It’s one of Sacramento’s darkest stories. Forty years ago, one man terrorized a region by raping as many as 45 women while eluding law enforcement.
Operating in several Sacramento neighborhoods between 1976 and 1978, the “East Area Rapist” grew more brazen with each victim. He seemed to derive pleasure from terrorizing his targets. He would linger in their homes for hours, whispering in their ears what he would do to them should they try to break free from the crude bindings he used to tie them down.
More than once, after hours passed, victims were horrified to find he was still there – watching them as they lay there.
As word of these crimes spread, gun sales spiked throughout the region. In May of 1977, then Sacramento District Attorney John M. Price announced that he would not prosecute a Sacramento resident for manslaughter even though the man had shot an intruder to death in his home.
Chester Robertson said that he shot an intruder in the back after the man made a sudden move. Price let Robertson off because he felt the incident was a reflection of public panic.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the East Area Rapist’s first known attack – the June 18 assault on a young woman in Rancho Cordova. By the time the horrific spree ended and the rapist moved on – authorities believe to the Bay Area and Southern California – he had become the bogeyman to a generation of Sacramento kids.
In addition to raping women, the man is believed to have committed as many as 12 homicides and 120 burglaries. The last crime associated with him occurred in 1986 when a woman was sexually assaulted and killed in Irvine. Over the years, his name evolved. He became The Original Night Stalker, then the Golden State Killer. But authorities, who had DNA samples from multiple crime scenes, never stopped searching for his real identity.
Last week, the FBI launched a massive national media campaign – one that includes digital billboards as well as a comprehensive website featuring victim testimonials and a recorded phone message from the suspected rapist – in hopes of breathing life into this cold case. The FBI also partnered with Sacramento law enforcement to offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
During the initial investigation, the crimes caused local cops to become suspects themselves. The rapist had to be a cop, some felt, because he seemed to know exactly what the cops were doing.
He was strong, methodical, athletic and elusive. He exhibited military precision in the way he tied victims up quickly and efficiently. He’d break into a home, tie up the husband, place plates on his back and warn that he would kill his female victim if so much as one plate moved or fell.
Some male victims were forced to lay motionless as their wives were raped in the next room.
I know the rapist was at that community meeting.
Carol Daly, investigator on the East Area Rapist case
A 1993 Sacramento Bee story detailed how even the lead investigators in the case had to provide saliva samples because the public had begun to believe that a rogue cop was committing these crimes while being protected by his fellow officers.
“Any of us would have turned in our own son, we wanted this guy so bad,” said Richard Shelby in the 1993 Bee article that marked his retirement from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Shelby had been one of the lead investigators on the case and later wrote a book about the experience called, “Hunting a Psychopath.”
More than 6,000 suspects were checked and eliminated by authorities, including many sheriff’s deputies. At one point there were 34 investigative officers on the case. And yet one man – believed to be white, around 6 feet tall, with blonde or light brown hair – got away with it.
“We had set up traps on the phones of victims, and he called the one who didn’t have a trap on her phone,” said Carol Daly, who retired as Sacramento County undersheriff in 2001, and was one of the original investigators on the case.
Daly remembers how she and her colleagues would hold community meetings to ease fears and answer questions. At one meeting, a man stood up and berated law enforcement and, by extension, the victims of the East Area Rapist. Daly remembers the man saying he didn’t think it was possible for an intruder to break into a home without someone fighting back.
Not long after, someone broke into that man’s home and assaulted his wife, Daly said.
“I know the rapist was at that community meeting,” said Daly, now 76.
All these years later, Daly said the case is never far from her thoughts. She’s become lifelong friends was some of the victims. She’s seen some of them recover, while other family members were consumed by the crimes. Marriages dissolved in the aftermath of the attacks. It’s been 40 years, but the memories are right there.
“It’s there all the time, it’s always there,” Daly said.
When law enforcement leaders gathered last week to announce the $50,000 reward, Daly said she was gratified. “Someone has to know something,” she said. “A wife. A mother. Someone.”
Even if evidence shows that the rapist is dead by now – officials estimate he would be between 60 and 75 years old – Daly said the knowledge of his identity would bring comfort to the victims.
However, there is an additional cruel fact to consider: If he were caught all these years later, he would not be prosecuted for the rapes in Sacramento County. The statute of limitations has expired, said Anne Marie Schubert, the local district attorney.
He could be prosecuted for Southern California homicides for which he is suspected. But had the East Area Rapist not been connected to those killings, he’d have no fear of prosecution. Generally, the statute of limitations for rape in California is 10 years, though in cases with DNA evidence, prosecutors can be granted more time.
On Tuesday, a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for rape and rape-related crimes was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The “Justice for Victims Act,” authored by Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, previously made it through the Senate and now will be considered by the full Assembly.
Even if it’s signed into law, the Justice for Victims Act won’t mean the rapes committed in Sacramento County by the East Area Rapist would be prosecuted. But it would mean a long overdue shift in policy and public perception about how rapes are prosecuted.
There shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on crimes as heinous as these. Though it’s been 40 years, the East Area Rapist remains a nightmare for an entire community, especially the victims who had the misfortune of being targeted by a monster.
Authorities hope the new reward will inspire someone to step forward with information. If he were caught and convicted, “it would mean that his victims could stand in the supermarket checkout line without wondering if the person standing next to them raped them,” Schubert said. “That fear lingers with them until they have answers.”