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The East Area Rapist Could Have Been Identified as a Suspect Before 1980

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ONS composites.jpg
Various sketches of the East Bay Rapist. By California’s law enforcement agencies – Public Domain.

This is a guest post by Chip Young, which is the pen name of a writer living in California.

On April 24, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested for a murder associated with the East Area Rapist (EAR), a serial killer who operated in California some forty years ago.  DeAngelo was associated with the crimes through commercially available DNA testing that linked his family to that of the killer.  But there is some good reason to believe that he could have been arrested earlier, had appropriate steps been taken by the police.

Forensics has three broad stages:

  1. collecting, securing, testing, and preserving evidence;
  2. identifying suspects; and
  3. matching the suspects to the evidence.

The arrest of a man alleged to be the East Area Rapist has focused public attention on the use of a DNA-based genealogical method used to identify a suspect (stage 2) and on another DNA technique used to match the accused’s genetic profile to a sample taken from a crime (stage 3).

Less attention has been given to the strong possibility that the suspect could have been identified in the 1970s, without DNA evidence, perhaps before the first Sacramento murders in 1978 (for which he has now been charged) and certainly before his murderous spree in Southern California began at the end of 1979. One significant reason he was not identified is that Sacramento County law enforcement, and subsequent investigators in other parts of California, failed to consider systematically the chance that the EAR was, or had been a policeman, and consequently failed to search systematically among active or recently terminated policemen. I am not arguing that there was enough evidence in the 1970s to convict the accused at that time – we will never know that — but that there was enough evidence to identify today’s accused as a “person of interest” in the Sacramento rapes as early as February 1977.

Current press accounts declare that investigators in the 1970s, when the Sacramento East Area Rapist became notorious, had suspected at the time that the rapist had police or military experience. Yet there is only weak indication that law ever acted on the thought that the EAR might have been a cop. The interview with Carol Daly , a 70s Sacramento investigator who retired in 2001, claims that “we tried everything possible” to identify potential suspects. Daly added, after the suspect’s arrest on April 24,  that it had been “a strong enough suspicion that [the EAR] could have been law enforcement that all of the men in our department who matched his description came forward and got themselves eliminated.” She does not mention looking at all the profiles of all policemen[1] in Sacramento County and there is no other indication that such a survey was ever done. Daly’s statement that “we tried everything possible” is incomplete.

The memoir of Detective Richard Shelby, who was the lead EAR investigator with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in the 1970s, does not consider that the EAR might have been a cop. He concludes that “where the EAR/ONS was employed, if employed, may never be known” though he had considered such professions as military, real estate, private security guard, and health (“Conclusion – Clusters”).

The work of Kat Winters and Keith Komos scarcely mentions a potential police connection (32). Winters and Komos do mention (49) that a possible military lead had been considered for years including the chance that the suspect had received a dishonorable discharge (171), but do not say if this line was pursued carefully. The FBI’s most wanted poster says nothing about the suspect having police experience or having studied forensics; it says only that “The [unknown suspect] may have had an interest in the military, or had some military training, leaving him familiar or proficient with firearms”.

We know from the book of the late Michelle McNamara that law enforcement in the 1970s did not thoroughly investigate the possibility that the EAR was a policeman. McNamara mentions that Detective Shelby thought that the EAR might have been a cop but does not say if law enforcement anywhere followed up on that thought. At another she lists police officer as one of 11 (294) possibly relevant occupations that EAR might have. McNamara (67-68) discusses the idea that the Golden State Killer (GSK) might have military experience but her comprehensive account shows that law enforcement in the Counties of Sacramento, Tulare, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange did not study this thoroughly by matching military or police experience against residence data.

Contemporary statements from experienced investigators confirm that the profile used to search for the accused was inefficient in that it never found the name of the accused. Daly states that “[The accused] was never on our radar at all and never came to our attention”. Investigator Paul Holes of Contra Costa County who worked the case for more than 20 years and who is credited with the idea of the new DNA search, said: “[the accused’s] name had never come up – not once – in the 15,000 pages of cases files and the several thousand tips police received over the years”. Visalia Chief of Police Jason Salzer, at the April 25 press conference announcing the arrest of the EAR, confirmed that the accused had never been a suspect in the crimes attributed to the Visalia Ransacker. There is no reason to think that the statements of Daly, Holes and Salzer are factually wrong but those statements, and the FBI poster, do show a certain blindness – that the police were indeed looking for a “needle in a haystack”, but they should have been looking in a different and much smaller haystack and did not so because they had decided that it would not be successful.

Why did law enforcement not look more carefully among its own members? The failure to suspect a member of law enforcement is not because data and methods in the 1970s prevented investigators from seeing the connections among the crimes of the “Visalia Ransacker” and those of the EAR. The Visalia Police department told the Sacramento County Sheriff in February 1977 (McNamara, 85) that such a connection was “perhaps worth exploring” (McNamara’s words). McNamara continues (96-97) that Visalia[2] and Sacramento police noted many similarities between the VR’s crimes and those of the EAR, but she does not record what Sacramento did to examine those similarities. When DNA analysis in 2001 revealed the connections among crimes in the Counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange, there is no record that law enforcement anywhere in California retested the idea that the EAR was, or had been, a policeman.

