In an era when true crime tales of serial killers are the stuff of Netflix binges, it may be difficult to appreciate the fear spread in California’s capital by the East Area Rapist in 1976.
The Golden State’s dark side was, of course, well known by then – the Zodiac Killer, Charles Manson – but in Sacramento, 1976 was a “time of innocence” when kids played outside until dark and many residents didn’t lock their doors, recalled Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. Schubert was 12 that year, and living in the area. Once the assaults started, she said, “it all changed.”
Wednesday, thanks to an investigation that was agonizingly slow for decades and then lightning fast, Schubert and a sobering array of California law enforcement officials announced an arrest in the terrifying crime spree that encompassed at least 12 slayings and 45 rapes. The case is still unfolding, but there are already important takeaways:
The persistence of law enforcement to seek justice for victims: After an event in June 2016 to mark 40 years since the first crime, Schubert and Sheriff Scott Jones put more resources and renewed their commitment to solve the case.
The difference that public attention can make: Hundreds of tips poured in after 2016, and focus on the suspect – who also became known as the Golden State Killer as he moved to the Bay area and Southern California – intensified with a book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” that reached No. 1 on The New York Times’ bestseller list last month and a documentary that aired this month at the Delta King Theatre in Old Sacramento.
And the value of DNA testing and evidence: While officials were sparing with the details, they said that new technology allowed DNA samples from several old crime scenes to be used and eventually matched last week with a sample obtained by detectives from material discarded by Joseph James DeAngelo.
DeAngelo, 72, a former cop who lived for more than three decades in Citrus Heights, was arrested without incident on Tuesday. Wednesday, officials said he has been charged with murder in the February 1978 killings of Brian and Katie Maggiore in Rancho Cordova and the March 1980 killings of Charlene and Lyman Smith in Ventura County.
“The answer has always been in Sacramento,” Schubert, who is facing a tough reelection fight, said at the press conference in front of Sacramento County’s crime lab. “The answer was always going to be in the DNA.”
And that truth should again spotlight that California could be doing more with DNA evidence – especially the thousands of rape kits sitting in evidence rooms that haven’t been tested.
So far, state lawmakers have been unwilling to spend significant money to cut down the backlog. Last year, the only bill they passed was to add a check-off on state income tax returns so Californians can donate for testing. It’s miserly and embarrassing.
At Wednesday’s arrest announcement, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley made a point to promote Senate Bill 1449, which would require all new rape kits to be sent to crime labs so the backlog doesn’t grow and which includes $2 million in funding. Legislators need to strongly consider that bill if they’re paying any attention to this case.
For now, we can hope the arrest eases the anguish for the victims and their loved ones – hundreds now across several generations, as we were reminded by Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were slain in 1980 in Dana Point. “It’s time for all victims to grieve,” he said.
It appears justice will finally be done in this case. But many, many other victims still wait.