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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

Advances in DNA – Science is Amazing!

      As your author continues her exploration research into the ancestors who sourced her personal DNA Story, the news is filled with an incredible story tied directly to the latest advances in DNA technology. Just this week one of the oldest cold cases in the history of California was solved – using DNA in a very clever and controversial manner. To tell this story, a bit of background is essential.

      If you are a fan of crime and forensics real life television, you may well be aware of the hair-raising tale of the Golden State Killer whose evolution from prowler to home invader to thief to rapist to serial killer has been documented in a number of shows and even a few books. The story of this one-man all purpose criminal “gang” began, as far as is now known, 19 March 1974 in the little town of Visalia in California. Police were puzzled by the increasing reports of what almost seemed like teenage pranks – break-ins where the entire home was ransacked but where very little of value was taken. Always the same story; a family member arrived home to find almost every room in the house tumbled and tossed with clothing and silverware, dishes, trash, and miscellany strewn about haphazardly. Upon close examination, the homeowner would find that only cheap and rather meaningless items had been taken: here a plastic ring, there a cheap bauble, somewhere else souvenir cups, coins from a piggy bank or similar cheap but unique items. The break-ins escalated, occurring with increasing frequency until after a couple of years nearly 150 homes had been so vandalized. The modus operandi was so similar that the press tied the crimes and tagged the perp as the “Visalia Ransacker.”

      Those crimes were not a laughing matter, however, for the crimes also held the element of a deeply deranged individual, whose antics held the element of sexual perversion. For, in almost every home, where the intimate clothing of the occupants were strewn about it was readily apparent the intruder had left the most noxious proof of his sexual persuasion – semen covering the bed, the intimate apparel and sometimes in the most bizarre locations in the home. It was clear to the seasoned detectives tasked with finding and stopping this man that with each break-in his behaviour became more and more bizarre. This was a sick mind in the early stages of erratic and deviant growth, a foretaste of evil to come.

      Before the approximate two-year reign of annoying yet creepy invasions, on 11 September 1975, Claude Snelling confronted the invader in his attempt to remove Snelling’s young daughter from their home. Snelling was shot, staggered back inside and lost his life. The Visalia Ransacker had taken his first known victim. Soon after this murder, the reign of the Visalia Ransacker ended. After a final confrontation by a police officer at one of the homes that had previously been burgled, in December of 1975, the perp removed his mask and gloves and pretended to surrender, only to then shoot at the officer. His shot struck the officer’s powerful maglite, shattering the lens and blinding the man. The Ransacker made his escape but would commit no more crimes in Visalia.

      The actual range of crimes attributed to the Visalia Ransacker is subject to question as well, it appearing that some voyeuristic crimes and petty home break-ins prior to the 1974 date given above may have been his work as well. It is also believed by some that two rape-murders of high school girls in the same area were the earliest murders so far committed by the killer.

      Some of the earmarks of this killer’s playbook connected the crimes: the wearing of gloves, entering the home after trying numerous entry points, leaving windows open with screens removed during the execution of the crime, various dishes left by doors to give warning and permit escape, the wearing of a variety of ski masks, coats, and caps to obscure recognition. The perpetrator was also intimately familiar with escape routes, utilizing paths for bicycles or hikers, ditches, trails and the like.

      After the shooting of the police officer, McGowen, the activity moved north about 200 miles to an area near Sacramento. These crimes showed an escalation of the sexual nature of the perp. Not content to merely break into homes in the middle of the night, some while the occupants slept, now the focus appeared to be on single family homes where single women were the sole occupants. Many were raped with a methodology that marked the crimes as having been committed by the same man. Awakened with a flashlight shining in their eyes, blinding the victims, the rapist held a knife and rapidly bound his victims, often using shoelaces or other similar items that appeared to have been prepared in advance. Officer McGowen, still on the case, attempted to tie together the rapes and break-ins in the Sacramento area with those of the Visalia perpetrator. Many elements of the crimes were very similar. One newspaper reporter dubbed the attacker in these Sacramento area crimes the East Area Rapist. The crimes committed under this moniker spanned the time frame of June 1976 through July 1979.

      Following the three year period of crimes detailed for the East Area Rapist, similar crimes began to occur in Southern California, in and around Orange County. Because of his prevalence for attacking single women in the middle of the night, binding and raping them, for this period of his criminal life he was called the Night Stalker. This was before Richard Ramirez was captured in 1985 and his series of crimes tied to the Night Stalker name. As a result, the crimes committed by our one-man gang were re-titled as the work of the Original Night Stalker.

      One other name was tied to the same man: the Diamond Knot Killer as a result of the use of an unusual Chinese knot known as the Diamond Knot being used to secure victims both in the East Area Rapist assaults and in the Southern California assaults. The name by which he will always be known, however, the Golden State Killer, was assigned by an author who recognized the broad scope of his crimes and came up with the truly defining name. That author? Michelle McNamara, a true crime writer who delved deeply into the crimes attributed to these various monikers.

