Author Archives: Zack England

Golden State Killer Suspect Identified, Arrested

After more than forty years, the murderer of 12 people and perpetrator of at least 50 violent sexual assaults has a name and a face. His name is more than some catchy moniker, by which to remember his crimes. His face is not just a vague, cartoonish sketch.

The Sacramento District Attorney’s office has identified Joseph James DeAngelo as their suspect for the Golden State Killer’s crimes.

DeAngelo, a 72-year-old resident of the Citrus Heights suburb of Sacramento, was arrested on April 24, after law enforcement agencies conclusively linked his DNA to genetic materials recovered from the crime scenes. Although DeAngelo has only been charged in four of the murders so far, Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said, “there are many [more cases] that match by DNA, and it is the same DNA as found in those that have been charged [in the current case].” This means that there will probably be many more charges pressed and crimes cleared in the coming days and weeks, as the cases progress.

The leads resulting in DeAngelo’s arrest came together in a unique way. Contra Costa County Investigator Paul Holes took an unorthodox approach: he uploaded the unknown suspect’s DNA profile recovered at one of the crime scenes to the GEDMatch genealogy website. GEDMatch is different from other genealogy services, like Ancestry or 23AndMe, in that users’ genetic info is open source. This lack of privacy protections, like those in place at other genealogy firms, made it easier for law enforcement to find relatives of their suspect.

It was four months, from the time of law enforcement uploading the DNA profile to the arrest of DeAngelo. In that time, investigators located distant relatives of DeAngelo who had uploaded their own DNA to GEDMatch. Detectives used this information to build a family tree and eventually homed in on DeAngelo, who was still living in the area where many Sacramento crimes took place. Police put DeAngelo under surveillance and were able to obtain a discarded DNA sample of his, which proved a perfect match to their suspect’s profile.

The Golden State Killer (GSK), who was also called the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker by various law enforcement agencies, committed 12 murders and upwards of 50 violent sexual assaults between 1976 and 1986. These crimes took place over ten counties throughout the state, which confounded the investigations for a time; sheriff’s departments in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties had no idea that their then-unconnected suspects were indeed the most prolific serial rapist in Sacramento. That is until DNA profiling became a ubiquitous research tool for criminal investigators. Then the picture emerged of a serial killer and rapist who had been operating across hundreds of miles and evaded capture, sometimes just barely.

Law enforcement confirmed that DeAngelo is also suspected in the crimes committed by the so-called Visalia Ransacker, a serial burglar responsible for over 100 crimes in 1974 and 1975, in Visalia, California, a small central valley town more than 200 miles south of Sacramento.

The Visalia Ransacker was said to be motivated by more than theft: he would sometimes opt to steal heirlooms and personal mementos in lieu of cash or valuables. This behavior was also a part of the Golden State Killer’s MO. The Visalia Ransacker would commit what are called “hot prowl burglaries,” wherein the thief deliberately enters the home while its occupants are inside, adding to the risk and, possibly, the thrill.

The Visalia Ransacker is the suspect in a murder as well. A pistol stolen in an earlier burglary was the weapon used to murder Claude Snelling. Snelling, a journalism professor at College of the Sequoias, was giving chase after he found a man attempting to kidnap his daughter.     

This connection between the Visalia Ransacker and GSK cases was just conjecture on the part of armchair detectives and internet sleuths until Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones confirmed the link during an April 25 press conference. Visalia Police Department representatives have also stated that they believe that, with DeAngelo arrested, the Visalia Ransacker has been caught.

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Missing Michaela: A Hayward Cold Case

This November will mark the 30th anniversary of the kidnapping of Michaela Garecht. She was nine years old on November 19, 1988, when she was abducted by a stranger in broad daylight from a grocery store parking lot on Mission Boulevard.

That morning, Michaela and a friend were riding their scooters down to Rainbow Market, currently Mexico Super. They parked the scooters in the store’s lot and went inside to buy some candy and treats. When they returned to grab their scooters, Michaela’s had been moved and laid beside a parked car. She walked over to retrieve it, and a man came out of the car and grabbed Michaela. He pulled her into the vehicle with him and sped away, careening down Mission Boulevard. Michaela’s family has not seen or heard from her since.

Michaela’s friend saw the whole kidnapping play out. She gave police a description of the abductor: tall and slender, in his twenties, with shoulder length dirty blonde hair. His face appeared scared with pockmarks or broken out with acne. The car he drove was described as a dinged and scratched up tan sedan. Some witnesses reported seeing flecks of white paint spattered on the car’s exterior.

Most child victims of kidnapping are taken by people who are known to them: parents or relatives. Michaela’s was a stranger abduction, rare occurrences which account for less than one percent of child kidnapping cases in the US. Hayward Police immediately began their investigation. They sent officers to her home that day, collecting evidence and asking questions about Michaela, her friends, her habits.

The Missing Persons Project, a now-defunct advocacy group, also got involved the day of the abduction. They sent representatives to Michaela’s parents’ house, where they set up a command post. They installed a new phone line, dedicated to fielding calls about Michaela, the case, and any information from the public. Local news stations sent reporters to cover the initial investigation and search efforts.

