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Former Exeter officer arrested as state’s most notorious criminal

Former Exeter officer arrested as state’s most notorious criminal

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., known as the Golden State Killer and suspect in early 1970s Visalia Ransacker cases, revealed to have been an Exeter police officer between 1973 and 1976 after arrest in Sacramento County

By Reggie Ellis and Paul Myers
@Reggie_SGN | @PaulM_SGN

CALIFORNIA – The most prolific serial killer in California history at one time took an oath to protect and serve the citizens of Exeter.

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was hired by the Exeter Police Department on May 18, 1973 according to the Aug. 22, 1973 issue of The Exeter Sun archived by the Sun-Gazette. In the article “Navy veteran serves Exeter as Policeman,” DeAngelo is quoted, “[That] without law and order there can be no government and without a democratic government there can be no freedom.” 

The Exeter Sun introduced Officer DeAngelo to the community on May 22, 1973 in this front page article. Image of the Exeter Sun, provided by The Sun-Gazette archives.

The Exeter Sun introduced Officer DeAngelo to the community on Aug. 22, 1973 in this front page article. Image of the Exeter Sun, provided by The Sun-Gazette archives.

As of last Wednesday, April 25, law and order found the 72-year-old man living in Sacramento, and now they are working to take his freedom away. Through DNA analysis, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office connected DeAngelo to 51 sexual assaults/rapes in 10 counties and 12 murders through four different counties between the years of 1976 and 1986.

“For anyone who lived [in Sacramento], the memories are vivid. You can ask anyone who lived here at the time. Everyone has a story,” said Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert during a press conference announcing the arrest of DeAngelo last Wednesday.

But despite his more notorious crimes, there is strong suspicion that before DeAngelo moved to the Auburn Police Department in Sacramento County in April 1976, he was committing a slew of break-ins throughout Visalia. Over 100 burglaries occurred from 1973 through December 1975 while DeAngelo was an Exeter police officer. Investigating officers in Visalia recognized a pattern to his break-ins and what he would take, leading them to the conclusion it was one person committing the burglaries. However, it was not until a year or more after DeAngelo had left the area that the burglar was monickered the Visalia Ransacker, a name that has stuck for the last 43 years. Although, break-ins were not unique to Visalia. During the same time, the Exeter Police Department saw an increase in burglaries over the same period. 

In a Nov. 14, 1973 issue of the Exeter Sun, police reported 117 arrests and 550 calls within a 90-day span with most calls going out to petty theft and burglaries. In a Nov. 26, 1975 article published in the Exeter Sun, police chief Henry Fry called on citizens to do their part in thwarting the rise in burglaries at the time. 

“We ask you report any suspicious activity you may see. This does not mean that you have to get involved if you don’t want to. Any report of suspicious activity will be checked out,” Fry wrote. 

Some of the burglaries throughout the years when DeAngelo was an officer fit with the Visalia Ransacker’s modus operandi (MO). According to an Aug. 15, 1973 issue of The Exeter Sun, there were five burglaries in one week, four of which happened in one day. Two of the burglaries ended in the theft of a woman’s clothes and ID cards and three silver dollars. In subsequent years, several other burglaries appeared in the Exeter Sun’s “Police Blotter” section, fitting a similar narrative.

On March 14, 1974 a residential burglary at the home of Pam Becerra netted the burglar $50 worth of coins. Almost a year later, Larry Ramage’s home in Exeter was burglarized where the thief walked away with $130 worth of silver dollars and other coins in addition to a watch and silver necklace.

Collectively known as the Golden State Killer, DeAngelo was known by other monikers in the counties that are now charging him with murder. In Sacramento County, where he is now being charged with two murders, he was known as the East Area Rapist. In Santa Barbara County where he is being charged with four murders, Orange County where he is being charged with two murders and Ventura County where he is being charged with two murders, DeAngelo was known as the Original Night Stalker. 

DeAngelo is not being charged with sexual assaults/rapes in any of the four counties, nor is he being charged with residential burglary because of statute of limitations. According to California state law, the statute of limitations for rape is six years from when the crime occurred or after the victim’s 40th birthday. The statute of limitations for residential burglaries is three years. Nonetheless, the Visalia Police Department is now considering him a suspect in the Visalia Ransacker cases, including the murder of former COS journalism professor Claude Snelling.

“It has long been believed that the Visalia Ransacker was also the East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker and Golden State Killer,” Visalia Chief of Police Jason Salazar said at a press conference on Wednesday, April 25. “Our case did not produce any DNA so there is still a lot of work to do on our part.” 

