Fifteen-year-old Kris MacFarland was alone in the house practicing the piano in the living room when she heard the soft sound of fabric tearing. She paused. It’s nothing, she thought. She resumed playing.
Suddenly there was a large man behind her, pressing a knife to her throat. She thought that if she coughed, it would go in.
“Make a move and I’ll kill you,” he rasped between closed teeth. She obeyed in mind-numbed terror as he slipped prepared bindings — her sister’s shoelaces — around her wrists. He stuffed a cloth from his pocket into her mouth, tied another around her head as a gag and pushed her to the backyard picnic table.
“If you say anything or flinch,” he commanded, “I’ll push the knife all the way in and I will be gone in the dark of the night.”
It was days before Christmas 1976, early in a series of increasingly nightmarish attacks on terrified suburbanites in Sacramento and beyond. The rapist would advance from stealth attacks on vulnerable victims to blitz rushes on couples, entire families in the house. He would hold men prisoner with plates balanced on their backs as their wives were raped again and again. He locked children in the bathroom. He loitered, rifled drawers and raided the kitchen, and spent long minutes silently gazing at his victims.
He had stalked them for days, standing outside windows, in the bushes. He slipped undetected past police patrols, planted false clues to taunt detectives.
Kris had been alone at home just 10 minutes. Her parents were at a holiday party. Her sister was at work. Her best friend had just left to bake Christmas cookies. Later she would believe he had been hiding inside the closet all along, waiting.
Over the next two hours the man in the red ski mask dragged the teenager outside and back in, moving her from room to room to repeatedly rape and assault her. He put his penis between her hands bound behind her back and commanded her to stroke it — a ritual repeated so often in his attacks that police came to rely on the forced masturbation as an identifying trait. Then he raped her on her parents’ bed, twice in the living room, once by the fireplace.
“Isn’t this good?” he whispered into her ear.
Between attacks he shoved the bound, naked girl back outside into the cold to shiver as he rifled through the house, returning to the same places again and again. She heard the clinking of cutlery in the buffet.
She tested him and shifted an elbow. He was on her instantly, his harsh whisper in her ear.
After the third rape, when Kris thought she could endure no more, she moved again and realized he was gone.
This was her initiation into a sisterhood in shadows, 49 rape and sexual assault victims so faceless to the rest of the world that when they met 40 years later, they introduced themselves by number. “Hello,” Kris would say, “I’m No. 10.”
Joe DeAngelo had just returned to the Sacramento area as a police officer in Auburn, about half an hour north of Kris’ home in Rancho Cordova. He looked dramatically different after his three years away — much slimmer and with a thick mustache. But he remained a regular visitor to his childhood home and the large Rancho Cordova family who regarded him as a son.
Rancho Cordova had become the hunting ground of a serial rapist whose prolific prowling was hauntingly similar to that of the dog-killing cat burglar in Cordova and the Ransacker in Visalia, who gunned down the father of a girl he tried to abduct. The M.O. of the crimes was the same, but there was a key difference: witness descriptions. The Ransacker was stocky. The rapist was slim.
By May of the next year, 1977, there were 22 rapes and sexual assaults in the suburbs along the American River, almost all within three blocks of either a canal or the river itself. The man police dubbed the East Area Rapist was brazenly attacking entire families, threatening to cut off the ears of children or kill everyone in the house if women resisted his assaults.
The perpetrator took advantage of the false security of suburban tract houses with picture windows and private yards but so little sense of community that residents who saw a prowler in a neighbor’s backyard often just pulled the blinds. There were few streetlights, no 911 service to take emergency calls, and few homes had security alarms. With no more than a mask and gloves, he confounded detectives struggling to turn up identifying evidence — forensic science had yet to reveal the DNA fingerprints left in semen and blood.
The crimes hit at a time of changing attitudes toward women and sex, but California courts and police had not caught up.
The 1970s were a boom time for serial rapists. Sacramento had at least four — including one who had amassed 42 victims with barely a mention in the local media.
Rape drew a sentence as short as a year, and the statute of limitations was so brief that evidence was thrown out even as serial attackers claimed new victims. Even law enforcement struggled against the social taboos of rape, dwelling sometimes more on how the attacker entered the locked house than on what he did to the woman. More than once, an officer or criminal profiler described the East Area Rapist as “gentlemanly.” And a television newscaster told viewers the East Area Rapist’s victims were unharmed — except for being repeatedly raped.
