By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The Golden State Killer’s trail of bodies across the state is believed to have begun with the murder of Claude Snelling in 1975 at the height of the Visalia Ransacker crimes. But at least two detectives say his first murder may have come nearly a year earlier.
Detectives Chris Dempsie and Dwayne Johnson of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department’s Cold Case Unit have been reviewing unsolved murder cases since the sheriff re-established the unit in 2016. More specifically, they are taking a closer look at one case in 1974 when Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was working as an Exeter Police Officer by day and allegedly terrorizing as the Visalia Ransacker by night between 1973 and 1976. DeAngelo, now 72 years old, was arrested by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department on April 25 at his home in Citrus Heights, Calif., east of Sacramento, for murders committed by the East Area Rapist, Diamond Knot Killer and Original Night Stalker, collectively known as the Golden State Killer (GSK).
No arrests have ever been made in the murder of 15-year-old Jennifer Armour of Visalia. Det. Dempsie said there is little evidence in the case but their office has been inundated with calls about the unsolved murder since DeAngelo’s arrest.
“There are five suspects on the active list of persons of interest in this case and DeAngelo is on that list,” Det. Dempsie said.
Jennifer’s family lived on Linwood Avenue south of Highway 198, a little outside of the Visalia Ransacker’s territory, but she was walking east toward the area where the peeping and burglary activity was concentrated.
“I am not aware of any break-ins or burglaries on Linwood, but you could consider it the far edge of where the crimes occurred,” Det. Dempsie said.
On the evening of Nov. 11, 1974, Jennifer left her house to meet some friends at the County Center Shopping Center before heading to Mineral King Bowl for the annual Cowhide Game between Mt. Whitney and Redwood high schools.
The last time authorities can confirm her whereabouts is between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Demaree Street at College Avenue. Johnson said there was also a report of Jennifer being in the area of Houston Avenue and Lovers Lane between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. but it could not be confirmed.
Nine days later and 13 miles away, Jennifer’s body was found on Nov. 25, 1974 in the Friant-Kern Canal at the railroad crossing between Avenue 300 and Avenue 306 south of Woodlake. Det. Dempsie said Jennifer was found naked with her hands bound by her bra behind her back. He said the autopsy report revealed the cause of death as drowning.
“That doesn’t mean an accidental drowning, it just means that her lungs filling with water is what actually killed her,” Dempsie said. “We don’t know how she got in the canal.”
Jennifer was last seen wearing a blue ski jacket, blue jeans, green suede shoes and a necklace with a small bell, but none of these items were ever found. Det. Johnson said a lot of evidence from the body was lost after spending as many as nine days in the water.
“There is very little evidence in this case. At the end of the day, you have to have someone walk into court and swear under oath and then it has to be confirmed,” Det. Johnson said.
In October 1976, Tulare County’s Secret Witness Program offered a $4,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who killed Claude Snelling on Sept. 11, 1975, and $1,500 for information on the person who killed Jennifer Lynn Armour in November 1974. Neither case was ever closed and now both may be linked to California’s most prolific violent criminal.
There are arguments that the Armour murder does not fit the timeline in the VR’s progression from peeping to kidnapping and then murder. Det. Johnson is a former special agent with the FBI who studied under John Douglas, the founder of the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program and the author of the book “Mindhunter.” Johnson said that killers often go through a progression beginning with a peeping phase, followed by phone calls, then a confrontation before assaults and killings, but he also concedes that serial killers are deeply disturbed individuals who can be more erratic than calculating at times due to emotional triggers and stressors.
“It’s never an exact science when it comes to the progression of a murderer,” Det. Johnson said.
Anyone with information related to the Armour case is encouraged to call the cold case detectives at 559-735-1900 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Anonymous information can be reported through the TipNow Program at 559-725-4194 or [email protected].
13th Murder Charge
DeAngelo has already been charged with 12 GSK murders up and down the state and will soon be charged with a 13th. Sgt. Damon Maurice, public information officer for the Visalia Police Department, said in an interview last week that VPD submitted its criminal case against DeAngelo on May 30 for the murder of Claude Snelling. “The case is currently under review by the District Attorney’s Office,” Maurice said.
Snelling, the late College of the Sequoias (COS) journalism professor, was believed to be the GSK’s first murder until recent statements by the sheriff’s office identifying him as a suspect in the Armour murder. Claude Snelling was killed at the height of the Visalia Ransacker crime spree, which included 100 burglaries in the area surrounding COS between April 1974 and December 1975.
Just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1975, an intruder entered the back door of Snelling’s home in the 500 block of Whitney Lane. He went through Arlene Snelling’s purse before creeping into the room of 16-year-old Beth Snelling. When she awoke, he was on top of her with his hand over her mouth saying that if she screamed he would stab her. When she began to struggle, the suspect drew a handgun, according to the Visalia Times-Delta. The intruder then forced Beth onto the patio when Beth’s father, Claude Snelling, was awakened from the noise. When he reached the patio door, Claude saw the man dragging his daughter through the back yard. Claude asked the man what he was doing when the suspect threw Beth to the ground, turned and shot Claude twice with a .38-caliber handgun matching one stolen from a ransacking 11 days prior. The suspect then kicked Beth in the head three times and fled the scene. One bullet hit Claude in the side and the other in the chest, fatally wounding him. He was dead on arrival at about 3 a.m. at Kaweah Delta Hospital.
Maurice said VPD has been working the case with investigators from other counties for years but “much more consistently” since DeAngelo’s arrest on April 25. He said VPD cold case detectives have gone up to Sacramento and down to Southern California on a regular basis to review evidence collected from DeAngelo’s home in Citrus Heights, Calif. and to discuss details and developments in the case.
Stuart Anderson, spokesperson for the DA’s Office, confirmed VPD had begun submitting information on the case about a month ago and that there was “a lot to review.”
Anderson said Tim Ward has also been meeting with the other district attorneys in Sacramento, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, all of which have filed murder charges against DeAngelo for the GSK murders. Anderson said they are still in discussions regarding jurisdictions for trial. The DAs may decide to have one county try DeAngelo for crimes in multiple counties.
This wouldn’t be a first for Tulare County. In 2014, Ward’s office began the trial of Jose Manual Martinez, 53, of Richgrove. The DA tried the hitman known as “El Mano Negro” (translated the Black Hand) for nine murders, including two in Kern County and one in Santa Barbara County, where Martinez also attempted to kill a witness to that crime.