“Unnerving and intense”

Last Wednesday’s press conference by Chief Salazar was the first time a suspect has ever been named in the Visalia Ransacker case despite continuing to receive at least a few anonymous tips and leads each month as recently as last month. 

“As I stand here today, I am confident the Visalia Ransacker has been captured,” Salazar said.

The Ransacker terrorized the neighborhoods of southwest Visalia and the area surrounding the College of the Sequoias campus. Between April 1974 and December 1975 the Ransacker burglarized nearly 100 homes. The Ransacker often hit multiple times in a single night and an astounding 11 homes on Nov. 30, 1974 plus two more that same Thanksgiving weekend. 

Local historian Terry Ommen said DeAngelo’s arrest and his employment history lining up the timelines of the crime is “as close to a smoking gun as you can get” in a case with no DNA evidence. Ommen has been tracking the case since he was a Visalia police officer in the 1970s. Ommen, who started with VPD in 1972, said the crimes were easy to link together because of the “ritualistic things” the burglar did once inside the homes that struck fear into the community.

“It was on everyone’s minds and the tension in town was unnerving and intense,” said Ommen, who retired from the department in 1997. “Even today, it remains at the top of people’s minds and still comes up in conversation for those who lived here at that time.”

The MO was the same in nearly all of the break-ins, according to Visalia Police Department reports. The suspect would enter the home, either by prying open a window or through an unlocked door, and then immediately unlock other doors from the inside or carefully remove screens and open other windows to give himself multiple routes of escape. He stacked dishes next to exterior doors and balanced perfume bottles on doorknobs as a makeshift alarm system. He would go through drawers in each bedroom, hastily dumping the contents of drawers with male clothing while carefully sifting through drawers with women’s clothing, in some cases stacking them neatly on their bed. He passed on taking cash and instead stole items of little value: piggy banks, collector’s coins and stamps, and women’s rings or a single earring. He tended to target homes of teenage girls attending Mt. Whitney High School or the First Presbyterian Church.

The only descriptions released by VPD were that the suspect was between 25 and 35 years old; approximately 5 feet, 10 inches; weighed about 180 to 200 pounds; and had blonde hair, a pale complexion and small feet. Police reports state that the same footprints, from a size 9 Converse All Star sneaker, was found at nearly all of the crime scenes. 

The Visalia Ransacker’s crimes became more violent over time, culminating with the suspect’s first kidnapping attempt and killing on Sept. 11, 1975. Just before 2 a.m. that morning, an intruder entered the back door of Snelling’s home in the 500 block of Whitney Lane. He went through Arlene Snelling’s purse before creeping into the room of 16-year-old Beth Snelling. When she awoke, he was on top of her with his hand over her mouth saying that if she screamed he would stab her. When she began to struggle, the suspect drew a handgun, according to the Visalia Times-Delta. The intruder then forced Beth onto the patio when Beth’s father, Claude Snelling, was awakened from the noise. When he reached the patio door, Claude saw the man dragging his daughter through the back yard. Claude asked the man what he was doing when the suspect threw Beth to the ground, turned and shot Claude twice with a .38-caliber handgun matching one stolen from a ranscacking 11 days prior. The suspect then kicked Beth in the head three times and fled the scene. One bullet hit Claude in the side and the other in the chest, fatally wounding him. He was dead on arrival at about 3 a.m. at Kaweah Delta Hospital. A reward of $4,000 was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Snelling’s killer. 

“When it became a kidnapping and murder, that’s when it became a momentous case,” Ommen said. “Visalia was a very small town at the time and still had the mentality that this was something that happened in big cities and not in small towns. People started turning in friends and relatives, and the department looked at hundreds of people for the crimes. It was a crazy time.”

On the evening of Dec. 10, 1975, VPD officers and detectives were conducting surveillance details in an attempt to capture the “Visalia Ransacker.”  During one of the details, Detective Bill McGowen was sitting in the garage of a home in the 1500 block of West Kaweah when he observed a suspicious person pass by a window. According to a May 18, 1977 Times-Delta article, McGowen followed the figure into the backyard of a residence and then confronted him and fired a warning shot to the seemingly unarmed man. The suspect began screaming for the detective not to shoot and then jumped over a picket fence. When McGowen pointed his flashlight in the area of the suspect, the prowler fired at the officer, striking his flashlight. The glass from the light hit the officer’s eye causing moderate injuries, and the suspect was able to flee the area and elude capture. It was the last known occurrence of the Visalia Ransacker.

