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An American Murder Story

On Wednesday, Californians received the good news that their state’s most notorious cold case has finally been solved. The Golden State Killer (aka the East Area Rapist, the “Original” Night Stalker, and almost surely the Visalia Ransacker) has been identified by police as one 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, an ex-cop.

This welcome relief closed the book not only on the Golden State Killer’s almost innumerable violent crimes—which he allegedly committed [1] over a 12-year span in the 1970s and 1980s—but on the violent era in crime that he epitomized. The trauma and horror of that time has affected three generations—Boomers, Gen-Xers and early Millennials—and still haunts our current debate over “mass incarceration,” gun control, and school shootings, from BLM activists and prison reformers to Donald Trump and Sean Hannity.  

First things first: the Golden State Killer was a one-man crime wave responsible for an almost unbelievable litany of evil from 1974 to 1986. (One website accurately nicknamed him “The Real Michael Myers.”) As the Visalia Ransacker, he began raping and beating young women of high school and college ages in April of 1974, and murdered his first known victim in September of 1975, the professor father of a girl he was trying to kidnap.

After his final Visalia rape in December of that year, he zeroed in on the Sacramento Metro area starting in the spring of 1976, attacking first young women and then upping the thrill factor by attacking husband/wife and boyfriend/girlfriend couples. An A&E documentary that aired some years ago revealed an especially sadistic moment. At a 1977 town hall meeting on the assaults, a man wondered how the attacker could rape a victim when there was another man in the house. That man, and his wife or girlfriend, were attacked within days. Clearly the killer had attended the meeting (or watched it on television)—which DeAngelo could have well done openly and without attracting attention, given his day job as a Sacramento police officer.


Shortly after the New Year in 1978, the East Area Rapist murdered his first couple, newlyweds Katie and Brian Maggiore (the forensic evidence of which was apparently a conclusive factor in DeAngelo’s arrest).

After being fired from his job as a Sacramento policeman due to a shoplifting arrest, DeAngelo evidently moved south along the Southern California coastline. Here, the East Area Rapist transitioned into his final identity as the Golden State Killer by refining his M.O. of attacking couples and adding a “Columbo”-like twist: the ski-masked sicko began deliberately targeting wealthy coastal homes with high-income professionals. (The “safe” neighborhoods, in other words.) He savagely tortured a youngish psychologist couple to death in December of 1979, and a prominent attorney and his interior decorator wife in March of 1980 (both couples lived in the chic Santa Barbara metro). Then he killed a med student living with his beautiful new wife at his father’s Orange County beachside vacation townhouse in August of 1980. All the women were savagely raped and beaten, while the husbands were awakened and then tied up if they remained conscious. More murders followed in 1981, and then after a five-year delay, the GSK’s final known victim was killed in 1986.

The Golden State Killer is notable today as perhaps the last of the “great” (if you can call them that) serial killer “epidemics” of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Looking back, it was almost as though one picked up where the other left off—as soon as one killer was caught, another equally awful attacker took his place. There was the Son of Sam in New York in 1976-77, followed by the Hillside Stranglers in Los Angeles in 1977-78. The “Bedroom Basher” and the “Toolbox Killers” took over for the 1978-79 season in LA and Orange County, only for William Bonin, the “Freeway Killer,” to make his mark during 1979-80. Ted Bundy, meanwhile, was overseeing his 1974-78 murder spree, as was Dennis Rader, the “BTK (Bind Torture Kill)” killer. Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Murderer, then took the ball from 1979-81, and passed it over to Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who killed as many as 70 victims until his 2001 arrest. Then came the “real” Night Stalker, unrepentant Satanist Richard Ramirez, in 1984-85. By then, Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t too far in the future.  

This was the era when crimes against small children first truly entered the public consciousness. When respected author and rape survivor Alice Sebold wrote The Lovely Bones, she deliberately set her heroine’s murder in December of 1973, which the young girl narrating the novel from beyond the grave wryly noted was just before “child molestation” became the topic du jour in the media. That would soon change thanks to the horrific sex murders of Etan Patz in 1979 and Adam Walsh in 1981, and the notorious “McMartin Preschool” case of 1983—the same year that six-year-old David Rothenberg was hideously disfigured by his psychotic father. By 1987, little Lisa Steinberg had been murdered by her lawyer father Joel (while her traumatized, battered-wife mother Hedda Nussbaum didn’t intervene), and barely six years after that, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was raped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis when he home-invaded a sleepover party in Petaluma, California, in 1993.

