March 25, 2019

The Decades-Long Hunt for the Golden State Killer

by Without Fail

Background show artwork for Without Fail

Paul Holes was starting out in the field of criminology when, one day in 1994, he spotted a filing cabinet in the library of the crime lab where he was working. He opened a drawer, pulled out some files, and discovered the cold case that he would spend his entire career trying to solve. He did it through a trial and error process that involved old-fashioned detective work, new technology, and countless wrong turns before he finally found himself at the Golden State Killer’s front door. 

Without Fail is hosted by Alex Blumberg. It is produced by Molly Messick and edited by Alex Blumberg and Devon Taylor.

Music and mixing by Bobby Lord. 

Where to Listen


From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and failures, and what they’ve learned from both. 

And I’m going to start today’s episode with this news story you might remember from about a year ago.


The Golden State Killer. Everyone remembers this, right? I don’t even follow true crime, and I couldn’t stop paying attention to this story when it first broke. There had been a series of grisly murders and attacks committed in California in the ‘70s and ‘80s that had never been solved. Until last year, when the perpetrator was finally caught. 

The killer’s name was Joseph James DeAngelo, and my guest today is the man without whom it’s fair to say Joseph James DeAngelo would never have been brought to justice. Paul Holes. The investigator who picked up the cold case decades ago and spent the intervening years methodically tracking the killer down. I’d always assumed the story behind catching one of the most notorious serial killers in history would be interesting, but I didn’t realize how epic a tale it actually was. The story of catching Joseph James DeAngelo is a story of luck and coincidence, and brand new investigative methods that raise ethical questions. But above all it’s a story of persistence. The hunt for DeAngelo took nearly a quarter century. And at numerous points in that time, it could have ended in failure. It feels like sort of a miracle that it actually turned out the way it did. 

The story starts in the early 90’s. When Paul Holes was a rookie criminologist. He was working in Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco. And his day-to-day work had him going out to investigate crime scenes… And if you imagine every crime scene as a mystery, that’s not what Paul Holes was finding. In most cases it was pretty clear who did it and why. But Paul wanted that mystery. He wanted to challenge himself, he wanted to track down clues. 

And that’s why he started spending a lot of time in the library of the crime lab, reading old textbooks and casebooks. And it was there, in that library, that a filing cabinet caught his eye. 

PAUL HOLES: It was an old file cabinet tucked in the, you know, the corner. And I just happened to pull open a drawer. And they were just a bunch of manila folders inside this bottom drawer of a vertical file cabinet. And the tab on the manila folders was labeled with this red E.A.R. And I started opening up these files and started reading them, and it became obvious that these were a series of cases involving a serial rapist. And that serial rapist was known as the East Area Rapist, and that's why they shortened that moniker to E.A.R., just because they were writing it so many times.


PAUL HOLES: So this guy was literally known as The Ear. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: The Ear. What did you see when you looked in the files? What caught your attention?

PAUL HOLES: Well as I was going through, I was recognizing that this guy was different. As I was reading these case files and I was learning how he was getting into houses, and how -- he wasn't just attacking women, but he was actually attacking couples as they were, you know, sleeping in their bed. And binding the husband up, and putting plates on his back as an alarm system. Um and of course I'm going, "Well, who is this guy?" Thinking this must be a solved case. But there was no name attached anywhere as being the guy that they ultimately prosecuted for this case.

Paul asked his boss, “Hey… what is this EAR case, anyway?” His boss told him that, indeed, it had never been solved. Investigators had followed a lot of leads, but they never figured out who was responsible, and eventually the trail went cold. 

Right away, Paul knew what he’d do.


PAUL HOLES: You know, I just told him, "I'm gonna see what I can do, you know, and see if the -- the evidence still exists."   

Paul had cracked open the filing cabinet at a pivotal moment for criminology and crime scene investigation. 

It was 1994. And in the early ‘90s, a new kind of DNA technology was coming into use. Before then, you needed a lot of DNA -- a big sample of biological evidence from a crime scene -- to get results. But this new technology needed only a tiny bit of DNA evidence. 

