Story of the Year: California killer was Exeter cop
California’s notorious Golden State Killer was a former Exeter police officer, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., and served under the badge during the multi-year crime spree that plagued Visalia and Exeter and the murder of journalism professor Claude Snelling
By Paul Myers & Reggie Ellis @TheSunGazette
CALIFORNIA – Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., California’s alleged Golden State Killer, has been spending the better part of a year in a jail cell since his arrest in Sacramento in April. The bombshell news broke that he was an Exeter police officer, in addition to serving in other departments, just hours after his arrest. DeAngelo’s police portrait, current day mugshot and composite grabbed national media attention.
According to the Associated Press, part of the presumed $20 million prosecution price tag will come from appointing DeAngelo a public defender because he can’t afford a private attorney.
Taking up weeks of headline news, DeAngelo has been charged with 13 murders, and is believed to have committed more than 50 rapes. But prosecutors cannot charge him with rape because they have gone beyond the statute of limitations. His alleged murders spanned six counties. The last murder charge tacked on to his rap sheet was from Tulare County’s District Attorney Tim Ward for the murder of former COS journalism professor Claude Snelling on Sept. 11, 1975.
Law enforcement all over the state in the 1970s and ’80s worked to catch DeAngelo when he was known by monikers such as the Visalia Ransacker, East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker. Things truly changed when DNA analysis became available to law enforcement to prosecute crimes. And more importantly for this case, commercial DNA analysis.
DNA yields answers:
Thanks to the advent of consumer DNA profiles like GEDmatch, law enforcement was able to track down the presumed serial rapist and murderer.
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.
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.
Shortly after DeAngelo’s arrest, Visalia Chief of Police, Jason Salazar said there was a strong belief that he was also the Visalia Ransacker.
“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.”
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.
The Ransacker often hit multiple times in a single night. On Nov. 30, 1974 the Ransacker burglarized an astounding 11 homes and then hit two more the same Thanksgiving weekend.
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.
The crimes abruptly stopped when the Ransacker was confronted and nearly caught by a VPD detective.
On the evening of Dec. 10, 1975, VPD officers and detectives were conducting surveillance details in an attempt to capture the 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. In addition to being the closest anyone had come to catching the GSK, it was also the first time someone had seen him without a mask. Salazar said McGowan’s description of the suspect’s face was a crucial piece of the case.
“The Visalia Police Department never waivered in its path to justice,” Salazar said.
Claude Snelling’s murder:
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar held a joint press conference on Aug. 13 to announce that former Exeter Police Department officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 72, has been charged with the 1975 murder of Claude Snelling.
“Today we took our first step in the local case to provide justice, not only for the family of the victim, but the community as a whole,” Ward said.
DeAngelo is charged with one count of murder with the special allegation that a firearm was used. Just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1975, an intruder rode to the 500 block of Whitney Lane on a bicycle he had stolen two days earlier. He entered the back door of Snelling’s home and 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 ransacking 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.
“Snelling died trying to save his daughter from an intruder,” Ward said. “He became a hero to her and to the community.”
The gun used to kill Snelling was never found, but Salazar said there is other physical evidence linking DeAngelo to the murder scene. While he said he could not elaborate, Salazar did say that the evidence was not found during the search of DeAngelo’s Citrus Heights home following his arrest on April 24.
“We have long believed that the Visalia Ransacker was linked to the Golden State Killer,” Chief Salazar said.
“Today we have identified Joseph James DeAngelo as the sole suspect in the murder of Claude Snelling.”
Snelling, the late College of the Sequoias (COS) journalism professor, was killed at the height of the Visalia Ransacker crime spree.
Salazar said he wasn’t sure how many VPD detectives had worked the Snelling homicide but did say there was intensive effort in the last few months to re-interview any family members and witnesses who are still alive and living in the area. He said the meticulous effort was thee-person team of Violent Crimes Unit detectives led by Detective James Cummings.
“The work of our detectives never really stopped,” Salazar said. “There is still some physical evidence we continue to work and investigate.”
The filing is the first official link between the Visalia Ransacker and the East Area Rapist (EAR) and Original Night Stalker (ONS) cases collectively referred to as the Golden State Killer (GSK). DeAngelo has already been charged with 12 murders associated with the GSK case including four in Santa Barbara County, two in Sacramento County, two in Ventura County, and four in Orange County. Unlike those cases, Ward said there is no DNA evidence linking DeAngelo to the Ransacker crimes or to homicides in other counties.
“Time is not on our side and that will be one of our challenges moving forward,” Ward said. “But that’s something we have overcome before.”
Ward said Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos and Senior Deputy DA Mitch Niayesh have been appointed to the case. Ward ended his statement by asking the community to be patient as they begin preparing a case against DeAngelo based on both crime patterns and physical evidence. DeAngelo remains in custody in Sacramento County where he was arrested.
“There will be an appropriate time when more information will come out,” Ward said.
He was the black sheep:
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.
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.”