Before he was called the Golden State Killer in a 2013 magazine story by Michelle McNamara, who would become my friend and confidant, he was known as the Original Nightstalker, and before that, the East Area Rapist, or EAR.
The titles evolved as his crimes progressed, from fetish burglaries, to vicious sexual assaults in the middle of the night, to murder. He adopted the nicknames, using them to taunt us.
I remember getting hold of an old recording of a call made during the EAR phase to Sacramento Dispatch from a man claiming to be him.
“This is the East Area Rapist, you dumb f*****s,” he says. “I’m gonna f*** again tonight. Careful.” The voice was menacing. Cocky. Taunting. Brash. I played it over and over.
“You know about this recording?” I asked Ken Clark, a detective with Sacramento Sheriff’s Homicide who’d put plenty of time in on the investigation.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “You think it’s him?”
“Likely. It really pisses me off,” I said.
“Absolutely,” Clark said. “That’s what he wanted.”
Two years after that call in 1977, his cat-and-mouse game escalated to murder.
Over the two-plus decades that I’d been looking into the cold case, I’d witnessed the suffering of the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters of some of his victims.
I’d studied the crime scene photos of his sadistic handiwork. I’d spent hours listening to the stories of men and women who, either by the grace of God or their own raw courage, had somehow survived his merciless attacks, only to be haunted still decades later by what he had done to them.
Not long ago, my cell phone rang. The woman on the other end sounded like she was about to fall apart. “I know he’s coming back to get me, so I’m moving to Mexico,” she said.
It had been thirty years since he broke into her home in the middle of the night and terrorized her family.
Those were the people who drove me relentlessly to pursue the case, and they had been counting on me to get him. “We know you’ll be the one to do it.” I’d heard that so many times. I hated disappointing her. I hated disappointing all of them.
After working the case in between other open cases, usually on my own time, I’d spent the last few years of my career making the Golden State Killer, or GSK, my top priority.
I’d scrutinized thousands of police documents and witness statements and interviewed everyone I could who was associated with the case and still alive. The obsession ran over into weekends, while I was mowing the lawn or playing with the kids.
Even on Christmas Day, when the rest of the family opened presents, it was GSK who was on my mind. And through the long nights, when I searched computer databases for clues and drew geographic profiles of his crimes to try to determine his home base, the case played like an endless movie in my head. His victims haunted my dreams.
People like Mary, one of the youngest. She was headed into eighth grade when he forced his way into her life in 1979. Barely thirteen, she still had a playhouse in the back of her home, and her hobby was hopscotch. That summer, he broke into her Walnut Creek home at four in the morning through the sliding glass doors.
As her father and sister slept in adjoining rooms, he slipped into hers. She awoke to him straddling her, a knife to her throat. “I hope you’re good,” he said in a menacing whisper. She didn’t know what he meant. He pulled off her covers and savagely raped her in her pretty pink bedroom with unicorns painted on the walls.
Mary waited nearly an hour after he was finally gone to free herself from her leg ties. He’d threatened to kill her family if she told, so she’d waited to be certain he was gone. Still shackled at the wrists, she ran to wake up her father.
All these years later, she lived with the echo of her father’s voice screaming to her sister: “Get those things off her!”
Soon after, Mary had asked a friend’s older sister: “Am I still a virgin?” Three years after the attack, she found her father dead in his bed. She was certain he died of a broken heart. I didn’t doubt it. I have two daughters. I’m not sure I could survive the grief and regret of not being able to protect my children.
Mary was robbed of her innocence and her peace of mind. She’d spent her life looking over her shoulder, wondering if he was still out there somewhere, watching. The monster had stolen so much from so many. Surely there had to be a reckoning for him.
I worried that, after I retired, no one else would take up where I had left off. The investigation would, once again, get tossed into a file cabinet and be all but forgotten—the way I’d found it—and the people who had counted on me to solve it would never forgive me.
What would happen to them, those whose lives had been ruined? How would they ever get the little bit of peace that comes with knowing?
So many times over the years I thought I was close to solving the case, only to be bitterly disappointed when I was proven wrong by DNA. The last time had been just a couple of weeks earlier, and it was gut crushing.
I’d recently discovered something within genetic genealogy called DNA segment triangulation, a process that could determine biological relationships by combining DNA profiling—which we had for GSK—with genealogical research from paid private ancestry websites.
