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The Twisted Killer And The Sleuths Who Never Gave Up On His Capture

To read about the Golden State Killer is to discover two things.

The first is the deeply twisted mind of a killer and rapist who evaded capture for more than four decades. The second is the internet sleuths who never gave up on his capture.

The most famous sleuth was Michelle McNamara, who dubbed the man suspected of a dozen murders and several dozen rapes across multiple California jurisdictions, the Golden State Killer.

Prior to her moniker, he was known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, and for a while was believed to be more than one person -- a factor which no doubt played a part in his years of evading capture.

But McNamara wasn't the only obsessive chasing this man down. Delve a little further than the headlines, and you'll find entire websites and chatrooms dedicated to his uniquely sadistic crimes.

The Golden State Killer, or GSK for short, is believed to be responsible for a series of crime sprees across the 1970s and 1980s. Lack of DNA testing, mistrust between police jurisdictions, and straight-up bad luck were all behind why it took so long for the authorities to make an arrest.

Most of his victims -- those who lived, at any rate -- never saw his face.

Some of the police sketches from over the years.

"To zero in on a victim he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, learning the layout, studying family pictures, and memorising names," McNamara wrote in a 2013 piece for Los Angeles Magazine, later reappearing in her posthumously published book, I'll Be Gone In The Dark.

"Victims received hang-up or disturbing phone calls before and after they were attacked. He disabled porch lights and unlocked windows. He emptied bullets from guns. He hid shoelaces or rope under cushions to use as ligatures.

"These maneuvers gave him a crucial advantage because when you woke from a deep sleep to the blinding flashlight and ski-masked presence, he was always a stranger to you, but you were not to him."

Often, he would target couples, tying up the male and placing dishes on his back, telling him he would kill the woman if he heard the dishes break.

He would take the woman to another room and rape her. He would eat his victims' food, rummage through their drawers, and take small souvenirs.

His rape victims would often have their hands tied behind their back so tightly they would be numb for hours.

Melanie Barbeau holds a photograph of victims Cheri Domingo and Greg Sanchez, who are believed to have been killed by the Golden State Killer in 1981.  Photo: Getty.

For years, police believed they were hunting one of their own. The killer was thought to have law enforcement or military experience, about six foot, athletic enough to scale fences.

The fear that their wanted man might be a police officer, not to mention departmental rivalries, prevented neighbouring agencies from sharing information, according to retired officer Wendell Phillips, who chased the GSK when he was a sheriff's deputy for Sacramento County.

"There was concern about sharing information because let's face it, loose lips sink ships," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The crimes abruptly stopped after the mid-1980s, and the killer's identity remained a mystery for decades. Yet the fascination with the case never let up.

"Volumes have been written about the EARONS [an acronym combining 'East Area Rapist' and 'Original Night Stalker']," reads one website, GoldenStateKiller.com, which documented his crimes for years.

"Because so little about the EARONS is known, it's almost impossible to find a resource on the case that isn't heavy on theory or preconceived notions."

In the end, it was a one-in-a-million DNA test that led investigators to the man believed to be behind the spate of horror: Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, fired from the Auburn police department after being caught shoplifting in 1979.

He fit all the bills.

Joseph James DeAngelo's mugshot. Photo: Getty.

"We found the needle in the haystack, and it was right here in Sacramento," county district attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at a news conference after his arrest in April last year.

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes stored over the years and plugged the genetic profile into an online genealogy database, the New York Times reported.

They found a person who was the right age and lived in the area, and after matching two DNA samples gathered from the man -- one from his car door, the other from a tissue -- and matching the genetic material with semen gathered from an old crime scene, made the arrest.

DeAngelo has since been charged with 13 counts of murder.

His arrest was a huge moment for the online EARONS community, who had been sharing details and discussing the crimes for years.

But it didn't take long for some people to begin harassing DeAngelo's family, sharing personal details on the popular r/EARONS subreddit -- including names, addresses, phone numbers and social media accounts.

A message on the EARONS subreddit urging fans not to post details of DeAngelo's family members. Photo: Reddit.

“If you want to research his entire family tree, that's up to you, but please DO NOT share that information here publicly,” the moderator wrote.

His children and the women he previously dated don't need their information spread across the internet.

"I know everyone is excited, and 99 percent of you probably have good intentions. Unfortunately, it will absolutely lead to them being harassed by some vigilantes. Remember: only one person is responsible for these crimes, and that person alone deserves punishment."

DeAngelo's former fiancée changed her Facebook page from public to private following the arrest, while a Yelp page associated with his ex-wife was bombarded with hostile comments.

There has been some conflict between authorities and McNamara's family over how crucial a role the true crime author played in the GSK's eventual arrest.

Patton Oswalt and wife Michelle McNamara in 2011. Photo: Getty.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said McNamara's ongoing fascination did little more than keep tips coming in.

But her family and friends (the author died in 2016), think otherwise.

"I'm going to try not to be angry, but they're taking all the credit," said longtime friend Sarah Stanard to the Washington Post.

Her husband Patton Oswalt, who helped publish her book, said police would be disinclined to credit sleuths and journalists who helped keep the case alive.

"But every time they said 'Golden State Killer', they credited [her work]," he said.

An excerpt from the final chapter of I'll Be Gone In The Dark, by Michelle McNamara

One day soon, you'll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You'll hear footsteps coming up your front walk. Like they did for Edward Wayne Edwards, twenty-nine years after he killed Timothy Hack and Kelly Drew in Sullivan, Wisconsin. Like they did for Kenneth Lee Hicks, thirty years after he killed Lori Billingsley in Aloha, Oregon.

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You're long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

"You'll be silent forever, and I'll be gone in the dark," you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

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Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au