marriage announcement.

Cordova Meadows, where Gelein lived, was the neighborhood first and most frequently hit by the East Area Rapist, as he was then known. He was a peeper, a masturbator, a stalker. He was in every back yard, heard scurrying across rooftops, jumping six-foot wooden fences with ease, disappearing down into “the ditch,” a wide, cement gully that ran behind so many of the houses. He would stalk his victims for months, even letting himself inside their homes well before the attacks. Something illegible was written in what appeared to be semen on the bedroom window of one couple’s home weeks before their attack. In another home, the rapist called the woman by an intimate nickname. Had he been spending evenings in the couple’s bedroom closet, observing them? How could he know everything he knew?

Judy Gelein at her wedding in 1976. Photo: Courtesy Judy Gelein

Gelein was in her early twenties, and was terrorized. “The rapes weren’t really on the news, but you would hear about it at a party, or at the park,” she says. “‘Did you hear there was another attack?’ we would say. And I was always worrying, ‘How would I survive it? What will I do? Would I comply?’”

It was May 1977, and Gelein’s first baby had arrived. News reached her that the rapist would strike with children in the house. “Now I have a kid, and we had just moved closer to the ditch,” Gelein thought. “I have to protect my kid. What am I going to do?”

I asked Gelein whether she ever had a close call. Yes, she had. At least one, just a few months later. “It was Christmas time, and Rancho Cordova was kind of a party spot back then,” she began. Her husband was out, so Gelein’s friend Laurie came over to bake Christmas cookies. There was suddenly a loud, urgent banging at the door. “I went to the peephole, and whoever it was, he was covering the hole,” she said. “I was pushing my hip against the door. It felt like he was pushing that cheap little door in. Whoever this person was, he then took the hose and wrapped it around the door like a figure eight, so that we couldn’t get out.” Maybe he had decided to trap them, and try a different way in. “We were in the house, screaming, ‘Oh, my God, it’s him! It’s him!’

“The neighbor came over with a shotgun. Maybe she heard us screaming. She undid the hose and got us out.” This is when Judy Gelein became the Judy Gelein she is now. Violent attackers had always interested her. She had read about Charles Manson and the Zodiac Killer, and in elementary school, had even written a book report on the Boston Strangler. She was never naive to the potential of violent crime, but if the man at the door were the rapist, she was now a target, and determined not to become a victim.

As the years progressed, Gelein poured her energy into hunting him. She bonded with other women and shared attack details and theories. An assailant profile emerged. He knew their neighborhood too well to be an outsider. He must have been a child here, must have played in the ditch. “He could be the Rancho Cat Burglar from years before,” Gelein thought, a petty thief and ransacker returned, now a violent rapist.

She collected information, profiled her own suspects — strange men she had known from high school, or who had grown up in the neighborhood. One classmate in particular was considered. “He was a weird guy,” Gelein said. “I just had that vibe about him.” He became her prime suspect, but this suspect was in the military and away during some of the attacks, thus eliminated from the pool by alibi. To say that Gelein’s senses were sharp is an understatement: That man later raped and murdered a woman, and is currently on death row.

A drainage canal in a neighborhood of Rancho Cordova, California, that the East Area Rapist would escape to in order to elude authorities when he was terrorizing the area. (Photo by Nick Otto/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Learning of a suspect’s capture all these years later, Gelein was jubilant, and felt a rebellious glee, and of course, freedom from the enduring fear. There is a photo of Gelein and the Girls in front of the county jail where DeAngelo was being held, holding up his mug shot, giving it the bird. But, the day after the arraignment, that need for answers, it crept back in. After lunch at a Sacramento strip mall, we talked in the parking lot about the early reported facts — his age, the engagement announcement, the fact that the killer did finally marry, and so had a wife and three daughters of his own. “His name,” Gelein said. “Now that we have the bastard’s name…” she trailed off. Obsession is its own fuel. Getting to trial could take years, and after seeking for so long, Gelein cannot just wait without answers. And so, as I followed Judy, we drove out, passing other strip malls and box stores on the boulevard. There was a Marshalls, a PetSmart, and Seventies rock on the local dial. We were finding our way into a parallel lifetime, one in which we knew the killer, and yet we needed to go back, to know the killer.

