Tuesday, 2 Mar 2021

I waited 40 long years to see Golden State killer snared for my family's murder – but even now I still can't celebrate

JENNIFER Carole looked Joseph James DeAngelo in his cold eyes as he finally admitted, after 40 long years, to the midnight murders of her dad and stepmother.

Now 58, Jennifer was just a teenager at the time of the stomach-turning crimes – which were among the most brutal murders in a string of horrific attacks which made DeAngelo one of the most feared serial killers in American history.

Between 1974 and 1986, ex-cop DeAngelo murdered at least 13 people, raped more than 50 women and girls, and burglarised over 100 houses.

His list of crimes was so vast that, for decades, they were attributed to separate people, and he was variously referred to as the East Area Rapist, the Diamond Knot Killer, and the Original Night Stalker before being identified and caught on DNA evidence in 2018.

Now known as the Golden State Killer, his victims and their families are finally getting their day in court with the man who derailed and destroyed countless lives – including Jennifer's.

But since his arrest two years ago, long-forgotten pain and suffering has been brought back into vivid relief for his survivors.

“It opened up an old wound," Jennifer tells Sun Online.

"Everyone thinks you’re celebrating, but I didn’t celebrate. He’s so old, so even when they found the guy, they couldn’t do to him what he deserves –that’s just not even human or legal.”

Bludgeoned by coward in home

For Jennifer, DeAngelo's arrest and trial has forced her to once again confront the unimaginable trauma that exploded into her life on Sunday, March 16, 1980.

Her younger brother, Gary, made the mile-and-a-half trip from their mother's house to their father's house to mow the lawn in Ventura, California.

When he arrived after midday, Gary was surprised to find his dad, Lyman Smith, and his stepmother, Charlene, were not yet awake.

But Gary could hear the digital alarm clock in the couple's bedroom loudly ringing out – so he went into the room to shut it off.

Inside, he found a horrific scene.

There, on the bed, he found Lyman and Charlene been brutally murdered – bludgeoned to death with a log from the fireplace.

Forensics would later confirm that Charlene had also been raped.

Jennifer was just 18 years old at the time, and was at her mother's house with her other brother Jay, who was 15.

Gary, who found the bodies, was 12.

The horrific crime shocked Ventura, where Jennifer's family were well-known – Lyman was a prominent lawyer awaiting an appointment as a superior court judge at the time of his death.

For Jennifer, the extreme violence of the crime was itself a trauma in addition to losing her father and stepmother as a teenager.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, a log? Are you freaking kidding me?'" Jennifer says.

"They were killed with a log? No one’s killed with a log."

DeAngelo had a similar MO in many of his crimes – he would wake couples in their bedroom, make the woman tie up the man, then take the woman to a separate room where he would rape her.

He would sometimes pile up plates on the man's back, telling him that if he heard any of the crockery fall, he would kill them both.

DeAngelo initially targeted solitary women and girls, but he moved on to couples within a year of his spree.

After two couples escaped and one of the men got out of his bindings to attack, DeAngelo started killing victims.

But Lyman and Charlene's deaths were treated as a tragic small town murder for thirty years before anyone realised they'd been part of a sadistic serial killer's sprawling web of violence.

Torment of investigation

That meant that, for a brief time, Jennifer was considered a suspect.

She was taken in for questioning where police took her fingerprints and submitted her to a polygraph lie detector test.

Although she was quickly ruled out of the investigation, the experience of being suspected of something so dreadful at such a young age took a terrible toll on Jennifer.

“It made me feel ashamed for a very long time," she says.

"Because in Ventura it was in the paper. People knew.

"'They looked at the daughter, what a piece of s**t she must be, she must be garbage if they thought she could have killed them, what a horrible child she must be.’

“In the spring of 1980, everywhere I went I was Lyman and Charlene’s daughter.

"You lose your identity when you become the child of someone who was killed."

Under intense scrutiny and working out how to cope, Jennifer shocked friends and classmates by making a very public, and very dark, joke – she started wearing a "little necklace that I taped a pretend little log on".

“I think the thing is I was obsessed with this log because it was such a brutal way to kill them," she says.