Despite this prompt response, the police were not able to apprehend the kidnapper that day. In the days that followed, they conducted searches near the kidnapping site, and private citizens helped, scouring the undeveloped foothills east of Mission Boulevard. No substantive leads turned up.

Time passed. The searches died down. The investigation dwindled.

The police received 5,000 leads in that first year alone. A composite sketch of the kidnapper was drawn based on the witness descriptions and was disseminated on TV news. Posters with Michaela’s picture were posted around town, on bumper stickers and at police stations and in post offices.

Michaela was a typical nine-year-old. She was an intelligent little girl, enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education program at her elementary school. She wore her blond hair in a short bob with bangs. She had blue eyes and a bright smile. That is how her mother, Sharon Murch, remembers her today.

Murch, who still lives in the area, keeps a blog online where she writes about her experiences in the wake of her daughter’s abduction. She shares anecdotes and little stories about times with Michaela, all those years ago. She also writes directly to Michaela, in case her daughter is out there looking for her too.

Those that knew her daughter would sometimes write to Murch. They all share similar memories of Michaela. “They write to me and say how sweet, kind and caring they remember Michaela being back then,” says Murch. “There was a light shining from her.”

Murch’s online presence has attracted a variety of responses. People still write telling her that they think they know what happened. Most are well-intentioned. Some are not.

A few strange people have insinuated themselves into Murch’s life. They seem convinced that they possess some secret, basic intuition that will help the investigation. Some are men, whose passions for finding missing children border on obsession. Some are adult aged women, convinced that they are Michaela themselves. None of them have turned out to be related.  

In the last three decades, thousands of leads have piled up in Michaela’s case file. “I”m convinced that somewhere in all those files is the answer to what happened to Michaela,” Murch says. “It’s just a matter of finding the needle in the haystack.”

However, Murch is less than hopeful that police work will be the answer to finding her daughter. At this point, Murch says, “Michaela will have to find herself.” Publicity, she thinks, can be a great ally to families of missing children. The media can help spread information and promote interest once the investigation and local awareness have waned.

Officials from the investigations unit of the Hayward Police Department were reticent regarding any possible progress in the case, as it is classified “Open/Unsolved.” They said it is still being actively investigated and they will continue to follow up on tips provided.

Sharon Murch hopes that if someone is certain, they know what happened to Michaela that they will call in their tip to the police today. If they contacted police back in 1988, they should call it in again.

You can find Murch’s blogs at DearMichaela.com and SeekersRoad.com. Any tips or information regarding Michaela’s case can be phoned into the Hayward Police Department at 800-222-3999.

Project Based Learning at the Student Initiative Center

It’s not your typical college course. The students don’t meet in an average classroom. The course objectives are sweepingly broad yet intimately personal.

And these unorthodox approaches to learning are precisely why the Passion and Purpose class at Chabot works, says instructor Eric Heltzel. The course description states that students engage in “exploration and discovery of personal passions in the context of social and family relationships, serving the wider community, and analyzing and understanding higher education.”

The class meets in the Student Initiative Center, which is a non-traditional classroom setting. As opposed to a lecture hall, the open space and mixed seating encourage dialogue and interfacing of ideas. This not only helps with student learning but the pedagogic practices of the instructors. “Teaching this class has been a professional development opportunity for the professors involved,” says Heltzel. “It is a participatory process. I’ve become a more agile, creatively driven teacher.”

Students garner more from Project Based Learning than they might in a typical classroom setting. “The concepts of Project Based Learning get students into the community, doing something substantive with what they learn,” says Colleen McHugh, a student, and participant. “The students walk away from these learning experiences with practical, real-world knowledge.”

Through its innovative approach to learning, students in the Passion and Purpose class have developed their ideas into real-world initiatives and change. All of the water bottle filling stations on campus are their thanks to an initiative of the R.A.G.E. club on campus, which stands for Revolutionaries Advocating Greener Ecosystems.

R.A.G.E. is also responsible for the community garden on campus as well as the food pantry that the college hosts. The latter initiative proved an excellent learning experience for the students. “They found out about hunger and food insecurity on campus,” says Heltzel. “They researched these factors and designed a presentation. They went before the student senate and presented at college board meetings.”

Daniella Criollo, a psychology major at Chabot, first took the Passion and Purpose class in 2014. Her passion was education. This somewhat vague starting point led to her pursuing ways in which she could help students learn about the college experience and what it takes to get there.

Criollo saw a need: local Hayward high school students were not enrolling in community college like their counterparts in other school districts. She developed an initiative that put her inside the classroom with these high schoolers, and assessing student needs and showing them how to complete all the forms needed for registration, enrollment, and financial aid. This guerilla matriculation is the perfect example of Passion and Purpose objectives: how an amorphous inkling can develop into a real-world initiative that solves problems and changes lives.

Profile of the Golden State Killer

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.

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