Crime Writer
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November 6, 2017
THE HUNT FOR A MONSTER. His sadistic rapes and murders claimed at least 57 victims. Four decades later investigators aren’t giving up on answers—or justice

Margaret Wardlow was only 12 in 1977—the kind of sixth-grader who turned somersaults in the street outside the condo she shared with her divorced mom, Dolores— but the self-described “little crime buff” had fearlessly devoured every word written that year about the East Area Rapist terrorizing Sacramento with attacks since 1976 on 26 women inside their homes. “I would read the articles three times over,” Wardlow says, “and I’d think, ‘Why can’t they catch this guy?’!” So, in the dead of night on Nov. 10, 1977, when she was awoken by a masked intruder who blindfolded her and bound her wrists, his next move was no mystery. Before proceeding to rape a woman in another room, the attacker would place plates on the other victim’s body and threaten: ‘If I hear the dishes move, I’ll kill her.’ Wardlow, now 53, recalls that decades-ago moment with chilling clarity. “When I heard him coming with the plates, I knew that if he goes into my mom’s room with them, he’s going to rape me,” she says. “He went into my mom’s room. I said to myself, Prepare yourself. And then I was number 27.” That number would climb to a horrifying 45 rapes and 12 murders between the years 1976 and 1986, as the East Area Rapist—who was later known as the Original Night Stalker and then the Golden State Killer— made his increasingly violent migration from the California capital to the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara and Southern California’s Orange County. It was one of the longest and most vicious crime sprees in the nation’s history, including more than 120 home burglaries and victims ranging in age from 12 to 41, including women at home with their children and wives in bed with their husbands. And because the Golden State Killer’s reign of terror largely predated the 911 system, surveillance cameras, DNA analysis and the Internet, he was never identified or caught. It wasn’t until 2001 that analysis of what DNA evidence remained (Contra Costa County was the only Northern California jurisdiction to keep the evidence past the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases) even linked the Northern California rapes to the Southern California homicides. Now the FBI is offering a $50,000 reward as investigators across California try to finally catch the notorious monster who held the state hostage more than 40 years ago. “Back then he could have been hiding in plain sight,” says Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Paige Kneeland, who serves on the task force coordinating information. Today she tracks more than 1,000 suspects and some 160 binders “busting at the seams” with evidence printouts, making sure that no lead goes unexplored. “We have his DNA,” says Kneeland. “We just need a name to match it.”

For FBI special agent Marcus Knutson, it’s a visceral mission: “We have talked to the victims on this case and a lot of them, to this day, still look over their shoulder. That rips my heart out. I would like to get this thing solved so they can feel free of this guy.”

Jane Sandler was rape victim No. 5, and what happened to the Air Force Reserves nurse on the morning of Oct. 5, 1976, illustrated early on the depravity of the monster. Sandler’s 3-year-old son had just crawled into bed with her as her husband left their Citrus Heights ranch house around 6 a.m. for work at nearby McClellan Air Force Base. Sandler, now 71, remembers every detail: “I heard the garage door close, and the next thing I know there is a light shining down my hall, and I am saying to my husband, What did you forget? That’s when I looked up, and there is this masked man with a ski mask and a large knife. He knew when my husband would be gone.” The intruder scraped her breast with the knife before tying her up, gagging and blindfolding mother and son side by side. “I don’t even remember being raped. When he untied my legs and I knew what he was going to do, I leaned over and couldn’t feel my son there. So all I remember is the fear: Where is my son? Did he kill him?!!” Her son was unhurt, but the trauma may have cost her her marriage, which she admits was negatively impacted, and, for a time, her sobriety. Now more than 13 years sober, Sandler considers them lucky to be among their attacker’s first victims: “He got sicker.”