Looking back, it’s no coincidence that Police Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Miami Vice, and Hunter were signature TV shows during much of this era, or that one of the most popular genres of movie during the late 70s and early 80s was the “slasher movie.” The idea of psychopathic serial killers brutally attacking young women (and occasionally high school and college-age young men) for no reason wasn’t just a screenwriter’s conceit—it was as real as the morning’s headlines.    

A personal—and illustrative—aside, if I may: when I was about 11, I was with my grandfather, a retired LAPD officer and World War II Air Force veteran, who’d brought me home from school while my mom and grandma were out shopping. I decided to go roller skating outside my safe, low-traffic, middle-middle class ‘hood of one-story tract houses in the Downey/Whittier area of Southern California. “No,” my grandpa sighed. “I don’t feel like going out to watch you. My back hurts and I want to watch Judge Wapner. Go play video games on your computer or read.” I drew myself up and announced, “Well, I’ll just go out there by myself then!” Papa grabbed my arm and glared: “I see you’re in the mood to get MOLESTED today or run over!” He said it with a wink and a nod—but the point was taken.

No wonder many aging Boomers of his daughter’s generation, now watching Fox News or surfing the Internet in their retirements, cannot believe that violent crime is down, literally cut in half from its height in the late 80s and early 90s. Just look at the way President Trump demagogued the crime issue in 2016 (Mexican rapists, murder rates “higher than ever,” etc.), only to receive a head-nodding reception from so many in his audience.

This was a generation that grew up with duck-and-cover drills, came of age with race riots and Vietnam, and graduated into their prime young adult and parenting years with serial killers on the nightly news. Young women (and young men, especially gay ones) really were taking their lives into their hands living in the big city—and sometimes even in “safe” suburbs, like the ones Ted Bundy, Gerald Parker, Lawrence Bittaker, William Bonin, and Joseph James DeAngelo terrorized in the late 70s.  

To use Trump-era pundits’ favorite term of art, one of the darkest legacies of the out-of-control crime wave of this period was that it not only sensationalized but normalized the idea that our cities were and would always be Little Beirut-like war zones of drive-bys, gangstas, and muggers. It made suburbanites almost resign themselves to the “fact” that slashers and molesters and monsters could be lurking around every tree-lined corner. It made us think that the “Nightmares” on our own Elm Streets would never end.  

Even though crime rates have been steadily and thankfully declining for two decades, the terror and trauma sadly live on. And certainly the almost endless litany of homemade terror attacks since Oklahoma City, Columbine, and V-Tech—of which Sandy Hook, Dylann Roof, the Pulse Nightclub atrocities, the Las Vegas Concert massacre, Parkland, the Waffle House shooting, and the Toronto van attack are but merely the latest and worst examples—give a renewed justification for paranoia and fear.

May the capture of arguably California’s worst killer finally bring some peace, justice, and closure to the victims and their friends and families who remain. From those of us who lived through the frightening era he personified: good riddance.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the 90s, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not) [2]. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.” 

33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "An American Murder Story"

#1 Comment By M. Orban On April 26, 2018 @ 11:11 pm

I think folks who want to be afraid will always find something to fret about. Then there is a segment of the media that keeps them scared, delivers the scary news like clockwork. This also justifies the aforementioned demographics… like “you are not an unsalvageable coward, you are correct to be afraid. In fact it would be unthinkable negligence not to do everything in your power to protect yourself and your loved ones… arm yourself!”
Then come the politicians, from Orban in the East to Trump in the West who descend from above on their mall escalator and tells us: “It is scary out there bro and getting worst by the day… how fortunate for you that I am here… in fact I am the only one who can protect you,… from criminals, from Muslims, from migrants, from blacks who won’t salute your flag… from all the bad actors”
And we, the voters slowly get up, slowly lumber to the voting booth, like cattle at sundown. Then we vote for the sheepdog, because he says he’ll protect us… and at least he sounds like he is one of us.

#2 Comment By Voltaire’s Ghost On April 27, 2018 @ 6:15 am

Today’s version of that fear is unstable men, usually with ultra-right wing views, having easy access to automatic weapons and ammo. Republicans are willing to do nothing about this.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 27, 2018 @ 7:11 am

Amidst the genuine horrors, the McMartin Preschool case was entirely delusional.

#4 Comment By Johann On April 27, 2018 @ 9:29 am

“Today’s version of that fear is unstable men, usually with ultra-right wing views, having easy access to automatic weapons and ammo. Republicans are willing to do nothing about this.”