So this was part of Paul’s plan. Find out if any of that old evidence still existed, and then, using modern technology, see if that evidence could be used to get a DNA profile of the person who’d committed all of those crimes.

And so Paul began a search for any biological evidence from the EAR cases that might still exist, which meant making multiple trips to the sheriff’s evidence warehouse.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What did it look like in that warehouse? 

PAUL HOLES: Yes, so this warehouse was basically an old cinder block building. And it was just stuffed with old boxes and paper bags and guns and bicycles. Anything that law enforcement typically takes in as property or evidence is just crammed into this tiny little building. And I had established a relationship with the property room people and said, "Hey, I -- I'm looking into this." And you know, they'd give me access to the -- the index cards that everything, you know, that was the file system for all the evidence was. And then I would just kind of go -- go on my own looking at the shelves. And then start going through the boxes and seeing what's there. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And what was there?

PAUL HOLES: Well, the most important thing was was that there were three sexual assault kits that were still present. These are -- these were the kits that had been used to collect the biological evidence from the women who had been raped by the East Area Rapist in Contra Costa County back in 1978-1979.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And when -- and when you found those kits, were you like, "Oh, my God!"

PAUL HOLES: Oh, yeah. It’s like that’s -- that’s huge.

Paul got the samples, ran the analysis. And it worked. He now had the DNA profile of one of the most prolific serial predators that part of California had ever seen. Catching him now felt possible -- tantalizingly close. All Paul needed to do was find the person with the same DNA profile as he now had.

So he reached out to an investigator who’d worked on the case way back when. And asked: were there any prime suspects from back then that Paul could look into, perhaps collect a DNA sample from, and compare to the profile that he had. Problem was there wasn’t anyone in particular who stuck out from back then. But the investigator did have one tip. He said back when they’d first been working on the case in the 70s, they’d come to believe that the East Area Rapist might have moved on to southern California, and what’s more, that he might have escalated his attacks, and actually murdered a couple there.

So Paul called up an investigator in southern California. That call led to another one and another one, until eventually he reached a DNA analyst in Orange County, which is south of LA, named Mary Hong. And Mary was doing something similar to what Paul had done. She was going back and applying modern DNA technology to old crime scene evidence. And she had uncovered a DNA profile for the perpetrator of a series of unsolved murders in that region. A perpetrator investigators called The Original Night Stalker. 

So Paul and Mary thought, well let’s compare these two DNA profiles, right? Maybe the Original Night Stalker and the East Area Rapist are in fact the same person. But they couldn’t compare the samples for a sad bureaucratic reason: mismatched crime lab acquisition budgets. You see, Orange County was using more advanced technology than Contra Costa, and until Contra Costa upgraded their equipment, they couldn’t compare the samples. 

PAUL HOLES: I told her, "Hey, when -- when us up here in Contra Costa County are doing the technology that you're doing, I'll give you another phone call." And we hung up at that point, and it took four years before we got to that point.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And what are you doing during those four years?

PAUL HOLES: Well -- I was heavily involved in other cases during that time. And then ultimately I promoted up. Now I was a supervisor and a manager over the criminalistic section of the crime lab, and I was no longer doing the case work myself. I was assigning it out.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And -- and are you in charge now of, like, updating your technology?

PAUL HOLES: Yes. That was part of it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait. So literally you got promoted, and the first thing -- and one of your first acts was like, "We got to get those machines they have in Orange County."

PAUL HOLES: You know, it was one of those things where it was we got to get the East Area Rapist’s DNA done in this new technology. So I flooded the DNA unit with requests to do, you know, one cold case after another using DNA technology with this new -- with this new technology. But of course, the East Area Rapist was one of the -- one of the early ones that I wanted to have done. So I assigned that out to a DNA analyst. I said, "Well hey, call Mary Hong, you know, down in Orange County. I talked to her four years on this case. And just, you know, see if it's the same guy." And I was not expecting it to be the same guy. It was more -- just double check it, and we can -- we can move on.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And what happened?