Rape also was what one newspaper letter writer called a “four-letter word” too “vulgar” for public discourse. Sacramento’s news media barely mentioned rapes, but when reports of the East Area Rapist leaked at a community meeting, fear surged into public view. Newspapers and broadcast outlets competed for daily headlines, stoking the terror. Sales of locking mechanisms and guns skyrocketed. Hundreds of anxious residents jammed community hall meetings — as many as 1,500 at one.
The sheriff kept most details of the pre-attack prowlings and the nature of the rapes themselves secret — pulling news editors and station managers into a private meeting to gag media coverage. Time and again, officers canvassing neighborhoods after a rape encountered residents who had heard someone scratching at their back door or saw a man in the bushes but did not alert authorities. One 15-year-old girl spotted a man in her neighbor’s backyard and closed the drapes. That night, her neighbor was raped.
The official message was to lock up, get a gun, get a dog. To women: Defend yourself.
A dentist organized a night watch of CB radio hobbyists. Armed vigilantes roamed the streets. Amid the public furor, the elected sheriff mounted a 100-person rape squad to swarm the streets. One sheriff’s detail dubbed themselves the “hunters.” A retired member said they had orders to shoot to kill if they saw the rapist. More than once, someone from the sheriff’s department told homeowners that if they found the rapist in their house, they should shoot to kill. At the height of the panic, a homeowner did kill a burglar. In dropping manslaughter charges, the Sacramento County prosecutor cited the intense public fear.
Most rapists hit and run. They are eager to flee. The East Area Rapist — soon just called the EAR — loitered and toyed with his victims for hours.
It was clear he knew the schedules of not only his victims but the neighbors around them. He readied houses for attack, unlocking certain locks, turning off air conditioners and heaters for silence, removing bullets from guns and hiding the cords he would later use for binding.
When he struck, it was usually in the bedroom, surprising his victims in their sleep. The first attacks were on women or girls, then mothers with their children in the house, then women with their husbands and lovers in the bed. Twice he attacked homes with five people inside. He silently raped one 13-year-old girl in her bedroom without waking her father and sister in adjacent rooms.
He opened his attacks telling victims he only wanted their money. Also food for his “van.” He did this to gain their compliance. Detectives also suspected he was leaving false clues that he was a drifter or a boy down the street, even planting evidence from a victim in someone else’s home.
Once, he bound them, he rolled his victims face-down, sometimes gagged with bras or strips torn from their bathroom towels, while he rifled through drawers and closets, bathrooms and kitchens.
Then the nightmare would begin.
He had a peculiar hyper-sexuality, sexually assaulting women as many as nine times during an attack, and breaking off from his victims to ransack the house or eat in the kitchen before returning to rape again.
He delivered deathly threats in a forced whisper, peppered with odd phrases. “Make the bed twinge,” he told one victim, “I’ll kill you.” To another: “I’ll butcher you all to pieces.”
“Make one move,” he told another, “and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be off in the dark.”
He left behind empty beer cans and half-eaten food and bypassed valuables to grab cash and coins and what police call trophies: wedding bands, inscribed rings, single earrings and other keepsakes.
The night he attacked Kris MacFarland, her parents waited outside the room while she told police the details. A heavy silence filled the living room as they waited. Without a word they drove to the hospital for the rape exam — Kris’ mother stayed outside the room. No one spoke as they drove home, Kris in the back seat.
A wall of isolation rose up around her. It included the rest of the family, too. The next day, Kris’ sister called work to say she was not coming in. “Don’t tell them what happened,” her father ordered.
Two days later, Kris went to church Bible camp.
The secret was kept from the rest of the family, aunts and uncles and cousins. Neighbors never spoke of what had happened but bought guard dogs. Kris’ best friend no longer crossed the street to visit.
She had long been guided by her faith, transferring from a sheltered Christian academy to public high school months before the rape to “share the Word.” After the attack, Kris briefly returned to Christian school, but after a series of small rebellions — she smarted back, wore pants, kept her coat on — the friend’s parent who drove her refused to give her further rides.
