Golden State Killer: Reign of Terror Included Goleta Victims
The Most Vicious Rapist-Killer in California History Brought to Justice
It was a mid-summer’s night in 1981 and Debbi Domingo, a junior at Santa Barbara High School, was just ending her shift at the Granada Theatre on State Street. She was handed a message from her mother’s best friend.
“Please come home,” the message read. “You need to come right away.”
Domingo considered the note. She and her mother had a terrible argument earlier and their last words were bitter. Reluctantly, Domingo went home and was stunned to see her house lit up and surrounded by police cars, news crews and cameras. The house itself was sealed off with huge amounts of yellow crime tape.
“I knew something horrific had happened,” Domingo said in a recent interview with the Montecito Journal. “The yellow tape was the most terrifying. I tried to run to the front door, but the police held me back. They told me there were two bodies inside the house and they believed one of them was my mother’s. I couldn’t comprehend it. I tried to break free. Then they said, ‘It’s messy.’ That’s when everything seemed to collapse.”
The origins of that terrible night began in 1945, when Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was born, the son of a WWII hero and an Italian immigrant mother. Little is known about his early life, other than his family moved frequently. DeAngelo ultimately graduated from Folsom High School near Sacramento, served in the Navy in Viet Nam, and then came back to become a college honor student and a police officer. But those accomplishments will not be DeAngelo’s legacy because he also grew up to become the most vicious and prolific serial burglar, rapist, and murderer in California’s history.
DeAngelo’s reign of terror lasted 42 years and scorched the lives of dozens of victims – including Debbi Domingo and her family – before he was caught in 2018. Last week, he pleaded guilty to 13 homicides and 13 counts of kidnapping. There is ample evidence, however, that he committed more than a thousand crimes between 1972 and the time of his arrest. He brutalized and raped more than 60 women and killed at least 13 people. He broke into hundreds of homes: peeping, rummaging, vandalizing, and stealing small personal valuables.
His acts of brutality and violation ranged from Sacramento, San Joaquin and the east San Francisco Bay Area, to Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties. He was a demented and cunning terrorist who declared an unholy, violent war on California until a breakthrough in DNA technology led to his arrest.
“He is an evil man who shattered lives,” said Domingo.
Last week, at DeAngelo’s guilty plea hearing in Sacramento, details of his crimes were read to the public for more than seven hours. The hearing was the result of a remarkable cooperative effort by the district attorneys in the six counties where he is known to have raped and killed his victims. After DeAngelo’s attorneys told officials, including Santa Barbara County DA Joyce Dudley, that he wished to plead guilty to the 26 counts of murder and kidnapping in exchange for escaping the death penalty, an agreement was reached with surprising quickness.
“I don’t think there has ever been anything like this before,” said Kelly Duncan, Santa Barbara Chief Deputy District Attorney, who worked on the case. “You had some pretty strong personalities involved in the DA’s offices of these six counties, but everyone came together to do what was right, especially when it came to pursuing justice for all the victims,” she said. “It was important that he agreed to admit to not only the murders, but the uncharged crimes as well.” These included the rape charges that had exceeded the statute of limitations.
“I think most of the surviving victims were in favor of the plea bargain,” said Domingo. “At first, there was some feeling that we wanted him to stand trial, but given the current COVID situation, the enormous cost of such a trial and the stress it would generate on almost everybody, it was decided this plea bargain was the best option.”
Carol Daly, a Sacramento homicide detective, has remained close with many of the victims for decades. “I’ve watched many of them struggle with the awful psychological aftermath of these vicious assaults. DeAngelo will spend the rest of his life behind bars and we’re all thankful for that, but what he did left many scars.”
Linda O’Dell was 22 and had just moved to Citrus Heights, a suburb east of Sacramento, in 1976, when she and her husband woke up to a masked man standing by their bed, shining a flashlight in their eyes. As happened in dozens of other cases, the intruder had a gun and swore through clenched teeth that he would kill them if they did not obey. He made O’Dell tie her husband’s hands with shoelaces, then he tied her husband’s feet and her hands. He made her husband lie on his stomach and then put dishes across his back. “If I hear those dishes rattle, I’ll kill everybody in the house,” the masked man growled.
Then he took O’Dell into another room and took his time raping her. Afterwards, he rummaged through the house, muttering to himself and eating food from the refrigerator. Often, after an hour or two, he would come back out of the darkness suddenly and thrust a knife next to the woman’s face. Then he would disappear into the darkness. His savagery would escalate in Santa Barbara County, however.