We passed the rustic wooden entrance sign announcing Cordova Meadows, the heart of the earliest spree. Gelein motioned for me to pull off the road and park on the hard dirt shoal next to a wooded area. I was nervous just leaving my car there by the woods, but I climbed into her car and strapped in. The houses are close together, snaking around cul-de-sacs, back yards adjoining, with small, grassy parks tucked in every so often. When it was fresh, this neighborhood would have been a little dream for young, social suburbanites like Gelein and the Rancho Girls. “This is a rape,” Gelein said, pointing to a house. We slowed down and then sped back up. “All these houses were stalked,” she said. She showed me swaths of homes that were cased, several homes that were rapes. “It’s like his thing was ‘homes,’” I said. “Homes, like he had a thing against these homes, and families. Or couples.”

“Right over here, look,” she said, and pulled over. “This is the ditch.” He could simply run through the hedge or hop a fence to get back to this escape. We got back in the car and drove on. There was another spot Gelein wanted to show me, and so we drive on. “This is the Ottlinger house,” she told me. It was a single-story, mid-century brick home, and the scene of the first double murder.

We passed it, and turned onto the street that ran along the side of the house’s back yard. “And this over here,” she pointed across the street. “This is Laurie’s house,” Gelein said as we approached it, and slowed to another stop. Laurie, from the cookie night. “And Janet, her little sister.” Because the Ottlinger house is on a corner, Laurie and Janet’s house was effectively across the street from the Ottlinger’s back yard, and the first slayings.

“You need to talk to Janet,” Gelein said. “She found the bodies. And she remembers everything.”

Janet Handzel is an electrical engineer now, serious and graceful when I reached her by phone. She told me about growing up in Rancho Cordova, playing with pollywogs in the ditch, about being a teen, and being afraid. My mother had also told me about playing with pollywogs in the ditch. After a few minutes, we were chatting like old friends about Sacramento in the 1970s. Handzel was at first animated and reminiscing, and then she had a thought and her voice dropped.

“We would know where there had been a rape because of the loud helicopters hovering over, going around and around,” she said. “And, it was so loud.”

Handzel was studying in her parents’ kitchen, when it happened.

“I was inside doing my homework,” she said. “I heard the shots outside, but I didn’t panic. I waited a minute or two, and all of a sudden, at the window right outside the kitchen where I was sitting, there was a fence, and I saw him go over it. I could just see movement. I heard the fence, I heard him going over, and I saw him moving over it.”

Handzel’s mother also heard the shots, saw the man in black run from the Ottlinger house over to their neighbor Karl, who, a kid of just 17 years old, was standing in his own yard a few houses down. The man ran right up to him, but didn’t attack — instead, he turned and ran across the street, hit the fence at Handzel’s window, and was over it and gone.

Karl had a flashlight, and so he and Handzel walked over to the Ottlinger house. Karl pushed the gate open to look, and saw Katie Maggiore, a 20-year-old neighbor, who had apparently been out for a stroll with her husband. “He was so shocked,” Handzel said. “He got out and started heaving like he was going to vomit.” When Handzel pushed the gate to look in, the gate bumped the woman’s body. “She was there, and she was still moaning.”

Handzel ran back to her house to call for an ambulance — 911 didn’t yet exist in their area, so they called the number for a private ambulance service, which they kept on a sticker next to the telephone. Then Handzel ran back outside toward Katie. An officer pulled up.

“There’s been a shooting,” said Handzel, “and there’s a body right behind this gate, right here.”

The cop started pointing his gun at the rooftops. Handzel and Karl ran to the Ottlinger’s front door, and began banging. The Ottlingers, locked inside, were terrified.

“Who is it! What do you want?” they yelled from within.

“It’s Janet and Karl!” Handzel yelled. “Somebody’s been shot in the front yard!”

“What?” Mr. Ottlinger said, and opened the door. “Somebody’s been shot in the back yard, too.”

“That’s when we all realized, ‘Oh, my god, there’s two,’” Handzel says.

