Shooting victim tells how he nearly caught the East Area Rapist in 1977
Back in February 1977, when Sacramento was gripped with fear of the East Area Rapist attacks, Rodney Richard Miller heard a noise in his backyard.
The 18-year-old College Greens resident was at home with his parents on Ripon Court, a cul-de-sac of six homes that faces what was then Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Someone apparently had jumped over the fence from their neighbor's yard, jostling a 55-gallon drum the Millers used as a smoker, and Miller and his father, Raymond, went outside to investigate.
They saw a young man running in the cul-de-sac and gave chase. Rodney Miller reached him first near another fence, where the teenager nearly stopped the intruder's getaway.
"I caught up to him, and I grabbed him before he got over the fence," Miller, now 59, said this week outside the home where he still lives and cares for his parents. "He fell on the other side of the fence and he shot me just as I cleared the fence...
"First, he shot at me and it was a misfire, but it was so fast I didn't even think it was a gun. I heard a click, and then I heard a shot. It blew me off back, like 20 feet on the grass. My dad came up and he was shooting again. We ran over to that side of the house and lay down waiting for the ambulance."
Today, more than four decades later, authorities say that incident was one of numerous violent encounters people throughout California had with the East Area Rapist, now believed to be Joseph James DeAngelo, who is sitting in the Sacramento County Main Jail facing 12 murder counts.
DeAngelo, 72, may face more charges - Tulare County is considering charging him in an unsolved 1975 slaying, and Yolo County has said it will consider filing rape charges against him. Officials in Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert's office are taking fresh looks at the Miller shooting and other cases.
"We are doing an ongoing investigation of that case and others potentially connected to the East Area Rapist," Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said Wednesday.
But many of the crimes attributed to the long-sought serial killer and rapist likely will never be filed because of issues involving evidence or statutes of limitations.
The attacker has been known by a series of different names over the years that authorities say evolved in phases in different portions of California, including the Original Night Stalker and Golden State Killer.
They began with the Visalia Ransacker, a suspect who is believed responsible for 120 burglaries, as well as a number of attempted sexual assaults and one slaying in the community between April 1974 and December 1975, when DeAngelo was serving as a police officer in nearby Exeter.
Visalia is the site of the first slaying in which DeAngelo is a suspect. That case involved the attempted abduction of a 16-year-old girl from her home around 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1975. The girl's father, Claude Snelling, interrupted the abduction attempt and was shot to death by the intruder, who fled.
Partially redacted arrest and search warrant documents unsealed in Sacramento Superior Court last week link DeAngelo to that case, noting that "Visalia is less than 20 minutes away from DeAngelo's residence at the time" and adding that many of the burglaries took place near the College of the Sequoias, where Snelling taught journalism.
The community college campus also was near neighborhoods dotted with drainage canals or ditches, the documents say, and authorities believe the Visalia Ransacker used those as escape routes, much like the East Area Rapist did later in Sacramento neighborhoods.
The Visalia attacks ended after area police began saturating neighborhoods with stakeouts designed to catch the Ransacker. On Dec. 10, 1975, an officer staked out in a garage spotted a prowler and gave chase, confronting the man with his handgun and flashlight.
The suspect "begged him not to hurt him" using a "juvenile and effeminate" voice, the court documents say. Then, he drew a pistol from his jacket pocket and fired at the officer, hitting his flashlight with the bullet embedding itself in the battery.
"This pattern of explosive violence followed by escape when cornered would repeat itself in the series," the documents say. "This was the last time the Visalia Ransacker was seen in Visalia."
Authorities believe the suspect moved onto the eastern neighborhoods of Sacramento County, beginning a series of rapes and murders that started with a sexual assault in Rancho Cordova in June 1976, when DeAngelo was serving as an Auburn police officer.
Dozens of sexual assaults would follow that attack, with the suspect eluding authorities on foot most of the time.
"In most of the attacks, the suspect struck homes easily accessible from a drainage canal, creek or open field adjacent to a creek," court documents say.
One sexual assault occurred in January 1977 in the Glenbrook area of Sacramento not far from Rodney Miller's home, leading police to place several officers in the area in hopes of catching the suspect.
Less than three weeks after that rape, Miller heard the noise in the backyard, and later learned that the prowler apparently had been hiding in bushes in his neighbor's backyard.