On July 27, 1981, the night Debbi was working at the Granada, her mother, Cheri Domingo, 35, and her boyfriend, Gregory Sanchez, 27, were in Cheri’s home on Toltec Way in Goleta. A masked man with a gun suddenly appeared in their bedroom. Investigators believe that Sanchez, who was tall and athletic, tried to fight the intruder, but he was shot in the face before being bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. Domingo was tied and raped. Then the attacker savagely hit her at least ten times with the same tool, shattering her skull. Even one of the blows would have killed her.
In the years following the attack, Debbi blamed herself for not being there to save her mother. She could not get their last argument out of her mind and fell into a lasting depression. No help was offered to her and she sank into a world of drugs and homelessness.
For more than 25 years, the Domingo-Sanchez case went unsolved. So did a seemingly unrelated double homicide that had occurred on October 1, 1979, in a Goleta condominium complex on Avenida Pequena. A popular local physician, Robert Offerman, and his girlfriend, area psychologist Debra Manning, were found shot and killed. Area law enforcement followed up several leads in both cases, but no suspects were arrested.
“The community was shocked, and so was I,” said retired Montecito attorney Bill Allen, who was living next door to Offerman at the time. “Everyone thought it was a local perpetrator, though. No one even came close to guessing what turned out to be the truth.”
Another double homicide was committed on March 13, 1980 in Ventura, when Charlene Smith, 33, and her husband Lyman Smith, 43, were found bludgeoned to death in their home. Shoelace ligatures were found. Charlene had been raped. A rape kit was used and the perpetrator’s semen was frozen – a move that nearly 35 years later, would ultimately prove the key to solving the case.
In May, 1980, Keith Harrington, 24, and his wife Patrice, 27, were found beaten to death in Dana Point. Patrice had been raped and shoelaces were found. Yet, another rape-murder was reported on February 6, 1981 in Irvine, the victim 28-year-old Manuela Witthuhn. A final rape-bludgeoning death was reported on May 4, 1986, when the body of Janelle Cruz, 18, was found in her home in Irvine. She had been beaten so severely many of her teeth were found in her stomach.
DeAngelo’s history of crimes are well-chronicled now, although some things are still being revealed. For example, his father, Army Air Force Sgt. Joseph DeAngelo Sr., won medals in WWII, but was physically abusive to his wife, according to one family account. She, in turn, reportedly abused her children. Joseph Sr. was transferred to Mather Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova in 1959.
DeAngelo played baseball at Folsom High. Pictures of him then showed a fresh-faced teenager, seemingly the all-American boy. In 1964, he gained his GED and enlisted in the US Navy, spending 22 months in Viet Nam. His title then was “Damage Control Officer.” He was honorably discharged and then attended the California State University at Sacramento where he graduated with honors – and a criminal justice degree. He then married Sharon Huddle, who became a leading family law attorney in Sacramento. She reportedly left him in the early 1990s, after his crime spree had apparently stopped. They have three grown daughters.
In May 1973, DeAngelo joined the police department in Exeter, a small town near Visalia. Shortly afterward, his picture appeared in the local paper for his role in arresting four burglary suspects.
However, reports of odd burglaries during which bedrooms were ransacked and underwear often strewn around the house began to skyrocket in the area. The thief quickly earned a nickname, “The Visalia Ransacker.” That crime spree ended after local journalism professor Claude Snelling was shot and killed trying to prevent the masked “Ransacker” from kidnapping his young, teenage daughter. DeAngelo pleaded guilty to that murder last week. Records show DeAngelo attended extension classes at the College of the Sequoias, where Snelling taught.
At that time, DeAngelo was not a suspect in the murder, and he moved back to the Sacramento area where he was hired by the Auburn Police Department. It was from that position that he launched his terror on Sacramento.
DeAngelo began breaking into houses and raping the female occupants – sometimes as many as five times per month in 1975 and 1976. His MO was the same in each case, mask, flashlight, knife or gun, shoelace or twine ligatures and terror and domination. Sometimes he would stick the point of his knife into the female victim’s face to make sure she complied with his demands. He was nicknamed “The East Area Rapist (EAR)” by the media.
“He raped and terrorized the city for two years,” said Carl Stincelli, who was on a special team formed to catch him in 1976. “We all worked overtime and had helicopters and everything else out looking for him. We checked out thousands of suspects, but we couldn’t catch him.”
What they did not know was DeAngelo was perhaps informed about the Sacramento law enforcement strategies by an unwitting friend in the Sacramento Police Department.
In 1976 the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories loaned their computer system – one of the largest in the world at that time – to Sacramento law enforcement to help them track down the EAR. He continued to elude them, however, often by escaping down the American River Parkway on stolen bicycles.
