Those of you who know me even slightly will know that I LOVE true crime, whether that’s documentaries, books or endless reddit threads. Therefore, it makes sense that I find some way to interweave this one weird interest into my blog. That said, I’m stuck as to how to do this. Do I just re-tell crimes or unsolved mysteries? Would my story-telling ability be good enough for this? Should I focus on a different criminal in each blog post, or should I do list-style posts that mentions more than one criminal? I really don’t know – if you know any good, chatty true-crime blogs, do let me know so I can check them out! I’ve tried listening to podcasts, but they’re not really my favourite thing as sometimes I can’t keep up with what they’re saying!
Much like last week’s Thankful Thursday, this is very much a trial run kind of post so do please bear with me! Any (kind) suggestions on how to improve are welcome, as always.
My interest in true crime is a relatively new one, probably starting earlier this year or maybe right at the very end of 2017. Before this, I used to read about supposed paranormal encounters or peruse the plot synopses of horror films to get my scaredy-cat kicks. That said, when Ian Brady, one half of the Moors Murderers, died in May 2017, I remember reading every single newspaper and online article about him and his crimes. I’d heard of the Moors Murderers before of course, but I’d never known more than that they were evil people who killed children. Later that year, I discovered a low-rate true crime docu-series on Netflix called Inside The Mind Of A Serial Killer. It was shoddily produced, but also somehow strangely addictive. Each of the 7 episodes are based on a different serial killer in the 20th or 21st century and feature insights from several criminal psychologists, as well as officers who cracked the cases and caught the killers. I think the episodes are only 30 mins long each as well, which is a welcome relief in true-crime TV world, as most tend to favour one-hour episodes, which can drag on a bit if you’ve got a short attention span like me!
After dipping my toe into the true-crime world, I was mildly intrigued, but still preferred reading about creepy ghosties before bed. I think I discovered the Dear David Twitter thread at around this point, and subsequently fell down a Twitter hole for a few weeks. (My DD theory: it’s totally made up but holy cow, that guy’s a good storyteller. I bet there’ll be another instalment eventually).
Then, after my tumultuous new year, at the end of February 2018, a book was released that threw me headfirst into the world of sick fucks and creepy killers: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michella McNamara.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark details the crimes of the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist/Visalia Ransacker/Original Night Stalker and the author’s attempt to bring the killer to justice. (Note, throughout this post, I refer to the killer as EARONS or GSK, which is just short-hand for these full monikers) At the time that McNamara wrote the book, 2 years ago, the killer had not been caught. Sadly, Michelle McNamara died in her sleep at the age of 46 in April 2016 whilst still in the process of writing I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Within 2 months of her book being published in 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was caught and charged with the 12 known ‘Golden State Killer’ murders. There is little doubt in my mind that her book helped bring the killer to justice – it’s just saddening that she never got to see that justice served.
Michelle McNamara was a journalist according to her CV, but she definitely should have been a professional biographer (a la Claire Tomalin) as her gift for telling other people’s stories is unsurpassable. And I’m not talking about the killer here, either. The ordinary people that grace her book are the most interesting and genuine and heart-warming characters. The everyday police officers who are trying to get a decades old cold case back off the ground again, the fellow sleuths she meets on true-crime chat-rooms at 3am in the morning and even her own family. A stand-out moment in the book is when McNamara describes her own childhood, and what caused her to be interested in true crime and attempting to solve the unsolved. She details an unsolved murder of a 14 year old that happened in her neighbourhood whilst she was a teenager and talks about how it affected her in great depth. Despite not knowing the girl, she was intrigued by who could commit such an awful crime, and how she could try to help find out. This tenacity and curiosity saw her through to adulthood, a career in freelance journalism and, eventually, this book.
The middle section of the book is the bit that details ALL of DeAngelo’s crimes, and it doesn’t make for easy reading. I started reading at 9pm and was still fully engrossed at midnight, too terrified to put the book down and try to sleep. I finished it early the next day.