PAUL HOLES: You know, about -- I think it was about an hour later I'm sitting in my office just doing, you know, typical administrative stuff that I was having to do at the time, and he walked in and he said, "Well, I called Mary and it was a match." And he's -- he's a pers -- he's got a personality that's very understated. And I'm just looking at him, and he says, "Yeah you know, we literally read the DNA profile to each other. It's the same guy." So the East Area Rapist // was matching a series of cases that Mary Hong down at Orange County Sheriff's Office had done. And down there, he was known as the Original Night Stalker. So I immediately called Mary Hong up because I'm now calculating, going I've got 50 attacks in northern California I know the East Area Rapist did. She's got homicides down there. This is huge. 

Two separate California communities hundreds of miles apart had experienced sustained and vicious crime sprees. And until this moment, no one knew that all of those crimes could be attributed to one person. A person who came to be known as the Golden State Killer. 

For Paul, who had been tracking this perpetrator for years… this felt like the thing that would finally catch him. He got in touch with the lead investigator in Orange County, a guy named Larry Pool.

PAUL HOLES: And this is where I now go, "Okay Larry, I've got all this material. I'm gonna send it down to you." And it's just a matter of time. You know, now he's got 50 case files that have victims that, you know, were able to say, you know, generally what this guy kind of looked like. They never saw his face. But how big he was, what he said to them, what he did. Whereas in all his cases, his victims were dead. So the guy was a ghost up until that point.


PAUL HOLES: So this was a huge break in the series. And all these case files in Northern California had all these suspect names. You know, so maybe he had a suspect name in his homicide cases that matched the suspect name up to Northern California, and he could, you know, dig into that guy and see if he is the Original Night Stalker, East Area Rapist.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So you're thinking like, "Okay, this case is solved now." 

PAUL HOLES: Yeah, it’s just a matter of time now.

It was just a matter of time. Just a lot more time than Paul was thinking it’d be. The case goes cold again. That’s coming up, after the break. 


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with cold case investigator Paul Holes.

After Paul sent all of that evidence from the EAR attacks to investigators in Orange County… the thing he thought would happen… hoped would happen… did not happen. The old case files did not hold the key. Even with all that new evidence investigators in Southern California came up empty. Once again, the trail went cold. 

And this is where we get to a type of moment that would repeat several more times over the course of this story. After the investigation in Southern California fizzled, everyone sort of gave up on the case. It seemed like it might end up back in a dusty file cabinet in a basement somewhere. And Paul Holes, he was out of answers, too. But then he decided, “You know what? I’m just gonna try one more thing.” 

ALEX BLUMBERG: What -- what brought you back?

PAUL HOLES: Well I ended up promoting again. And you know, the higher that you get, you know, within any type of, you know, structure, you move further and further away from doing the things that you love. And, you know, so now I'm the -- the chief of forensics. I was the ultimate administrator. I'm doing budgets. I'm doing grants. Memos, spreadsheets, disciplinary stuff. And was just bored out of my skull. And at one point, I'm sitting in my chief's office, and the one thing that I did is I always kept those original case files I found in that file drawer in the library with me, no matter where I moved. 

And so I'm sitting now in my office and I'm looking at my file cabinet, and I'm looking at my inbox. And I can say, "Well, I can -- I can start handling all these, you know, requests coming in for more memos or performance metrics on -- on grants, etcetera." And then that file drawer started calling out to me. And I'm going -- I'm looking at that going that case is still not solved. And this is in 2011. This is 10 years after we made the DNA link. So a decade had passed. And I looked at it and I opened that file drawer up and I pulled those files out one by one and went through them...

ALEX BLUMBERG: As -- as a form of procrastination from your actual job.

PAUL HOLES: Exactly.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You're solving a notorious cold case the same way other people sort of like furtively watch sports highlights at work.

PAUL HOLES: Yeah. Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's how I am when I watch my -- the NBA recaps. I'm like, I hope nobody walks by.

