Why do serial killers accidentally kill innocents

Even forty years after his deeds, the serial killer is not safe from her: the third cousin has exposed him

In the 1970s and 1980s, a sadistic killer spread fear and terror in California. For decades the man got away scot-free - until the chief investigator had the brilliant idea.

“What does EAR mean?” Asks Paul Holes, a detective at the Contra Costa County's crime lab. It's 1997. The acronym for East Area Rapist has not been pronounced by an investigator in this California police station for years. The curious young man with the dark blonde hair and the somewhat naive face does not yet suspect that this case, which he stumbled upon in the archive by chance, will bring him many sleepless nights and several hours of overtime for twenty years. In the course of his investigation, Holes will meet people whose loved ones have been brutally murdered. And women who were attacked at home and raped for hours in the presence of their helpless husbands.

The investigator will only redeem them all on April 24, 2018 - the day of Joseph DeAngelo's arrest in the tranquil Citrus Heights. The then 72-year-old is accused of being the Golden State killer, one of the most brutal serial killers and rapists in California.

One phantom, many names

The Golden State killer began his sadistic "career" around 1974 with burglaries that initially earned him the name Visalia Ransacker. He soon expanded his daring raids, in which he only took a few personal items with him, into rape. The serial killer, now known as the East Area Rapist - later also called the Original Night Stalker to differentiate him from the serial killer Richard Ramirez - had killed at least 13 people by 1986, raped at least 45 women and broke into over a hundred houses.

The residents between San Francisco and Sacramento, where the Contra Costa County is located, left the lights on at night out of sheer fear or slept with their guns under their pillows. Michelle McNamara describes this in her book on the case (see reading tip). Vigilante groups, police patrols and even a well-trained FBI agent who chased the offender who was fleeing on a bicycle could not harm this phantom.

Genealogy leads to the suspect within a few months

Investigators examine crime scenes, evaluate clues, question witnesses, try to reconstruct the crime and establish connections to cases that have already been investigated. Classic detective work, however, had hardly moved Holes and his predecessors. This showed early on: There was a professional at work. The perpetrator carefully selected his victims and observed them for weeks without attracting attention. Dogs that used to bark did not respond to him. An elite soldier? A policeman? Despite dozens of testimonies, phantom images, shoe prints, later DNA traces and a tape recording on which he breathes: “I will kill you. I'll kill you »- the Golden State killer has been successfully hiding from the police for 44 years.

It was now 2017. Holes, who was due to quit in a few months, was frustrated. He had chased this serial killer and rapist for twenty years. If the one who had destroyed so many lives escaped from him too, there was a high probability that he would get away scot-free. The case would be shelved for good, the evidence destroyed, or the older perpetrator - if he was still alive - would die in the years to come. The shrewd criminalist sat down and brooded. The DNA traces recovered were his ace in this game of hide and seek. A comparison with official databases such as Codis, in which the DNA of criminals is stored in the USA, was unsuccessful. But the murderer must also be related to innocent citizens. Couldn't genealogy lead to the culprit?

Who is Joseph DeAngelo?

med. Joseph James DeAngelo is a suspect in the case of the Golden State killer. The American joined the Navy in the mid-1960s and served in the Vietnam War. After training in police science and criminology, he was a police officer, first in Exeter, California and until 1979 in Auburn. Because he was caught stealing a hammer and a dog deterrent, DeAngelo resigned from the police force. Most recently, he worked as a truck mechanic and lived in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento, California. The suspect was 72 years old when he was arrested on April 24, 2018.

Feeding the perpetrator's DNA into the commercial genealogy platform Gedmatch.com finally brought about the breakthrough. Soon third and higher cousins ​​appeared, that is, descendants of at least the great-great-grandparents of the murderer. Holes and his team initially faced a pool of more than a thousand distant relatives of the Golden State killer. The excruciating work is to sort out the unimportant strands and find a common ancestor. For this purpose, family chronologies and family trees must be created. A Sisyphean work. So Holes turned to a genealogist who had previously helped the police: Barbara Rae-Venter.

Once involved, the former patent attorney and biologist structured and professionalized the search for the proverbial needle in the haystack. It was clear that the perpetrator must have been living in the Sacramento area at least at the time of the crime, as Holes said in an interview with the television station KTVU. Under the guidance of Rae-Venter, the investigative team focused on a British lineage that went back to the early 19th century - one of the suspect's third or fourth degree grandfathers. The direct ancestors of the perpetrator can be inferred from this one common ancestor. Rae-Venter showed how investigators could use archives from authorities, churches, libraries, newspapers and social networks more efficiently.

Due to their age and their life stories, the group of suspects could be narrowed down to a handful of people after a few months. One of the men volunteered a DNA sample - he wasn't the Golden State Killer himself, but was closely related to it. Rae-Venter again used the genealogy platform Gedmatch.com to determine the likely eye color of the perpetrator: blue. Research on Promethease.com revealed that the perpetrator was suffering from hair loss. In the end, with Joseph DeAngelo, there was only one suspect left who met all of the characteristics.

