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Did military and law enforcement training help East Area Rapist suspect evade capture?

Here are the headlines behind the horror of East Area Rapist, 1977-2018

FBI agents and detectives took into custody Joseph James DeAngelo, who is suspected of being the East Area Rapist. The rapist also was known as the Golden State Killer, linked to 45 rapes and a dozen murders.
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FBI agents and detectives took into custody Joseph James DeAngelo, who is suspected of being the East Area Rapist. The rapist also was known as the Golden State Killer, linked to 45 rapes and a dozen murders.

Wendell Phillips was a newly minted Sacramento sheriff's deputy when the man known as the East Area Rapist was breaking into homes, stalking and raping dozens of victims, night after night, over the course of several terrifying years in the region.

Phillips, now 68, said one thing stands out to him as he looks back on the case, which had him hiding in darkened homes, face covered in grease paint, trying to catch the suspect in the act.

He remembers thinking that the man they were hunting behaved like a cop or someone who had been in the military. It was something he discussed with his fellow deputies.

"We always suspected he was law enforcement or had some kind of special-forces training or both," said Phillips, a former deputy union representative who is now an attorney living in Malibu.

Those long-held suspicions were confirmed Wednesday when law enforcement officials named Joseph James DeAngelo as a suspect in the long-cold case. Authorities believe DeAngelo is the man behind at least 45 rapes and 12 murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

DeAngelo, 72, a Folsom High School graduate, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and went on to serve in Vietnam. He later earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State University.

After graduation, he moved to Exeter, where he served as a police officer from 1973 to 1976, according to Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. His time in Exeter coincided with what became known as the Visalia Ransacker burglary spree, in which someone broke into more than 85 homes and killed a College of the Sequoias journalism professor. Visalia is about 10 miles from Exeter.

After leaving Exeter in 1976, DeAngelo became an officer with the Auburn Police Department. He was fired in 1979 after he was charged with shoplifting a hammer and a can of dog repellent from a Citrus Heights drug store.

The idea that the East Area Rapist had military or law enforcement training has been widely embraced by people familiar with the case for years. His attacks suggested extensive planning, surveillance and reconnaissance. He even would go as far as to enter the house before an assault, unlocking windows or planting items for future use.

Another reason was the intricate knots he would use to bind his victims. He often would "hogtie" the husband of a woman he would rape. He then would stack dishes or other breakable items on the man's back and would tell the husband that if he heard the dishes break, he would murder his wife, Phillips said.

Investigators also believed the East Area Rapist had a naval background, because he would tie his victims up with an intricate sailor's knot, called a diamond knot.

He also seemed to know exactly how police would hunt for him. "The guy obviously knew escape and evasion tactics, what to do when a perimeter was set up, how to avoid being discovered inside a perimeter," Phillips said.

Phillips said the rapist had a knack for eluding the massive manhunts police deployed to catch him.

"If you're being pursued by a numerically superior force, you go to ground," Phillips said. "A couple of time we thought we had this guy surrounded. ... Later, you would come back and find where he had burrowed down in the middle of a big bush and covered himself up. He probably went to sleep and let the search go right over the top of him."

Jack Levin, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University who has studied serial killers, said a military and law enforcement background would make sense with what's known about the East Area Rapist.

To his knowledge, none of the other notorious serial killers over the years have been law enforcement officers, but he said several worked as security guards. David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam serial killer in New York City in the 1970s, had tried to become a cop at one point, Levin said.

Levin said serial killers and corrupt and violent police officers often can share similar motivations.

"Most (officers) have chosen their profession to help people, but a few of them have done it for the wrong reason," he said. "They crave power and control and dominance. ... They can manipulate people. It makes them feel superior, so (DeAngelo's background) shouldn't be a surprise to us."

Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI agent who specialized in criminal profiling, said a military or police background for a serial killer can be a common assumption but usually doesn't hold true.

"Whenever a serial killer goes unapprehended for a long period of time, it gives the impression of 'How could this person do this? How could they evade capture for so long? Oh, well, they must know law enforcement technique and they must be a police officer.' Over the years, I have seen that assumption made in a lot of cases. In this case, it happened to be correct."

O'Toole's biggest question is what DeAngelo was up to in the years following his last known attack. She said it's rare for offenders as prolific as the East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State Killer, to suddenly just give up their urges.

For Phillips, the former deputy who hunted the East Area Rapist decades ago, the arrest has brought back memories about the meticulous way the man operated, how he would stake out homes, leaving screens and windows unlocked for later access, often taking a personal memento such as a photograph with him.

In one of his later attacks, the East Area Rapist broke in and hid in a closet waiting for the couple to fall asleep. He was smug when he woke them up, Phillips said.

"The husband reached over for a firearm, a revolver he had in the night stand, next to the bed," Phillips said. "The East Area Rapist was standing there, shining the light on his own hand, showing the guy the bullets he had taken out of it."

Phillips said the act amounted to "terrorist tactics before anybody used that word."

"If this does turn out to be him, there's a whole lot of victims and a whole lot of old retired police officers that will breathe a sigh of relief and be glad that justice is finally going to get done," Phillips said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow
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