It had gotten my attention when I’d heard it was successful in identifying a woman who was abandoned as a small child. We didn’t know who the little girl was or where she came from, and she had been too young to remember much that could help us. For years, we’d tried to identify her using traditional methods, and we’d always failed.
Then, during a conference call about another case, I’d heard that she had finally been identified using DNA segment triangulation. I started to wonder, could that same tool lead us to the Golden State Killer?
The yearning to go to the door was overwhelming. I should just go and introduce myself. My mind raced and my anxiety was ratcheting up again. Sitting there, I contemplated possible scenarios.
In the first one, I walk up to the front door and knock. Joe DeAngelo answers. I introduce myself: “Hi, I’m Paul Holes, Contra Costa County cold case investigator. I’ve been looking into this series of unsolved cases and . . .”
He looks curious but not suspicious. We immediately establish a rapport, bonded by the uniform. He invites me in. “How about some coffee?” he asks.
“No thanks. Never drink it.”
“How about a beer?”
After a few sips of beer and a little bit of small talk about police work and how different it is now than when he was on the force, I tell him that his name came up in the investigation. He seems bemused but not concerned.
“I guess it’s your lucky day,” I say. “One of your distant relatives uploaded DNA into a genealogy website, and that person is related to the person I’m looking for. You are likely distantly related to my offender, too.”
He nods. “Ahh. What can I do to help you out?”
“Well, I just need a DNA sample.”
I feel a little awkward asking another cop for proof he’s not a malicious serial predator. On the other hand, with the sample, I can officially eliminate him as a suspect, and he’ll never be bothered again.
“Hey, I get it,” he says. “Of course.” We both chuckle over the absurdity of the situation. I get the sample, tell him I’m sorry for the bother, and leave. It will be my final act in the case.
But there’s another possibility, the one that considers DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer.
In that scenario, I’ve already made a foolish mistake. I’ve sat there for several minutes in front of his house in my official car. Any cop or former cop would recognize it as unmarked law enforcement.
If he is the killer, I know what he’s capable of. There’s no telling what he’ll do if he feels trapped. He knows I’m here. He’s a cunning serial predator. He knew what his victims watched on TV, where they went to work and school, whose husband was out of town, whose parents were out for the evening, when people were asleep.
In this scenario, there’s no doubt he’s already seen the car sitting there through the blinds. When I walk toward his house, he recognizes me from the media interviews I’ve done on the case over the years.
By the time I get to the front door, he’s already armed himself. He may open up and shoot me before I have a chance to say a word. Or he’ll invite me in to keep me confined, excuse himself, then sneak up behind me and bash my head in.
No one would know. No one knows where I am. I didn’t radio in. I didn’t call home. I just left the office and ended up here. I take a deep breath to clear my head.
What am I doing, thinking about approaching this guy? If he is GSK, and he becomes aware that we’re on to him, it will risk the investigation. If he feels cornered, he’ll kill me. I just need to drive away, I tell myself, putting the car in gear.
It’s too early. I don’t want to blow this. I don’t know enough about this DeAngelo guy.
I start the car and will myself to put it in gear. I’m not even a block away when I begin doubting my decision. Maybe I’m blowing it. I should have gotten the DNA. I would have at least had another genealogy data point for my team.
And what if DeAngelo was the killer? I was right there. Why hadn’t I gone to the front door?
The drive home to Vacaville seemed to take forever. I was filled with regret. I had just failed to wrap up my final suspect in a case that continued to elude me. If the Golden State Killer case was ever to be solved, I would not be a part of it. I felt defeated.
The survivors had counted on me as their last chance for justice, and I’d let them down. My career would end with a blemished footnote.
It felt like an anticlimactic finish to what had been an otherwise pretty good run.
Paul Holes is a retired as a cold case investigator. He specialized in cold case and serial predator crimes, developing and applying investigative, behavioral, and forensic expertise in notable cases such as The Golden State Killer, and Jaycee Dugard.
This is an adapted excerpt from Holes’s memoir UNMASKED. The new content exclusive to the paperback, focuses on the case of Suzanne Bombardier, one that had bothered Paul throughout his career up until the killer’s recent conviction in 2022.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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