PAUL HOLES: Hopefully nobody sees me doing this. And -- and literally at that point, it became an obsession. This became a 24/7/365 obsession. I took those case files home. I studied them. I developed lists of suspect names. I was -- I shouldn't say sneaking out of the office, but I was kind of dispatching myself to other locations within northern California in order to be able to go talk to witnesses or -- or talk to victims. And I -- I did a boots-on-the ground investigation, because at this point we had exhausted the DNA technology. We had done everything we could up to that point.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. So you literally -- you're like the cop in the -- in the -- in the TV show who's like, the commander calls him off and they just keep investigating because they can't let it go. Although you're the boss in this scenario also.

PAUL HOLES: Yeah. I was able to kind of just, you know, get in my car and start going and doing my own thing. And sometimes I'd get a call from my boss, and I'm in the "Uh-oh. I'm about to be found out." But fortunately, that never happened. And so I just continued to plug away on that over the course of the next eight years.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Was there literally a time when you were out trying to sort of interview a witness or talk to a suspect in the Golden State Killer case where your bosses called and you had to pretend that you weren't doing that?

PAUL HOLES: Yes, I got a call from my commander. And I have to pull over in the middle of nowhere. I was between -- oh, I was between Stockton and Lodi, and I pull out in the middle of nowhere and I just end up talking to him like I'm sitting in my office just sweating, thinking they're going to ask, "Paul, where exactly are you?" And they never did. So I just continued on.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay, so then you just -- basically, it becomes your obsession at this point. You're -- you're going out. You're -- and so you're just going back through the case files and just running down the leads. Anybody who seemed like a suspect at the time, you're sort of trying to chase them down. And then what? Are you just trying to, like, get sample DNA from different people to see if it matches?    

PAUL HOLES: Yeah, at a certain point you're evaluating the circumstantial evidence that you have, and you go, "Do they warrant the -- the manpower, the resources to get a DNA sample from?" And at this point, for these types of what I would call a prime suspect, we always wanted to get the surreptitious sample. You know, the sample that they discard in a public location. There are some people that leave their DNA all over the place. You know, they go to Starbucks, they get a Starbucks cup. They're sipping out of the cup and they discard it on their -- their walk out of Starbucks. And they do that day in and day out. That's easy. But if you're following somebody and they don't do anything like that, now you have to come up with something else. 

Over the next decade, Paul went through this process multiple times. Using the case files and old evidence, he’d identify a suspect, put a team together, collect the suspect’s DNA. And each time the feeling was the same. 

PAUL HOLES: I'm getting excited thinking I've got the guy. You put all this effort into trying to get the DNA sample and you're absolutely sure that the DNA result is going to come back and you've solved the case. And time and time again, the DNA eliminated the guy. And I would just sit back going, "How could I be wrong," you know? This is where I failed, you know? I just continuously failed on this case over the course of my investigation.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Who was -- who was the -- who was the suspect you are most sure about in this time when you're -- when you're in this obsession period? Who is this -- who is the person that you were like, "I'm sure this is the guy?" 

PAUL HOLES: You know, um, the last prime suspect that I had, was a guy that -- he was in the development field, and I thought that the Golden State Killer had a connection to the development industry. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Development? You mean, like, real estate development? 

PAUL HOLES: Yeah, real estate development. And I found him in Davis at the time that the East Area Rapist had committed three attacks in quick succession in Davis. Yet he had a home right in the middle of the strongest cluster of East Area Rapist attacks in Rancho Cordova. And when I ended up talking to his ex-wife, she tells me that she caught him right when the East Area Rapist was starting in that neighborhood, she caught her husband coming home in the middle of the night nude. And she had previously caught him peeping on some teenage girls in the neighborhood as well. And the East Area Rapist for the first two attacks in this neighborhood had shown up nude from the waist down. And so I'm thinking, "What's the likelihood?" This -- what's the coincidence? So I got two guys out prowling in the nude in the very same neighborhood at the same time. It's got to be the guy. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then the question is like, "Okay, but now I got to get his DNA." So -- so how did you go about getting his DNA?