"A guy was laying next door here in the neighbor's bushes for a long time," Miller said. "They found it all matted down where he had been."
Miller said he assumes the prowler was targeting a young woman in the neighborhood or his sister.
"They say that he cased out the places before he did it," Miller said. "I don’t know if I saved somebody from getting raped that night, but he didn't come back around."
At the time, Miller said, he was not particularly concerned about the East Area Rapist attacks, as many other Sacramento-area residents were. That all changed after he was shot in his midsection and spent a month in the hospital recovering.
"It was a hollow point, a 9 mm, and he took a knife and cut the tip so it breaks up inside you," he said. "It cut my intestines up and I had a colostomy bag I had to go to the bathroom in before they could hook me back up.
"I got out of the hospital and I was like a bone, just lost a lot of weight."
The shooting also led Miller to pay more concern to the violent behavior of the East Area Rapist.
"For the longest time, I couldn't sleep at night watching shadows come through my windows," Miller said. "I didn’t know if the guy was going to come back and finish me off.
"I'd seen him, I grabbed him and got close enough to see him."
There is no evidence the suspect ever returned, but that incident was the most violent attack since the Visalia shootings, and an example of what court papers describe as the "pattern of explosive violence" that soon would increase.
Less than a year after Miller was shot, authorities say DeAngelo killed a young couple walking their dog at night in a Rancho Cordova neighborhood.
The Feb. 2, 1978, shootings of Brian and Katie Maggiore were committed by a man in a ski mask, and authorities say they are convinced the slayings were the work of the East Area Rapist, partly because the attacker left behind a pre-tied shoelace that was similar to others used as ligatures against victims.
The neighborhood where they were killed also had been the scene of burglaries, prowler reports and strange phone calls that were often associated with the East Area Rapist case, court documents say.
Two more sexual assaults were reported after the slayings - one in Stockton, the other in Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood - but after authorities released a composite drawing in April 1978 of the suspect in the Maggiore killings, the East Area Rapist entered what officials say was a new phase of his attacks, committing two rapes in Modesto and three in Davis in the summer of 1978.
From there, officials believe, the attacker moved on to the Bay Area, committing a series of sexual assaults from Concord to San Jose through July 1979. They also believe he attacked once more in Sacramento County, a March 1979 sexual assault in Rancho Cordova.
Then, court documents say, the suspect entered his deadliest phase, beginning a series of rapes and 10 slayings in Southern California from October 1979 through May 1986, when the crimes suddenly stopped.
On Dec. 30, 1979, Dr. Robert Offerman, 44, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Alexandra Manning, 35, a psychologist, were found nude and bound inside Offerman's condominium in the Santa Barbara County city of Goleta. Both had been shot with a .38-caliber pistol.
Three months later, on March 16, 1980, Lyman and Charlene Smith were found bound and dead in their bed at their home in Ventura. Lyman Smith, 43, a former prosecutor, was nude and had his hands and feet tied, and his wife, 34, was nude from the waist down and had her hands tied behind her back. Both had been beaten to death with a piece of firewood.
The next victims were found in Laguna Niguel in Orange County on Aug. 21, 1980. Keith and Patrice Harrington, both 28, were found underneath bedding and had been beaten to death with a blunt object, possibly a metal sprinkler head, search warrant documents say.
Manuela Whittuhn, 28, was found next on Feb. 6, 1981, in her bed in Irvine, where she had been bludgeoned to death.
Another couple was found dead on July 27, 1981. Greg Sanchez, 27, and Cheri Domingo, 35, were discovered beaten to death inside a Goleta home where Domingo was housesitting.
The last victim found dead was Janelle Cruz, 19, who was discovered May 5, 1986, in her bed in Irvine, where she had been beaten to death.
The arrest and search warrant documents say DNA from semen taken from the bodies of Patrice Harrington, Manuela Whittuhn and Janelle Cruz, as well as a semen stain found on a blanket at the scene of the Sanchez-Domingo slayings, matched the DNA from the earlier rape cases reported in Contra Costa County.
Years went by before authorities discovered the DNA matches, and more years passed before investigators fed the DNA information into a genealogy website. There, they found a potential match that turned out to be a distant relative of DeAngelo's, which ultimately led them to the former police officer and mechanic.