The failure to suspect law enforcement is not because investigators did not consider the work backgrounds of possible suspects. The official and private inquiries, as presented by Michell McNamara and by a recent documentary on the Golden State Killer, report the various jobs that the rapist might have had, from construction worker to real estate agent to engineer, which would have allowed him to travel throughout California. Shelby’s book devotes several brief chapters to possible occupational links between the EAR and his victims. It is therefore certain that investigators knew about a possible occupational link – but they seem to have deliberately avoided thinking that the rapist was a policeman. Police looked at two utility workers (McNamara, 98) who had transferred from Visalia to Sacramento and found nothing; this inquiry confirms that law enforcement had at times focused its search by looking for men who had moved between the two areas, but they again did not look among law enforcement. Investigator Paul Holes, who must be the most knowledgeable of the investigators, told Michelle McNamara (205) that “the avenue” he was pursuing involved someone in construction.

The older investigators also failed to draw one logical inference from the recognized forensic skills of the VR/EAR. It is known that VR/EAR: (i) studied the residences and personal habits of his victims; (ii) planned multiple escape routes and practiced them; (iii) sought to deceive victims and pursuers by wearing masks and gloves and by disguising his voice[3]; (iv) made weapons hard to trace, by stealing them in one crime to use in another or by using weapons that he found in the homes of his victims; and (v) knew when to get out when he could  – he stopped in Visalia soon after shooting Detective William McGowen[4], he stopped in Sacramento about two months after killing the Maggiores, and he stopped (with one exception) in Southern California after 1983. These skills, which VR/EAR used systematically, imply professional knowledge of forensics, which policemen are most likely to have. The accused has, moreover, been reported to have an Associates Degree from Sierra College in police science and a degree from Sacramento State University in criminal justice[5].

Another failure of the 1970s investigators was not to have examined more carefully the shooting of Detective William McGowen in Visalia on December 12, 1975. Detective McGowen was shot by the VR (using a revolver stolen from a recent burglary) using the criminal’s left hand after a chase in which the VR disguised his voice and pretended to surrender. The failure here was to have not asked – is the criminal left-handed or can he shoot a 38-caliber revolver with both hands?  The chance of a left-handed policeman[6] having worked in small police forces in Tulare County and in Sacramento County at the times of the VR and EAR crimes is small. The chance of the same person later being fired from the Auburn PD for shoplifting approaches zero.

Another failure of the 70s and subsequent investigations is to have spent too much time restudying victim and other eyewitness accounts. McNamara’s book recounts a significant difference of opinion among the FBI, Visalia, Contra Costa County, and Sacramento investigators about the value of witness descriptions in establishing a link between the Visalia Ransacker and the EAR. Holes, credited today with the DNA-search idea that led to the unmasking of the accused EAR, dismissed a Visalia – Sacramento link (McNamara, 98) because of the physical dissimilarities between the VR (squat and less agile) and the EAR (lighter and more agile). This error – overreliance on eye witness descriptions made at night and sometimes by severely traumatized victims – is tragic because it blocked for decades the profiling of a man, like the accused, with military and/or police experience, forensics skills and intimate knowledge of both Counties. Those factors could have been used to identify the suspect before 1980 using information and methods available in the 1970s.

The failure of law enforcement to consider a group of potential suspects with key traits of the VR/EAR – knowledge of the neighborhoods where he hunted, understanding of forensics and skill with weapons, practiced in deception  – creates a new risk. This is the risk that law enforcement will distort the reasons for the successful identification, arrest and accusation of the ERA. Law enforcement is likely to say that extended DNA databases and weaker restrictions on their use in criminal investigations were vital to finding the man accused of being the ERA and that weakening such restrictions is necessary to close other cases. But modern DNA techniques were only vital to the identification of the suspect after 40 years of refusing to look in what proved to be the right direction. Techniques available in the 1970s, and a willingness among investigators to suspend disbelief that the suspect might have been one of their own, could probably have identified a small number of suspects, including the man who has been arrested, and allowed police to interview them before the end of 1979 when two people were murdered in Goleta.

I am not saying that the investigators were stupid, lazy, incompetent, corrupt or indifferent to the agony of the victims: they were none of those things. I am saying that they should have thought more broadly about who they were looking for, where they were looking, and what information to use in their search.

[1] By “policemen” I mean municipal police and County Sheriffs.

[2] The accused was a policeman from May 19, 1973 (Exeter Sun of May 23, 1973) to early 1976 in Exeter, Ca, which is 11.3 miles from the town center of Visalia; Exeter and Visalia are incorporated cities in Tulare County. He was a policeman in Auburn, CA in Sacramento County from mid-1976 to August 1979, when he was fired for shoplifting. Auburn is about 20 miles NE of Citrus Heights, where the accused has lived for many years and where he was arrested, and which is close to the sites of many of the EAR rapes. The accused’s neighborhood is about 10 miles from where he is alleged to have murdered Katie and Brian Maggiore on February 2, 1978.

[3] It is also possible to speculate that VR/EAR wore differing shoe sizes to confuse his pursuers.

[4] The accused is reported to have been promoted to Sargent in the Exeter PD in 1976. It would have been logical to ask the accused in 1978: “Why did you quit the Exeter PD to move to the Auburn PD?”

[5] Holes (McNamara, page 241) noted the EAR’s intimate knowledge of Sacramento County and correctly surmises that EAR might have gone to Sacramento State University, which is less than 10 miles from where the Maggiores were murdered.

[6] An Auburn Journal picture of June 9, 1978 shows the accused, in his Auburn Police uniform, grabbing a baseball bat with his left hand. Witness accounts from Sacramento and Visalia state that the rapist was left-handed, as recorded in Shelby and in Winters and Komos.

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