SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - An ex-policeman turned violent serial prowler known as the "Golden State Killer" pleaded guilty on Monday to 13 murders and confessed to dozens of rapes and home invasions that terrorized much of California during the 1970s and '80s.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 74, entered the pleas as part of a broader agreement with prosecutors sparing him from a potential death sentence in exchange for his admission to all offenses he stood accused of - charged and uncharged - in 11 California counties.
Under terms of the unusual plea deal, outlined by prosecutors and Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman at Monday's hearing, DeAngelo faces a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors said they wanted to ensure that the dwindling number of aging survivors, victims' families, witnesses and investigators would live to see resolution of the case, saving them from legal proceedings that might have dragged on for another decade.
"They deserve the opportunity, the victims and the next of kin, to be present when the verdicts are finally read," said Amy Holliday, deputy district attorney for Sacramento County. "The time for justice stands in front of us now."
The plea hearing was held in a ballroom at Sacramento State University, rather than a courthouse, to allow for socially distanced seating amid the coronavirus pandemic. The defendant and his attorneys all wore medical-style, clear plastic face shields.
DeAngelo, dressed in orange jail garb, sat expressionless in a wheelchair, his mouth agape, throughout much of the seven-hour proceeding.
He spoke in a weak, raspy voice only to give yes and no answers to procedural questions from the judge at the start of the hearing, and later to answer "guilty" when Bowman asked his plea to each of 13 counts of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
He also replied "I admit" to successive allegations of rape, robbery, weapon offenses and other crimes as prosecutors took turns presenting "factual-basis" statements graphically detailing every murder, sexual assault and home invasion with which DeAngelo was accused. His admissions encompassed a total of 161 uncharged crimes, prosecutors said.
DeAngelo's arrest in 2018 capped more than 40 years of investigation in a case that authorities said was finally solved by comparing crime-scene DNA samples to information on genealogy websites consumers use to explore their ancestry.
The breakthrough came about two months after the case gained renewed national attention in the bestselling book, "I'll Be Gone in the Dark." A TV documentary series spawned by the book premiered by coincidence on HBO on Sunday.
In addition to 13 murders and kidnappings, prosecutors said DeAngelo was known to have committed nearly 50 rapes in all and more than 120 burglaries - most of them in and around Sacramento, the eastern San Francisco Bay area and Southern California.
The crime spree spanned more than a decade - from 1975 to 1986 - and began while DeAngelo was a police officer, having served on two small-town departments during the 1970s, authorities said.
The suspect, whom authorities also nicknamed the "East Area Rapist" and the "Original Night Stalker," was notorious for creeping into victims' bedrooms at night, binding them and raping them as well as stealing their valuables.
Formal sentencing was set to begin on Aug. 17.
(Reporting by Nathan Frandino in Sacramento; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Richard Pullin, Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)
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