      As neighborhoods under attack began to experience fear, neighborhood meetings began where police officials, psychologists, and local government leaders offered advice and attempted to pass along tips for prevention. It was apparent the crimes were preceded by a period of reconnaissance where potential victims were watched, their homes were entered while they were away, strange phone calls occurred (believed to be another way in which the perp profiled the activities of the home’s occupants) with hang-ups and occasional “wrong number” excuses given. At one of these meetings, a man stood and made a claim that the man committing these crimes was a coward and would NEVER enter a home where a man lived to attack his mate. Soon thereafter, this man’s home was the scene of a terrifying assault. This marked the assimilation of new and more frightening methods by the killer. The new mode of assault was to enter a bedroom shared by a couple, shine the flashlight in their eyes while holding a knife. He then forced the woman to tie up her male partner and admonished her to “make it tight, make it right, or die.” He then stacked dishes (usually a cup on a saucer) on the male’s back while he removed the female to another room, raping her repeatedly. During the prolonged assaults, he would roam the house, prepare food, eat, drink beer, ransack the home, befoul personal objects, take photographs and cheap personal objects, returning often to rape the female again and again. Many surviving victims reported the demented chants uttered by their tormentor. He would often pace the floors muttering, “I’ll kill‘em, I’ll kill’em, I’ll kill’em.” He was quoted by one survivor as rasping out “I HATE you Bonnie, I HATE you!” When asked if he had, in fact, said “Mommie” she said it was definitely Bonnie. Another survivor quoted him as breaking down and crying, “Mommy! Don’t make me! Momma, please!” or words to that effect. One aspect of his physical identification remained the same, however. All rape victims reported he had a very small male sexual organ.

      This was the typical assault – until the night when one of the men managed to escape and bolt outside. While the rapist ran after him to retrieve him, the female managed to break free and run outside the front door screaming. As the Original Night Stalker attempted to force her back inside a neighbor heard the commotion and came outside, armed. The rapist barely escaped. This would mark the last time he permitted his victims to live.

      After this the rapist-voyeur-burglar-terrorist-sadist would take twelve lives, five couples would die and two more individuals. And the violence increased. No longer satisfied with merely shooting his victims, the killer now sated his blood lust by bludgeoning his victims to death where their facial features were often completely obscured.

      Interestingly, the end of this killer’s reign occurred shortly after the first crime was solved utilizing the brand new scientific breakthrough – DNA technology. The first case to utilize DNA to convict a killer was in 1986. The Golden State Killer took his last victim, young Janelle Cruz, an 18 year old restaurant worker, who was raped and bludgeoned to death in her home while her parents were away. This killing took place 3 May 1986. The DNA from her case, carefully preserved by crime scene investigators, would be used to finally and definitively tie together many cases of rape and murder throughout the state.

      “DNA was first used to aid a criminal investigation by Professor Jeffreys in 1986. This investigation used DNA fingerprinting techniques to link semen stain samples, collected from two rapes/murders that had occurred three years apart in 1983 and1986, in a small village in Leicestershire, UK.”
SOURCE: History of DNA profiling — University of Leicester

Who actually discovered DNA?

      “It's commonly believed that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix shape of DNA. But in fact, they based their work on one of their colleagues at King's College in London - Rosalind Franklin, an x-ray diffraction expert whose images of DNA proteins in the early 1950s revealed a helix shape. “ Feb 15, 2011
SOURCE: The Unsung Hero Who Discovered The Double Helix - io9 - Gizmodo

      It would appear from this very fact that the Golden State Killer was aware of crime and punishment. He was savvy to investigatory methods and ways in which to obscure his identity – until this startling new development arose. Stymied at last and fearful of being arrested for a similar crime lest his DNA be taken and matched? Perhaps so.

      Having such disdain for investigators, taunting them by leaving clues, writing a poem, calling them to announce pending assaults, spreading his semen and spit and other bodily fluids around his hundreds of crime scenes the Golden State Killer was ultimately tripped up by that very bravado. For one investigator, Contra Costra’s Paul Holes, having not one single hit for four decades on the typical DNA profiles used around the nation, decided to try a long shot. Noting the prevalence for the newly advanced methods of identifying relatives for long lost family members, he decided to use the full DNA sample that had been available for decades but which had found no match. It was submitted to, a website used by many genealogical researchers around the world. On this site, one can submit – anonymously if desired – a DNA sample and the scientists employed by the website will painstakingly match that sample to others submitted by the public. After a short wait, the police were rewarded by news of a close match. A relative, but not THE man.

      Then the genealogical work began. Having the name of the relative who had not made his sample private, the researchers began combing through other available sites online and sources of documentation to find a killer.

      They searched for a man whose age would match up to the now advanced age of that ruthless and vicious young man some forty years after his final violent killing. They looked for a close relative whose height and physical characteristics from those sightings nearly half a century before would be right. They searched for a man whose work or family connections would place him in the right areas at the times of those many, many crimes. And after they felt certain they had zeroed in on the right man, they began police surveillance. They followed Joseph James DeAngelo, now aged 72, for days waiting for him to discard a usable item from which they could obtain a full DNA profile. And after they collected that sample, a rush was put on the testing to ensure he did not alert to their interest and run.

      When the sample came back as a perfect match, they moved to quickly arrest him as he left his home. One of the team members on this task force was Paul Holes, the retired investigator with the Contra Costa police force who had sought the killer for decades. It was Holes who submitted the DNA to It was Holes who confirmed the discarded DNA sample matched the long-held DNA from the killer. But it was not Holes who got the honor of being in on the final capture. On the day before his retirement, Holes sat outside DeAngelo’s home with the confirmation of the DNA match in his possession and contemplated moving in for the arrest. But, he was alone and it was known that the Golden State Killer was an intuitive and desperate murderer who would stop at nothing to escape. That decision – NOT to make the arrest – probably saved Holes’ life. He can now go into retirement knowing his decision to make the risky move to submit that DNA resulted in the end of a lifetime of violent crime for the Golden State Killer.

      Now we know DeAngelo was a former cop in at least two towns adjacent to the crimes: Auburn and Exeter. His parents lived in Auburn. He investigated property crimes as a part of his job. That is, until another local police department advised his Auburn police chief that he had been caught – shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent from a local store. Alas! Foiled by such a lowlife crime. Not the notoriety he desired, was it?

      Next month, it will be back to the traditional research. The information contained in this article has been compiled from memory from the many news reports and online stories concerning this fascinating capture. But your author could not pass up the opportunity to report on the Breaking NEWS! concerning DNA and its many uses.

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