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The making of the East Area Rapist

Before the alleged murders and the rapes, Joseph James DeAngelo is suspected to have started as the Visalia Ransacker. Two retired police officers said they may have been able to stop him, and for decades have lived with the "what if?" in their minds.


“He's the most prolific serial killer rapist in the history of California,” said John Vaughan, a retired sergeant for the Visalia Police Department speaking about his time investigating burglaries committed by the Visalia Ransacker. Vaughan began looking into the cases in 1975.

“It didn't have to happen. I mean, he should have been caught,” Vaughan said.

The burglar, now believed by police to be 73-year-old Citrus Heights resident Joseph James DeAngelo, had just committed what was thought to be his first murder. At the time, DeAngelo worked as a police officer in Exeter, a town just east of Visalia. 

“He drove us crazy for two and a half years of burglaries. We could always tell it was him,” Vaughan said.

He remembered how the burglar, who had broken into hundreds of homes, left bizarre trails behind. 

“He'd take one earring from a pair. He'd take cheap things, home photos, happy photos," Vaughan said. "We called it the three T’s. He'd take it, tear it, or throw it. He would eat ice cream. A lot of ice cream. He'd always snack on something in the kitchen.” 

Credit: ABC10
John Vaughan, retired Visalia Police Sergeant, discusses working on the Visalia Ransacker case.

On September 11, 1975, while attempting to kidnap a 16-year-old from her bed in Visalia, the ransacker shot and killed her father, journalism professor Claude Snelling. The murder increased the number of officers and agencies involved in catching the predator. 

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In December, during a stakeout, the ransacker shot at Visalia police officer William McGowan. He escaped, despite the involvement of several police agencies. The Visalia ransackings stopped after the incident. 

The first East Area Rapist attack was reported in June 1976.  In August, the local Exeter paper announced that Officer DeAngelo was moving on to a job with the Auburn Police Department. 

Vaughan continued investigating the cases in Visalia and suspected that the ransacker would not simply stop attacking. By 1978, he had read about dozens of East Area Rapist attacks in the Sacramento area. Details about the attacks struck him as familiar. 

“Even when he raped women in Sacramento, he would pile dishes in front of the front door. He did a lot of things when he was raping that I thought pointed to ransacker burglaries,” Vaughan said. “It looked like our burglaries were now happening in Sacramento.”

He and McGowan went to Sacramento to tell the Sheriff about their suspicions but were dismissed. Bill Miller, a Sheriff’s spokesman was quoted in the Sacramento Bee July of 1978 saying, “It appears to me that these investigators in Visalia were looking for publicity.” He accused the Visalia Police Department of being “unprofessional” and the statements McGowan and Vaughan gave a Visalia paper connecting the crimes, “irresponsible.” 

 “I wish they had believed this because our guy disappeared. I mean, he couldn't stop. He went somewhere else,” Vaughan said.

Six district attorneys across California have charged Joseph James DeAngelo with 26 crimes, including 13 murders and other kidnapping-related charges. He is believed to have committed around 50 rapes and hundreds of burglaries. Authorities believe his crimes continued for over a decade, spanning multiple jurisdictions across the state, and people like Vaughn believe he did more than we know. 

“They had a period there where he didn't do anything. I don't believe that,” Vaughan said.

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