Authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo last April as the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist suspect, and they said the former police officer had never before been on their radar as a suspect.
But DeAngelo had been arrested 22 years earlier and held in the Sacramento County Jail for three and a half hours on unrelated charges before being released and sent on his way, The Sacramento Bee has learned.
DeAngelo, who was 50 at the time, was arrested in a sting operation on April 16, 1996, that targeted individuals with outstanding warrants and notified them that they had won free Super Bowl tickets they could pick up at an office in Sacramento. DeAngelo was one of the suspects who responded, and ended up jailed on allegations he had held up a gas station.
At the time, officials say, they would have had no way of knowing that one of the nation’s most sought-after criminal suspects was in their grasp. No DNA samples were routinely taken during bookings back then, and there was nothing out of the ordinary about the arrest, a Sacramento sheriff’s spokesman said.
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“We had no way of knowing at the time who we actually had in our jail because the evidence wasn’t there, the technology wasn’t there,” Sgt. Shaun Hampton said Friday. “I don’t think there’s any way we could have known, there was no way for us to identify this person by him simply being in our jail for a few hours.”
DeAngelo, now 73 and being held without bail in the same jail downtown, faces 13 murder counts and 13 counts related to sexual assaults that authorities say were committed by a serial murderer and rapist who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s before dropping from sight.
He was arrested outside his Citrus Heights home last April after Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office tied decades-old DNA samples from the crime scenes to DeAngelo, a former Auburn police officer, Navy veteran and truck mechanic.
At the time, DeAngelo’s only known brush with the law came in 1979, when he was fired from his job with the Auburn Police Department after he was charged with shoplifting a hammer and a can of dog repellent from a Citrus Heights drug store.
But newly unearthed court records from Placer County Superior Court and an interview with DeAngelo’s attorney at the time detail the nearly comical series of events that led to his 1996 arrest.
The court records, originally sought by The Bee on April 30 following DeAngelo’s arrest, were recently located and provided Friday.
The records stem from a $1 million civil suit DeAngelo filed in 1996 against the owner of a Sacramento-area gas station over what he considered his false arrest.
The incident involving the gas station occurred July 28, 1995, as DeAngelo was trying to fill his tank and prepay at the pump. Court documents say the pump malfunctioned before he had pumped the entire amount he paid for, and he went inside the store seeking a refund.
“When he attempted to inform the clerk that the pump was not working and asked for his change for the gas not pumped, the clerk became uncooperative, apparently not able to speak English well enough to understand plaintiff,” a Feb. 20, 1998, settlement conference statement in the court file states. “Plaintiff left the premises peacefully and subsequently the clerk called police and reported plaintiff as an attempted robber.
“Some eight months later plaintiff was arrested by police in a sting operation where letters were sent informing plaintiff and others that they had (won) a prize. Plaintiff was required to bail and hire an attorney. Eventually, the case was dismissed and the court entered an order finding plaintiff factually innocent and sealed the records.”
William Wright, the attorney who subsequently filed the suit on DeAngelo’s behalf against the clerk and the gas station owner, said in an interview Friday that he remembered “Joe” as a “nice guy” but that “he was very upset about this gas station business.”
“What they did was, they contacted several people – I don’t know how he got on the list – and told them they had won free Super Bowl tickets and got them down there in this auditorium,” Wright said. “And the cops busted all of them because they had either warrants or were wanted.”
DeAngelo was booked into the Sacramento County Jail, but at the time the sheriff’s department was not routinely collecting DNA samples from people facing arrest.
A few years later, the department began collecting DNA from fresh felony arrests, but routine statewide collection of DNA did not begin until after the 2004 passage of Proposition 69, an initiative bankrolled by Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were killed by the Golden State Killer in 1986.
The measure he pushed now requires law enforcement to collect DNA from anyone convicted of a felony and add it to a statewide database.
DeAngelo’s lawsuit alleged negligence and false imprisonment and sought punitive damages of $1 million for “willful, wanton, malicious and oppressive” conduct. The court file indicates the case was settled and dismissed in March 1998, but Wright said Friday he could not remember the details of the settlement.
He added that he had not known DeAngelo before representing him in the case and that he had not realized until called by The Bee Friday that his former client was the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist suspect.
“I’d seen the guy TV, but I never made the connection,” Wright said. “He was very pleasant when he was talking to me.”