In an age of television programming like CSI and Forensic Files, it’s hard to imagine a time before DNA sequencing and profiling. On screen, we see lab technicians and detectives rejoice as the computer pings, indicating a match. Their squad cars converge onto a suspect’s house, and they take him away in handcuffs. They always seem to get their man.
The stark reality is that many homicides go unsolved. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, from 1980 to 2008, law enforcement agencies in California solved only 58 percent of homicides in the state, leaving 33,456 homicide cases cold.
Cold cases involving 12 homicides and 50 rapes that occurred in California from 1976 to 1986 were all crimes committed by one man. Both a lack of communication between police departments and the antiquated case analysis of the time left detectives in disparate departments in the dark that they were dealing with one of the most prolific sadosexual killers in the nation’s history.
Investigators in Sacramento called him the East Area Rapist. Their counterparts in Southern California dubbed him the Original Night Stalker because elements of his crimes were similar to those of Richard Ramirez, a serial killer in Los Angeles commonly referred to as The Night Stalker. Once the crimes were connected through criminal and DNA profiling, he was given the handle of The Golden State Killer, or GSK, by the late journalist and true crime author Michelle McNamara.
For more than 40 years, law enforcement agencies across California have been hunting this serial rapist and murderer. The GSK began offending in the sleepy subdivisions of Sacramento, but his seemingly nomadic lifestyle brought his campaign of violence to the East Bay as he stalked victims in San Ramon, Danville, Concord, and Walnut Creek. As the years passed, he moved hundreds of miles south to commit similar crimes in towns along the Santa Barbara coastline, and his last confirmed murders occurred in small suburban cities outside of Los Angeles.
Memories of the crimes, law enforcement techniques and investigative technologies have all changed in the four decades since the crimes were committed. These changing factors have helped investigations in some ways and hindered them in others. After all the time that has passed, though, detectives have remained persistent and resolved to hunt down the GSK by whatever means necessary.
Profiling is an investigative tool that helps law enforcement agencies to create a composite description of a suspect. These include physical, behavioral/psychological, genetic and geographical profiles. Each of these profiling techniques takes into account different aspects of evidence collected from the scenes of the crimes: witness and victim statements and physical evidence collection as well as data analyses regarding the locations and timings of the crimes.
The physical profile of the GSK is a result of all the victim statements in his early crimes. Before his offenses escalated to murder in Central and Southern California, he left behind living victims and witnesses in over 50 sexual assault crimes in Northern California. The victims describe him as a white man in his mid-20s with a tan complexion. He was between 5’9” and 5’11” with an athletic build and muscular legs, probably placing his weight around 170 pounds. One unique description was that of his manhood: many victims described him as being “under-endowed.” Footwear impressions from many crime scenes were of men’s size nine or nine and a half athletic sneakers. He always wore a ski mask or hood obscuring his face.
The behavioral or psychological profile of the GSK might be equally illuminating to his identity. His actions before, during and after the crimes speak volumes to how he thought and felt. Regarding motive, the GSK seems to have been motivated strictly by sexual violence. He would leave money and other valuables behind, opting instead to ransack the victims’ homes for trinkets and keepsakes. Sometimes he would leave these mementos from previous crimes at the homes of later victims.
Initially, the GSK went after young women who were home alone. His consistency in this regard revealed the cunning designs that went into his planning of an attack. Victims said he seemed to know his way around the house; he knew family and relatives were gone and when to expect their return.
During a town hall meeting held by Sacramento officials regarding the series of sexual assaults, a local businessman stood up to speak. He said that the rapist was too afraid to attack a household where a man could defend his family. Gauntlet so thrown, the GSK took this as a challenge to his abilities. A few weeks later, that same man’s wife was raped after his wrists and ankles were bound at gunpoint.
The GSK began regularly assaulting victims while they were home with their husbands. The victims would wake in their beds to a blinding flashlight beam. Through clenched teeth, the GSK would order the woman to bind her partner’s hands and feet. He would then stack dishes on the man’s back, saying that if he heard the plates clink and fall, he would murder both them and the rest of their family. He would take the female victim to another room and assault her while her partner lay bound and powerless to stop the violence occurring just yards away.
The GSK would sometimes linger in the house after the sexual assaults. He would raid the fridge, eating leftovers and drinking a few beers. Many victims said he would whisper in their ears that if they moved or made a noise, he would kill them. Then he would slink into the shadows.
When victims thought he had to have gone and tried to free themselves, he would stir in the darkness, making a clicking noise with his gun or scraping his knife along the counter. In this way, the GSK seemed to relish the terror he instilled in his victims.
Once the GSK’s crimes evolved to murder, the victims could not testify to his behavior, but he left behind undeniable physical evidence. Investigators collected semen at all ten murder scenes that conclusively linked the central and southern California murders to the northern California sexual assaults.
Many detectives hope that this biological or genetic profile will be the linchpin to solving the cases. The Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, is the FBI’s national scale index of DNA profiles from all convicted felons and many unidentified perpetrators in the US. If a close relative or the GSK himself is entered into the index, the system will recognize similar DNA markers and notify relevant investigative agencies. Unfortunately, no such match has surfaced.
The geographic locales of the crimes reveal some telling aspects of the GSK’s modus operandi or MO, the unique methods of operation an offender uses in the commission of their crimes. The GSK showed that he had intimate knowledge of the physical layout and landscaping design used in the neighborhoods in which he offended. Researchers theorize that crime scenes act as loci that surround the home base from which a serial offender operates. These theories operate on the assumption that an offender may systematically but unconsciously choose to attack in locations surrounding the area in which he lives. Investigators have employed geographical data analysis in the Sacramento crimes to narrow down possible neighborhoods in which the GSK lived while he committed rapes in the area.
Despite the mountains of physical evidence left behind by the GSK and the various agencies tasked with tracking him down and the untold hours that detectives have spent poring over the case files, he remains free today. If he is still alive, investigators put him in his mid-60s. He could be your barber or neighbor, your bartender or teacher. Law enforcement is typically reticent in regard to unsolved murders; they don’t like to say they’re grasping at straws or desperate for leads. But when such a prolific serial rapist and murderer has escaped justice and this much time has passed, any and all input is welcome. Victims and investigators alike hope that new interest in these cases and new eyes looking over the evidence will hold the key to cracking the whole thing wide open.