SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gay Hardwick stood arm-in-arm with her husband to face a criminal dubbed the Golden State Killer and couldn't recognize the elderly man hunched in a wheelchair as the sadistic rapist who had terrorized them 42 years earlier.
In a hushed and raspy voice, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — a serial rapist before he became a serial killer — acknowledged in two words, “I admit,” that he had attacked the couple in 1978 as he pleaded guilty Monday to 13 murders, and admitted dozens of rapes and crimes too old to be prosecuted as part of a deal to avoid the death penalty.
“It was the clenched teeth and, you know, the breathy voice, so there really wasn’t any resemblance — there isn’t any resemblance to the old man that sits before us today,” Gay Hardwick said. “I’m not sure that a lot of that isn’t feigned.”
DeAngelo, who hid behind a ski mask during his crimes, sat behind a clear plastic shield to allow surviving victims and their families to see his face even as they wore masks to prevent possible spread of the coronavirus. The court hearing was held at a Sacramento State University ballroom to accommodate more than 150 observers at a safe distance during the pandemic.
The seemingly frail and feeble 74-year-old ex-cop, who once busted into bedrooms spewing expletives and threatening to use a .357 Magnum to blow the heads off anyone who moved, seemed lost as he turned to his lawyer each time a prosecutor recited the lurid details of attacks that terrified a swath of Northern California in the 1970s.
But where some saw a frail and confused man, others saw a master manipulator.
The day before his arrest in 2018, DeAngelo weaved his motorcycle through freeway traffic to lose police who were tailing him, prosecutors said. When he appeared in a court two days later, he looked like the lost man who listed sideways Monday with his mouth half open.
“I’m extremely angry that he’s up there acting as if he can’t even remember,” Jennifer Carole, whose father, attorney Lyman Smith, was slain in 1980 with his wife, Charlene Smith, who was raped before being killed in Ventura. “I feel a lot of anger, which I don’t think I’ve felt so powerfully before.”
Carole wept as a prosecutor described how her father and stepmother were bludgeoned with a fire log. A pile of used tissues was on the floor next to her chair.
DeAngelo, a Vietnam veteran and a grandfather, had never been on investigators’ radar until just before his arrest.
About a decade after the last killing, they connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to slayings in Southern California and settled on the Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant.
Police used DNA from crime scenes to find a distant relative through a popular genealogy website database then built a family tree that eventually led them to him. They secretly collected DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue to get an arrest warrant.
The retired truck mechanic was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburbs — the same area he terrorized in the mid-1970s, earning the title East Area Rapist.
DeAngelo did not cooperate with authorities. But he muttered a confession of sorts after his arrest that cryptically referred to an alter ego named “Jerry” he said forced him to commit the wave of crimes that appeared to end abruptly in 1986.
“I did all that,” DeAngelo said to himself while alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest in April 2018, Sacramento County prosecutor Thien Ho said.
“I didn’t have the strength to push him out,” DeAngelo said. “He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he’s a part of me. I didn’t want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I’ve got to pay the price.”
While prosecutors suggested DeAngelo had been faking a split-personality, Ho said his day of reckoning had arrived.
“The scope of Joseph DeAngelo’s crimes is simply staggering,” Ho said.
Prosecutors detailed sadistic acts he committed after slipping into homes undetected and surprising couples in bed by shining a flashlight in their faces and threatening to kill everyone in the house — including young children — if they didn’t follow his orders.
The masked prowler initially said he only wanted their money to earn their cooperation, ordering women to bind their husbands or boyfriends face down in bed with shoelaces.
He piled dishes on the backs of men and said they would both be killed if he heard the plates crash during repeated rapes.
At a home in Contra Costa County in the fall of 1978, he told a woman he would cut her baby boy’s ear off if she didn’t perform oral sex after he raped her.
“I admit," DeAngelo said after the prosecutor read the description of that crime.
He stole assorted items, sometimes a few bottles of Budweiser and some cash, other times diamond rings. He slipped off into the dark on foot or by bicycle and even evaded police who at times believed they came close to catching him.
DeAngelo knew the territory well.
He started on the police force in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Exeter in 1973, where he committed his first killing.
DeAngelo was among the officers trying to find a serial burglar responsible for about 100 break-ins in the neighboring city of Visalia.
Community college professor Claude Snelling was killed by the suspected “Visalia Ransacker” after trying to prevent him from kidnapping his 16-year-old daughter.
After three years on the force, DeAngelo moved back to the Sacramento area, where he worked for the Auburn Police Department in the Sierra foothills until 1979 when he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer — two items that could be of use to a burglar.
After that arrest, which cost him his job, DeAngelo acted crazy in an attempt to avoid charges, Ho said. He cast doubt on DeAngelo’s rambling in the interrogation room three decades later, saying he had similarly “feigned feeble incoherence.”
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said most serial killers do not have dual personalities or inner voices, though movies often portray them that way.
Serial killers who get away with attacks for years are usually cunning and organized. Someone who suffers from a serious mental illness isn’t capable of that. Serial killers who blame an alter-ego for their crimes are usually faking it, he said.
“It’s self-serving for someone to suggest that they did all of these things because of this voice: ‘Don’t blame me, blame the voice,’” Fox said.
A guilty plea and life sentence avoids lengthy and expensive litigation, prosecutors said in defending the deal that will bring a life sentence without parole. Victims will confront DeAngelo during a lengthy sentencing beginning Aug. 17.
Victims began to stand in the audience as accounts of their attacks were read. Nearly two dozen were on their feet in solidarity as a prosecutor from Sacramento — where most of his sexual assaults took place — detailed each case. They cheered and laughed when Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday noted victims consistently reported DeAngelo had a small penis.
One man, Victor Hayes, who was held at gunpoint while his girlfriend was raped in 1977, shouted out that he wanted his name read aloud.
"I've been waiting for 43 years. I’m not ashamed of what happened. I’ve never been John Doe in my life,” Hayes said later. “I want accountability and accountability starts with my name.”
Gay Hardwick said she was glad her assault was recognized even though DeAngelo couldn't be charged — and with the knowledge he would die in prison.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s not younger and able to serve a longer sentence,” she said. "It’s unfortunate that he was able to live the prime of his life unfettered, and that the rest of us had to carry a burden for all those years.”
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalist Stefanie Dazio contributed from Los Angeles.