Authorities used a genealogy website to track down ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect decades after crimes

(Rich Pedroncelli | The Associated Press) Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, left, talks to reporters about the arrest Joesph James DeAngelo, seen in photo, on suspicion of committing a string of violent crimes in the 1970's and 1980's after a news conference. Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. A DNA match led to the arrest of DeAngelo, 72, Tuesday. DeAngelo is believed to have committed at least 12 slayings and 45 rapes in California.

The “Golden State Killer” was meticulous at his crime scenes over the course of a decade and in several cities, leaving scant evidence for police. There were no fingerprints. Few saw his face. And what he did leave — his DNA — was, at the time, not useful to police.

Four decades later, with far better DNA technology and widespread use of it, that genetic material became critical to possibly solving one of the most vexing serial murder sprees in U.S. history. Authorities said they were able to link their suspect to the string of crimes by using a genealogy service to trace the genetic material to one man they believe killed at least a dozen people: Joseph James DeAngelo.

Investigators tracked down the 72-year-old former police officer and retired mechanic by comparing DNA collected at numerous crime scenes to information submitted to an online genealogical service, Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi told the Sacramento Bee and the New York Times on Thursday. While the details of how the search unfolded were not immediately clear, Grippi told the news organizations that a genetic profile from one of DeAngelo’s distant relatives led investigators to him.

Once they narrowed their search — based on DeAngelo’s age, where he had lived and his likeness to sketches victims had helped develop over the years — authorities were able to follow him and ultimately collected his DNA on a discarded item. The DNA match meant they had their chief suspect.

Grippi did not identify the company or companies involved, but such services are increasingly used by people who submit their own genetic information to learn more about their ancestry and family tree. Grippi’s office confirmed the Sacramento Bee report but declined to provide additional information.

Representatives from 23andMe and Ancestry.com, two of the most well-known services, said Thursday they were not involved in the case. A spokesperson for Ancestry.com said the company has “not been in contact with law enforcement regarding the Joseph James DeAngelo case.” 23andMe said the company was not involved and does not give customer information to law enforcement officials.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” Grippi said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We have given you as much information as we can at this time. No further information on this subject will be provided.”

California authorities have begun compiling numerous cases against DeAngelo, charging the Navy veteran with slayings and rapes that spanned years and stretched the length of California. Officials suggested Thursday that additional counts are likely to follow in cases that included dozens of victims who were attacked in the 1970s and 1980s.

DeAngelo’s arrest was sudden and stunning, coming more than three decades after the horrific attacks that terrorized Californians in the 1970s and 1980s ended abruptly, the elusive attacker apparently vanishing and later presumed arrested on other charges or dead.

The suburban grandfather police say was responsible remains largely a mystery even after his arrest. Investigators are now unfurling his life during and after the violence, and they are exploring whether his law enforcement background played a role in how the crimes were carried out, how they remained unsolved for so long and how their suspect was able to live close by, undetected, for decades.

Officials said that between 1976 and 1986, the Golden State Killer — also known as the “East Area Rapist” and the “Original Night Stalker” — carried out a campaign of shocking brutality, killing a dozen people and raping 45.

DeAngelo, who police said was arrested without incident at his home in Citrus Heights, Calif., is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday. It was not clear whether he had an attorney.

Small details about DeAngelo’s life have begun to take shape, with neighbors painting him as an angry and unsettling man and noting that it was chilling that he chose to live in and around the communities he allegedly terrorized.

DeAngelo had spent much of the 1970s employed as a police officer in two California cities. He worked for the Exeter Police Department between 1973 and 1976, authorities said. A newspaper article announcing his hiring at the time described him as a New York native who joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. During those years, a slew of house invasions - linked to a then-unknown assailant dubbed the “Visalia Ransacker” — took place about 10 miles from the police department’s headquarters.

Authorities said DeAngelo left the Exeter force and worked for the Auburn Police Department between 1976 and 1979, when that department said his employment was terminated. News reports from the time say he was fired after he was caught shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent. What DeAngelo did between being fired by the Auburn police force and getting hired by Save Mart a decade later remained unclear. Attacks in that area linked to the spree began during those years, police said.

DeAngelo is facing at least eight murder charges filed by prosecutors in three counties, according to court records. The Sacramento County district attorney’s office charged him with a pair of killings in 1978, while the Ventura County district attorney charged him with two more in 1980.

The Orange County district attorney’s office has charged DeAngelo with killing four people there between August 1980 and May 1986. Among those is a charge for the death of Janelle Cruz, an 18-year-old raped and killed in Irvine, Calif., who was the last-known victim authorities attributed to the Golden State Killer.

Joyce E. Dudley, the Santa Barbara County district attorney, noted that among the Golden State Killer’s victims were four people slain in the city of Goleta, which is in her jurisdiction.

“Given the present state of the investigation, I will limit my office’s statements until further action is taken in Santa Barbara County,” Dudley said in a statement.

Since about 1990, DeAngelo worked for Save Mart, the grocery chain, according to a company spokeswoman. DeAngelo, a mechanic, retired last year after 27 years of work at Save Mart’s Roseville, Calif., distribution center, she said.

“None of his actions in the workplace would have led us to suspect any connection to crimes being attributed to him,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are working with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office on their investigation.”

Decades passed, but former Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office Detective Richard Shelby said he always had faith the Golden State Killer would be caught. Shelby, 79, was one of the first detectives on the trail, and he kept consulting and working on the case even after he retired.

“I felt like I just had a shower and wiped off 40 years of scum,” Shelby said in an interview after the arrest. “It felt good to see him caught. All of those people whose lives he destroyed can sit back and feel good. They can sleep at night now.”

Shelby was originally assigned to investigate the Sacramento-area rape of Jane Carson-Sandler in her home in October 1976. He said he quickly suspected it was the work of a serial predator.

“It seemed to be well organized. The timing was perfect,” Shelby said of the rape. “This guy knew exactly when her husband was leaving for work. Several of the houses in the neighborhood had been broken into. She got harassing phone calls that stopped a week before the attack.”

Shelby said DeAngelo was never on the radar screens of investigators as a possible suspect in the 1970s. The suspect was careful not to leave fingerprints at crime scenes, Shelby said, but did sometimes leave DNA behind. Shelby said that oversight — which ultimately led to DeAngelo’s arrest — likely was the result of DNA testing not having been developed at the time. Shelby said he doubts the suspect would have left such evidence at crime scenes if he were still operating today.

“There’s so much information out there about the case,” Shelby said. “There’s so many people out there interested in it. I knew someone somewhere knew something about it.”

DeAngelo’s relatives — who authorities say are cooperating — could not be reached for comment. In Citrus Heights, where DeAngelo lived, neighbors recalled him as a nosy presence. One said that he found the elderly man intruding on his property a few years ago and that he fled on a bicycle when confronted. Others described DeAngelo as filled with rage.

“This guy just had this anger that was just pouring out of him,” Grant Gorman told the Sacramento Bee. “He’d just be yelling at nothing in the backyard, pacing in circles.”

Gorman’s mother, Sonja, told the newspaper that DeAngelo “was the kind of person you didn’t want to make mad.”

Cyndee Reed, who said her husband survived an attack by the Golden State Killer, came to Citrus Heights after DeAngelo was arrested. Reed said her husband and his first wife were found bound, naked and assaulted in their home.

“I had to see where this monster had been living, while our family suffered for years,” Reed said. “I know the trauma that my husband lived through.”

Sawsan Morrar in Citrus Heights, California, and The Washington Post’s Julie Tate in Washington and contributed to this report.