MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Sacramento today, a 74-year-old retired truck mechanic and former police officer admitted to carrying out a series of horrific rapes and murders across California in the 1970s and '80s. He has been dubbed the Golden State Killer. In a plea deal, Joseph DeAngelo Jr. admitted to more than a dozen charges in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole. Because of the pandemic, the proceeding was held in a university ballroom. NPR's Eric Westervelt was there, and he joins us now. And I want to warn people before we get going that some of the details you're about to hear may be graphic.
Eric, tell us a little bit more about what happened. This is one of the first times we the public have heard from Joseph DeAngelo Jr.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Yeah, it was. And it was a bit of an odd setting because of the virus. And to create social distance, you know, it was held in this ballroom at Sacramento State University. And DeAngelo was wheeled in in a wheelchair. He sat at this makeshift table on a riser wearing his orange prison jumpsuit and plastic protective mask. And prosecutors from six counties from across California, one after the other, got up and detailed, you know, this gruesome crime spree - rapes, kidnapping, robberies and 13 murders. Prosecutors, you know, detailed each crime. DeAngelo admitted guilt to each of them, saying only to the presiding judge Michael Bowman, guilty, and I admit to each case. I mean, he didn't look directly at family members. He looked down mostly. He didn't ask questions or say anything except, guilty, and, I admit. And we have to underscore, these were particularly sadistic or horrific home invasion. The details have been awful and heart-rending. I mean, he shot some victims at close range. He beat some to death after breaking into their homes and then often killed them.
KELLY: That's horrible to listen to. Why, when prosecutors, you said, from six counties have so many details, they have a guilty plea - why did they agree to this plea deal?
WESTERVELT: Well, several reasons - I mean, he admits to these grisly 13 murders and other counts of kidnapping and robberies. He'll get life without possibility of parole. But he'll also importantly admit to dozens - I think more than 60 unsolved and uncharged rapes and attacks where the statute of limitations have run out. So that's very important for those victims to get acknowledgement of those crimes. And it avoids, you know, a long, costly trial during a deadly pandemic. Many of these crimes were 30, 40 years ago. Some witnesses have passed away. This allows survivors and victims to get a measure of justice without having to sit through months and months of court proceedings.
KELLY: Just to emphasize that point that these crimes were decades old from the '70s and '80s, how was DeAngelo finally caught?
WESTERVELT: It was interesting. Prosecutors outlined today how, in 2018, they used an empty garbage truck with police and collected material from his trash at his suburban house outside Sacramento. And then they matched DNA material from that trash to DNA from a crime scene by using a database and a popular ancestry genealogy website. So they linked him to several rapes fairly quickly. And DeAngelo was arrested not long after that.
KELLY: Reaction today from survivors, from family members of the victims reacting to this plea deal.
WESTERVELT: I mean, it's mixed. I mean, many of them whose - you know, especially those who - family members who may have discovered loved ones say, you know, we were just never the same after that. He will die in prison. There's no possibility for parole. And I talked to Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton. And she told me, quote, "there's really nothing that could give full justice to these family members because he's committed such horrendous acts up and down California. But at least now," she said, "we can begin the process, after all these decades, to bring some closure to families."
KELLY: NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting there on the plea deal today for Joseph DeAngelo Jr.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
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