Right. In a nation of 300+ million, the mass shooter crimes are a minuscule threat to any and all. Take the school shootings. There are over 100,000 public schools in this country. The chances of any one school seeing a mass shooting is way less than 1/1000. That’s not a per year chance, but the chance of one particular school ever experiencing a mass shooting.

Gang violence and common crime however are much higher risks. And the carnage on our highways is of such a magnitude that there is hardly a single family left untouched. But we consider it a part of life and live with it. People’s sense of risk is infantile.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On April 27, 2018 @ 9:47 am

I’d been up close & alone with a serial killer at my previous employment & the disturbing thing was he gave off no clues. You’d like to imagine someone so psychopathic would at least give off a few weird vibes, but no.There was absolutely nothing odd in his behavior or anything that would raise suspicion.
Due to plea bargaining, his first murder was knocked down to manslaughter. He relocated Up North & proceeded to kill & sexually mutilate a number of women-mostly poor drug addicts & prostitutes. Later on, he moved back home, was able to pass a background check (due to the plea bargaining)& found employment delivering appliances to homes where women were often alone to receive him.
We learned about his past in the news after a parole violation & DNA test linked him to the killings. If he hadn’t messed up his parole he might still be out & about in that delivery truck. Jack the Ripper installing your icebox.

#6 Comment By Thymoleontas On April 27, 2018 @ 9:47 am

What about the role of the media in sensationalizing (and to a degree inspiring) these murders? Also, I’m not sure the media and Hollywood are always downstream from these stories. Think about John Hinckley, Jodie Foster, and “The Taxi Driver”.

#7 Comment By Tom S. On April 27, 2018 @ 10:17 am

David Berkowitz put a major crimp on my social life during that time.

#8 Comment By Kent On April 27, 2018 @ 11:15 am


“Gang violence and common crime however are much higher risks. And the carnage on our highways is of such a magnitude that there is hardly a single family left untouched. But we consider it a part of life and live with it. People’s sense of risk is infantile.”

And what about Muslims? And we have a $750 billion military for that threat. But with school shootings, the problem is the risk isn’t to you, it’s to your child. That magnifies the issue a bit.


I met Ted Bundy’s younger sister once. She and her mother had been raped and beaten repeatedly by him, but her mother refused to ever turn him in.

#9 Comment By A Nelson On April 27, 2018 @ 11:21 am

Why mention the McMartin Preschool? This was eventually resolved as a case of suggested memories by therapists.

#10 Comment By Jon On April 27, 2018 @ 11:22 am

On one side there are these sensational murderers cold in their calculation and unassuming in appearance not appearing creepy as like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho.” On another side are the gangs who press perspective new members to kill with abandon. But then there is law enforcement that as human beings will overreact at times.

The world from the perspective of a police officer is often one fretted with sociopaths – an assortment of amoral characters. At times their jaundiced view overtakes their judgment and overreaction occurs. How is one to respond to potentially dangerous situations? How is one to assess the streets? Calm before the storm if the latter is brewing, but who knows? Even with all of the training, it often requires split-second decisions.

And we the public are caught in the middle between the hard place of petty crime, the psychopaths and their sensational acts of inhumanity and the roving gangs and their potential for street violence and the rock which is our law enforcement officers who patrol serving as deterrents to criminal activities but only at times. How can aberrant behavior of the magnitude of a Ted Bundy be prevented? How can society also be protected from violent outbursts that may occur now and again from unruly mobs or wolf packs of aimless youth?

An authoritarian society that micromanages its citizens watching every keystroke may still prove insufficient to control the maniacal fanatic who wields his knife against passengers in a commuter train. A dystopian world with its frantic desire to control the population through close monitoring of every keystroke and through an inchoate medley of informants — neighbors telling on neighbors — will still have sociopathic individuals slipping under the radar.

Then, we are left without any answer.

#11 Comment By Bob Taylor On April 27, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

I doubt the Ted Bundy anecdote. I’ve read quite a bit about the man, and have never seen a suggestion of that.