Outrage over the procedure despite success

Relief over the arrest of the alleged Golden State killer on April 24, 2018 at his home in Citrus Heights was great, but the police's approach led to controversy, even among genealogists and lawyers. It was said that innocent citizens would be subjected to general suspicion. Isn't this procedure the reverse of the legal motto "in case of doubt for the accused"? In addition, none of the users of Gedmatch.com had given their explicit consent that their DNA could be viewed by the authorities. In addition, according to the New York Times, the American authorities are not allowed to search commercial DNA and genealogy platforms without a court order. The team around Paul Holes has therefore moved in the legal gray area.

In fact, it interferes heavily with the personal rights of individuals when investigators access their DNA. Anyone who sends their genetic material to commercial providers gives their consent, in part through clauses hidden in the terms and conditions, that the DNA may be passed on to third parties. This opens up terrifying opportunities for data abuse. Jurisprudence is not set in stone in any state - who knows what state actors or even hackers can do as soon as they know, for example, who is prone to which disease? In addition, anyone can end up indirectly in the DNA databases via close and distant relatives without ever having given their own consent.

In the case of the golden state killer, however, only the inclusion of a commercial DNA database in the investigation is revolutionary. As mentioned, law enforcement authorities are already comparing DNA traces with official databases, including in Switzerland. It contains genetic material from people who have already committed criminal offenses. Or the taking of a DNA sample is ordered by a judge in the event of a specific suspicion. Anyone who touches something, puts their lips to a glass or sneezes, is scattering their DNA. Actors who aim to obtain genetic material - even if it is with criminal intent - have an easy job.

When law enforcement agencies access genetic material, they do so under legal supervision, which makes them actionable in the event of procedural errors. Unresolved cases could be resolved after years with the help of the DNA of innocent citizens. Victims and their relatives could breathe a sigh of relief because the perpetrator is no longer at large. In addition, potential criminals would be deterred, as hundreds of second to fifth degree cousins ​​can be found quickly, which - albeit with a lot of effort - lead to the perpetrator.

A self-experiment by the NZZ on 23andMe.com, also a commercial genealogy platform, confirms how easily one's own DNA reveals over 1100 cousins ​​second to fifth degree: You order a set, send a little saliva in a tube to the USA and can access the results online around two weeks later. Nevertheless, this type of “extended investigation” is not really conceivable in Switzerland. Private genealogy research is not as widespread in this country and in Europe as it is in the USA. Correspondingly fewer DNA samples exist and can be compared with one another. In addition, the financial outlay can only be politically justified in highly explosive cases.

On the one hand, Joseph DeAngelo, who is suspected of being a Golden State killer, is dependent on a public defender, for example, because he does not have enough financial resources. The court process is estimated to cost American taxpayers around $ 20 million and take a good ten years. In view of the more than forty years of investigations, the question of proportionality arises. On the other hand, the actions of the authorities in this case testify to a functioning legal system. Victims and their relatives do not have to be tempted to vigilante justice, because the rule of law does everything in its power to bring criminals to justice - even decades after their deeds.

"He is a self-supporter"

It's hard to believe that Joseph DeAngelo was supposed to have committed all these horrific acts, when you look at this old man at his first court hearing. He's sitting in a wheelchair and staring into space. When asked about the apparently frail suspect in an interview with KTVU, Holes, who otherwise seems composed, looks angry. DeAngelo was observed for a week, says the investigator. He worked in his hobby room, moved like a stiff 50-year-old and raced down the highway with his motorcycle at 160 kilometers per hour. A few days later he sits in a wheelchair and breathes in an old man's voice, so softly that the judge thinks that the accused has refused to answer. "He's just playing it," says Holes, referring to a possible defense tactic. "He's a self-supporter."

Since his arrest, Joseph DeAngelo has been charged with 13 homicides. Many of the more than 45 rapes are now statute-barred. The public prosecutor's office charged 13 of these with kidnappings using firearms. The six California counties in which the Golden State killer had raged have agreed on a centralized trial in Sacramento. The next court hearing is due there on April 10th.

How does it feel to have caught the serial killer after so many years and efforts? "It was a surreal moment for me," replied Holes when asked by a presenter from "True Crime Daily". “I looked at him and he looked like a defeated man. He realized he was composed. He said nothing and denied nothing. " The DNA of Joseph DeAngelo is one hundred percent identical to that of the Golden State killer, a mix-up can be ruled out with high probability. Nonetheless, his lawyer Diane Howard rightly reminds of the pending court judgment: Joseph James DeAngelo "is innocent until proven guilty".

The renowned science magazine "Nature" named the biologist Rae-Venter one of the ten people of 2018. The New York Times put Holes on the list of 18 unforgettable people of 2018. In the USA, the detective, who is no longer in active service, is celebrated as a media star and he has been working on television ever since.

Reading tip

med. The late American Michelle McNamara (1970–2016) described her personal search for the Golden State killer in her book “I'll Be Gone In The Dark”. McNamara ran the Truecrimediary.com blog, which she used to solve unsolved murders. As part of her obsessive research on the Golden State killer, she also interviewed investigator Paul Holes and some of his predecessors. The book title refers to something the Golden State killer is said to have said to a victim: "You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark." ("You will be silent forever, and I will be gone in the dark.")

The book is currently only available in English, including from Harper Collins and Faber & Faber, ISBN 978-0-571-34514-4.