Growing Up in Santa Barbara While the Golden State Killer Was at Large

Sketches of Golden State Killer

Editor's Note:

Meg Gardiner is the author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including China Lake, which won the Edgar Award. Originally from Santa Barbara, California, she lives in Austin, Texas.

The text from my brother was brief. “There are psychopaths, and then there’s this guy.”

He was talking about the Golden State Killer. In the wake of suspect Joseph DeAngelo’s arrest, that’s all we’ve been talking about. Because the Golden State Killer has cast a retrospective shadow over our youth.

Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, I knew that serial killers existed. The Zodiac gave me nightmares. Our suburban streets seemed safe—we played outside until dark, and caught tadpoles in San Jose Creek. But in the years to come, two neighborhood couples were tragically murdered. Only fairly recently did we learn chilling news: New evidence linked those unsolved murders to the Golden State Killer.

The prolific slayer had killed four people a short walk from where my family lived.

That alone was disturbing. Then, on a visit home, I glanced out my brother’s kitchen window and froze. Across the street was the house where two victims were slain. I was staring at the murder scene.

Our neighborhood had been the hunting ground of a human predator. An UNSUB – what the FBI calls an unknown subject in criminal investigations. This shocking realization provoked me to intensively research UNSUB cases. Fictionalizing those cases in my novels helped deflect my unease that a killer had stalked the streets where I grew up—and he’d never been caught.

But the more I learned about the Golden State Killer, the more uneasy I felt.

The Golden State Killer carried out a ten-year campaign of mayhem across California. He committed fifty rapes and at least twelve murders. And he tormented his victims and their families long after the attacks.

He left rape victims bound and terrorized while he rummaged through their kitchens and drank their beer. He would phone and threaten survivors—weeks, months, even years later. After committing his first double murder in Santa Barbara, he helped himself to his victims’ Christmas turkey.

And he apparently traveled to the scene of those murders, and others in Santa Barbara, by creeping along San Jose Creek. The wooded stretch of the stream where I’d spent carefree childhood afternoons became his attack route and escape path.

His first Santa Barbara assault took place a block from my best friend’s house. He invaded a home and attacked a couple, chanting, “I’ll kill ’em, I’ll kill ’em,” before the man and woman escaped. Pursued by their neighbor—an FBI agent—the attacker fled between split-level houses on a block where many of my classmates lived. Another close friend’s home backed up to the creek mere yards from where the attacker first climbed the bank and emerged onto the street that night. What stroke of luck kept the killer from scaling my friend’s back fence instead?

That October evening, the attacker escaped. Over the course of the next twenty-one months, the Golden State Killer returned to rove the neighborhood and slaughter four people.

I wonder if he stood outside my house while we slept.

From my childhood home there’s a quick cut-through to the creek. The thought now gives me a cold sense of nausea. The Golden State Killer notoriously prowled neighborhoods ahead of attacks, surveying potential targets, meticulously planning his home invasions and escape routes. Criminal profilers say that these preparations were part of the thrill he felt.

Did he linger outside our home, eyeing it as a target? I can’t imagine he didn’t.

The fear and dread the killer created spread across California like a stain. Then, after murdering an Irvine teenager in 1986, he disappeared.

Was he in prison? Dead? Biding his time? It now seems likely that he was living a suburban life in the very neighborhood where he carried out his early attacks. He mowed his lawn, and raised his kids, and yelled at his neighbors, and, perhaps, sustained himself by drawing on memories of the terror he’d wrought. It was a vast reservoir.

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, after so many years, has stunned us all. I’m thrilled that California investigators refused to give up on a case that had gone so cold. I’m grateful for the relentlessness of the late Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, who raised the public profile of the case. As her widower, Patton Oswalt, has said, every time investigators and prosecutors use the term “Golden State Killer” they’re crediting her work. McNamara coined that name, and helped bring the case to fresh prominence.

And I think about the victims and their families. The thirteen-year-old girl who withstood a brutal rape by speaking defiantly to her attacker, and who regards her survival as one of the most triumphant moments of her life. The father who found his son and daughter-in-law murdered; the son who found his father and stepmother dead. The murder victim’s brother who fought to change California law on the collection of DNA in felony cases. That brother, Bruce Harrington, spoke eloquently at the press conference announcing DeAngelo’s arrest.

“Sleep better tonight. He isn’t coming through the window.”

Monsters roam among us, perfectly camouflaged. They remind us that even the sunniest locations swarm with shadows, and that predators can steal us away without warning.

If this UNSUB—the Visalia Ransacker, the East Side Rapist, the Creek Killer, the Original Night Stalker, the Golden State Killer—has finally had the mask ripped off, I hope we can soon give him a new, permanent label: Convicted.

Yesterday my brother texted: “I have a different feeling driving around the neighborhood today. It was always in the back of my mind that he could still be living around here. In a weird way it feels safer.”

It does. The fear is gone. But the shadows remain.