Serial Killer Syndrome. The Psychological Phenomena of How the Arrest of the East Area Rapist/Golden
She stood silently by the door, peeking out the window waiting for her husband to arrive. It was late, around 11 pm on a week night. And very dark on their winding street in the hills. She peered out discreetly, not wanting to draw attention should anyone be watching. The couple had established a routine of sorts before cellphones were common. Her husband would drive home from his night shift downtown to their hilltop home. She was getting ready to go into her overnight shift. The routine was for the husband to pull into the driveway and flash his headlights. That was the signal that it was okay to come outside. He arrived. Flashed his headlights a few times. She walked out of their house gripping the leash of their Doberman Sasha. She was a good watchdog and wouldn't let anyone come near them. The woman walked up to her husband in the darkness, and like precision clockwork, handed the leash over to him while he watched her get safely into her car and back out of the driveway. She paused to make sure he got inside and locked the door before she drove down the steep road into work. When she returned home the next morning in the daylight, the first thing she did was check her husband sleeping in their bed to see if he was alive.
There was a serial killer on the loose that summer, leaving a city paralyzed in fear. Everyone was terrified. Anyone could be his next victim.
The April 24, 2018 arrest of Joseph DeAngelo in the 40-year-old cold case of the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer sent shock waves across California, especially Sacramento. The rapist committed 50 rapes there between June 1976 to July 1979. The suspect is also accused of 13 murders up and down California. The news of the arrest spread like a California wildfire. Cell phones blew up with urgent calls or texts from oldtime friends and neighbors who lived during the ordeal. Did you hear?
"I guess I was kind of surprised about how I felt physically and emotionally learning how this guy had finally been captured," said Carol Dahmen, a Sacramento political strategist, who was 11 and living in the Foothill Farms area of Sacramento during the crime spree. Dahmen speaks in clipped sentences when she talks to me. Beginning a thought and then her voice trailing off. A month after DeAngelo's arrest, you can tell she still can't believe it. Struggling to comprehend. I can feel her disbelief over the phone.
"All of these emotions that have long since been buried, they can probably be attributed to PTSD disorder, because they all came flooding back," Dahman said.
She was not the only one who felt that way. So many people I talked to after the arrest had the same reaction -- fear. I found the reaction to the arrest astounding. I expected Sacramento residents to be ecstatic and relieved a suspect was finally in custody after four long decades. Jumping for joy, even. Instead, the arrest triggered long dormant fears they had shut down deep inside themselves about the attacker.
Secondary PTSD is the psychological term, but it may as well be called "Serial Killer Syndrome." It's different from the fear people felt during the crime spree. It's about the fear they are feeling now in 2018. I talked to three psychologists about it.
I have a reputation for being somewhat of an expert on serial killers. I covered the two-year trial of the "Hillside Stranglers" Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi and as a reporter for The Associated Press in Los Angeles, covered the killing spree of the "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez. The "Sunset Strip Killer" who killed six women called me from his jail cell. I was also living nearby when "Son of Sam" kept tens of thousands out of New York City fearing they would be his next random victim. The "East Area Rapist" also known as the "Golden State Killer" committed 13 homicides, 50 rapes and 100 residential burglaries between 1976 and 1986. Adding to his reign of terror was the fearful unknown of where would he strike next. The rapist would strike unexpectedly all over the Sacramento area and up and down California from the Bay area to Southern California. No region was immune. Everyone was petrified.
The EAR/GSK case, as it has come to be known for brevity, has one distinctive characteristic different from other serial killer cases: In the majority of those cases, the killer was caught during his crime spree. The EAR eluded authorities for 40 years, leaving his victims traumatized and others wondering if he was dead or alive. So we have a psychological phenomenon here - thousands of people in the Sacramento region having a PTSD experience upon learning of an arrest.
Sandra Russell, a Fair Oaks psychologist, is one of them. She lived near Sacramento State University during the crime spree where one of the rapes occurred. She was at a psychology conference in Atlanta when she got the news. She and two other people from Sacramento had the same reaction upon hearing of the arrest. Fear. One said she couldn't sleep that night, saying she didn't feel safe.
"None of us felt safe and we were in Atlanta, Georgia!" Russell said.
I met Russell at her Fair Oaks office. It looked and felt exactly like a therapist's office should. Plush, comfortable chairs and couches. Lightly patterned curtains filtered in soft and comfortable lighting. A box of tissues were easy to reach on a nearby table. Russell sat across from me as I took the big seat on the couch. But instead of relaxing in the cushions, I sat upright, clinging to her every word. She had another connection to the case. One of her clients was a woman whose mother and father were victims of the East Area Rapist. They never talked about it, but the daughter remained traumatized.
Russell willingly talks about the case, but at one point she stops and pauses. She bows her head down as if in pain and starts rubbing her forehead.
"My head hurts," she said, pointing to a part of her brain that was reliving the memories.
"Do you want to go on?" I ask, feeling somewhat guilty that I was reopening old wounds. She rubs her head a bit more and gives me the okay. She explains why so many are reliving the fear.