She remembered the ambulance arriving, but said there was only one gurney. As they loaded Katie into the back of the ambulance, Handzel got in with her. The men ran off with a blanket to see about 21-year-old Brian Maggiore. The sweethearts had been married only two years, and according to friends, they were looking forward to traveling the world, and starting a family. Handzel looked at Katie in the light, and could see that, even though she was still moaning, she had been shot in the back of the head.

A cop fished a drowning white poodle out of a neighbor’s swimming pool, walked it over, and tied its leash to a tree, where it cowered, shaking and crying for its owners. Brian and Katie had only been out walking their dog. The men arrived back to the ambulance toting Brian’s body on their makeshift blanket stretcher, and loaded him into the ambulance, under his wife’s gurney. Brian was also still alive. The ambulance whisked the Maggiores away.

At the hospital, both were pronounced dead.

There had been rapes since, but it had only been a few weeks since that Christmas 1977 incident at Gelein’s house, and the violence had escalated to murder. A pre-tied ligature was found at the scene of the Maggiore shooting, and investigators spoke to all the witnesses about the man they saw. It was him. But why the Maggiore’s, and why outside like this, with so many witnesses?

Brian had worked at the nearby Air Force base. Perhaps he saw a prowler, and confronted him. Perhaps the prowler didn’t yet have his mask on, perhaps he recognized Brian, or believed Brian recognized him. The community grasped for an explanation. Why us? Why anyone?

Gelein also wanted to know why. And who. She slowed the car again, and pointed out a low-slung brick middle school. “I think he grew up in this neighborhood,” she said.

He did have an informed knowledge of these homes, and a controlled approach. He occasionally prepared the home, stowing pre-tied ligatures, and leaving doors or windows unlocked, so that he could later re-enter in silence. But who was that maniac attempting to break in through Gelein’s front door? Could it have really been him? That December was an unusually erratic departure for the rapist, as he’d been phoning old victims, phoning police, stymying stakeouts, and taunting all around. His audacity that winter was stunning, but had the assailant ever altered his actual approach, the initiation of attack like that, in such a brazen way, from the outside? I asked Detective Holes, the cold-case investigator, hoping for some wisdom and perspective. “Victim Number Eight,” he answered, taking up a pen to make a rough drawing of a neighborhood. It was thought at the time that the victim was taken to the back yard of an abandoned house. But Ruby Mitchell, the owner of the home, was simply away at the time, and was never questioned by detectives. Holes showed me the sketch, the location of the victim’s house where she parked her car, and of Mitchell’s house just down the way.

Mitchell didn’t know Gelein and the other Rancho Girls, though she lived nearby, but she told me she wanted to meet them, to talk to other women who remember how it was. Mitchell said she never believed in post-traumatic stress disorder before the attacks. “But, I understand it now,” she said. For her, it was always difficult to cope with the lack of information about what was happening, and so the fear and questions had no outlet. Like a loud helicopter tearing low across the sky, it was a free-flying, obscene fear, with no locus anchored in information, no way to root the experience in known, familiar ground.

During the East Area Rapist attacks, Mitchell was recently divorced and living alone with her children. Did she, like Handzel, remember those loud helicopters? Was hearing them scary?

“Scary is a mild word,” she said. “I was terrified — but I was not going to be his victim.”

She made a pact with her friend Patty, to protect one another. Patty would stay over, and they would take turns sitting up by the door with a gun. “No one talked to me at the time,” she said, meaning detectives. “No one talked to me, until Paul.” Mitchell wasn’t home during the attack, but she had sat up with the gun just inside the door all during the relentless spree that followed, yet no one revealed to her how close to that door the rapist had hit, until Holes showed her some old police reports about Victim Number Eight.

Detective Holes was curious about the eighth attack, at Mitchell’s home, and why no one had ever questioned Mitchell. He was attempting to understand an off-character attack that had been so disorganized, and completely botched. He had hopes that seeing the scene, or hearing Mitchell’s experiences, would generate new leads, but in a terrific reversal of fortune, meeting Holes helped Mitchell to understand what had happened.