In the year after the attack, she changed schools twice. Kris was adrift and disillusioned. She became “go, go, go, go,” immersing herself in clubs and sports and work study and leaving no space where her mind might wander into dark places. She dabbled in sex and drugs. She felt numb, dislocated from the rest of the world, and found herself staring out the window, thinking only of her rape.
She stopped attending church. Her religion had failed to keep her safe, she said. She had failed to keep herself safe. Had she not traded her Christian sanctum for public school in the first place, “probably I never would have been raped,” she told herself.
She swore she wasn’t following the escalating victim count in the news, but when the East Area Rapist threatened to start killing, Kris begged her sister to go with her to stay at a motel. She was certain he was coming back for her.
They stumbled upon their father, a former Marine, asleep with a gun on the living room couch. The terrified girls crept back to the bedroom, Kris awake all night.
Her father changed their telephone number. He changed their address. But he never talked about the rape.
Kris accepted that too.
“I just thought it was a ’70s thing,” she said.
Sacramento’s first rape crisis center opened at the height of the attacks in the back of a feminist bookstore. Sheriff’s detectives were horrified by the artwork in the store, including a giant poster of a nude woman with her legs spread. The relationship with police was hostile; the sheriff accused them of coaching rape victims to not report the crime to police, and one of his top detectives told the media the rape counselors were “anti-male” and, worse, “lesbian” — words that directly echoed the heated rhetoric at the time over the women’s liberation movement.
The sheriff blocked funding to the struggling center and refused to work with the counselors, even when ordered to by the state.
The center’s director countered by saying the sheriff was a “pig” and accused him of hiding details about the rapes, putting women at risk. She said the problem was officers’ brutish callousness toward traumatized rape victims, who needed counseling, support and self-defense training. Battles like these were not uncommon with the creation of rape crisis centers, often seen as interlopers in police matters. It would be years before a Sacramento physician, who wrote one of the first books on forensic rape exams and the psychological trauma of rape victims, could persuade the two to work together.
Chances then were slim that police would catch any rapist. State crime reports at the time showed that less than 1 out of 16 rapes ended in a conviction. All that was needed to bypass the limited forensic tools available at the time were a mask and gloves and the skill and luck to not get caught in the act.
The San Jose Police Department believed it was futile to investigate a rape if the victim didn’t know the identity of her attacker, said former Contra Costa County Det. Larry Crompton. When the East Area Rapist came to San Jose, Crompton said, the crimes were not initially investigated. The detective discovered two more EAR rapes in Concord only by chance, when they were mentioned in passing in a conversation with an officer from another town.
“I don’t think rape was considered the horrendous crime that it is considered today,” said Ray Root, who was the lieutenant in charge of Sacramento County Sheriff’s EAR task force. He said he cringes at how it looks today, but at the time, in the eyes of the lawmakers who created California’s criminal statutes, rape was “just another physical assault.”
There were 9,522 reported rapes in California in 1976 but only 573 convictions. Nearly half of those found guilty spent a year or less in the county jail, and one out of 10 were released directly to probation. Burglary could draw a stiffer sentence.
Street marches in Sacramento spurred by the East Area Rapist spilled to the Capitol lawn and found fertile ground in the tough-on-crime political movement. Sen. George Deukmejian launched his campaign for attorney general on legislation to toughen the penalty for rape. In 1978, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill, making forcible rape a three-year prison offense.
But even then the tougher penalty did nothing about the statute of limitations on rape, which was as short as three years. Detectives were reassigned, evidence rooms emptied and victims, in the eyes of the law, were no longer “victims.”
The legal window to prosecute the East Area Rapist for his first attacks closed, even while he was still sowing terror.
The statue of limitations came and went on Kris’ rape.
She obeyed her father’s code of silence. She did not talk about her rape for 42 years, until after her father had died and another EAR victim had gone public, just weeks before DeAngelo was arrested. Then she gathered her husband and sister at the dining table and for the first time read them the police report.
It was then that the panic attacks and nightmares began.
In one, she sees her young self in the form of a child asleep safely in bed.
She turns and everything seems coated in black fingerprints and dust, like a crime scene.
She turns again and sees herself in a mute young woman, standing, a black cross smudged upon her neck.
The walls are filled with words she cannot understand.
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