Years before a suspect in the East Area Rapist case was arrested on Wednesday, Anne Marie Schubert would talk passionately with me about the infamous, unspeakable crime spree that paralyzed Sacramento with a fear that never subsided with the passage of nearly 42 years since the first victim, a young woman in Rancho Cordova, was brutally raped on June 18, 1976.
Over coffee, a few years before she was elected Sacramento County District Attorney in 2014, I was struck by how passionate Schubert was about a cold case that went unsolved for years before she joined the Sacramento DA's office. Catching the man who raped as many as 45 women in the Sacramento region between 1976 and 1978 seemed as far-fetched five or six years ago as it did Wednesday, when authorities announced they had arrested the man believed to be responsible.
Yet there was Schubert, standing before the cameras and identifying Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old ex-cop, as the East Area Rapist suspect. There was Schubert, suddenly and stunningly delivered from a month of being targeted by protesters emphatically demanding that she prosecute the Sacramento cops who killed Stephon Clark.
Recently she was forced to erect a fence around her office to keep Stephon Clark protesters at bay, and was getting pilloried for taking campaign contributions from law enforcement groups. On Wednesday, she was having her image beamed nationally as she announced that authorities had finally found "a needle in haystack." This seemed like an unbelievable turn events even for Sacramento, which has a history of breathless hunts for macabre killers.
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Dorothea Puente, the 1980s predator, murdered victims for their Social Security checks and buried them in the front yard of her midtown boarding house. Eric Royce Leonard – dubbed "The Thrill Killer" – carried out triple homicides on successive Tuesday nights in February 1991. The city and the region went a little nuts after the second triple homicide. Other crimes came in later years, generating big headlines, but nothing has ever approached the East Area Rapist.
The case was well-known even in San Jose, where I grew up in the '70s. My first impression of Sacramento was via the East Area Rapist case as breathless Bay Area news accounts made Sacramento seem like a dangerous, foreboding place. Fast forward to around 2012, and I'm having coffee with Schubert – then an assistant DA – and she's telling me how diabolical the East Area Rapist was. Seasoned prosecutors felt he very likely could be military or a cop.
He was disciplined, down to the meticulous way he bound his victims. He was detail oriented, seemed to know exactly how to enter the homes of unsuspecting victims. Schubert is a fascinating character in that she clearly bleeds for victims of violent crimes and is motivated to represent them, comfort them, get justice for them. But to do so, she's trained herself to suppress the emotions that drive her. She can do the most for victims if she remains intellectually disciplined, emotionally detached.
So as she was telling me about how the rapist overpowered men he encountered, bound them and put plates on their backs and evil admonitions in their ears that he would kill his rape victim if a plate hit the floor, Schubert snapped out of her emotional detachment when noticing the horror on my face. She was reciting horrific details like numbers out of a phonebook. I was projecting myself into the place of a male East Area Rapist victim – bound, helpless and blackmailed into staying perfectly still while listening to his wife being raped by animal.
It was the case that caused people in Sacramento to lock their doors when they never had. Evil was not only alive and on the streets of Sacramento, it was eluding the law enforcement authorities sworn to keep people safe.
That the suspect is an ex-cop, just as investigators had feared all these years, is a detail that was overshadowed in the momentous arrest in a case that seemed as if it would never be solved. How ironic that an ex-cop is the one accused of terrorizing the Sacramento region, then the Bay Area, then Southern California.
How ironic that Schubert was announcing the arrest of an ex-cop when she's been lambasted for a month for being too close to cops, and failing to prosecute them when they killed black men in the line of duty. At a far different press conference last week, Schubert reminded reporters that she has prosecuted cops before and it's true – she's gone after cops who broke the law while off duty. She's never prosecuted a cop for killing someone while on duty.
For greater Sacramento, an ex-cop has been revealed as the the suspect who caused their nightmares.
Meanwhile, many African Americans in Sacramento are scared of the cops who are on duty, who come to their neighborhoods with the full weight of the law behind them. Some African American mothers tell their sons not to talk back to cops, not to make sudden moves, not to run away. Stephon Clark was shot multiple times in the back while holding a cellphone that cops thought was a gun.
When Schubert has spoken about the Clark case, her inclination to subsume her emotions has come across as evasion to protesters.
On Wednesday, when she made her momentous announcement in the East Area Rapist case, Schubert's passion for victims made her seem human. She didn't seem evasive at all, but projected the image of a prosecutor committed to protecting the public and standing up for victims.
As long as the cop wasn't on duty when he killed, Schubert cuts an impressive figure.