Timeline of Terror: The East Area Rapist case from 1976 to 2018
The first attack blamed on the East Area Rapist took place in a darkened bedroom in Rancho Cordova on June 18, 1976 – the victim a 23-year-old woman living with her father and awakened by a stranger with a ski mask and knife.
At least 50 more rapes and 12 murders followed over the next 10 years in Northern and Southern California.
The last attack officially tied to the elusive figure, also known as the Golden State Killer and Original Night Stalker, was the rape and murder in May 1986 of a woman in Irvine.
And then – nothing.
The rape and killing spree appeared to end as abruptly as it began, generating disturbing new questions with the arrest in Citrus Heights last month of a suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer.
So what stopped the terrifying crime spree? Or did it stop at all?
While investigators from multiple jurisdictions piece together the suspect’s life, criminologists and other experts on serial offenders are divided over whether a perpetrator as cunning and prolific as the East Area Rapist could ever manage to control his urges for 32 years.
Jack Levin, a criminologist who has studied and interviewed serial killers, including Charles Manson, said it is a common misconception that these offenders are hard-wired to keep on raping and killing.
“People believe that serial killers have an uncontrollable urge to kill, that they’re obsessing with it and simply are unable to stop,” said Levin, professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston. “But that’s not true. There are a number of serial killers who have stopped.”
Levin cited the case of Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK Killer (Bind, Torture, Kill), who murdered 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991 before going dormant. After a 13-year hiatus, he began sending notes and packages in 2004 to the Wichita Eagle newspaper and to police, later telling a psychologist he had been feeling “kind of bored,” according to news accounts of the case. The communications led to his arrest in 2005.
In another case in New England, Levin said, a serial killer began preying on women in the late 1980s. The bodies of nine women were found in 1988 and 1989 along highways in the New Bedford, Mass., area, and two women remain missing. The killer was never caught.
When the murders abruptly stop, as in these cases, some people conclude that the perpetrator must have relocated or was jailed on other charges, Levin said.
“It’s just as likely he simply decided to move on and play some other game,” he said. “Maybe he got tired of killing. Maybe he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind bars and get the death penalty. Maybe he decided it was no longer worth the risk.
“The point is, there are other serial killers who have stopped completely.”
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones acknowledged there could be many explanations for the dormancy of the East Area Rapist.
Jones said investigators have tried to associate the East Area Rapist with later crimes, but “we’ve been unable to do so."
“So that could mean that his type of crimes changed, it could mean that his M.O. changed significantly enough where we wouldn’t think to link him to the crimes,” he said.
“We don’t have any reason to believe that he quit, but again, we don’t have any reason to believe that he continued either,” Jones said. “The real hard work of this case is just beginning.”
The cases linked to the East Area Rapist reveal a pattern of escalation.
The first murders tied to the suspect were in Rancho Cordova in February 1978, nearly two years after multiple rapes had terrorized the Sacramento suburbs east of downtown. More rapes were then reported in the San Francisco Bay Area, and between 1979 and 1986, 10 more murders were linked to the suspect in Southern California.
The last known victim was an 18-year-old woman, Janelle Cruz, raped and murdered in her Irvine home on May 4, 1986.
Retired FBI agent Jeffrey Rinek, who worked in the Sacramento field office before retiring and has interviewed rapists and serial killers, said he could think of only one instance in which a serial offender was “self-aware and knew what he had to do to stop."
“If the East Area Rapist did in fact stop – and I’m not convinced that he did – then he found a diversion,” Rinek said. “He found a way to satisfy his needs going in a different direction.”
Rinek said some serial rapists and killers fulfill their fantasies through consensual relationships, often with family members.
“His desires didn’t just vaporize,” he said, noting that the suspect’s family dynamic must be thoroughly explored.
DeAngelo's family members have not spoken publicly since his April 24 arrest.
Court records show DeAngelo was married from 1973 until he and his wife, a Sacramento family law attorney, separated on Dec. 30, 1990. She later filed for divorce. The couple had three daughters, according to the divorce petition, born in September 1981, November 1986 and May 1989.
Authorities list the last known East Area Rapist crime as occurring in May 1986, meaning that if DeAngelo is the correct suspect, the onset of fatherhood may not have affected his activities.
Susan Kane, a retired California parole supervisor who worked extensively with sex offenders, is also dubious that the East Area Rapist simply stopped in 1986.
“I’ve never seen a case in 30 years where I saw that kind of down time,” said Kane, who worked with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for more than three decades.
Kane said she considered it likely that the East Area Rapist found some kind of “compensatory behavior,” such as a consenting partner who went along with his urges. Or perhaps law enforcement has not yet connected all the dots, she said, and other cases will emerge.
Kane said she doesn’t think the suspect’s age – DeAngelo is 72 and appeared in court in a wheelchair – adequately explains a hiatus from serial raping. While there is a reduction in libido because of hormone levels, she said, perpetrators “still have a brain that controls sex drive.”
“Elderly people in wheelchairs and paraplegics have committed rapes,” she said
Authorities are continuing their efforts to tie DeAngelo to the crimes and on Thursday won a court order allowing them to obtain a fresh DNA sample from him in the Sacramento County Main Jail, where he is being held without bail. The order also allows deputies to take new fingerprints and photograph his body, including his penis.
Sheriff Jones said investigators are continuing to work at expanding their knowledge of DeAngelo's past and how he may have been able to move around the state while apparently living in the Sacramento area for most of the crime spree.
“We have significant questions like anybody else, about what’s been going on in this man’s life for the last 40 years,” Jones said. “And so we’re looking for information to fill some of those gaps as well.”
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said whether the rapist stopped is "a question a lot of people keep asking me. … I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if we’re ever going to know the full answer.”