PAUL HOLES: He ended up eating lunch at a local restaurant with some of his friends, and left his DNA on some of the items that he used to eat his lunch at. And we had the agents go in and grab that. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Grab his leftover burger and just get the saliva sample off of it, basically?

PAUL HOLES: Grab -- grab the fork and a drinking glass. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you got -- so you grabbed the DNA, you're going -- you're taking it to the lab, and you're sure that this is the guy. When the test came back negative, how did you feel?

PAUL HOLES: At this point, I was -- I was despondent, you know? This was after multiple rounds of -- of prime suspects. Of having DNA eliminated. I sat back going, I have just spent so much of my life pursuing this case. How am I going to go from here? And I literally was lost at this point. I was looking at my investigative strategy which I thought was on the right track, and I was going this isn't working. So I'm just looking at this going, "I'm done.” I just don't think I've got a strategy to implement, or a lead to follow that gave me any hope that I would solve this case.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And how long have you been working on it at this point?

PAUL HOLES: So that was 2016. At that point would have been about 23 years.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow! And how -- how emotionally invested had you become in the case at that point?

PAUL HOLES: Yeah, so at this point I had established relationships with multiple victims from various jurisdictions. My own jurisdiction, out in Stockton, up in Sacramento. When I was just looking at this case early on, and I was just reading the case files. You know, these victims were just names on a piece of paper. And yeah, you could see the horror that they went through, but when you meet them in person, and you see that after 40 years they're still traumatized. And the women of course are -- are traumatized. What was surprising was how traumatized the men were. And I never realized that until I actually talked to some of these guys who had been bound and their -- their wife or their girlfriend had been raped, you know, while they're laying there helpless in the bed with dishes stacked on them. And these guys were crying in front of me or crying on the phone. And it no longer was a hobby when you see that. It becomes an obligation. 

Coming up… a sense of obligation is a powerful thing. Paul tries something completely different to find the Golden State Killer. Something that’s never been done before. That’s after these words from our sponsor.


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Paul Holes.

When we left off, Paul was demoralized. He’d tried everything he could think of to track down the person responsible for the murders and assaults that had left so many traumatized years later. He’d been working on the case for decades and … despite numerous breakthroughs … it still stood more or less where it had been when he first opened up that filing cabinet and found the folders labeled E-A-R. It was still unsolved.

But then, Paul heard about something. An investigative technique that had been used in other kinds of cases… a technique called forensic genealogy. Basically it uses DNA evidence in tandem with genealogical research. 

Now, forensic genealogy had never been used to solve a case like his before. So Paul started talking to a genealogist; figuring out what he’d have to do. And eventually he created an online genealogy profile, using the Golden State Killer’s DNA. 

I was able to basically create what we call an undercover account. But yeah, it's just creating a -- a typical user account, and then upload that profile as if it were my own profile. And then allow the GED match website, which is this open public source database to search the other public-facing DNA profiles in this database, and then provide me a -- a list of users in that database that share a percentage of DNA with the Golden State Killer. And so that was -- that was huge, once we got that list.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So you upload this profile, this undercover profile with the Golden State killer's DNA, and then you get a list back of potential or of, like, matches. So of, like, people who are -- who are related to this person. How long was that list? 

PAUL HOLES: Well you know, generally you want to work with the closest relatives. But unfortunately this list, the closest relatives that we had were on the order of a third cousin. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Third cousin -- what is even a third cousin? A third cousin is…

PAUL HOLES: That's a person that -- that is a descendent of your great-great grandparent. So you have to go back multiple generations, and it turns out for the Golden State Killer, these are people that were born in the 1840s. And so the top person off of the list being a third cousin, theoretically shared a set of great-great grandparents with the Golden State Killer.


Paul had a small team working with him. And together they started using that list to map out the Golden State Killer’s family tree.

PAUL HOLES: It took us, you know, four, four-and-a-half months of just straight genealogy work. This technique is 99 percent genealogy, even though the initial thing is DNA. Everything from that point on is straight genealogy. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And so when you say you're -- so when you say you're doing genealogy, you're, like, literally going to, like, you know, like, small town 1840s birth and wedding announcements, and sort of like looking up that sort of thing. 

