SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A former police officer who terrorized California as a serial burglar and rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people while evading capture for decades pleaded guilty Monday to murders attributed to the Golden State Killer.
Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he repeatedly uttered the words “guilty” and “I admit” in a hushed and raspy voice as part of a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for a life sentence with no chance of parole.
DeAngelo, 74, did not cooperate with authorities but muttered a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an inner personality named “Jerry” that he said forced him to commit the wave of crimes that appeared to end abruptly in 1986.
“I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said.
“I didn't have the strength to push him out,” DeAngelo said. “He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he's a part of me. I didn't want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I've got to pay the price.”
The day of reckoning had come for DeAngelo, Ho said.
“The scope of Joseph DeAngelo's crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said. “Each time he escaped, slipping away silently into the night.”
There's no escaping now. DeAngelo, seated in a wheelchair on a makeshift stage in a university ballroom that could accommodate more than 150 observers at a safe distance during the coronavirus pandemic, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and dozens of rapes that were too old to prosecute.
The large room at Sacramento State University was made to look like a state courtroom with the seal of the Sacramento County Superior Court behind the judge's chair and U.S. and state flags on the riser that served as a sort of stage for a daylong proceeding that had a theater-like feel. Large screens flanked the stage so spectators could follow the livestreamed hearing.
DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on investigators' radar until about a decade after the crimes seemed to end. Investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.
Police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a genealogy website database then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They tailed DeAngelo and secretly collected DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant.
The retired mechanic was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburbs – the same area he terrorized in the mid-1970s, earning the title East Area Rapist.
Prosecutors detailed sadistic acts he committed after slipping into homes undetected and surprising couples in bed by shining a flashlight in their faces and threatening to kill everyone in the house – including young children – if they didn't follow his orders.
The prowler initially said he only wanted money to earn their cooperation. He would have the women bind their husbands or boyfriends face down in bed with shoelaces, then he would bind the women. Victims described being prodded by the barrel of a gun or a knife. He piled dishes on the backs of men and said they would both be killed if he heard the plates crash while he raped the women.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer choked up as victims' family members stood during his description of each of the four killings there. Spitzer, who wiped a tear at one point, diverged from other prosecutors to address DeAngelo directly when discussing the May 5, 1986, rape and slaying of Janelle Cruz, 18 – the final killing.
“You attacked her, you beat her and you raped her,” Spitzer said. “You murdered her in the first-degree, bludgeoning her in the face.”
A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial and even a planned weekslong preliminary hearing. Victims will be able to confront DeAngelo at length during an August sentencing expected to last several days.