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Images from a wanted poster of the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer. (FBI)

How the ‘Golden State Killer’ rocked the student journalism community in the Valley

At first, I didn’t believe what I was reading on my Twitter feed early Wednesday morning. News was breaking that the Golden State Killer, who had terrorized the state in the 1970s and 1980s, had finally been caught.

Then, after reading that a news conference was scheduled for noon in Sacramento, I celebrated. The news was indeed true.

Like many, I’ve followed the case for years. However, my interest was more than idle curiosity — I intimately knew the wreckage Joseph James DeAngelo left in his wake.

In September of 1975, I was starting my first semester at Fresno State after transferring from Fresno City College. The previous year, I had been the sports editor for the Rampage, FCC’s campus newspaper.

On the morning of Sept. 11, I got a phone call at home from the editor of the Rampage. She told me that Claude Snelling, the journalism instructor and newspaper advisor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, had been killed during an early-morning burglary at his home.

I didn’t know Claude Snelling, but I knew him. He was a close friend of our advisor, Peter Lang. They had served together as officers for the Journalism Association of Community College, the umbrella group here in California. They helped organize the annual JACC conferences and were avid chess players.

In the days following the murder, the pieces of the story came together. A man had broken into Snelling’s house and had tried to kidnap his teenage daughter Elizabeth from her bedroom. Snelling intercepted them outside the house near the garage. He was able to help the daughter break free but was fatally wounded.

Visalia police suspected the break-in and killing was the work of an unidentified man who was later dubbed the Visalia Ransacker. He would break into houses and ransack them, taking objects of little value. He was suspected in well over a hundred break-ins.

Investigators discovered that in May 1974, Snelling had chased off a young man prowling around his house. Then, in the summer of 1975, he surprised another prowler near his home. The weekend before he was killed, someone broke into a neighbor’s house and stole a photo of his daughter.

After Snelling’s death, the burglaries stopped. Then, in early December 1975 they began again. On Dec. 10, two police detectives confronted a man in a backyard a few blocks from the Snelling house. When challenged, the man fired shots at the officers, injuring one, and then fled into the darkness.

Lang was devastated by the death of his friend. When I visited the Rampage a few days after Snelling died, Lang’s grief was visible.

When the string of murders began in Southern California in 1977, some suspected that perpetrator was the same person as in Visalia. But there was no definite proof at the time. And, after the last murders (in Goleta) in 1981, the case went cold.

It turned out DeAngelo had been a police officer in Exeter, a small town east of Visalia between 1974 and 1976. He left Exeter in 1976 and went to work for the Auburn police department, where he was ultimately fired after being arrested for shoplifting.

Sadly, Lang died roughly 20 years ago. He’s not around to hear the news that Snelling’s killer is behind bars. However, I like to think that, somehow, he does know.

Counties up and down the state are busily charging DeAngelo with capital murders and rapes. He’s 72, so I expect he’ll die of old age in prison rather than at the hands of the executioner.

Regardless, perhaps those affected by his crimes will finally have peace.

I know I will now.

Dan Waterhouse is a student at Fresno State. He writes The Collegian’s Campus Column, which prints on Wednesdays. Waterhouse  is a lifelong Fresnan. He has written for the Fresno City College and Fresno State student newspapers over the years, including other local publications. Follow him on Twitter:@WaterhouseDan