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Golden State Killer: A primer on an elusive predator

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© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc In an undated photo released by the FBI, documents related to the decades-long investigation into a serial killer and rapist, known variously as the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist or the Or…

By Joseph Serna, Sarah Parvini and Richard , Los Angeles Times

Here is a primer on the Golden State Killer from the pages of the Los Angeles Times:

Q: What do we know about the Golden State Killer?

A: The killer is believed to be responsible for 12 slayings, 45 rapes and more than 120 residential burglaries between 1976 and 1986.

The crimes began in Sacramento then moved south through Oakland, and Santa Barbara and Orange counties.

By 1978, the man had attacked victims in Oakland, Danville and Walnut Creek. The following year, he killed two in Goleta. Authorities linked him to the slayings of Cheri Domingo, 35, and Gregory Sanchez, 27, using DNA in 2011.

Sanchez was shot and bludgeoned. Domingo died of massive head injuries. Sanchez and Domingo lived in an upscale neighborhood and were killed in bed. Domingo's hands had been tied — as had the hands of victims at other scenes.

Authorities said that the killer would sometimes place cups or plates on his bound victims' backs so he'd have an audible clue if they broke free when he was in another room. At the time of the crimes he was described as being about 5-foot-9 with blond or auburn hair. He appeared to have military or law enforcement training.

The Golden State Killer was also known as the Original Night Stalker — so named to distinguish him from Richard Ramirez, the serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker who terrorized the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s — the killer was called the East Area Rapist and was tied to no fewer than 52 sexual assaults in Sacramento County and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Then there were the 1980 murders.

In Ventura, Lyman Smith, an attorney days away from being appointed a judge, and his wife, Charlene, a court clerk, were bludgeoned to death with a fireplace log in their home.

Later that year, Keith Harrington, a medical student at the University of California, Irvine, and his wife, Patrice, a pediatric nurse, were beaten to death with a blunt instrument in their home in Laguna Niguel.

Finally, in 1986, 18-year-old Jannelle Cruz was fatally bludgeoned in her family's Irvine home. That was the last crime linked to him, officials said.

Q: Why has the killer been so elusive?

A: Some detectives have spent years trying to crack the case.

Because the attacks spanned the state, it took a while for investigators to link the cases.

In 2011, DNA tests matched evidence linking some Southern California and Northern California cases to the same assailant.

In 2016, the FBI announced a reward in the case and created a web page dedicated to it where the public can view police sketches of the attacker and hear from witnesses and victims' families.

Orange County Detective Larry Pool in 2011 described the years he spent trying to solve the case, calling it his life's mission.

He kept a recording of the killer's voice — from a phone message to one of his victims — in the top drawer of his desk.

"He is cunning," Pool said at the time. "He has a degree of tactical soundness to the way he operates. He is able to adjust tactically to improve his effectiveness as a killer."

Pool once thought the suspect could be in prison. But that theory came to seem less plausible as the state's DNA database grew.

As he hunted for the Original Night Stalker in the early 2000s, Pool had a buried man exhumed. The DNA didn't match.

Q: How did the case gain national attention?

Writer Michelle McNamara became obsessed with the case and spent year researching it. She wrote an article for Los Angeles magazine was turning it into a book when she died in 2016. Her husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, helped complete the book, which is now a bestseller.

The killer, McNamara wrote: "was the bogeyman in the bedroom, the stranger who knew too much — layouts of homes, number of children, work schedules. By the mid-'80s, he turned south — to Ventura, Irvine, Santa Barbara — and to killing."

McNamara didn't begin learning about the Golden State Killer until 2007, three decades after his last known killing, but she was already obsessed, indelibly marked by an unsolved homicide in her neighborhood when she was an adolescent. "Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life," McNamara writes. "The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy's BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl's back." Before long, she writes, "I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word 'mystery.'"

"There's a scream permanently lodged in my throat now," McNamara writes. Years of hunting the killer, talking to victims, thinking about the crimes, had an effect. She recounts a series of thoughtful anniversary gifts from Oswalt, all GSK-themed, and the year she forgot to even give him a card. Like any addiction, there's thrill and danger, intertwined. "What I always think about," McNamara writes, "are experiments that show that animals in captivity would rather have to search for their food than have it given to them. Seeking is the lever that tips our dopamine gush. What I don't mention is the uneasy realization I've had about how much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior — the trampled flowerbeds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls — of the one we seek."

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