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It is 6 a.m. in Sacramento, California. I am waking up for work just as the sun is making its way over the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, visible from my bedroom window. I shower. Get dressed. Head out the door. The usual.
I get on to U.S. Route 50, or “the 50” as we call it — a habit of inserting determiners into places they do not belong has gained us Northern Californians no lack of mockery from our counterparts to the south — and head east. U.S. 50 bisects the entire Sacramento area as well as, in fact, the entire country; the route ends in Ocean City… Maryland. “Ocean City, MD 3073 miles,” a sign on the western edge of Sacramento declares nonchalantly, as if after lunch you and your family may or may not decide to get dessert in the “Old Line State.”
I get off on Sunrise Avenue, about 15 minutes from downtown Sacramento. As the first sun rays of the day light up the freeway below, the road’s namesake is not hard to figure out. I drive north for roughly 15 more minutes to get to my office. Past the new developments that line the border of Rancho Cordova and the area known as Gold River. Across the American River and its Oak studded banks, a long, rustic bridge built in the early 20th century crossing the formidable body of water just up stream. Through the dense midcentury suburbs that make up most of the regions known as Citrus Heights, Carmichael, and Fair Oaks.
It is a normal day by all accounts except for one. As I turn on my computer and check the news of the day, one article catches my attention. Something about a serial killer. Not usually my cup of tea but it’s early and I am in a clickbait-y mood. But then words that are almost never uttered on a national stage catch my eye: “East Sacramento,” “Auburn Police Department,” “Folsom High School.”
It becomes clear after a few sentences that an elderly man, Joseph DeAngelo, has been apprehended in connection to a series of brutal rapes (51 to be exact) and at least a dozen murders across Northern, Central, and Southern California. My jaw is on the floor by this point. Not only because the accused’s home is less than five miles from where I am currently sitting but because I have never heard of the crimes he supposedly committed. This was not an isolated incident. These were premeditated, serial attacks by a man who was calculating, precise, and sinister.
Between June of 1976 and February of 1978, the man who came to be known as the Golden State Killer began cutting his teeth in Eastern Sacramento. He would brazenly stalk his victims: tracking their daily routines, breaking into their homes to learn layouts, watching them at night through open windows. And then he would attack. Often mercilessly and always confidently — never seeming to fear being caught and relishing in the thrill of this immunity. Again, roughly 50 (!!!) attacks would be attributed to him before his reign of terror would eventually move west and then south, where his M.O. grew drastically darker.
Again, what startled me most were not necessarily the grisly details of the assailant’s path of destruction but the fact that I was just learning about these events now, over 40 years later. I’ve lived in Sacramento for the majority of my life and after 24 years of learning about the Gold Rush and Folsom Prison, there seemed to be very little in the way of stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks history left to learn. But here I was just finding out about a series of events that turned the quiet streets of East Sacramento into what was essentially an active war zone, under constant siege by a man who seemed to evaporate into the shadows.
Kids stopped playing in the streets. Bars went on windows. Guns were purchased (a staggering 3,000 in just the span of a few months at one point, according to the late Michelle McNamara in her new book/investigation on the Golden State Killer, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark). Citizen patrol units were formed by volunteers, equally eager and frightened. The kind of seismic changes that don’t simply shake a community, but absolutely turn it on its head. Neighbors wondered if the rapist lived on their street, if he was their coworker, their kid’s teacher.
Even after the last known attack the area remained tense, on alert for years.
Reading about that period now, I wasn’t asking myself if these events shaped the present community but how. I remember my childhood, in the mid 90s, to be fairly normal. I remember playing on the streets of my neighborhood, the only rule to “be home by the time the street lights come on.” But I also remember a strange sense of danger present in my mother’s voice when I did not return home by that time. It never seemed out of spite, her anger. It always felt connected to something firmly rooted in reality. Doors were always locked. Strangers never engaged with.
The longer I think about how small of a community East Sacramento is, the more I realize it should’ve maybe struck me as strange long ago how private people from here are. Much of the land where it sits used to be ranches and orchards and dirt paths — created during the gold rush — that lead to the foothills. A close knit group of people who were generally tied, somehow, to the fertility of the region. By many accounts, this close-knittedness was still present through much of the first half of the 20th century. So how does a community change socially so, relatively, quickly?
Growth? Sure. Modernity? Technology? Of course. But what if a collective experience scarred a community so badly that not only did it forever change how it communicated with itself, it also tried, maybe subconsciously, to erase the experience from its mind. It is California, after all. All one has to do to start over is step out under that sprawling, blue sky and allow it to fill the spaces between all the parts of themselves that they no longer wish to keep in the dark.
This is, of course, all speculation. But that is precisely what situations such as these breed, right?
As I was shopping that afternoon, I heard the voice of a young man one aisle over, “I heard he was super compulsive about his lawn, like it had to be perfect or he would freak.” And later from a woman in the coffee shop, “My mother’s friend lives right down the street! She could’ve been a victim!”
Everyone knows someone. Two degrees and whatnot.