I grew up in Sacramento, California. The Golden State's capital city has many beautiful rivers that snake through rich farmland where tomatoes and sunflowers grow. It’s a city that boasts titles such as "Farm-to-Fork Capital" along with "City of Trees."
Indeed my beloved hometown has so many lush and mature trees that in the summertime, they create a world of green canopies along suburban streets. Branches greet each other like laced fingers held high in an arch.
As a kid, if you were lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that had those canopies you were treated to bike rides under dappled light that made you feel like you were going through a tunnel of twinkly green that could only be described in that magical way you read about in children's books.
Then one year, the magic changed forever.
I was in grade school, in the late 70s, when I first heard the word “rape.” A serial attacker, who was striking homes in the middle of the night, was dubbed the “East Area Rapist,” so named because his crimes originated in the eastern part of Sacramento.
Rape was something that I and many other young girls who grew up in the region wish we never had to learn about at such an early age.
My mother tells me she wasn’t planning on having “the talk” with me quite so soon, but was forced to tell me about that word, because it was everywhere in those days. Hanging in the air like a dark heavy cloud which followed us around for years because the East Area Rapist’s crime spree never seemed to end. The word was whispered by parents not wanting their children to know the violent and ugly meaning behind it.
Moms and dads were forced to make the decision to either shield their child from the news that continued to reappear on our TVs at night, or warn them because our real life boogeyman was not only out there, he was stalking people in our neighborhoods.
In the evenings we would learn from the local news reports that he had struck again.
Panic ran deep in our communities. Horrible questions went through our young minds while looking at the map on the TV screen of where he had recently attacked a victim asking our parents: "How close was he to our home this time?" "Mom, how strong are the locks on our windows?" “Dad, should we get a dog?” “Mom, should we buy a gun?"
My family remembers it all too well, just like so many others in town. Friends I went to school with have been on social media all week, we’ve been on each other’s pages talking about it, and private messaging each other about some of the really bad memories that came along with this story.
One friend texted and told me she used to lay in bed with her heart racing every time she thought she heard someone in her backyard.
Another messaged me that a close family member had been assaulted by the man they believe to be the East Area Rapist.
One of my closest friends said she remembered that his actions shaped the way she conducted her young adult life. That he was the underlying current of the decisions she made while walking to her car at night, and how she secured her windows in her home.
When I talked to my mom this week, we also recalled what things were like on our street during those days. She reminded me of her reasoning for keeping me inside some days when I demanded to ride my bike to the park.
I remember that bike well, it was blue, with a "banana" seat and a bell, and riding it was my favorite thing to do -- to go out and ride under those lofty canopy trees.
She also recalled the fights we had back then, how I told her "I'll be fine, let me ride for 30 minutes and I'll be right back” with a heavy, loud, exasperated sigh.
Eventually I did get to ride my bike, but it usually had to be with friends especially at dusk, and on days when I was finally allowed to go out alone when it seemed like enough time had passed after the shock of another attack, my mom would sit by the door in the afternoons and wait. When I came up the walk of our duplex and screeched my bike’s brakes to make a skid which I loved to do when I got home, she could finally exhale and then go on with the night.
Today, as a parent I can understand the fear all adults with children had during that time. It’s hard to explain to people now what it was like then.
When you read the news on the developments in the case today, and hear the description of how fear gripped northern and then southern California in the late 70s and 80s, it really was like that, in a very tangible way. This was our childhood.
Time would pass and then it would happen again.
Watching the news was like watching a shark attack in the water, then the water would settle down and be quiet, smooth out and be calm. Is it safe to go back in? (Or, in our case, back outside.) Then another report would appear on the news. Those reports would detail violent episodes of torture and rape. They would tell of women being tied up, homes ransacked, mementos taken, and then we began to learn that he was starting to kill people, too.
As the East Area Rapist picked up more victims, he also picked up more names: “The Golden State Killer,” “The Original Night Stalker,” and “the Diamond Knot Killer” for the way he tied up some of his victims.
