Police in California have arrested a former police officer believed to be the "Golden State Killer", apparently solving a notorious decades-old mystery over the identity of the man behind dozens of rapes and multiple murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested at his home and he initially was charged with eight counts of murder and could face dozens more charges, authorities said.
Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County district attorney, was joined by officials from across the state and relatives of victims on Wednesday to announce that DNA evidence developed in the past six days had led to his arrest.
She added he had lived for more than three decades on a quiet suburban street in Citrus Heights.
Neighbours said DeAngelo had been living in the neighbourhood for 30 years and described him as a “relatively nice guy” who was prone to “cursing outbursts you could hear down the street.”
The Golden State Killer, also known as the "East Area Rapist" and "Original Nightstalker," is suspected of carrying out at least 12 murders and 45 rapes in California between 1976 and 1986, according to the FBI. The armed and masked prowler sneaked in through windows at night and surprised sleeping victims who ranged in age from 13 to 41.
When encountering a couple, he was known to tie up the man and pile dishes on his back. He threatened to kill both victims if he heard plates crash to the floor while he raped the woman. He then ransacked the house, taking souvenirs, notably coins and jewellery before fleeing on foot or bicycle.
Despite an outpouring of thousands of tips over the years, DeAngelo’s name had not been on the radar of law enforcement before last week, Ms Schubert said.
"We knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack, but we also knew that needle was there," she said. "It was right here in Sacramento."
A break in the case and the arrest came together in "light speed" during the past six days, Schubert said, though authorities refused to reveal what led to DeAngelo.
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Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones said detectives with "dogged determination" were able to get a sample of DNA from something DeAngelo discarded, though he wouldn’t say what the item was. The genetic material was not a match, but there were enough similarities for investigators to return for more and they said they were able to get a conclusive match.
After watching DeAngelo for several days, deputies took him by surprise on Tuesday.
"It looked as though he might have been searching his mind to execute a particular plan he may have had," but never had time to act, Jones said.
DeAngelo was arrested on suspicion of committing double-killings in Sacramento and Ventura counties and later charged with four counts of murder in Orange County, officials said. Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
The Golden State Killer was the subject of "I’ll Be Gone in the Dark," a best-selling book by Michelle McNamara.
McNamara died two years ago at the age of 46 but her book helped spark renewed interest in the case.
DeAngelo was once a policeman, who was reportedly fired from Auburn police in 1979, accused of stealing a can of dog repellent and a hammer from a Sacramento shop.
The city manager was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that DeAngelo was dismissed after he “failed to answer any of the city’s investigations and did not request an administrative hearing.”
At one point back in the 1970s, DeAngelo asked his brother-in-law what he thought about the crime spree committed by the person then best known as the East Area Rapist, Oxygen.com reported.
DeAngelo is believed to be originally from Bath, New York.
He served in Vietnam after graduating from Folsom Senior High School in June 1964 and on his return completed an associate’s degree with honours in police science at Sierra College.
He then graduated from California State University at Sacramento with a degree in criminal justice. At some point, he had also interned with the Roseville Police Department.