Police chief, DA talk about Visalia Ransacker murder, investigation and a ‘hero’
Authorities in Tulare County filed a new murder charge Monday against East Area Rapist suspect Joseph James DeAngelo, accusing him of a 1975 murder that has long haunted authorities and residents of Visalia, where DeAngelo allegedly started his decades-long crime spree.
The charge in the Sept. 11, 1975, slaying of college professor Claude Snelling brings to 13 the total number of murders the former police officer and Citrus Heights man is accused of committing.
In announcing the charge, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said they had enough physical and witness evidence to convict DeAngelo.
But they acknowledged the difficulty they still face, especially without any DNA evidence that provided authorities elsewhere the break they needed to arrest DeAngelo in April.
“We’re talking about a crime that’s occurred over 40 years ago,” Ward said. “Time is not on our side.”
The filing of the first-degree murder count has been expected since officials announced DeAngelo’s arrest and said they believed he was the sole suspect in a series of crimes that began in Visalia in the 1970s, continued in Sacramento, then moved onto the Bay Area and Southern California before mysteriously stopping in May 1986.
As the locales changed, the nicknames evolved, too.
They began in Visalia in April 1974 with a series of disturbing burglaries in which an intruder would move items about inside a home, ignore some valuables and flee in the night, often on a bicycle.
The suspect became known as the “Visalia Ransacker” and ultimately was blamed for 100 burglaries, including one in August 1975 in which a handgun was stolen that officials say was used the next month to kill Snelling.
Snelling, 45, was a journalism professor at Visalia’s College of the Sequoias and was awakened in the middle of the night by a noise. He went outside toward his carport, where he saw a man in a ski mask trying to abduct his 16-year-old daughter.
Snelling was shot and killed saving his daughter, and the assailant escaped on a bicycle that had been stolen two nights earlier. It was found a block away from the scene of the slaying.
DeAngelo is in custody in the Sacramento County Main Jail and faces 12 other murder counts in Sacramento, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He is due back in court in September.
In the Snelling case, DeAngelo faces one first-degree murder count with an enhancement for using a firearm, according to court records posted Monday.
Ward said that while authorities believe DeAngelo committed the Ransacker burglaries, his office filed charges only in cases where the statute of limitations hasn’t run out.
A decision on whether to seek the death penalty still has not been made, and district attorneys from all five counties where DeAngelo faces murder charges - including two in Sacramento - are working to decide on where best to hold a joint prosecution.
“The overarching objective is to attain a fair and just outcome for all the victims in the most efficient and effective manner possible,” Sacramento County Chief Assistant District Attorney Steve Grippi said in a statement, adding that the counties “hope to make some decisions related to that goal in the upcoming weeks and months.”
But Debbi Domingo said Monday her thoughts were with Snelling’s daughter, Elizabeth Hupp. Domingo’s mother, Cheri Domingo, and Cheri’s boyfriend, Greg Sanchez, were slain in 1981 in Goleta.
Domingo praised the decision by Tulare County authorities to formally file charges in the case.
“Today is a good day for everyone in that direction. This is a club that no one wants to be included in. But she is one of us. We stand with her,” Domingo said. “I have experienced a great deal of comfort knowing that others are going through that tortuous journey and are doing it together. I hope to be a good support for her. We need each other.”
DeAngelo was a police officer in nearby Exeter at the time of the Ransacker crimes and later was an officer with the Auburn Police Department during the East Area Rapist crimes that struck Sacramento.
He was arrested in April at his Citrus Heights home by Sacramento sheriff’s officials after investigators linked his DNA to murder and sexual assault scenes in Southern California. Outside of Sacramento, the suspect is better known as the Golden State Killer.
Ward and a Visalia police spokesman said in May following DeAngelo’s arrest that the Snelling case was the only active Visalia Ranscaker crime under review for possible charges, and Tulare County investigators have met with Sacramento investigators several times since DeAngelo’s arrest.
Although the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer suspect committed numerous sexual assaults, authorities say that was not a hallmark of the Ransacker crimes.
Instead, they say the only crimes of violence from that spree was the slaying of Snelling and a subsequent incident in which Visalia Detective William McGowen confronted a suspect at night while on stakeout.
That suspect fired a round that lodged in the detective’s flashlight and he escaped, but McGowen later was able to provide a detailed composite of the man.
The detective has since died, but officials say they have used the composite and photos of DeAngelo from that period to go back and interview burglary witnesses.
They also say they have physical evidence tying DeAngelo to the Snelling murder, although none of it is from DNA.
“The science and the DNA played less of a role here than did good old fashioned police work,” Ward said.
Officials announced the latest charge at a press conference in Visalia, where they said the Ransacker case had remained open for more than four decades, with someone assigned to work it the entire time.
“This is a case that over 44 years has generated a lot of interest,” Ward said. “It’s become part of Visalia history.”
Sacramento County detectives, in their 123-page arrest warrant in April, linked DeAngelo to the year-long series of break-ins in Visalia.
All of the residences were ransacked; many were in the neighborhoods surrounding the community college off Highway 198, marked by ditches and drainage canals. Several victims offered the same description: a stocky, light-complected white man with light brown or blond hair in his 20s or 30s with large hips and thick legs.
After Snelling was killed in the early hours of Sept. 11, 1975, the man police called the Ransacker stayed in Visalia and struck again, 11 days later, breaking into another home. Police increased their patrols and posted officers inside homes.
Police nearly caught him that December. McGowen was stationed in a garage next to one of the Ransacker’s suspected targets and saw a masked man peering through a window in the neighboring backyard. The officer chased the man and drew his weapon.
Detectives in the Sacramento warrant say the man begged the officer not to hurt him in a voice the officer would describe as “juvenile and effeminate.”
But the prowler fired a shot from a gun stowed in his jacket. The round was absorbed by the officer’s flashlight, but knocked the officer backward. The prowler fled over a fence.
“This pattern of explosive violence followed by escape would repeat itself. This was the last time the Visalia Ransacker was seen in Visalia,” the warrant read.