PAUL HOLES: Yes. You're looking at the census records, you're looking at obituaries, you're looking at even church, you know, attendance records. headstones at So you know, you can see where this becomes a huge intensive effort.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so who -- how did you finally -- so after this -- after these many months of painstaking genealogy where you finally, you triangulate back to the -- to the common great-great grandparent, and then you go from the common great-great grandparent and you build out the Golden State Killer's family line, and then you can sort of trace it down to -- to your -- your person. How did you finally get to the Golden State Killer, down that process?

PAUL HOLES: You know, quite frankly, we were getting frustrated because everybody that we were, you know, identifying was East Coast-based? And we knew certain things about the Golden State Killer. We knew he was in California in the mid-1970s. You know, he's attacking from Sacramento down to -- to Orange County. So it's like, well are we on the right path or not? And then finally we found sort of a branch on that tree where we're starting to see some people that have California connections. And now we knew our guy was, in all likelihood, born between the ages of 1940 and 1960. So now in this family tree, we're looking for males that are born between those years that have a California connection. And then once we identify those guys, then okay, any of these guys can we place in Sacramento in the mid-1970s? Until you get to a point to where you go, "Okay, I've got some people that it's not just genealogy. I have to now slip into just pure investigative mode and start talking to people who know these guys to figure out is he somebody that is worth getting a DNA sample from or not?

ALEX BLUMBERG:   And so you start talking to those people. Of the person who eventually turned out to be the -- the Golden State Killer, what were the conversations that you had that -- that made you feel like, "Oh yeah, we gotta get that guy's DNA?"

PAUL HOLES: Yeah, so we had, you know, pretty much we had narrowed things down to about five males. And then DeAngelo's name popped up. And when his name came up, what we knew about him at that time is he had worked for Auburn Police Department...

Auburn is about 40 miles north of Sacramento...

...during the entirety of the Northern California series when the East Area Rapist was attacking. So in many ways what -- when we first found him  , the -- the things that we were finding out were sort of a negative, you know? How could a full-time law enforcement officer be moving all over Northern California and doing all these attacks and all the -- all the prowlings and all the burglaries we knew this guy was doing, and still maintain this full-time law enforcement job all the way up in Auburn where we don't have any attacks.


PAUL HOLES: So, that was -- that was a negative. 

But there were some things that made him suspicious. He had spent a lot of time in and around Sacramento. He was the right size of the person who had committed all of the attacks. And they discovered this small but chilling news article about him in a local paper: 

PAUL HOLES: He had been caught for shoplifting a dog repellent and a hammer, which is just silly stuff, right? But it's also kind of almost nefarious-sounding when you know what the East Area Rapist or the Golden State Killer was doing. The -- the article talked about chief Nick Willott as being the person that ended up terminating DeAngelo as an Auburn police officer. And so I ended up calling Nick. And I didn't tell Nick what I was -- what case I was working. I'm just saying I'm working a whole series of cases and you know, I see this Joe DeAngelo. Do you remember him? And he's like, "Oh yeah, I remember DeAngelo." And so he proceeds to start talking to me a lot of details about DeAngelo as a police officer. And then of course, the -- the termination process. And he's -- he was telling me how, you know, found out that during the termination process after DeAngelo was put on administrative leave that he had threatened to kill Nick which, you know, that's interesting. I would expect the Golden State Killer, who was a very vindictive offender would probably issue a death threat. But it's also an employer-employee-type relationship, where a lot of emotions are flowing. So it's not unusual to hear something like that. 

But then Nick Willott told me, he goes well, during that time when DeAngelo's on administrative leave, in the middle of the night, Nick is asleep in his room. And his teenage daughter comes walking into his room and says, "Daddy, there's a man standing outside my window shining a flashlight into it." And Nick hops up out of the bed and runs outside and the guy is gone, but he sees fresh shoe impressions all around the perimeter of his house. And when I heard that, I'm going, "That's exactly what the East Area Rapist did." And at that point, I said "We need his DNA."  