“That’s a pretty good shot,” Ommen said. “We were pretty sure this guy had law enforcement training or at least military training. What are the chances he could go undetected for so long?”

On March 4, 1976, VPD officially announced that the prowler wanted in the Snelling murder was the same as the “Ransacker” who had committed 90 burglaries up to that point. One woman told the Visalia Times-Delta: “People here are just – you know, they’re just scared. It’s really spooky. I don’t know how he gets away. He jumps fences like he knows his business.”

Ommen, a patrolmen at the time, said he remembers making an arrest on a completely separate case and people coming up to him to ask if he had finally caught the Visalia Ransacker. Sgt. John Vaughan led a dedicated unit to track Snelling’s killer that included detectives Bill McGowen and Duane Shipley. The unit lasted for eight months before it was disbanded after the crimes came to an abrupt halt around the time that DeAngelo moved on from the Exeter Police Department.

“It makes me wonder if Exeter experienced the same thing,” Ommen said. “Why would he exclusively hit Visalia?”

On May 18, 1977, the Times-Delta reported that McGowen and Shipley left that day to go to Sacramento where police were investigating rapes in which the attacker matched the psychological profile for the Ransacker. The profile of the Ransacker had noted that the suspect would likely become more violent and dangerous. A year after DeAngelo had moved to Auburn, the EAR had already attacked 22 women. There were also similarities in the sketches of the two suspects. These crimes, as well as others across the state, all shared several characteristics including that the suspect used stolen bicycles to get around, that he stole trinkets and collectibles, and that he often wore a ski mask.

McGowen retired in 1985, a year before the man believed to be both the Visalia Ransacker, East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker murdered his last victim. Shipley died on Oct. 17, 1990. Vaughan spent the last 21 years of his career trying to bring Snelling’s killer to justice, but retired in 1996 without an arrest. Ommen said he has been unable to catch up with Vaughan but is sure news of DeAngelo’s arrest will be a relief for Vaughan and the countless victims here locally and across the state.

“This is one case in my 34-year career that haunts me,” he told the Times-Delta in an article published on Sept. 14-15, 1996. “This is the biggest case in Visalia in the last 30 years.”

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“Black sheep of the family”

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. did not make many headlines as an officer aside from when he first began working with the department. But according to a July 11, 1973 issue of The Exeter Sun, he was involved in a high speed chase. According to the Sun DeAngelo, “Saw the two occupants of the car acting in a suspicious manner.” The car turned out to be stolen from a man named Jerry Dossey, Jr out of Lindsay. After crashing into the Runciman packing shed at 4:40 a.m. on Rocky Hill Drive, the two occupants fled on foot. The article did not note whether they were ever caught.

The July 11, 1973 clip of DeAngelo’s pursuit of a stolen vehicle that July 8 is the only clipping of DeAngelo’s police work besides the initial story in the Exeter Sun about when he was first hired. Image of the Exeter Sun, provided by The Sun-Gazette archives.

The July 11, 1973 clip of DeAngelo’s pursuit of a stolen vehicle that July 8 is the only clipping of DeAngelo’s police work besides the initial story in the Exeter Sun about when he was first hired. Image of the Exeter Sun, provided by The Sun-Gazette archives.

But that is just one instance of note when DeAngelo worked at the Exeter Police Department. Former Exeter police officer Farrel Ward worked with DeAngelo during his 28-year career at EPD from 1972-2000. He described DeAngelo as being sarcastic, stand-offish and kind of a know-it-all in a close-knit department of just eight to 10 officers.

“At that time, and maybe even still today, the Exeter Police Department was kind of a family. But he was the black sheep of the family,” said the 75-year-old police veteran. “He was a strange duck and just didn’t fit in. He never felt like one of the guys.”

Ward said DeAngelo was extremely overqualified for the EPD and had the education and training of someone who should be working for the FBI or at least a much larger law enforcement agency. And according to the Aug. 22, 1973 issue of the Exeter Sun, his education was beaming with accolades. 

DeAngelo, a native of Bath, N.Y., graduated from Folsom Senior High School in June of 1964 and joined the Navy that September. He served 22 months in combat in Vietnam at the 17-18 parallels. He became an honor graduate at Sierra College receiving his associate of arts degree in police science. In 1970 he attended California State University, Sacramento. There DeAngelo received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, specializing in criminal law. He did his post graduate work and completed an internship in Roseville Patrol Identification and Investigation Divisions.

Farrel went on to say he wasn’t surprised when he moved on to the Sacramento area to work for the Auburn Police Department.

“He was always serious, always thinking but was nice to people,” Ward said. “He didn’t really have a sense of humor.”

