'I pray it will finally be over': Golden State Killer survivors hope guilty plea brings justice

Dani Anguiano in San Francisco

Jennifer Carole sleeps with a small baseball bat nearby, keeps bells on her door and has taken multiple self-defense classes.

Gay Hardwick never feels safe alone, and can’t sleep with an open window.

Both women’s lives were forever changed by the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who haunted the state for more than 40 years. He murdered Carole’s father and stepmother in bed in their southern California home and sexually assaulted and terrorized Hardwick when she was 24.

In 2018, California authorities said they had identified Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer, as the suspect in at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes attributed to the Golden State Killer between 1974 and 1986.

Authorities have told some of the survivors that the 74-year-old DeAngelo will plead guilty on Monday – a deal that would see him sentenced to life in prison and would spare the state a costly trial. The Sacramento county district attorney’s office would confirm only that a hearing is scheduled.

Related: 'Golden State Killer' suspect reportedly to plead guilty to avoid death penalty

DeAngelo was arrested in 2018 after law enforcement compared DNA from the crimes committed in the 1970s and 80s to that of users on the open-source genealogy website GEDMatch.

Law enforcement had spent decades trying to solve the crimes, which spanned 11 counties, but the case gained renewed attention in 2016 when the Sacramento DA announced the creation of a task force to identify the killer, who has also been called the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, and the FBI put up a reward of $50,000 for information leading to his capture.

The scope of the crimes, and long unidentified perpetrator, drew particular interest from the true crime community and spawned dedicated discussion boards. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a bestselling book about the true crime writer Michelle McNamara’s search for the Golden State Killer, brought wide attention to the case when it was released months before DeAngelo’s arrest.

DeAngelo is a US navy veteran of the Vietnam war and father of three and had worked as a police officer in communities near where the crimes took place. He was fired from his job at the Auburn police department in 1979 after being arrested for allegedly shoplifting dog repellant and a hammer from a Pay ’n Save store. DeAngelo worked at a Save Mart distribution center from 1989 until 2017, the Sacramento Bee reported, and in 2018 was reportedly living with his daughter and grandchild on a quiet street in a suburb of Sacramento.

It was there he was arrested, in one of the communities the Golden State Killer had terrorized years earlier.

Joseph DeAngelo appears in Sacramento County Superior Court in January 2020. DeAngelo is accused of having committed at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes
Joseph DeAngelo appears in Sacramento county superior court in January 2020. DeAngelo is accused of having committed at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

For many survivors, DeAngelo’s plea comes with mixed emotions as well as a fear that he could opt out of the agreement at the last moment.

“It’s a difficult place to be in, to know that at any time he could change his mind and that he is highly manipulative. I won’t believe anything until it is written in ink and approved,” Hardwick said.

Hardwick was 24 in 1978 when a man broke into the home she shared with her now husband, woke the couple up at gunpoint and sexually assaulted her. They survived and did their best to move forward, selling the home they felt unable to live in. But Hardwick suffered for years from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and the attack had long-lasting impacts on her career and emotional state and took decades to work through.

“I’m hoping and praying it is going to be finally over for all of us. Once and for all [I’ll] know that he is in a place where he is never going to leave.”

The statute of limitations for rape convictions expired three years after the attack on the Hardwicks, but she said she considers the plea an opportunity for justice.

Carole wanted DeAngelo “to have to face a courtroom and the evidence”, but she thinks the plea deal is the right thing to do as it will save the state millions of dollars and spare his daughters from further pain. That DeAngelo is pleading guilty as US police face a reckoning over systemic racism and violence is particularly salient for Carole.

“We’ve got a dirty cop that had skills he acquired as a police officer and used to terrorize, rape and murder,” Carole said.

Carole’s father, Lyman Smith, and his wife, Charlene, were bludgeoned to death in their Ventura home in 1980 when Carole was just 18. Her 12-year-old brother discovered the bodies. The family didn’t learn the crime was the work of a serial killer for 20 years, and it was only after DeAngelo’s capture that Carole realized the extent to which the murders had affected her life.

“I’m going to be really happy to have this be done. I’m tired of him having any real estate in my head,” Carole said. But, she added, “you can’t get your people back. You can’t get your sense of safety back. He stole something from everyone in California that endured his terrorism.”

As Monday’s hearing approaches, Kris Pedretti goes back and forth about attending. Pedretti became the Golden State Killer’s 10th victim when she was sexually assaulted in her home at the age of 15.

“This is my one opportunity to hear this person who attacked me admit guilt,” she said.

Pedretti’s attacker crept into her home days before Christmas in 1976, sneaking up on her as she played piano and threatening her with a knife before sexually assaulting her. It left Pedretti with post-traumatic stress, but in recent years she has found comfort through therapy and a Facebook group she created where sexual assault survivors can share their stories. Born out of a horrific crime she suffered at the hands of someone who sought to terrorize her community, Pedretti said the group has been healing.

“We share our stories. We share what books have been helping us. I am finally at a place in this journey where I can see some sunlight because I can use what I learned.”