On a clear winter night in February 1978, a young couple left their Rancho Cordova apartment around 9 p.m. to walk the dog.
With a quarter-moon in the sky and only a sprinkling of porch lights, the middle-class neighborhood of weathered fences and winding streets was especially dark.
Residents were on edge.
In the preceding weeks, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had received reports of prowlers, burglaries, strange hang-ups and silent phone calls from 12 different homes in the enclave known as Cordova Meadows. Other homes to the east and west, along the American River Parkway, also had been burglarized at night, according to sheriff’s records.
Already, several sexual assaults in the area had been linked to the so-called East Area Rapist, an elusive criminal who had been terrorizing suburban neighborhoods east of downtown since June 18, 1976.
On Feb. 2, 1978 – a Thursday – Air Force Sgt. Brian Maggiore, 21, and his 20-year-old wife, Katie, were murdered when their evening stroll ended in a frantic chase and bursts of gunfire.
Detectives could not know it at the time, but the Maggiores’ deaths four blocks away from their apartment marked a critical turning point in the crime spree of the East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State Killer.
With the arrest last month of a suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, of Citrus Heights, the slayings are now considered the starting point for a serial killer who allegedly went on to murder 10 more people in California over the next eight years.
On Thursday in Santa Barbara County, four more murder counts were filed against DeAngelo, who now faces 12 homicide counts in four California counties.
But the Maggiore killings are believed to be his first, and detectives who have worked the case for decades still are mystified by what triggered the slayings.
Did the pair stumble across the suspect in a ski mask as he was casing his next rape victim’s home? Or had he graduated to a new level of violence, and they were the first unfortunate victims?
According to a detailed description on the Sacramento County sheriff’s website and Bee interviews with former residents and a retired detective who investigated the slayings, here is what's known about that February night 40 years ago.
▪ Brian and Katie Maggiore left their La Verta Court apartment and encountered the killer sometime after 9 p.m., somehow winding up in the backyard of a home on La Gloria Drive. It is not known whether they were chased into the yard, followed the suspect or possibly had gone to retrieve their dog.
▪ An eyewitness on the home’s second story saw the couple then flee through a downed section of fence and into the backyard of an adjacent home on La Alegria Drive.
▪ The witness saw the suspect raise his arm and fire at the couple, then saw the figure fire toward the ground near the La Alegria home. Brian Maggiore was later found at the spot, suffering a gunshot wound that made him unable to speak.
▪ The second-story witness then saw the suspect run around the east side of the house and disappear. Katie Maggiore was later found in the side yard.
Both died later at a nearby hospital, according to the sheriff's report.
Relatives of the couple declined to be interviewed following DeAngelo’s arrest last month. But two former residents who were teenagers at the time recalled the crime in detail and its impact on their families over the years.
Jeff Ottlinger was four days shy of his 19th birthday and working at Pancake Parade on Folsom Boulevard when he learned that his neighborhood was teeming with cops and a circling helicopter.
Without cellphones and no easy means for updates, he got permission from his boss to leave work, cutting down side streets to wend his way back to the home on La Alegria Drive where the family had lived since 1970.
Like many Sacramento-area residents, Ottlinger had been concerned about the East Area Rapist case and, with a twin sister, he worried she might be at home.
After passing “a gauntlet of law enforcement” to reach his parents, Ottlinger learned that a bullet had smashed into their home, lodging in a wall high above the fireplace. His mother and father had been in the room at the time, facing the television.
“I know my dad heard a woman coming up to the door, and I think she was screaming, trying to get in,” said Ottlinger, now 59. “He being a protector and all, he went to the door, and right when he got to the door, a bullet went through the sliding glass door.”
Ottlinger said his dad grabbed his mother, got her down and moved to the home’s interior.
Katie Maggiore "ran down this side yard and made it to the end and never made it out,” he said. “I guess she probably fell and he came up on her and shot her in the head right there.”
The couple’s dog later was found alive in the neighbor’s pool, the home where the fence had been downed earlier by a storm, he said.
Two houses down on La Alegria Drive, 17-year-old Karl Nollsch was in a back bedroom drinking a Coke when he was startled “by a couple of loud booms.” A high school senior with a fast motorcycle and a gift for sketching, Nollsch walked out onto the driveway and heard more booms, he said.
