Proof versus Conjecture: the Golden State Killer

Detail of cover to Michelle McNamara’s 2018 book about the Golden State Killer

In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of robberies, dozens of rapes, and numerous murders were committed by an individual Michelle McNamara dubbed the Golden State Killer.

The individual had been known by other names: the Visalia Ransacker (1973-1976), the East Area Rapist (EAR, 1976-1979) and the Original Night Stalker (ONS, 1979-1986). DNA from the crime scenes could not be analyzed until the DNA profiling theory of 1985 was adopted in the affected California jurisdictions.

Ms. McNamara died in 2016 of a combination of an undiagnosed heart defect and prescription drugs for sleeplessness, anxiety, and pain. Colleagues finished the book, which was published in February 2018. Neither Ms. McNamara nor those who completed the book knew who the Golden State Killer was. The many DNA clues that linked the crimes to one another did not match any DNA profiles on the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

As I read Ms. McNamara’s book, I knew who police arrested in April 2018. Therefore it was almost painful to read the portion of the book where Ms. McNamara and her colleagues talked about the the times they had been certain they had found the killer, only to learn time and again that DNA exonerated the suspect.

Of this, Ms. McNamara wrote:

“We return to the past, armed with more information and cutting edge innovations. But there are hazards in having so much wizardry at hand. The feast of data means there are more circumstances to bend and connect. You’re tempted to build your villain with the abundance of pieces. It’s understandable. We’re pattern seekers, all of us. We glimpse the rough outline of what we seek and we get snagged on it, sometimes remaining stuck we we could get free and move on.”

No matter how much a suspect seemed to resemble the profile of the killer, they were not the killer if the DNA didn’t match. In this case, a simple test was possible, a test that time and again failed to validate the plausible conjecture in which people were so vested.

Why is this germane to the audience that reads Millennial Star? I think it is germane because there are many who have become convinced of a seemingly plausible conjecture regarding Church history. They have glimpsed a rough outline and have gotten entirely snagged on it. They have been unable to move on and seek to snag others with their discontent.

Unfortunately, determining the validity of conjectures regarding Church history is not as simple as performing a single DNA test. Entire theories are based on the thinnest of evidence, with dozens of books and hundreds/thousands of online repeaters voicing the conjecture as though it were incontrovertible fact.

DNA and the Golden State Killer

Years ago researchers suspected that DNA from genealogical websites could reveal the family of the killer. Unfortunately for detectives, most genealogical websites refuse to allow their information to be used for law enforcement purposes.

One instance of seeming success was documented in Ms. McNamara’s book. One detective was in the habit of going to a service (likely GEDmatch) and inputting the Y chomosome markers for the killer. This would result in possible matches whose common ancestor was 10 generations or so in the past. But that could be hundreds of thousands of individuals, if not more. Then one day a perfect match was found. Unfortunately, it was because another like-minded detective had also uploaded the killer’s DNA profile.

Most recently, however, a close relative of the killer uploaded their own DNA to GEDmatch. This ultimately led detectives to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the likely suspect. A DNA test of Mr. DeAngelo yielded a perfect match to crime scene DNA.

Hindsight is 20/20

At the times the initial home burglaries began (spring of 1973), Joseph James DeAngelo was a newly-minted police officer, assigned to the burglary unit in Exeter, California, a small town near Visalia, Calfornia. Presuming Mr. DeAngelo was the Visalia Ransacker, it seems he enjoyed proving that he could outsmart his fellow police officers at their own game, a game where he knew the rules and could watch as they failed time and again to catch him.

DeAngelo’s acceptance to the Auburn Police Force in Sacramento, California corresponds to the beginning of dozens of unsolved rapes, which increased in ferocity and risk until suddenly ceasing in July 1979. It so happens that DeAngelo was arrested in July 1979 for shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent, coincidentally the sort of stolen items often used in attacks.

Following suspension regarding the shoplifting incident, DeAngelo was fired from the Police Department in October 1979. This corresponds to the final attack that didn’t involve murder. Despite threats, the woman had screamed, alerting a neighbor who was an FBI officer. The killer fled the scene. After this, all attacks involved murder. Until DNA analysis was possible, it appeared the final murderous attack had occurred in 1981. This corresponds to the conception and birth of DeAngelo’s first child.

With DNA analysis, the portfolio was increased by one additional violent murder, occurring in 1986. This corresponds to the conception and birth of DeAngelo’s second child. But it also occurred around the time that DeAngelo’s former colleagues in law enforcement would have begun talking about the possible use of DNA profiling to catch suspects. Mr DeAngelo was no longer a police officer, able to watch the investigation from the inside. To this armchair detective, it appears Mr. DeAngelo likely realized that any future attacks would involve an unacceptable risk that he would be identified and convicted.