"We were all back to exactly when the trauma happened. That is how our body is made. He brought back that original trauma to us," Russell said.
This Serial Killer Syndrome is not unique to Sacramento. Millions of people in New York and Los Angeles also felt it during and after crime sprees there. But it's never been talked about or recognized. Maybe it's time.
"So much trauma exists to this day," Paul Holes, the Contra Costa County investigator who cracked the case, said in the excellent book on the EAR/GSK "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" by Michelle McNamara.
Serial Killer Syndrome. Dr. Mark Hewitt is an expert on the "Zodiac Killer," another serial killer whose case has not yet been solved. The "Zodiac Killer" killed five people but claimed to have killed 37 in Northern California from the late 1960s to early 1970s.
Dr. Hewitt has written three books on the case. "Hunted" in 2016, "Profiler" in September 2017 and "Exposed" which will be released in September 2018. Hewitt exhaustively researched the case which included cryptic letters to the media and taunting of law enforcement. He also saw the fear a serial killer leaves in his murderous wake.
"What I find most startling when I talk to people about the case; people get details of the case wrong. They misunderstood the Zodiac...(But) Everybody's got the fear down pat," Hewitt told me.
Laura Ingle, a reporter/anchor for Fox News, had her innocence shattered during the East Area Rapist's crime spree. She could no longer ride her bike through Sacramento's tree-lined streets during hot summers. Her mother had to talk to her about rape and having to stay home at night instead of playing with friends.
"This has been an incredible week for those of us who grew up with this case as the backdrop to our childhood," Ingle wrote after the arrest. "Many are reliving some real life nightmares learning of the surprising arrest..."
Many are reliving real life nightmares. They found out the Boogeyman of their childhood was real. The Monster under their bed was alive all this time. Terrorizing them while he, the suspect, lived a normal life with a wife and three daughters in the suburbs in his brown tract home with a meticulously manicured lawn.
Yellow crime scene tape and a dozen Sacramento County Sheriff's patrol cars surrounded DeAngelo's house the night after his arrest. The street was filled with TV reporters holding mics doing their live shots. I talked to neighbors who were stunned. They visited in each other's homes, some with their daughters present. My older daughter's best friend Laurie freaked out to find out her backyard attached to DeAngelo's. Therapist Russell said she counseled a woman who was suffering from anxiety. She finally pulled it out of her that the patient was distressed to find out she was a neighbor of DeAngelo's for many years.
"What you're talking about is legitimate PTSD experienced en masse by a community," said Tim Dakin, a Fair Oaks psychologist. "When the story resurfaces, even with a positive outcome in the case, so do the symptoms that accompanied the terror many years ago. It's not unlike a Vietnam vet who hears a car backfire and relives a firefight from 50 years ago."
Sandra Russell was able to get immediate counseling from her psychologist friends for her relived trauma. But what about the tens of thousands of other Sacramento residents who relived their fear? They may think they're the only ones suffering. Russell wants to get out the important message that they are not alone. There are so many experiencing the same exact emotions. You are not crazy!
"There's good reason that they feel like it," Russell said. "Our body stores it. When everything's great, we're fine. But an incident like this will activate it." She urges: "It is worth going to get some help."
What I've learned is that so many people who have lived through a serial killer or serial crime spree have been psychologically affected, and I'm talking about millions of people in Los Angeles and New York City as well as Sacramento. Ingle, who now works in New York City, told me the arrest of the EAR triggered a fear response from people there who lived during "Son of Sam." Some continue to live with rods or blocks of woods in their sliding glass doors 40 years later. Some have a fear of being alone at night. Others still tell their husband or wife where they are going and when they will return. Others are always looking around, just in case.
Russell and I talked about the need for a community event where people can release their emotions. Their fears. Much has been written about serial killers and victims of crime. But little research has been done for what's called post secondary victims of PTSD. Serial Killer Syndrome. They may not have been attacked or been an immediate victim, but they suffer the secondary trauma nonetheless.
"It just never left," Dahmen said. "I feel physically sick at times."
As for the suspect Joseph DeAngelo? So many questions. Why did he do it? Why did he stop? Did he really collect "souvenirs" of his victims? How the hell did he go on to live a normal life for so many years undetected?
"There's a part of me that has a lot of questions that this is really it and are we really safe?" Russell asks.
That fear remains for so many: Did they really get the right guy? Sadly, until they get some tangible answers, maybe at his trial, they will continue to be afraid. But the trial may very well conjure up PTSD all over again.
As for that woman watching through the window waiting for her husband to come home? That was me in Los Angeles during the killing spree of the "Night Stalker." Yes, that was my norm one summer in LA. After the lengthy "Hillside Strangler" trial concluded, my husband took me to Hawaii for a vacation to finally rest and recover. One afternoon I was once again standing in front of a door - a sliding glass door of our ground floor beachfront hotel as a refreshing ocean breeze swept in. I abruptly shut and locked the door. My husband knew exactly what was happening. "Judy," he said. "The Hillside Strangler is not in Hawaii."
But today, I still have a Louisville slugger propped across my sliding glass door protecting me. Just in case.