A former police officer who terrorised the Sacramento region as a serial rapist and went on to kill more than a dozen people across California and then evaded capture for decades pleaded guilty on Monday to the first of 13 murders.

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. had remained almost silent in court since his 2018 arrest until he uttered in a hushed, raspy voice the word "guilty" to killing a community college professor in 1975, the first homicide in his decades of burglaries, rapes and other crimes that were later dubbed the work of the Golden State Killer.

DeAngelo acknowledged at the beginning of the hearing that he would plead guilty to 13 murders and acknowledge dozens of rapes that are too old to prosecute in exchange for consecutive life sentences and no chance of parole.

The frail-looking 74-year-old sat in a wheelchair and spoke behind a plastic shield to prevent possible spread of coronavirus.

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Joseph James DeAngelo, charged with being the Golden State Killer, is wheeled into the courtroom in Sacramento, on Monday, June 29, 2020. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Joseph James DeAngelo, charged with being the Golden State Killer, is wheeled into the courtroom in Sacramento, on Monday, June 29, 2020. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

He was arrested in 2018 after authorities used DNA to track him through a popular genealogy website.

DeAngelo was wheeled into a makeshift courtroom Monday wearing a clear face shield.

Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, believed to be one of the victims of the Golden State Killer, in August 2018. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli, file
Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, believed to be one of the victims of the Golden State Killer, in August 2018. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli, file

A plea deal spares DeAngelo any chance of the death penalty for 13 murders and 13 kidnapping-related charges throughout California. In partial return, survivors of the assaults that spanned the 1970s and 1980s expect him to admit to up to 62 rapes that he could not be criminally charged with because too much time has passed.

Yet nothing was certain until DeAngelo actually spoke.

"I've been on pins and needles because I just don't like that our lives are tied to him, again," said Jennifer Carole, the daughter of Lyman Smith, a lawyer who was slain in 1980 at 43 in Ventura County. His wife, 33-year-old Charlene Smith, was also raped and killed.

Investigators early on connected certain crimes to an armed and masked rapist who would break into sleeping couples' suburban homes at night, binding the man and piling dishes on his back. He would threaten to kill both victims if he heard the plates fall while he raped the woman.

Gay and Bob Hardwick were among the survivors.

They were looking forward to DeAngelo admitting to that 1978 assault. The death penalty was never realistic anyway, she said, given DeAngelo's age and Governor Gavin Newsom's moratorium on executions.

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People gather in a courtroom set up in a ballroom where a 74-year-old former police officer finally pleads guilty to being the elusive Golden State Killer. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli
People gather in a courtroom set up in a ballroom where a 74-year-old former police officer finally pleads guilty to being the elusive Golden State Killer. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

"He certainly does deserve to die, in my view, so I am seeing that he is trading the death penalty for death in prison," she said. "It will be good to put the thing to rest. I think he will never serve the sentence that we have served — we've served the sentence for 42 years."

A guilty plea and life sentence avoids a trial or even the planned weeks-long preliminary hearing. The victims expect to confront him at his sentencing in August, where it's expected to take several days to tell DeAngelo and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman what they have suffered.

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Ron Harrington's younger brother, Keith, was married to Patti Harrington for just three months when they were bludgeoned to death in their Orange County home in 1980 by a killer then known as the Original Night Stalker.

All four brothers were successful, but "Keith, the youngest of all of us, was the smartest", he said. "It's just such a loss. And every time this comes up I think of all the lives he would have saved as an emergency room doctor."

Their father found the couple two days later.

"It was so gruesome," Harrington said. "My dad was never the same."

It was decades before investigators connected a series of assaults in central and Northern California to later slayings in Southern California and settled on the umbrella Golden State Killer nickname for the mysterious assailant whose crimes spanned 1974 through mid-1986.

The mystery sparked worldwide interest, a best-selling book and a six-part HBO documentary, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, which premiered Sunday.

It was only the pioneering use of new DNA techniques that two years ago led investigators to DeAngelo, who was fired from the Auburn Police Department northeast of Sacramento in 1979 after he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer.

He had previously worked as a police officer in the Central Valley town of Exeter from 1973 to 1976, near where the Visalia Ransacker struck more than 100 homes south of Fresno.

Joseph James DeAngelo, charged with being the Golden State Killer, appears in Sacramento County Superior Court in April. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli, file
Joseph James DeAngelo, charged with being the Golden State Killer, appears in Sacramento County Superior Court in April. AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli, file

Investigators painstakingly built a family tree by linking decades-old crime scene DNA to a distant relative through a popular online DNA database, confirming the link only after surreptitiously collecting his DNA from his car door and a discarded tissue.

His defence attorneys have publicly lobbied since then for a deal that would spare him the death penalty, though they did not respond to repeated requests for comment before Monday's hearing.

Prosecutors who had sought the death penalty cited the massively complicated case and the advancing age of many of the victims and witnesses in agreeing to consider the plea bargain.

"Death doesn't solve anything. But him having to sit through a trial or preliminary hearing, that would have helped," said Carole, who said neither she nor her slain father believed in capital punishment.