Therefore, my first True Crime Tuesday post simply has to be dedicated to the case that Michelle McNamara introduced me to: that of the Golden State Killer. Before he was dubbed the GSK though, he started out with some smaller, although still sinister crimes in the small US town of Visalia…
So, as I just said, it all started in the small town of Visalia. Although most of the EARONS (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker) crimes occurred closer to DeAngelo’s home of Auburn, California, it seems he started his spree of crimes almost 3 hours south of here, down in Visalia. Delving into this, it would appear that DeAngelo was a member of the police force in Exeter, CA when he started out as a cop, which is only a 14-minute drive from Visalia.
Visalia is a small town in the mid-South West of California. Its population was counted at just over 180,000 in the 2015 census, which is almost exactly the same as my small speck of a home-town, Bournemouth, to give you some idea of scale. Conversely, Cardiff, where I’m now living has 335,000 people. This number still pales in comparison to the average number of people in any American town – Visalia’s nearest big city, San Francisco has 870,000 people. Visalia is small-fry – to all intents and purposes, DeAngelo is the biggest criminal they ever tried to find, and remains their most expensive investigation to date.
In Summer of 1973, Visalia residents started noticing a flurry of break-ins, although oft-times, nothing of value was actually stolen, which means we can’t really know for sure how many households were affected. Quite often it was odd earrings, stamps and ladies underwear that were taken, whereas high-value items and money that were in obvious places were left untouched. The Visalia Ransacker, as he came to be known, was also a known peeper, stalker and sexual pest in the area – many people reported boot-prints underneath their daughter’s windows and strange men lurking in their back-yard. However, as the VR wore a ski mask over his face, with holes cut out for eyes, there was never any chance for the police to draw up a facial composite of the perpetrator. Until, that is, the end of 1975, where the VR was apprehended not once, but twice, with fatal consequences.
On the night of September 11th 1975, Claude Snelling woke at 2am upon hearing noises in the house. He grabbed a makeshift weapon and headed out of his room, to find a man in a ski mask attempting to abduct his teenage daughter. Upon being interrupted, the intruder shot Claude Snelling at point-blank range and fled into the night. Snelling later died of his injuries.
Just a few months later, on December 12th of the same year, a man wearing a ski mask was apprehended in somebody’s back-yard by a police patrol deliberately set up to catch the Visalia Ransacker. Detective William McGowen of the Visalia police force noticed a figure hiding in the shadows. When this figure attempted to run, McGowen shouted at them to stop. In response, the figure, now strongly suspected to be the Visalia Ransacker, screamed in an extremely high-pitched voice – removed his mask – and shot once at Officer McGowen. The shot landed perfectly on McGowen’s flashlight, and glass shrapnel landed in his eye. Whether the shot was intended to break the flashlight, or DeAngelo was aiming to kill, we might never know. The upshot, however, is that the Visalia Ransacker got away, and he never got caught in Visalia again.
The most common police composite sketches circulated of the Visalia Ransacker were drawn from the night Officer McGowen was shot. The first is often ridiculed as being a poor caricature of an adult-child but the second set are eerily accurate compared to a photo of DeAngelo at the time. Given this fact, that McGowen obviously DID see the VR’s face, and remembered it well – how did they not catch him? You’d think that as these composites became seen on a worldwide scale, that the police force ten minutes down the road, which employed this night-time stalker, would maybe see it in passing and think, ‘gee whiz, that sure looks like that man I work with’. Perhaps the lack of follow-up is due to there not being enough evidence to support a charge that would carry weight – for the most part, the Visalia Ransacker was accused of stealing piggy banks of coins and stamps and the only evidence to charge him to the Snelling case were the boot-prints from a Converse trainer under the Snelling window and the use of a ski-mask as a disguise. Also, it seems that DeAngelo quickly left the Visalia area after being confronted by McGowen, and return to his native Auburn, where his crimes would continue, and slowly become more macabre as time went on.
As this post is now at almost 1700 words, I think this is going to have to be a two-parter!! (Or three…or four….) Tune in next Tuesday for the rest of the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Visalia Ransacker/ Golden State Killer story….and do let me know what you thought of this post!
Until next time,