For Paul, the clock was ticking… He’s been working on the case for so long that his retirement was now literally days away.

PAUL HOLES: The day before I retired I drove up and parked in front of DeAngelo's house just to kind of eyeball him and get a better sense of where he was living.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The day before you retired, you just drove up there?



PAUL HOLES: This guy had risen to the level of a prime suspect, and it's what I did with all my prime suspects, is I would go, "I want to see where they're living, what cars they're driving, who's coming and going and, you know, from their house. Just get a better sense of -- of that person as they are today." And as I'm sitting there, you know, I had been through this so many times I'm thinking, "What's the likelihood that this guy really is the Golden State Killer?" And I thought, you know, I should just go knock on his front door, establish a rapport and ultimately ask him for a DNA sample so I can eliminate him from this. And you know, tell the team hey he's not the guy, right? And move on. And you know, as I sat there I started thinking, well what do I know about him? And I was just like, I don't know enough to do that. And that's when I -- I ended up just driving away. And that was my last act as a -- as an on-duty officer.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So how did they finally collect the DNA? And how did the news come to you finally?

PAUL HOLES: So he is somebody that was working on his daughter's car in the driveway, as well as frequently going to the Hobby Lobby store. And so, while he's inside, an undercover agent went up to his driver's side door handle and swabbed it and ran off before DeAngelo came out of the store. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you say Hobby Lobby? 

PAUL HOLES: Hobby Lobby, yes. DeAngelo was into hobbies. He liked to build airplanes that he flew. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so they got this DNA sample. They went and tested it. Where were you describe where you were when you -- when you finally -- when you finally heard the outcome.

PAUL HOLES: Being retired, we had made a decision that we were going to be moving to Colorado Springs.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You and your wife.

PAUL HOLES: Me and my wife. And so we ended up having already prearranged a -- a week-long trip to come out to Colorado Springs to house hunt. We ended up finding a house and putting an offer on a house. And so we had made an offer on the house and decided to go out to eat at a local restaurant, this P.F. Chang's restaurant in Colorado Springs. And then Kirk Campbell, who's a lieutenant from Sac DA's office, who was on the -- the genealogy team, calls me on my cell phone. So I step outside the front door.

It's snowing outside. And Kirk immediately, as soon as I answer, he immediately says, "Paul, you absolutely can't tell anybody about this." And he goes, "I don't quite understand it Paul, but the lab is very excited about what they found." And I'm like, "Well, what did they find?" And he said, "There's something about, like, 20 out of 21 markers they got." And I at that point I knew okay, DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer. And I'm saying, "Kirk, that's -- that's him." And he goes, "Yeah, I think we got him." 

So I hang up and I go back inside, and my wife's sitting there, table is being cleaned up.

And then she just, you know, kind of nonchalantly asks, "So what did Kirk want?" And I'm just looking at her kind of debating, how am I going -- I don't want to tell her what Kirk said here, because I know how she's going to react in a restaurant, and I don't need that kind of reaction and attention. And so I'm just kind of looking at her blank, and she was like, "Did the DNA come back?" And she's a DNA analyst, so she knows exactly what all of this is.

And I -- I kind of look at her and I just do a simple nod. And she's looking at me and she goes, "No!" And I just look at her, and I'm, like, going, "Oh, I don't know how I'm going to tell her." And I just do another just simple nod with my head again, and she's now almost screaming, and is, like, getting up and pushing me out of the restaurant because she needs to hear all the details. So we go out to the rental Jeep that we had in the middle of the snow. So she's like, "What?" You know, so I have to tell her, "It's him. we got him."


ALEX BLUMBERG: Was -- was there a moment when you did finally be like, "I did it?"

PAUL HOLES: It took -- I would say it was probably three or four weeks after he was arrested. Finally I caught a little bit of a break, and I'm sitting in the evening and I just pull up. I had a photo of DeAngelo after he had been arrested, just sitting in the interview room with his head hung low. And I'm looking at that, and I've got a little bit of bourbon with me. Maybe more than just a little bit. And I'm -- I'm just looking at him, and it was just like, "I gotcha." And it was at that point that I finally realized, you know, what had happened.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What were -- what were the feelings at that moment?

