By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The case against California’s most prolific serial criminal came full circle last week after the county where the Golden State Killer began was finally able to charge him with a crime.
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar held a joint press conference on Aug. 13 to announce that former Exeter Police Department officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 72, has been charged with the 1975 murder of Claude Snelling.
“Today we took our first step in the local case to provide justice, not only for the family of the victim, but the community as a whole,” Ward said.
DeAngelo is charged with one count of murder with the special allegation that a firearm was used. Just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1975, an intruder rode to the 500 block of Whitney Lane on a bicycle he had stolen two days earlier. He entered the back door of Snelling’s home and 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.
“Snelling died trying to save his daughter from an intruder,” Ward said. “He became a hero to her and to the community.”
The gun used to kill Snelling was never found, but Salazar said there is other physical evidence linking DeAngelo to the murder scene. While he said he could not elaborate, Salazar did say that the evidence was not found during the search of DeAngelo’s Citrus Heights home following his arrest on April 24.
“We have long believed that the Visalia Ransacker was linked to the Golden State Killer,” Chief Salazar said. “Today we have identified Joseph James DeAngelo as the sole suspect in the murder of Claude Snelling.”
Snelling, the late College of the Sequoias (COS) journalism professor, 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. The crimes abruptly stopped when the Ransacker was confronted and nearly caught by a VPD detective.
On the evening of Dec. 10, 1975, VPD officers and detectives were conducting surveillance details in an attempt to capture the Ransacker. During one of the details, Detective Bill McGowen was sitting in the garage of a home in the 1500 block of West Kaweah when he observed a suspicious person pass by a window. According to a May 18, 1977 Times-Delta article, McGowen followed the figure into the backyard of a residence and then confronted him and fired a warning shot to the seemingly unarmed man. The suspect began screaming for the detective not to shoot and then jumped over a picket fence. When McGowen pointed his flashlight in the area of the suspect, the prowler fired at the officer, striking his flashlight. The glass from the light hit the officer’s eye causing moderate injuries, and the suspect was able to flee the area and elude capture. In addition to being the closest anyone had come to catching the GSK, it was also the first time someone had seem him without a mask. Salazar said McGowan’s description of the suspect’s face was a crucial piece of the case.
“The Visalia Police Department never waivered in its path to justice,” Salazar said.
Salazar said he wasn’t sure how many VPD detectives had worked the Snelling homicide but did say there was intensive effort in the last few months to re-interview any family members and witnesses who are still alive and living in the area. He said the meticulous effort was thee-person team of Violent Crimes Unit detectives led by Detective James Cummings.
“The work of our detectives never really stopped,” Salazar said. “There is still some physical evidence we continue to work and investigate.”
Ward said DeAngelo is not being charged with the residential burglaries or the shooting of McGowan because of statute of limitations has passed. According to California state law, the statute of limitations on residential burglaries is three years and shooting at an officer is three years.
The filing is the first official link between the Visalia Ransacker and the East Area Rapist (EAR) and Original Night Stalker (ONS) cases collectively referred to as the Golden State Killer (GSK). DeAngelo has already been charged with 12 murders associated with the GSK case including four in Santa Barbara County, two in Sacramento County, two in Ventura County, and four in Orange County. Unlike those cases, Ward said there is no DNA evidence linking DeAngelo to the Ransacker crimes or to homicides in other counties.
“Time is not on our side and that will be one of our challenges moving forward,” Ward said. “But that’s something we have overcome before.”
Ward said Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos and Senior Deputy DA Mitch Niayesh have been appointed to the case. Ward ended his statement by asking the community to be patient as they begin preparing a case against DeAngelo based on both crime patterns and physical evidence. DeAngelo remains in custody in Sacramento County where he was arrested.
“There will be an appropriate time when more information will come out,” Ward said.
Ward said he and the other four district attorneys 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.