Last week, DeAngelo admitted to killing two people, newlyweds Brian and Katie Maggiore, who had the misfortune of witnessing DeAngelo try to break into a house in Rancho Cordova while they were walking their dog. Brian was a young officer at Mather Air Force Base. DeAngelo stopped his crime spree in Sacramento after that, but continued to prowl, peep and rape in Modesto, Stockton and then the East Bay area. Thinking he was a newly emerging criminal, law enforcement there nicknamed him “The Original Night Stalker.”
Shortly afterward, DeAngelo was fired from the Auburn Police Department after being arrested for shoplifting. He was caught stealing dog repellent and a hammer.
Why DeAngelo came to Goleta in 1979 from Sacramento is unclear. How and why he targeted Cheri Domingo and Debra Manning is also unclear. Reports, which Duncan would not confirm or deny, are that tiny blue paint chips were found at both Goleta murder sites. At the time, a building where CVS now stands in the Calle Real Shopping Center was being painted a blue color. It could be that DeAngelo was working as a painting contractor for a time in Goleta. What is known is he used San Jose Creek, which runs near both murder sites, in much the same way he had used the American River Parkway – as his highway to murder. He attempted a robbery-rape near Toltec Way before he killed Offerman and Manning, but his intended victims in that case escaped and called for help. DeAngelo pedaled away on a stolen bicycle and disappeared.
Much has been written on the clever DNA website trick used to ultimately catch DeAngelo. In 2016, after a new book had given the still unknown rapist-murderer a new name, “The Golden State Killer,” analysts decided to try something new to catch him. The rape kit DNA from the Smith murders in Ventura was accessed and a profile – which is like a DNA fingerprint – was found.
Led by Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes, the DNA profile was put on GEDmatch, a website used to help people track down their relatives. With the help of a genealogist, the team soon built a family tree belonging to the killer and painstakingly eliminated everyone but a 72-year-old man still living in Citrus Heights – DeAngelo. After DeAngelo’s DNA was harvested from his garbage can and other places, investigators confirmed that his DNA and the killer’s were a perfect match. Joseph James DeAngelo was the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer. He was arrested in his home on April 24, 2018.
He remained in the Sacramento County Jail without talking for nearly two years before asking for the plea bargain.
Duncan was pleased with the outcome. “Joyce Dudley had a great deal to do with it,” said Duncan. “Her leadership was crucial to make sure every family member of the victims in Santa Barbara County, and all the others throughout California, were able to witness justice being done.”
For Debbi Domingo, the journey back to emotional health was a long one. After moving to Texas, her brother talked her into going back to church. “I remember walking in, so timidly, and sitting in the back row. I didn’t even know if I belonged there because I had let my mother down.”
Like many of the victims of DeAngelo, she prayed investigators would find her mother’s killer. Against all odds, those prayers were answered. It has been a long road back for Domingo, who finally forgave herself. “I realize now had I been home, I probably would have been killed as well. It took me a long time to accept that.”
She was able to get off drugs two decades ago and went to work for the Texas Department of Corrections. She has been married to her husband, Kerry, for 16 years. They have five grown children and their seventh and eighth grandchildren are on the way.
“It was surreal sitting there listening to DeAngelo admit to all the details regarding the murder of my mother, Greg and all the others,” she said. “The prosecutors did a brilliant job of painting a true picture of what he did. It was horrific and grueling to listen to, but now, at last, maybe we can find some peace with what happened.”
A hearing that will allow all victims to express themselves to DeAngelo and the court is scheduled in Sacramento for the middle of August.
Brain-damaged, Abused, or Just Born Evil?
The biggest unanswered question now that Joseph DeAngelo has admitted to being the Golden State Killer, is what compelled him to commit murder and mayhem for decades?
Three potential questions emerge: was he brain-damaged; was he terribly abused as a child; or was he just born evil?
Sacramento homicide detective Carol Daly, who first worked on the case in 1976, said, “I feel in my heart he was just born evil.”
Carl Stincelli, an investigator who has also been involved with the case since the mid-1970s, agreed with Daly. “He is one of the evilest men ever to walk the planet,” Stincelli said. “He was just born that way.” Four other California investigators echoed the same answer.
Finally, Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a renowned professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, was asked for his scientific opinion. “Some people have a singular goal in life and that is destruction,” Yellowlees said. “You can diagnose them all you want from a scientific point of view, but the bottom line is they are pure evil.”
When Kelley Duncan, Chief Assistant District Attorney for Santa Barbara County was asked that question, she hesitated only for a moment. “I think you have to go with what the doctor says. Joseph DeAngelo is an evil, evil man.”