Timeline of Terror: The East Area Rapist case from 1976 to 2018
When authorities in Sacramento announced the arrest of a suspect in the East Area Rapist case last month, 60-year-old Jim Sigle in Alabama immediately took notice.
“They finally caught the guy,” Sigle thought to himself. “It just doesn’t seem right that this could happen and there not be somebody held accountable.”
Like countless others who have lost friends to unsolved cold cases, Sigle was hoping the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo would solve the Oct. 16, 1980, disappearance of his onetime girlfriend, Kathy Emilia Neff.
Neff, 21, vanished after dropping her car off for service at a Mazda dealership on Florin Road; her body was found by pheasant hunters three weeks later at the end of a gravel road near the Valley Hi Country Club.
No one was ever arrested in the slaying, and Neff’s case remains one of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s pending cold case homicides.
Despite DeAngelo’s arrest as an alleged serial rapist and killer, sheriff’s officials say the circumstances of the Neff killing lead them to believe it is not connected to the East Area Rapist crimes.
But the department and other law enforcement agencies across California are taking a fresh look at various cold cases and tips from the public to determine whether there is some previously unseen link to other unsolved crimes.
“Some of those (tips) may have valuable information that on its surface may not seem to be relevant, but there is always that possibility that it’s an extra clue,” sheriff’s Sgt. Shaun Hampton said.
So far, DeAngelo faces 12 homicide counts from slayings between 1978 and 1986 in Orange, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and authorities say they believe he roamed the state committing a string of crimes that may not yet be fully known.
In Tulare County, where the “Visalia Ransacker” is suspected of breaking into dozens of homes from April 1974 through December 1975, police have refocused their attention on an unsolved Sept. 11, 1975, homicide.
That case involves the slaying of Claude Snelling, a 45-year-old journalism professor at the College of the Sequoias.
Snelling was shot trying to save his 16-year-old daughter, who was in the process of being abducted from their home by a man wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun.
“Obviously, that’s still under investigation and we’re aware of the DeAngelo arrest,” Visalia police Sgt. Damon Maurice said. “We will submit the case to the District Attorney here soon, and it will be up to them if they want to file charges against anybody, including Mr. DeAngelo.”
Visalia police spent years trying to solve the case, and always thought it was tied to the “Visalia Ransacker,” a burglar who would steal odd items or move things around a victim’s home, according to a 2017 Fresno Bee story detailing the mystery.
The East Area Rapist had similar habits, and authorities said after DeAngelo’s arrest that they believe both serial cases are linked.
DeAngelo had a history in the Visalia area, serving as a police officer in Exeter from 1973 until 1976 while the “Ransacker” crimes were being committed in Visalia about 11 miles away.
There is no DNA evidence from the Snelling killing like the samples used to arrest DeAngelo, but officials say he still is a suspect.
“There are some detectives that will tell you they believe he killed Claude Snelling,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, whose cold-case focus on the East Area Rapist case helped lead to the arrest.
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said he is still waiting for a report from Visalia police on the Snelling case before a decision is made on whether to file charges.
He added that the burglaries are beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution, but that those cases also are being reviewed for any possible evidence.
“The only active case that’s being looked at is the Snelling case,” Ward said, adding that he expects to join district attorneys from other affected counties at a meeting in late June in the Los Angeles area.
“Whether or not we decide that charges could be filed in our case, I’ll be there in June whether we have a case to discuss or we have a support role,” Ward said.
Prosecutors from the four counties where DeAngelo has been charged in the 12 murders met last week in Santa Barbara to begin discussions on how and where to try the cases jointly.
Meanwhile, other agencies are still reviewing case files and reports to see if there are more crimes that should be investigated as possibly tied to DeAngelo.
Police in Auburn, where DeAngelo served as an officer from 1976 until he was fired over a shoplifting incident in 1979, have opened an internal affairs probe to determine whether there are any cold case crimes that might be attributed to him.
Other avenues of investigation are not as solid.
Law enforcement officials say they’ve been receiving tips and suggestions from various people, including amateur online groups that were created while the search for an East Area Rapist suspect was still ongoing.
One site, which has not been updated with news of the DeAngelo arrest, offers extensive details about the crimes over the years as well as a link reading, “If you are the East Area Rapist click here.”
A separate thread on Reddit contains a post asking whether it is appropriate to report a potential suspect who “vaguely” resembles composite drawings of the rapist.
Several similar groups have formed on Facebook, offering links to news stories about the case or suggestions about how to find a suspect.
“My feeling is that the original night stalker must be dead, he was so cold and calculating but obviously psychotic I don't think he would have stopped,” one post reads. “I believe he was a police officer or someone up to date with police procedure back in those times…”
Despite the fact that authorities sought such tips from the public for years, hoping someone would help them break the case, they now say DeAngelo’s arrest stemmed from DNA evidence and their own investigation.
The $50,000 reward that was offered in the case, they say, likely will go unpaid.