Forensic testing would tie crimes committed by this one person up and down the state to each other creating an obscene dilemma. What name should this person have? Is he the East Area Rapist, the Golden State Killer? Another name?
In the end it appears that the man the national media are calling “The Golden State Killer” raped approximately 50 women (that we know of) killed 12 people and burglarized possibly hundreds of homes.
The REAL answer to “what to call him?” was “all of the above,” and depending on who you asked and where you lived, you had your own name for the man who morphed into a monster at night.
Horror movie-like details were revealed during my childhood that still make me cringe to this day. The story about the dishes is one of the more harrowing details of this man's reign of terror that is hard to shake.
Growing up, we learned that the East Area Rapist struck primarily in the overnight hours, sneaking into homes usually through a window. He wore a ski mask-type covering on his head, gloves on his hands, often struck without pants on and would surprise his sleeping victims by shining a flashlight in their eyes then tying them up before he began his most devious crimes.
In the beginning he would assault women who were alone or home with just their children. Then he hit residences with men at home, too. He would tie up his victims and go to the kitchen to get dishes out of the cupboards and place them on the backs of the men and take the women to another room to assault them. He would tell the men if he heard a dish break or heard any kind of ceramic shaking he would kill their wives.
Victims told police he would go to the fridge and help himself to a snack and take a break from his brutalizing agenda and then return to his deeds.
Those details spurred a reported rash of gun and deadbolt sales and set off countless self- defense classes held in auditoriums with hundreds of participants at a time.
My aunt and uncle were so concerned, and my aunt so worried, that my uncle built a wrought iron gate and installed it in the back hallway of their home just outside their bedroom door. He cut a hole in the wall that would thread an iron plate through the closet which you could only lock and unlock with a key inside. He made wrought iron for the windows as well and they slept with a gun.
This has been an incredible week for those of us who grew up with this case as the backdrop to our childhood and many are reliving some real life nightmares learning of the surprising arrest of someone whom police believe is in fact their man.
Seventy-two year old Joseph James DeAngelo a former police officer in two California jurisdictions was taken into custody this week. Someone who had a job to protect the public, had allegedly been terrorizing countless communities for years.
We’ve since learned that DeAngelo was busted after what investigators called a rapid 6 day event of intense DNA testing when a close match to the suspect from a genealogy website was revealed.
Law enforcement quickly began staking DeAngelo out at his Citrus Heights home -- a Sacramento suburb -- which creates yet another cruel twist. If DeAngelo is the man police believe he is, he was living in plain sight all these years, working at a nearby warehouse from which he recently retired.
We’ve learned that he had a house with a well-kept yard, puttered around his garage doing projects and has been living a life that he denied so many.
When police approached DeAngelo they say he was surprised but didn’t run and told them he had a roast in the oven. They told him they would take care of that and put him in the car and brought him downtown, ending what has been one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in my home state.
There have been books, podcasts, TV shows and documentaries on this case and I hear there are more to come, but its impact will most likely last beyond these projects. Perhaps one of the best quotes of the week comes from the woman many consider to be a hero in this over 40-year-old cold case, the persistent and passionate Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.
I was listening to my hometown news radio station online this week (where I got my start reporting many years ago) News Radio KFBK AM 1530 and Schubert was a guest of radio host John McGinness, a retired Sacramento County Sheriff.
McGinness asked her many questions about the take down, the hunt to find this man, and what in the end broke the case. Schubert said, “DNA is the silent witness to the truth.”
There can be no amount of thank yous and kudos to go to the team that has finally brought a possible end to this case.
The journey to justice was long, but it appears it is here. DeAngelo was arraigned in a packed Sacramento County courtroom Friday and made his appearance shackled to a wheelchair. He will return to court next month.
I hope that those of us who grew up with this story can breathe a little easier today, and while there is still need for vigilance and precaution, perhaps riding a bike under canopied trees in town can be something Sacramentans can do without thinking about him still being out there.
One woman who lives in Sacramento told me, “he took away something from so many of us that we could never get back.” She then paused and added, “I would never wish anyone to hell, but I sure wouldn't be sad if that's where he goes.”