Joseph James DeAngelo, for years known only as the “Golden State Killer,” began his sinister crime spree in 1974, vanished over a decade later and was captured in 2018—due in equal parts to scientific advancement and gumshoe detective work. The story is well known.
Now, an untold and more intimate reflection on the hunt arrives in a memoir from Paul Holes, the forensic scientist who helped orchestrate DeAngelo’s downfall. Unmasked is largely about the havoc wreaked on the investigator’s home life because of his perpetual exposure to human depravity.
Holes spoke to A&E True Crime about his years with the Contra Costa County sheriff’s office (where he also worked the case of slain mom-to-be Laci Peterson), and a new chapter of his life in Colorado Springs, where any day may involve media appearances, mountain biking or a good, cathartic therapy session.
How did your job begin to seep into your personal life? You wrote in Unmasked that you stopped allowing your kids near ice cream trucks.
I was getting a concentrated exposure of evil in the work I was doing. So, that’s my world, and that’s how I see the rest of the world. I know predators go where prey is. With an ice cream truck, you’ve got a built-in reason to be around children. I’m cynical about what the motivation is with people running those types of scenarios.
Few of us talk about the emotional trauma [police officers undergo when] dealing with what people can do. You’re seeing a little girl inside her own house, her father has just killed her. But there are photos up on the shelf of her alive and happy, as a little girl should be. That’s a little nick that, just by itself, isn’t overwhelming. But when you have hundreds of those… Fundamentally, I didn’t realize what it was doing to me.
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You tend to imagine a story about a victim’s final moments. It was never ‘only’ seeing a body, right? It also was wondering if that girl was watching ‘Scooby-Doo’ when her father stole up behind her.
[My wife] Sherrie was the one who said: ‘You need to see somebody,’ because we were having our own relationship difficulties. The Springs is a huge military town. This one [therapist] I started talking to was used to dealing with individuals who have experienced a lot of trauma. She asked about my career. I brought up Ray [Giacomelli, a detective and confidante gunned down on the job] and I’m just crying as I’m talking about him. She’s the one who said that this is what’s going on: ‘You’re bleeding out.’
I’m sobbing and choking up all the time when I talk about various cases. That didn’t happen before. Now that I’m in my 50s, the ego isn’t there. I’m realizing: ‘I might have thought I could handle it. But I should’ve been addressing this.’
The job left you feeling ‘isolated’ in your marriage. How did Sherrie react when DeAngelo was caught?
The interesting thing Sherrie said is that she felt relief, because she was scared about whether or not this guy was still out there and would come after somebody [like me], who was so heavily pursuing him.
You used crime-scene DNA and a publicly accessible genealogy database to I.D. DeAngelo. It unsettled some people. Why?
There was a period, once it came out how we solved the case, where I was the poster child for violating everybody’s rights across the United States. But that was a knee-jerk reaction.
As a law enforcement officer, I never had access to anybody’s genetic information in these databases… It’s a one-way street, where I find a list of individuals in [the] database [who] share a percentage of their DNA with the guy I’m looking for. The amount of DNA they share just tells me how closely or distantly related they are.
Have you ever ‘spit into the tube’?
I got tested and put up [the results] at GEDmatch.
Is there ever a good reason someone shouldn’t supply their DNA to an online genealogy service?
From one perspective, yes. That’s if you have concerns about how your DNA might be used in the future. You send your DNA in, and I’m sure these companies have huge freezers full of spit tubes, and they’ve tested them. [Hypothetically,] do you want your DNA [someday possibly] being sold to insurance companies? I think that’s where the privacy issue comes into play.
The point I always want to make is that before genealogy, we got the DNA for hundreds of [suspects] by knocking on their door. Think about these [people], being questioned by law enforcement in a serious case. But the fact that we did genealogy without having to go out and get DNA from a bunch of people? We saved hundreds of [people] from that knock. That’s something people don’t think about.
Many of us came to know about the Golden State Killer because of the late Michelle McNamara, who was writing a book about him and wrote that you drove her to the sites where DeAngelo assaulted victims. What was your relationship like?
Michelle and I had established a reasonable level of trust by that point. I was looking forward to spending time with her, and to being able to talk in person about the case. But there was still that apprehension… She kind of was a stranger, she’s writing a book. But I’m driving…and she gets in the front passenger seat, and it was like we were old friends.
She turned the recorder on, and I don’t think she ever turned it off, except when we were out of the car using the bathroom, or having lunch.
Your book doesn’t end with a tidy bow. Where do you see yourself today on the subject of work-life balance?
I am better. It’s been several years since I’ve been in a morgue… I’m consulting on cases. That’s my purpose in life. But I’m also able to mountain bike or take the [car] out. And I have a podcast. I really enjoy the TV side, because it gets me interacting with law enforcement again. I still have cases in Contra Costa that I’d love to see solved. I’ve been sending notes to various people over there: ‘Hey, you can do genealogy on this one.’