Mr. DeAngelo is now an old man. His defense attorneys have requested the court case be deferred until at least January 2020 so they can have time to become adequately familiar with the mountain of data prosecutors will be using to accuse Mr. DeAngelo of those crimes where the applicable statutes of limitations have not expired.

Debunking Conjecture

For the many who have pursued the Golden State Killer, DNA evidence forced them to abandon their prior conjectures.

In the case of Church history (specifically related to the emergence of plural marriage), there is abundant evidence that runs contrary to the several popular narratives. Yet few are sufficiently conversant with the evidence to realize that their favored narrative is flawed.

A clue, perhaps, should be taken from the fact that so many widely divergent narratives exist in the first place.

A second clue could perhaps be taken from the fact that I have openly discussed my reconstruction for several years now, including protracted discussions with both unabashed armchair critics of my position and well-known historians who have been critical of aspects of my reconstruction. In nearly six years of active discussion, no one has debunked my central theses. All substantive objections have boiled down to “that doesn’t align with my feeling about what occurred.”

If mere feelings were sufficient, then any number of men would have already been executed for the crimes of the Golden State Killer. In the case of the Golden State Killer, the blood and tears of the victims, combined with the ability to conduct DNA analyses, demand a final correct answer.

In the case of Church history it similarly matters what really happened. Alas, there is no single piece of evidence that necessarily confirms or rejects what you might choose to believe. In the meantime, know that what you think happened in Church history is likely a gross simplification of what actually happened.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

3 thoughts on “Proof versus Conjecture: the Golden State Killer

  1. I was forty-something when circumstances drove me to seek a second career. I had lots of world experience by then having spent the four years prior to my departure from that career as a “business analyst”. A traveling consultant to companies as an “expert” in a particular manufacturing, or rather “enterprise resource planning” software.
    I learned a great deal about how things get done. It was and is fascinating how humankind has learned to produce things so quickly in so many ingenious ways.
    Still, studying the law, or laws, and how they came to be drastically changed the way I look now at the world. And no subject in the law more than my course in Evidence.
    The whys and wherefores of the decision making process as to which evidence should be excluded from the courtroom because of its inherent unreliability, which unreliability was learned from centuries of observation about contradictory testimony and plain sad experience, opened my eyes to a before unknown, at least to me, abysmal deficit in our ability to rely on empirical evidence to arrive at the truth of any matter.
    No, all we can get at is an agreed upon perspective of what may have happened, sufficient to satisfy ourselves that we have done our best to come to a just conclusion, even if not true in the particulars.
    In the end we judge people not the “truth” regarding events. In my now more educated opinion I don’t think we can ever come to the truth of precisely how anything really happened. Even a confession is filtered through a particular lens and would likely be inaccurate in the details.
    This applies equally to the previous post by Jacob Hess. I took away from it the notion that we are convinced by people (including ourselves) and not by things or facts. We see and feel what we condition ourselves to see and feel.

  2. In the end we judge people not the “truth” regarding events. … the notion that we are convinced by people (including ourselves) and not by things or facts. We see and feel what we condition ourselves to see and feel.

    Joel, that is excellent. You just encapsulated the thesis of the book “Who Is Truth?” by Thayne and Gantt, which was reviewed earlier this year on M*. I bought a Kindle edition, and consider it well worth the price.

    I still think the idea of person-truth versus fact-truth also somehow ties into the Faith versus Culture of Critical Discourse (CCD) theme that Jeff G wrote about a few years ago, and which Meg recapped in a follow up post.
    (Use the M* search box in the upper right to search on: intellectuals trojan horses
    to see the two posts.) The thesis was explained in Jeff’s 2013 guest post, with good follow up comments in Meg’s 2014 post.

    Person-truth is spiritually based: is the Holy Ghost confirming the words of the speaker? And that is the main basis of testimony, and how missionaries are supposed to teach.

    The vast majority of investigators and any kind of religious seekers don’t have opportunity, let alone the time, to critically investigate the major pro or con claims of religions, nor their histories.

    Missionaries, and anyone sharing the gospel, are not supposed to be salesmen, or debaters, whose job it is to convince people. But when the speaker has the Spirit, then the hearer can recognize “person-truth”. And once you have that, then all the CCD and all the study of the detailed historical records, with all the interpretations pro and con, are just a waste of time.

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