How the Golden State Killer — and true-crime obsession — de-charmed ‘the Midwest of California’

The Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren, featuring police composite sketch

The intoxicating scent of jasmine was overwhelming as I biked down La Riviera Drive in Sacramento. It was a brutally hot summer day in 2017; the pavement radiated mirage waves. The familiar neighborhood is innocuous, with single-story ranch homes and dappled light shimmering through the canopy of trees. But on that day, I couldn’t shake the dread snaking up my spine.

On its surface, Sacramento looks like the template for any U.S. town. It’s universally familiar. It is relatively flat, situated at the confluence of two rivers with its downtown on a neat grid. Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird wasn’t wrong: Sacramento is the Midwest of California. It’s just so charming.

But a few days earlier, I’d stumbled across the then-unsolved cold case of the Golden State Killer in an online forum. I read that between 1976 and 1986, the Golden State Killer — also known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker — was suspected of committing at least 13 homicides, 50 rapes and more than 120 residential burglaries throughout California. I was shocked to learn that before the perpetrator escalated to a serial killer, he had been a prolific rapist in Sacramento and surrounding cities.

I soon joined the ranks of the thousands of armchair detectives interested in the identification and capture of the Golden State Killer, and I pored through the numerous websites devoted to solving one of America’s most infamous cold cases. With morbid fascination, my heart stalled when I read that the sites of his 11th and 28th attacks (as the East Area Rapist) were only blocks away from my office.

I had passed by this quaint block countless times before on my bike commute to and from work, but this time it felt macabre as a horror story coalesced around me. The heady smell was disorienting. The hedges were menacing. The dissonance between the crime scenes I’d read about and their plain existence made my head swim. Seeing this unremarkable block through new eyes, I was struck by how normal it was. It was just like anywhere else, and that is what made it so terrifying.

I wouldn’t consider myself a ravenous true-crime fan. Growing up in idyllic rural Iowa without a television, I rarely even considered the existence of criminals. Our family left the car keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.

For me, most true crime feels like voyeurism of the unfathomable suffering of others. I struggle with the moral dilemma of it. Are we feeding the narcissism of psychopaths by giving them our undivided attention? Are we amplifying the suffering of the victims through our fascination with what were likely the most horrible moments of their lives?

Yet it’s nearly impossible to ignore the meteoric rise of the true crime genre in entertainment over recent years, energized by the release of the Serial podcast in 2014. True crime dominates popular culture through movies, books, podcasts, docuseries and social media. It seems every time I sign into Netflix, a new serial killer thriller awaits me.

What haunts me is that when we learn these stories, whether we mean to or not, we set them in the world of our imagination. A place full of too-dark alleyways. An alternate universe, where unimaginable things happen. But the reality is that these things happen here in our world, in ordinary houses under oak trees, where jasmine drenches the air and lawnmowers drone in the distance, on streets named Crestview Drive and Sandbar Circle.

I spent the next several months after learning about it absorbed by the Golden State Killer case. There was one degree of separation between any native Sacramentan and one of the East Area Rapist victims. Longtime residents unanimously remember the undercurrent of fear in the city.

Michelle McNamara’s highly publicized book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, was released in February 2018, after her tragic death. There were eerie moments as I listened to the audiobook while driving and passed the landmarks McNamara mentioned. She described the Sacramento of the mid-’70s as paranoid. Her words were a filter through which the otherwise mundane neighborhoods appeared as uneasy scenes, where homeowners installed floodlights and affixed tambourines to their doors.

Productivity at my office ground to a halt on April 25, 2018 when news broke that Golden State Killer suspect Joseph James DeAngelo had been arrested on DNA evidence. There was finally a face to the city’s collective nightmare. No one was expected to work; my colleagues and I huddled around our computers gasping as the details of the suspect’s life became public and the puzzle fell into place. We reeled when we read that DeAngelo had been a cop in the nearby charming, historic foothill town of Auburn during his reign of terror in Sacramento.

Today, the world is waiting with bated breath as DeAngelo’s criminal proceedings drag on. I still find myself surprised by new details about his crime which shape my perspective of this city.

True crime entertainment feeds an insatiable morbid curiosity for viewers. Even approached respectfully, stories about violent crime by default include lurid and sensational details. It seems to lure the audience into the uncanny valley — the emotional revulsion most often used to describe the eerie feeling humans get when looking at pseudo-realistic nonhuman entities such as robots — as we try to reconcile the monstrous acts committed by often “normal”-appearing humans, with innocent victims, in unremarkable places.

Living in Sacramento, a perfectly charming city, has felt like arriving at the other side of the valley, where the macabre is just another feature of the landscape.

Eva Roethler is currently an editor at Comstock’s magazine in Northern California. Previously, she has written for national fresh produce publications and the feminist satire site Reductress. She writes about art, business, disability, food and other musings. She grew up in Iowa City. Follow her on Twitter: @EvaRoethler. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 265.

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