He looked to his left to the Ottlinger home.
“Then I heard somebody scrambling over the gate,” he said. “And then the guy dropped down and started running toward me.
“He ran right up to the house next door to me and he caught wind of me standing there and turned around and ran back down the other way around the corner.”
The suspect got about 5 feet from Nollsch before turning and running away, according to Nollsch's statement on the night of the killings. Nollsch saw the figure was wearing a ski mask, tan jacket, dark slacks and appeared to be carrying a gun in his right hand.
"He got so close to me that he looked up and saw me standing there. I think he was just startled," he said. "He might have had a vehicle parked around the corner. ... I think he was in flight mode at that time, just trying to get away from the scene as fast as he could."
Nollsch and a neighbor friend walked down toward the Ottlinger home and could hear someone breathing on the other side of the fence, apparently Katie's final breaths.
"I still didn’t know what was going on,” said Nollsch, now 57.
But his artistic abilities, honed at Cordova High School, were later put to use. At the request of sheriff's detective Ray Biondi, Nollsch was re-interviewed the following day at the Sheriff's Department, where he was placed under hypnosis and videotaped.
More details emerged. Nollsch recalled how the sound of someone scaling the fence was followed by what sounded like a person falling into bushes, then scrabbling to get out, according to sheriff's documents.
His description of the suspect also was detailed: white, male, 28 to 30 years old, medium build, 6- to 6-foot-2, close and deep-set eyes, black or dark blue knit ski mask that left only his eyes and nose exposed. And there was something else about the brown, waist-length jacket the man was wearing. Nollsch now recalled seeing a dark-colored stain on the lower-right side.
The stain, he recalled in that interview, was in the shape of a peanut – 5 inches long and 2 inches wide, the report states.
An art student, Nollsch was given a pencil and paper and drew his own sketch of the person he encountered that night, which became an official part of the case and currently is posted on the Sacramento sheriff’s web page.
Biondi, a veteran investigator of several high-profile Sacramento serial killer cases, confirmed that the hypnosis session took place.
“I probably arranged it,” Biondi said of the decision to hypnotize Nollsch. “We were using hypnosis quite a bit on that at that time.”
Biondi told The Bee there was no DNA at the crime scene, but there was evidence to tie the suspect to the East Area Rapist.
“Right off the bat was the ski mask, which was something that rape victims had talked about — and the witness who saw the person run from the backyard where Katie was killed,” he said.
And there was something else: a dark blue shoelace found in the Ottlingers' backyard, one that had been pre-tied so it could be used to slip over someone’s hands and jerked to tie them up.
Sheriff’s officials say such knots were used to tie up 20 victims of the East Area Rapist and that they believe the shoelace may have dropped out of the killer’s pocket as he reached for something else.
Today, Biondi said he doesn’t believe the rapist was necessarily targeting the Ottlinger home, which was not a focus at the time. But it remains a mystery why the East Area Rapist may have turned to killing.
One theory was that Brian Maggiore was known to be protective of his wife, and their encounter on the street or in the yard could have escalated.
“He (Brian) wasn’t going to let this go,” Biondi mused. “He would fight, and it might have been that aspect where Brian would try to defend both of them.”
The East Area Rapist has been blamed for several other rapes in the Sacramento region following the Maggiore murders, but the suspect is believed to have moved on to commit sexual assaults in the Bay Area and in Southern California, where he has been blamed for 10 slayings in Orange, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Forty years after the Maggiore’s deaths, Ottlinger and Nollsch said memories of the case have popped up periodically over the years.
But no more intensely than with the recent arrest.
Nollsch, who now lives in Ohio, was traveling on business and having lunch in Brooklyn when his younger brother and a friend texted him with the news.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Nollsch, who then began firing off his own text messages to family and friends.
Ottlinger, who had no access to a cellphone at the time of the slayings, said his sister texted him with the news. He said the two would talk about the case periodically over the years, but never his parents.
“What’s kind of creepy is that he was lurking around within feet of us and my parents,” he said. “Who knows what he was doing? Maybe he was scoping out our house. You never know.
“It’s horrible, it’s absolutely horrible,” he said. “Evil’s among us, you never know where it’s at.”