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The Golden State Killer was the coldest of cases. Police have finally made an arrest.

A former police officer is a suspect in one of America’s most famous serial killer cases.

Elli Whiteway
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

One of the most famous unsolved serial killer cases in the US may finally be on its way to being closed.

Authorities have confirmed the arrest of 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo in connection with the 1978 murder of Sgt. Brian Maggiore and his wife, Katie, in Rancho Cordova, California — an attack that’s believed to be part of a cold case that spanned two decades and multiple cities.

For years, an unknown assailant terrorized suburban Californians. He was known by several media-assigned names, including the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker — usually shorthanded together as EARONS — the Diamond Knot Killer, and, most recently, the Golden State Killer.

Between 1976 and 1986, EARONS is believed to have burglarized hundreds of homes, raped as many as 50 people, and killed at least 12, often while family members were bound and gagged. His attacks were meticulously planned, and his assaults canvassed the state, ranging from as far north as Sacramento and San Francisco to as far south as Anaheim and Irvine. After 1981, following a five-year period of inactivity, EARONS committed only one more confirmed crime — and then apparently disappeared. However, he allegedly continued to taunt at least one of his previous victims with a series of phone calls.

The details, frustration, and terrifying circumstances of the case have made EARONS one of the most well-known cold cases in modern true crime culture, which has inspired a crop of grassroots web sleuths and cold-case aficionados.

Authorities arrested DeAngelo at his longtime home in Citrus Heights early Wednesday morning. Citrus Heights was the scene of six of EARONS’s confirmed attacks between 1976 and 1977. Authorities indicated that DeAngelo was also being investigated for the Visalia Ransacker crimes, which took place in 1974 and 1975, before the East Area Rapist attacks.

DeAngelo was arrested on a warrant from Ventura County and is reportedly being held without bail in Sacramento County Jail. Sheriff Scott Jones stated that DeAngelo was “very surprised” by the arrest and was apprehended quickly.

“For over 40 years, countless victims have waited for justice,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert at a Wednesday press conference. “Over these years, hundreds of individuals have sought justice for victims and their families. Many have dedicated their virtual entire professions to seeking this answer.”

When asked if DeAngelo’s name had ever come up in the investigation before now, Schubert responded, “The answer is no.”

What we know about DeAngelo and EARONS

A 1962 yearbook photo of DeAngelo.
Criminology Podcast

Details of DeAngelo’s past are sketchy, but they paint a picture of a trusted member of law enforcement who used his status within the community as a disguise.

DeAngelo was born in Bath, New York, but grew up near Sacramento. He attended Folsom High School in Folsom, California, and later earned a BA in criminal justice from California State University Sacramento. He ultimately settled in Citrus Heights, where he lived for more than 30 years. Local news reporters spoke to neighbors who described DeAngelo as “relatively nice” but prone to loud outbursts of cursing.

DeAngelo served in Vietnam as a member of the US Navy. Police had long suspected that EARONS had military experience that would have taught him to tie the sophisticated knots he was known to use when binding his victims.

In 1973, after serving as an intern with the Roseville Police Department, DeAngelo became a policeman in the small town of Exeter. Nearby Visalia was where EARONS committed the crimes that led to his first moniker, the Visalia Ransacker. Though investigators had long suspected a connection between the Ransacker and EARONS, no connection was confirmed until Wednesday.

Later on, DeAngelo moved to Auburn, California, and continued working as a police officer. He remained a member of law enforcement throughout most of the 1970s, receiving praise from the community for various services performed while on duty.

In 1979, however, DeAngelo was fired after being caught shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent. True crime reporter Billy Jensen theorized on Twitter that DeAngelo accepted his punishment and quietly left the force in order to prevent any deeper digging into why he needed these items. He was later fined $100 for the incident and sentenced to six months of probation.

Throughout DeAngelo’s stint as a cop, EARONS escalated from burglary to assault to murder. EARONS was suspected in the murders of 11 people between 1979 and 1981; his final known attack was the rape and murder of Janelle Lisa Cruz in 1986. Public records indicate that DeAngelo may have had a daughter during that five-year gap.

The EARONS case has been cold for decades, but it’s been the subject of renewed attention in recent years

During Wednesday’s press conference, Diana Becton, the Contra Costa County district attorney, made a point of praising the foremost investigator on the EARONS case — Paul Holes, a noted forensics expert who devoted nearly a quarter-century of his career to working the case until his retirement earlier this year.

Yet despite the sheer number of victims, eyewitnesses, and manpower devoted to investigating him, the EARONS case remained cold for decades — until noted true crime blogger Michelle McNamara made it her mission to reinvestigate and renew interest in the case. McNamara’s website, True Crime Diary, was a vibrant and beloved part of the internet’s burgeoning true crime community. For years she worked the case, tracking down lost evidence, pursuing new leads, and revisiting the story.

McNamara’s unexpected death in 2016 lent a new sense of urgency to the case; her book on the subject, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was published posthumously in February and promptly became a best-seller. In it, she details her obsession with the case as she revisits the stories of survivors and victims and pursues the killer across his likely Northern Californian origins.

Following the news of DeAngelo’s arrest, McNamara’s widower, comedian Patton Oswalt, tweeted, “If they’ve really caught the #GoldenStateKiller I hope I get to visit him. Not to gloat or gawk — to ask him the questions that @TrueCrimeDiary wanted answered.” McNamara’s fans also flooded social media with remembrances.

News of DeAngelo’s arrest was greeted with shock and jubilation by members of the true crime community, who have long seen this case as something of a white whale.

In Wednesday’s press conference, however, Sheriff Jones made it clear that while McNamara’s book had generated renewed public interest in the case, it had not turned up new leads. Rather, a discarded DNA sample led police to DeAngelo.

“The answer was and always was going to be in the DNA,” Schubert, the DA, said, noting that the case came to fruition within the past week in Sacramento’s crime lab. The arrest, coincidentally, took place on National DNA Day, which commemorates the discovery of the DNA double helix.

“We found the needle in the haystack,” Schubert said, “and it was right here in Sacramento.”