With suspect from Bath, local law enforcement keeps close eye on California serial murder/rape developments

BATH — Top Steuben County law enforcement officials are watching with interest as legal proceedings involving Golden State Killer suspect Joseph J. DeAngelo Jr. move deliberately through the California courts system.

But so far New York State Police investigators and the Steuben County District Attorney’s Office are exclusively interested observers and have had no professional role in the case. That’s even though accused serial killer and serial rapist DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer and longtime resident of Citrus Heights, Calif., was born in the Village of Bath, and lived in the Steuben County town for at least a short time as a child.

Authorities in the Golden State, using a DNA match obtained surreptitiously while their suspect shopped at Hobby Lobby, identified DeAngelo in April as the prime suspect in a horrific crime spree that stretched over at least 10 years and over multiple California jurisdictions, and resulted in the brutal murders of at least 12 people and the rapes of more than 50 women.

Investigators say DeAngelo is the East Area Rapist — a sexual predator who terrorized Sacramento County in the mid 1970s. Authorities believe DeAngelo committed more than 50 sexual assaults, stalking victims, casing residences, and breaking into homes while committing violent, sexual assaults, usually in the early morning hours.

DeAngelo worked as a police officer in Exeter, Calif. from 1973 to 1976, and investigators in central California region believe he is also the Visalia Ransacker, suspected in one murder and about 100 burglaries.

The terror was taken to Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where couples were killed in a series of vicious attacks. The last murder linked to the Golden State Killer occurred on May 4, 1986, when 18-year-old Janelle Cruz was raped and murdered in Irvine.

The arrest of DeAngelo has piqued the interest of Southern Tier investigators, not only for its local connection but for the potential of the DNA technique used to identify the suspect.

DeAngelo was born in Bath Memorial Hospital on Nov. 8, 1945, the son of the former Kathleen DeGroat, an Elmira native, and Kathleen’s husband, Army Airman Joseph J. DeAngelo Sr. A daughter, Rebecca Louise, was born to the couple in Bath in 1942, and, according to a newspaper report from the time, the family lived at 52 East Morris St., a two-story apartment house.

Two more children would be born to the couple, including John in 1949, and Connie, just a year or two later.

The military family appears to have moved often, with some press reports tracking them to Millport, N.Y., Germany, and then California, where the couple divorced. According to published reports, Joseph J. DeAngelo Jr. graduated from high school in California, joined the Navy, and served in the Vietnam War. He obtained a college degree after studying criminal justice and worked in small town police departments during most of the 1970s.

The family’s timeline is incomplete; however, it indicates to local investigators that DeAngelo was a young boy when his family left Steuben County. Otherwise, California authorities would have reached out to area police agencies.

“In all likelihood they (California officials) would reach out to us or to maybe Bath PD if they had the word ‘Bath,’” according to State Police Senior Inv. Curt Eaton, based in Bath.

“We have not been contacted,” Eaton told The Spectator, adding, “If the shoe were on the other foot, if we had the case and were starting to look at this guy, yeah, we’d be tracking him all the way back, and if there were anything regarding his earlier life, we’d be reaching out to that agency, so I’m surmising that whatever they found out in California, maybe the belief is that he left Bath at such an early age that it was really not pertinent.”

Eaton said understanding DeAngelo’s youth could provide insight into the investigation into his alleged crimes.

“For a 5-year old, I’m not so concerned about, but if he has a propensity for violence, and this guy does, I don’t think you wake up one day and decide to go out and start killing people. Yeah, I’d be very curious as to what his history is,” Eaton said. 

Local investigators and prosecutors haven’t encountered serial cases, but they have attended national conferences on the issue, recently on the use of ancestral DNA, the technique used to identify DeAngelo as a suspect.

California investigators uploaded DNA from multiple crime scenes to the genealogy website GEDmatch. The DNA matched a distant relative of DeAngelo’s. Detectives then winnowed through the family tree until they isolated DeAngelo. The match was confirmed by DNA taken from a tissue that DeAngelo discarded while shopping at the Hobby Lobby.

It was a long shot that paid off for California investigators, but it could become a widely used tool for detectives everywhere, even in Steuben County, according to District Attorney Brooks Baker.

“I am reading that it (ancestral DNA) is being used more. We just sent investigators from the Sheriff’s Office, my office and the State Police to a regional homicide conference in New Jersey, and they talked about some of this DNA stuff. I think it’s something we’ll see more,” Baker said.

Prior to the development of ancestry websites, police had to rely on DNA databases involving people who had been involved in the criminal justice system.

“People are plugging their DNA into these databanks in order to find out more about their history, but it also puts the DNA out there in a forum that allows additional testing, so it’s increasing the number of people beyond just convicted felons whose DNA and now family DNA can be reached,” Baker said, adding, “It’s not invasive. It doesn’t require search warrants. It’s just utilizing information that’s already out there.”

Access to more DNA samples may bring long-delayed justice to crime victims, Baker said.

“It does show that technology is making it harder and harder to get away with crimes, and even if somebody gets away with it for a while, the chance of getting away with it forever, particularly as we start stretching the statute of limitations particularly on things like sex crimes, and obviously murder, to not exist, there becomes an ever-increasing chance that over time, either traditional methodology will catch up with somebody, or they’ll make a misstep . . . or the technology will catch up with them. Who knows what the next leap will be, but it’s pretty amazing.”

So far, California authorities have not connected the Golden State Killer’s DNA to any post-1986 offenses. Before DeAngelo was identified as the prime suspect, that sudden end to the serial offender’s attacks baffled investigators and led many people in law enforcement to believe the GSK had died or was in jail.

The Spectator asked Baker about serial offenders and his view of why or if a suspect may quit carrying out criminal activity.

"Luckily this is not something we’ve had to deal with in Steuben County, Baker said. "In 25 years in law enforcement, I’ve been to seminars and stuff, and I’ve talked to people who have prosecuted serial killers. I think the lesson is there’s nothing typical about any of these guys. The idea that somebody who has that kind of rage and acts out is contraindicative of someone who would stop."

Baker continued: "That’s one of the things we do see with criminals, typically we see more with sex offenders than with those who are homicidal with a serial killer rage, but once somebody takes that step, takes it from thought and fantasy to action, they don’t often stop.

"That is something I have witnessed. Once somebody crosses the line and they get away with it – and even if they do it and get caught – they often don’t stop because they’ve crossed the line, and the only way to continue to get that level of whatever sadistic thrill or satisfaction there is, is to keep on doing it."

Madonna Figura Simon contributed to this report.