Local officials in Sacramento held town meetings on the crimes, and at one of those forums a man stood up to say, “If he ever comes to my house, I’ll kill him.” Months later that man and his wife were attacked, leading investigators to believe the rapist, more brazen and now using a gun, had been at the meeting. In some cases he took his rape victims’ phone numbers and sadistically rang them months or even years later. Victim No. 14 got a call, believed to be his last, in April 2001, 24 years after he raped her. “He said, ‘Remember when we played?’!” says Contra Costa investigator Paul Holes, who has been working the case since 1994. “She’d remarried and had a different address; he had to take time to find her.”


The rapist turned to murder in February 1978, when newlyweds Katie, 20, and Brian Maggiore, 21, were walking their dog Thumper in Rancho Cordova and crossed paths with him. Brian and Katie were both shot dead. “They were just starting their lives together,” says Katie’s brother Ken Smith. “I really hope the person is still alive; I would like this to be solved.”

Deb Domingo and Michelle Cruz have carried the scars of the Golden State Killer since each was in her teens. Domingo was 15 and rebelling—“breaking curfew, smoking, spending too much time with boys”—when she last spoke to her mom, Cheri, from a pay phone in downtown Santa Barbara in July 1981. Deb’s furious exclamation of$ “Why don’t you just stay out of my life!” before she slammed the phone haunted her for years. But this fight with her mother also saved her life. Deb wasn’t home when the killer struck Cheri and her boyfriend Greg. To cope with all her questions over the years, Deb, 52, who now works as a state prison clerk, stayed in touch with the sheriff and with online crime-solvers. Says Deb: “The Internet community are the ones that have kept this case from sinking into the cold-case pit.”

Cruz is one of them, and for her it’s deeply personal. Her sister Janelle was the Golden State Killer’s last-known victim, beaten to death so brutally in her bed—on May 4, 1986, at the age of 18—that her blood soaked through her mattress and into the box spring. She had been apartment hunting earlier, circling rental ads in a newspaper that was spread on the kitchen table when her body was found. “Janelle was my best friend. She was always writing little poems and was going to go to college to be a legal secretary,” says Michelle, the younger sister who went on to get a degree in criminal justice and now spends some 30 hours a week researching potential suspects in Janelle’s murder.

If the killer is still alive, he is now in his mid-60s to mid-70s, investigators believe. A detailed, hand-drawn diagram of a residential subdivision that he dropped while fleeing one 1978 attack in Danville, Calif., suggests a white-collar type in the construction business, says investigator Holes. The way the attacker altered his voice— affecting a stutter or an accent through clenched teeth—constantly changed gloves and masks, and planted information with victims (about driving a van, or using drugs) that was likely meant to mislead police, further suggests “we are dealing with an intelligent,sophisticated offender,” says Holes.


Police say the attacker seemed to blend into the middle- and upper- middleclass neighborhoods hestalked and struck, perhaps posing as a jogger with a German shepherd. “We have a profile. Even though it may seem like a needle in a haystack, someone can find the needle, and we need the communities’ help,” says Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. For the first time police are releasing, exclusively to People (see previous page for photographs of clues in the case), details of the distinctive china tokens that the killer stole from his victims as well as a Lycoming College class ring. “There are a million people with a million theories,” says the FBI’s Gina Swankie. “But even if he’s passed away, someone going through their loved one’s belongings could come across this really unique stuff and that might be our guy.”

That he could still be out there has victim No. 40 terrorized even today. Afraid to use her real name, “Sunny” was raped in October 1978 and still remembers his whisper. “He seemed pretty comfortable,” she recalls, “not real nervous.” Now, she says, “I don’t go out alone. I try to listen to men’s voices everywhere I go: Is it him? Is he out there?” She has scoured message boards on the crimes for word of his capture. “I don’t feel 100 percent safe anywhere,” says Sunny.

For murder victim Janelle Cruz’s sister Michelle, the thought that the Golden State serial killer could finally be brought to justice gives her hope. “It’s exhausting, but I don’t want to give up,” Michelle, 49, says. She recently installed surveillance cameras and window alarms on her home, bought a gun and posted a personal note to “the man behind the mask” on a website about the case. “My gut says he is alive and watching. I wanted to tell him, you took my sister, you screwed with my life, you should confess before you die.”

©   Christine Pelisek