A Monster in Auburn’s Midst?
Gus Thomson photo
An innocuous photo shoot for a charity baseball game in 1979 rocked Jerry Johnson’s world 39 years later. Johnson, second from right in photo, is pictured with accused serial killer Joe DeAngelo, second from left.
Cover photo shows DeAngelo during his service with the Navy.
For three years, Auburn harbored a nightmare in the Jekyll-and-Hyde guise of a serial killer many of the kids in town knew as The Crazy Cop.
That’s the bizarre scenario that Cheryl Brown is trying to get her head around after Wednesday’s bombshell revelation that her family’s next-door neighbor in Auburn during the late 1970s was the Golden State Killer.
Word traveled quickly after a news conference in Sacramento with top law enforcement officials from throughout the state who detailed the arrest of former Auburn and Exeter police officer Joe DeAngelo. The 72-year-old Vietnam veteran was arrested in Citrus Heights and charged initially with two murders in Ventura. The Golden State Killer has been linked to at least a dozen homicides and 50 rapes around the state between 1974 and mid-1986.
“We were saying ‘Oh my God, it’s The Crazy Cop,’” Brown said.
Relations between Brown’s family and next-door-neighbor DeAngelo were always testy, particularly when it came to his dislike of their dog, Brown said.
“There was a war of words over the fence,” she said. “He didn’t seem to like kids or dogs and he moved into a neighborhood with lots of kids and dogs. He was an odd duck.”
Then Worthless, the family dog, unexpectedly died.
Brown’s mother confronted DeAngelo after learning from a veterinarian that the cause was poisoned meat.
Brown said she looks back now with a new and chilling perspective on that time.
“I absolutely believe he did it,” Brown said.
During Wednesday’s announcement, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert described her own personal connection to the fear that gripped California communities as the count of murders and rapes attributed to the Golden State Killer kept rising.
Schubert recounted how she was 12 and living in the east area of Sacramento, near where a cluster of the crimes started. It was 1976, just as DeAngelo was starting his three-year stint with the Auburn Police Department.
“For us (before the cluster of crimes started) it was a time of innocence in 1976,” Schubert said. “No one locked their doors. Kids walked their bikes to school. For all of us who lived in this community at that time it all changed.”
DeAngelo’s early years were full of accomplishment. He graduated from Folsom High School in the early 1960s and joined the U.S. Navy, earning service and campaign medals on a destroyer off the coast of North Vietnam. His home remained in Auburn, where his family lived at the time. He earned an associate’s degree from Sierra College in 1970, making the president’s honor roll before graduating from Sacramento State two years later with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
But a portrait is emerging of a twisted killer able to elude law enforcement and stay deep underground yet in plain sight.
Duane Wilson, a Rocklin resident and author of a book that walks readers through a fact-based novel based on the Golden State Killer case, said he believes the killer — now believed to be DeAngelo — suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder originating from his 22 months of Vietnam War service.
“And the lead character in my novel is a fictionalized portrayal of the terror one man with PTSD can bring to society,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he wrote “Terror at 3 A.M.” as a novel but some details are now being revealed as more fact than fiction, he said.
“My long-held suspicion that the rapist had both a military background and very likely training in police work are now proven to be accurate,” Wilson said.
End of career
DeAngelo’s career in policing came crashing down when he was arrested at a Sacramento County store in August 1979 and charged with shoplifting a hammer and a can of mace dog repellent. He would be convicted of theft in a jury trial later that summer and fired by the city of Auburn. In later years, he would work as a mechanic, retiring from a Roseville warehouse two years ago to what would normally be a quiet life with relatives in a Citrus Heights home.
Investigators used DNA from a genealogy site to trace samples taken from crime scenes and picked up during surveillance back to DeAngelo and he was arrested Wednesday.
The arrest rocked many people’s worlds and the story of an arrest after four decades of fruitless investigation received global attention. Some of that attention was focussed on a photo from the Auburn Journal of DeAngelo in an Auburn Police uniform — the only one available at the time for media clamoring for images of the accused mass murderer.
Lifelong Auburn resident Jerry Johnson said he was stunned when he learned of the arrest and the unusual connection he has to the accused serial killer. Johnson was a 15-year-old Babe Ruth League baseball player back in 1979 when he was asked to pose in a publicity photo for the Auburn Journal sports page with a couple of Auburn cops. One was future Police Chief Mike Morello. The other officer was DeAngelo.
Even then, DeAngelo had a reputation.
“Mike (Morello) was a good cop,” Johnson said. “So were the others. But DeAngelo was known even then as a bad cop.”
But no one imagined that Auburn’s Officer Joe DeAngelo was a serial killer, he said.
It was a time when the killings and the accounts of more rapes were seemingly omnipresent.
“It was always on the news,” Johnson recalled.
Crimes stopped in 1986
The killings and rapes would inexplicably stop in 1986. None of the cases being investigated in connection with Wednesday’s announcement were in Auburn or Placer County. They cover 11 counties in Northern, Central and Southern California.
The Golden State Killer not only murdered but also tormented his victims. He would rape married women with their husbands present, putting a teacup on the husband’s bound body and threatening to kill the wife if he heard it jiggle. In one case, a man woke up to find the killer looming over his bed, reached for his gun and found the Golden State Killer holding the bullets that had just been removed.
On Wednesday, Johnson viewed a copy of the photo from so many years ago that now takes on an eerie incandescence in the light of this past week’s arrest and the promise of many more charges to come.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said. “Nobody had any idea at the time.”
Even next-door-neighbors like Brown’s family, who knew that DeAngelo had killed their dog.
As the death toll mounted, new rules were put into effect, including no more sleepovers outside in the backyard.
“It’s more than a family joke now about The Crazy Cop we didn’t trust,” Brown said. “I get the chills to think about a rapist and killer literally in our backyard.”