PAUL HOLES: You know, on one hand on the personal side, you know, that elation was there. It was, I got him. I succeeded. You know, I had failed and failed and failed. And I finally succeeded. It -- it was a good feeling but it was, you know, somewhat bittersweet. 'Cause you're looking at it and you realize, "Okay, I've -- I've given these victims answers. They're not going to get closure." And that's -- that's kind of the -- the whole thing that -- that we've learned. You know, these victims never get closure, but they now know who attacked them or who killed their loved one. But at the same time, it's real. I mean, this is real life and real people that are affected. And you know, a lot of the, you know, the true crime people out there, this is a huge deal in terms of, "Oh, the Golden State Killer. This Joseph James DeAngelo," but they're only seeing the headlines, or they only seeing the written articles on it, but they're not there with the victims and seeing no, this is still ongoing. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Obviously there's, like, a lot of celebration when Joseph DeAngelo was identified. But how you -- you found him through this genealogy method, it made people uneasy. Do you understand that -- that feeling of -- of uneasiness? Like, here was this, like, sort of like, you know, sort of like, this, like, this dummy profile, and -- and -- and sort of like, it -- it's almost like it makes people queasy without exactly knowing why. But do you understand that feeling?

PAUL HOLES: No, I do, you know? And I -- I absolutely understand, you know, the -- the concerns that are out there. I know -- knowing what the process is, and it's very different than what I think people think it is. And one of the things that I've emphasized is I, as a law enforcement officer at no point had access to anybody else's DNA profile. That's not how this -- this technique works. It just gives me -- this person shares so many units of DNA with the person I'm looking for. 

But I absolutely do understand why, you know, people think "Oh, law enforcement is accessing, you know, DNA from people that aren't convicted offenders. Like the FBI's database." And it's going to be something that is -- I know it's been debated and is going to continue to be debated. But obviously, you know, since -- since we did it on the Golden State Killer, you take a look at the cases that are being solved since then. And these are the most horrific cases that have stood unsolved for, in some instances, many decades. And that this tool has been successful. You know, I hope that this is a tool that we will be able to use in an appropriate manner moving forward, because it is proving itself over and over again.

One of the things that Paul thinks about a lot in retrospect, is all those suspects that he was sure were the Golden State Killer, who turned out not to be. It wasn’t just one, or two, it was many. Many people that he was convinced had done it but that once the DNA evidence came back -- they hadn’t. Like that prime suspect he talked about - the peeping tom developer - who turned out to be yet another false lead.

PAUL HOLES: If I were to, you know, go through this -- this whole checklist of -- of information that I had compiled on this guy circumstantially, you know, before DNA, it's possible that I could have gone to a judge with an affidavit for probable cause to get an arrest warrant. There was just so much that was adding up. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. Which is -- which is scary in a completely different way. 

PAUL HOLES: And this is -- and this is really a  -- when you work a case this big and you cast such a wide net, circumstantial evidence only goes so far because there are individuals that circumstantially will end up having overlap with your offender. And from just that -- that human mindset you go, "Well, that just can't be coincidence. That has to be the guy." And I've learned, "Oh, no. It can be coincidence." And so for those homicide investigators out there that think -- that make that -- that statement, "Coincidences don't happen." Oh yeah, they do. And that's scary when you do work a case, and all you've got is a circumstantial case against the person. You really have to nail that down. And that's why the nice thing with the Golden State Killer evidence is we knew we had his DNA. So no matter how much overlap we had circumstantially with the suspect, we always, always would go after the DNA in order to show if it was the guy or not. 

That was my conversation with Paul Holes. These days he’s living in that house in Colorado Springs and working with Oxygen, the TV network, to help develop true-crime programming. The Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, is awaiting trial in Sacramento.

Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.

Music and mixing by Bobby Lord

If you like Without Fail, don’t be shy. Tell your friends about it. And thanks for listening.