Farrel said DeAngelo was one of the many officers around the county who worked the Snelling case as part of search parties and canvassing. Officers with EPD were also given a lot of autonomy at the time as the department patrolled in one-man shifts.

“It was common for our officers to back up Farmersville PD or the Sheriff’s Department and even the Visalia Police Department,” Ward said, recalling that he himself was often called up by other agencies as one of the few K9 units in the county at the time.

Ward went on to say that he was shocked when he heard that one of his fellow officers had been arrested for some of the most heinous crimes in California history.

“I can’t believe that he would do something like that,” Ward said. “It was just devastating news.”

“Is there tangible evidence?”

After retiring from Save Mart last year, DeAngelo seemed ready to live out his days in Citrus Heights, a suburb east of Sacramento around the area where he brutally raped 33 women from 1976 to 1978. Neighbors there have described him as keeping to himself, prone to fits of anger over small things such as losing his keys, and at least one neighbor recalled an off-hand threat over a dog barking. 

DeAngelo’s name had never come up in thousands of case files and tips to police over four decades, but it did come up in a search of people who shared at least partial DNA with the killer. According to the Sacramento Bee, Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, uploaded DNA from the GSK crimes to GEDmatch.com, a third-party web site that creates an ethnic background and genetic profile. That genetic information can then be uploaded to commercial sites such as Ancestry.com where it can be cross-referenced with similar matches. The crime scene DNA matched a GEDmatch user, a relative of DeAngelo’s.

DNA was a relatively new form of evidence gathering in the mid-1980s when the crime spree connected to EAR/ONS/GSK came to an end in 1986. Investigators say there was a lot of DNA samples taken from those crime scenes but that they did not match any DNA samples contained in criminal databases. In 2001, investigators linked DNA from three EAR rapes to five ONS murders and positively identified that the they were the same person. After the crimes were linked, the moniker for the crimes was changed to the Golden State Killer, coined by investigative journalist Michelle McNamara in her 2013 book “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” which reignited the public’s interest in the unsolved crimes. 

DeAngelo and four other white males showed up on the same family tree as the GEDmatch user. After looking into the identities of the men, investigators quickly narrowed the search to two. On April 20, detectives with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department obtained an item with DNA from DeAnglo’s trash, according to the Sacramento Bee. The sample had similarities to two rapes in Contra Costa County in 1978 and 1979. After analysis by crime lab technicians, the DNA sample have now been linked to murders in Ventura County, Santa Barbara County and Orange County.

The use of the web site to conduct police business raised privacy concerns about the web site. GEDmatch’s co-founder Curtis Rogers told the Associated Press that it did not hand over any data and the law enforcement conducted their investigation “without our knowledge.” Investigators argue that the web site is open to the public which means they do not need to obtain a warrant to access the information, similar to a public records search. 

DNA will not help link DeAngelo to the Visalia Ransacker case because no DNA evidence was ever collected or found at the crime scenes. Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, whose office has yet to file charges against DeAngelo in the murder of Claude Snelling, said any local charges would come down to a link between evidence found at DeAngelo’s home and how much evidence remains from the Visalia Ransacker case.

“Are there fingerprints? Is there tangible evidence left behind? Is there DNA on cases here? I think that’s something the Visalia Police Department will look into,” Ward said on the April 29 episode of the Paper Trail Podcast by Fourth Estate Podcasting. “Our local law enforcement is pretty darn good. If it comes to us we will make a determination.”

Reports from the Nov. 14 1973 issue of the Exeter Sun indicate an increase in call volume and arrests in the year Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. became a police officer for the Exeter Police Department. Image from the Exeter Sun, provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

Reports from the Nov. 14 1973 issue of the Exeter Sun indicate an increase in call volume and arrests in the year Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. became a police officer for the Exeter Police Department. Image from the Exeter Sun, provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

Farrel Ward stands outside the Automotive Machine Shop in Exeter while on duty in 1973. Image of The Exeter Sun, provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

Farrel Ward stands outside the Automotive Machine Shop in Exeter while on duty in 1973. Image of The Exeter Sun, provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

A clipping from the Nov. 26, 1975 issue of The Exeter Sun, submitted by then Chief of Police Henry Fry asked citizens to be more aware of the presence of burglars in the Exeter community. Provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

A clipping from the Nov. 26, 1975 issue of The Exeter Sun, submitted by then Chief of Police Henry Fry asked citizens to be more aware of the presence of burglars in the Exeter community. Provided by the Sun-Gazette archives.

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