"I suspect what I was really doing – now as I look back as a 58-year-old woman -is I was trying to take the power out of that log, and also have a way for my friends to talk to me.

“You have to go back to being 18. Now I realise as an adult you don’t know what you would do to cope.

"I had always used humour. For me, humour is just the best way to take the air out of things that are charged.”

Two years later, in 1982, a friend of Lyman's, Joe Alsip, was accused of the crimes, but the charges were later dropped and he was ultimately exonerated with DNA evidence.

Jennifer changed her surname to distance herself from the crimes and went about her life, ultimately building a career in marketing with tech companies in California.

But she slept with a baseball bat near her bed and took self-defence classes, wondering if her loved ones' killer was still out there.

'My jaw just dropped'

Twenty years on from the murders, Orange County Sheriff's Department detectives connected Charlene and Lyman's deaths to other horrific murders around the state using DNA evidence.

When Jennifer got the call and was told about the shock development in a stone cold case, she couldn't believe what she was being told.

“In 1980, it was a murder in a small town," Jennifer says.

"In 2000, it was: 'Your dad and Charlene were killed by a serial killer'.

"At that point, my jaw just dropped".

But it would take another 18 years for DeAngelo to be caught – and the true scale of his crimewave to be revealed.

Using DNA samples collected from crime scenes, investigators compared the killer's genetic makeup with profiles on a DNA database and were able to identify people who had the same great-great-great-grandparents as the killer.

From that, they built complex family trees to identify living descendants and find potential suspects, which ultimately led them to DeAngelo's front door in Citrus Heights, California, in April 2018.

Tests showed that DeAngelo's DNA matched a sample collected from Charlene in 1980, and DeAngelo was confirmed to be the killer.

"We’re coping in the way that we cope, but the arrest really knocked us all for a loop," Jennifer said.

Jennifer lost her job shortly after DeAngelo's arrest and, in the two years since, has become close with many other survivors and relatives of those attacked by the Golden State Killer.

Many of them are members of a private chat group and meet up after the court hearings, including at the home of Kris Pedretti, who was just 15 years old when she was raped by DeAngelo in 1976.

“These gatherings became way more important during the hearings," Jennifer says.

"We’d get together in these yards and these homes and it was everything.

"We could talk candidly, including bad jokes – because humour heals, right?”

'Docs aren't not romantic – they're awful'

On June 29, DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 murders, 13 kidnappings, and confessed to another 161 crimes – many of which were rapes – that couldn't be charged as they were beyond the statute of limitations.

The trial took place in a ballroom at Sacramento University in front of a socially-distanced crowd of 150 of DeAngelo's victims, their family members, and the world media.

So many people wanted to attend the hearing that a normal courtroom was deemed too small to allow everyone to attend safely during the pandemic.

Appearing frail and wearing a visor and an orange jumpsuit, DeAngelo muttered "guilty" and "I admit" as his staggering list of charges were counted to him.

His full admission of guilt was made as part of a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, and he now faces the rest of his life behind bars when he's sentenced.

“I cannot describe to you how happy I am that we have a plea,” Jennifer says.

“This is so much better than I thought it would be, and not just for me. From my daughter, to my mother, to my survivor friends. This is way better than we thought.

"Basically, he’s not taking up any real estate in our heads anymore. That’s huge.”

But, despite her relief at finally getting justice, being at the centre of one of the most famous serial killer cases in modern history has left Jennifer feeling troubled about the way we veiw murderers and their victims.

A current HBO true crime series about DeAngelo, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, is the latest example of what Jennifer has previously called the "Golden State Killer economy".

"This stuff all gets romanticised," she says.

"But it’s not romantic. It’s awful.”

She's specifically frustrated by the glut of attention given to the stories of white murder victims in America.

"At a time when Black Lives Matter is incredibly important, we have what unfortunately looks like white women wrapped up in true crime," she says.

So when the trial is concluded and DeAngelo is locked away at last, Jennifer plans to support survivors and spread positivity, including through her work hosting podcasts on life coaching and her own story as one of the real people who are often overlooked in the high drama of true crime.

“I need to stay in this path of helping to change American culture because we’re at that point right now," she says.

"We’re ready. It’s happening. I want to be a part of it."

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