There were three notable omissions from your list of monsters: Zodiac, in the Bay Area, who was never caught, Juan Corona, the California farm worker, who in 1971 was found to have murdered 25 men, and the Corll/Henley/Brooks gay pedophile torture – rape – murder ring in Houston, between 1970 – 1973. That one ended when Henley, who was 17, and who, with Brooks, who was 18, lured victims for Corll for money, shot Corll to death in August, 1973. It has a particular horror for me because an 18 year old boy from my dorm at UT Austin was killed by Corll over the Labor Day weekend in 1970. The HPD quit searching for Corll victims when they got to 27, which was then a national record.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On April 27, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

Kent ,
Goodness! I didn’t know that about Ted Bundy.
Our serial killer’s fiancee was extremely nice, very respectable & I’m assuming was ignorant of his past crimes. She came by sometimes to pay his rent & was always nicely dressed in a conservative suit & very calm.
Shortly before we read about his arrest in the news, she came to the office perspiring heavily & it looked like her hair had been falling out. Later I realized what she had been reacting to.
I don’t think human nature changes much. There have been terribly warped people throughout history. Maybe serial killers are more numerous in certain decades or perhaps the media just focuses more on them then?

#13 Comment By I Don’t Matter On April 27, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

The role of lead exposure is conspicuously absent from this article.

#14 Comment By LT On April 27, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

The things about violent crime that remains constisent across cultural, economic, and geographic lines: most people are attacked and killed by a family member or someone who knows them – looks like them. Even the police start most investigations close to home

With serrial killers and mass murdererers Most of their sprees start out with domestic violence.

#15 Comment By Bob Taylor On April 27, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

And how could we have omitted Chicago’s supercreep, John Wayne Gacy?

mrscracker, though not exactly a Ted Bundy expert, I do know quite a lot about the man. I have never heard or read a hint that he committed rape within the family. It’s probable, however, that he made his first kill, of an 8 year old girl, when he was a mere 14.

#16 Comment By Bob Taylor On April 27, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

I tried leaving this earlier, but it seems not to have taken:

We forgot all about the supercreep of Chicago, John Wayne Gacy.

mrscracker, I know quite a bit about Ted Bundy. There is not the slightest reason to believe he raped his mother or his half sister. It’s probable, however, that when he was 14, he killed an 8 year old girl.

#17 Comment By Sean Mallory On April 27, 2018 @ 5:19 pm

Voltaire’s Ghost, only government employees have “easy access to automatic weapons”.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 27, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

“Amidst the genuine horrors, the McMartin Preschool case was entirely delusional.”

How dare you suggest that children make things up, tell tales, and are easily manipulated by adults to tell said adults what they want to hear.

#19 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 27, 2018 @ 10:46 pm

“There have been terribly warped people throughout history. Maybe serial killers are more numerous in certain decades or perhaps the media just focuses more on them then?”

Consigned to private life, they act out their pathologies there. In public life, they become not only great war heroes, but beloved war leaders of entire nations.

#20 Comment By A. I. Reeves On April 27, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

Is “demagogue” now a verb? Apparently yes. (We are here told that “Trump demagogued the crime issue in 2016”.)


#21 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 28, 2018 @ 12:11 am

mrscracker mentioned this story:

“The Golden State Killer Is Tracked Through a Thicket of DNA, and Experts Shudder
The arrest of a suspect has set off alarms among
some scientists and ethicists worried that consumer DNA may be widely accessed by law enforcement.” — New York Times, April 27, 2018


#22 Comment By muad’dib On April 28, 2018 @ 8:00 am

Gang violence and common crime however are much higher risks. And the carnage on our highways is of such a magnitude that there is hardly a single family left untouched.

In a country of 300 million where almost everyone over the age of 16 drives on average over 12 thousand miles per year, car accidents only killed 30 thousand people, whereas guns owned and used by less than half of the population killed just as many people.

#23 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 28, 2018 @ 8:48 am

RE DNA I posted a link to a New York Times article earlier, but I neglected to make specific reference to these two paragraphs:

“23andMe has more than 5 million customers, and Ancestry.com has 10 million. But the DNA in databases like these are relevant to tens of millions of others — sisters, parents, children. A lot can be learned about a family simply by accessing one member’s DNA.

“’Suppose you are worried about genetic privacy,’ Ms. Murphy said. ‘If your sibling or parent or child engaged in this activity online, they are compromising your family for generations’.”

#24 Comment By Passersby On April 28, 2018 @ 10:53 am

Michael Ross in Connecticut 1980’s. Went to school with one of his victims. My boyfriend and I would see him driving around in his truck and wondered that creep was.

#25 Comment By James Graham On April 28, 2018 @ 11:15 am

Meanwhile in New York City …


#26 Comment By Mia On April 28, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

“I’d been up close & alone with a serial killer at my previous employment & the disturbing thing was he gave off no clues. You’d like to imagine someone so psychopathic would at least give off a few weird vibes, but no.”