Attack number eight, October 18th, 1976, was an outdoor kidnapping. The man had made himself intimately familiar with Mitchell’s yard, preparing it prior to the attack, leaving pretorn lengths of towel and binding cord there.

Mitchell’s 19-year-old neighbor arrived home around 11 p.m., and when she opened her car door and turned to look at her dog in the back seat, an unseen hand ripped her suddenly from her car. “Stop fighting, I only want your car,” she heard, and there was a knife tearing into the skin of her neck. The man tied her wrists together with clothesline and kept her at knifepoint, walking her a few houses away, into a darkened area of Mitchell’s back yard. He bound her ankles with cord, then blindfolded and gagged her with the towel strips. The man knew the young woman’s father would be arriving home soon, and so he left her momentarily to put her dog in the trunk and move her car. While he was re-parking the car, she managed to escape.

Mitchell had sat up nights with the gun, waiting to confront the rapist, yet circumstances ultimately rendered her powerless to help. “Even though it was decades ago, it bothers me a lot,” Mitchell says. In the pursuit of service, she became a massage therapist, often treating war veterans and amputees.

“You, yourself had gone through so much,” I said. “And then got into healing others.”

“That’s how we heal ourselves, though, you know?”

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 27: An attendee holds a photo of Cheri Domingo and her boyfriend Gregory Sanchez, who were killed in 1981, as she sits in the courtroom during the arraignment of Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected "Golden State Killer" on April 27, 2018 in Sacramento, California. DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, is believed to be the East Area Rapist who killed at least 12 people, raped over 45 women and burglarized hundreds of homes throughout California in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An attendee holds a photo of Cheri Domingo and her boyfriend Gregory Sanchez, who were killed in 1981, as she sits in the courtroom during the arraignment of Joseph DeAngelo. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At Courtroom 61, the survivors were led in through a separate entrance, and were seated in the front two rows of the gallery, next to district attorney Anne Marie Schubert. The courtroom door was opened for a moment, and the media flooded in and got into position in the corner, behind the judge’s bench. Gelein and the Rancho Girls sat in the row of chairs behind the survivors.

One of the women turned to look at Gelein, who placed her hand on the back of the woman’s chair. “We’re from Rancho Cordova,” Gelein said to her. “We’re here to support you.” The woman reached to touch Gelein’s hand.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for being here.”

A matter of moments later, the door next to the judge’s bench opened, and the suspect emerged cuffed to a wheelchair. He could see the gallery of his victims, but he didn’t react, and the women didn’t react, either. They had never seen his face. They could only describe his general body shape, his penis, and his odd, high-pitched, strangled voice.  Now this old stranger was being wheeled over, closer to them, to be read his charges. Most of the survivors had met for the first time that morning. Now some took one another’s hand for what was about to happen — just women holding hands, strangers with the same rapist.

A mere three days after his capture, the first charges were limited to the Maggiore murders in Sacramento County. He was charged with murder with special circumstances — those circumstances being that there were multiple other murders, that he was suspected of being a serial killer.

“Count One alleges…you did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought, murder Katie Maggiore, a human being.” The cameras were snapping and rolling, millions of faraway eyes watching his face. He did not react. “It’s alleged…you did unlawfully, willfully, and with malice aforethought, murder Brian Maggiore, a human being.” No reaction. He was silent. The women were silent; the gallery was silent. The judge asked, “Do you have a lawyer, Mr. DeAngelo? Can you afford one, or are you asking the court to appoint you a lawyer?” This was not a yes or no question. He was reluctant. He barely nodded. The judge pressed him to speak up. “Did you not understand the question?”

“I have a lawyer,” he finally said, and the survivors gasped. It sounded like him. That was the same as the high-pitched, strangled voice of their rapist, and they had never forgotten it. They’d read about the DNA link, had seen the old man’s mug shot, but hearing this voice connected them to their ancient, suddenly immediate trauma. Their survival circuitry was hard-wired 40 years ago, set to never forget this voice, and their reaction was confirmation. This was what we came here to understand. That spectral monster’s voice, the one mentioned in all the police reports, seemed to be in the room with them again, and this time he was the one bound and denuded, while all the world watched.

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