I’m skeptical of this. I had a violent family member going this direction when I was young, and the warning signs were everywhere. When I read up on other murder cases, I discovered it’s actually very typical for murderers to tell someone before hand. So why doesn’t anyone notice? I see a lot of rationalization of really bad behavior, so it’s possible that some the warning signs or weirdness as ha-ha funny sociability. I hear people call the most appalling, scary people “good guys” all the time. So oftentimes something is off with the listener.

I was just reading last night about how Bill Cosby talked about drugging and raping women from nearly the beginning of his stand up career, but how did people take him back then? Did most people in the audience assume that he was just making a joke? Did they think he was a “good guy” who seemed “normal”? Something to think about.

#27 Comment By Rob G On April 28, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

In that same period we had a serial killer here in Western Pa. known as the “Shotgun Killer” (Edward Surratt). Lots of fear in the community at that time.


#28 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 28, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

“And we the public are caught in the middle between the hard place of petty crime, the psychopaths and their sensational acts of inhumanity and the roving gangs and their potential for street violence and the rock which is our law enforcement officers who patrol serving as deterrents to criminal activities but only at times.”

Ohhhh good grief, the reason our society is not a free for all is because most of society grows up learning rule for appropriate behavior.

The police are useful and helpful, but given the roughly 1,000,000 who serve against the 270,000,000 who don’t it’s a safe bet law enforcement’s buffer is just that a buffer.

#29 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 29, 2018 @ 6:13 am

“Consigned to private life, they act out their pathologies there. In public life, they become not only great war heroes, but beloved war leaders of entire nations.”


I absolutely buy the overplay of the the spate scandalous pre-school scandals and the reinforcing para-psychological narratives that eviscerated hundred of lives. A trolley on which many Christians primed with satanic cults suspicions rode and continue to ride on which a little bit of truth mixed in a bundle of speculation made a mockery of sound reason and justice.

And while it is likely that war has provided an outlet for people of the articles frame(s) to operate, some of whom might be heroes or even leaders on the world stage. I would like to temper the notion that this a general condition for military or public service heroes and leaders.

I would like to think that most of our leaders are just wrong or mislead. The concept that they are narcissistic socio-paths or psycho-paths is just too dark to accept. Though the “glee” on Sec Clinton’s face over Libyan Pres Qaddafi’s death is chilling, It is no less chilling that upon seeing her gush over a man’s death caused not an ounce of pause in supporting her for presidential office.

#30 Comment By Stavros On April 29, 2018 @ 9:00 am

This article suggests a question that deserves much more analysis: “What was it about that specific 1970s era that brought these monsters into the public consciousness?” Some suggestions:
-The cultural chaos of social change in the late 1960s and 1970s enabled these behaviors by increasing mobility and removing local community social barriers to acting out one’s fantasies;
-Some early boomers (and many of the 1970s-vintage serial killers) were children of WWII family chaos, emotional destruction of fathers, and alcoholic parents. The War left a long legacy of personal destruction mapped by some returning GIs into their children.
-Technologically powerful television media, incessantly seeking out sensation and projecting it into innumerable living rooms, gave these murderers a social forum in which to act out their destruction while keeping the nation enthralled in near-terror.

I would also add as a rejoinder to the author’s account of time with his grandfather that my own childhood, spent living freely on city streets in the 1950s, is now almost unthinkable thanks to the Johnny Gosch case which changed parenting forever.

#31 Comment By mrscracker On April 29, 2018 @ 9:30 am

Actually the case I was relating happened about a dozen years ago. But thank you for sharing that article.
It’s interesting -and a little scary- to think about how DNA might be used in the future as more and more of us share our results.

#32 Comment By mrscracker On April 29, 2018 @ 11:32 am

I don’t know, perhaps if I’d had a closer relationship with the serial killer I might have detected something unusual in him, but my encounters with him were simply as a property manager.
The family owned appliance business where he was employed was in shock, too when he was identified.
I do read that real sociopaths don’t give off clues because of a lack of conscience. That’s probably over simplified but I think it might be partly why they can look you in the eye and appear completely decent.
I had to run background and credit checks on prospective tenants and often could get a good sense of character just by speaking with some one, but not with him.

#33 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 29, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

The context of Mr Cosby’s comments was not a confession of rape. It was a statement about the nature of the Hollywood and entertainment environment during his hey day.

Your taking liberties to fit your “Meetoo agenda ridden bias’.

He may very well be guilty of rape. I have no clue, but your comments are not reflective of the context of his comments.