true crime

As a teen, Margaret read everything she could about the Golden State killer. It ended up saving her life.

At the age of 13, Margaret Wardlow read everything she could about the Golden State Killer. The California teen poured over newspaper reports and magazine articles, captivated by the mystery surrounding the brazen attacker known at the time as the East Area Rapist.

“I remember distinctly reading over one article three times and saying to myself, ‘There aren’t any more words that you haven’t read’,” the now 53-year-old told 20/20. “I had a total obsession.

“I don’t think I was the only person that was curious as to what was making this guy tick.”

The 26 rapes so far committed by this man had left the city of Sacramento on edge. Despite sightings, he continued to slip through law enforcement’s fingers, again and again.

By then, there was a clear pattern to his modus operandi: prowl middle class neighbourhoods at night, looking for women in single-story homes.

His face masked, a torch and gun in his gloved hands, he would break in and force the woman to tie up any other occupants whom he lay face-down in separate rooms. He would then stack crockery on their back so he would hear a rattle if they attempted to break free. The woman would then be hauled into another room in the house and raped – generally over the course of several hours.

These details, these tactics, were stashed in the back of Margaret’s mind. But it was another that gave her an advantage her when she came face-to-face with him:

“He wants fear…”

It was around 2am on November 10, 1977. Thirteen-year-old Margaret woke to find a man standing beside her bed. Beyond the blinding beam of his torch she could make out leather gloves and a masked face. Her mind raced. Her mother had told her she was too young to worry about becoming a victim. It must have been her neighbour playing a cruel prank.

A harsh whisper pierced the silence. “This isn’t a joke.”

“I knew at that moment, this is not my neighbour, Bill,” Margaret told 20/20. “This is the ‘East Area Rapist’ most likely. And he’s in my home.”

As she and her mother were tied up in adjacent rooms, crockery stacked on her mother’s back, “a little voice inside of me said, you know, ‘You get out of a lot of stuff, Margaret. But you’re not going get out of this one. And just you need to understand that this is what’s going happen to you. You’re going get raped. But you’re going to be OK.'”


Throughout her assault she did her best not to show fear. Threatened with murder, of herself and her mother, she replied each time, “I don’t care.”

“I absolutely understood that he got off on control by fear,” Wardlow told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I just wanted to make him not get what he wanted, which was to see me fearful.”

According to the Chronicle, it was her mothers screams that helped end the ordeal. With her attacker distracted, she was able to loosen the ties around her feet, run upstairs and lock herself in a bathroom. Her mother too managed to escape and phone police, forcing the attacker to flee.

More than four decades later, on April 23, 2018, Margaret noticed two missed calls on her phone. It was, she said, a retired Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy informing her that the primary suspect in the Golden State Killer case was finally in police custody.

“I was elated,” she told 20/20. “I could not believe it. It was … the most beautiful, beautiful phone call I’ve ever had.”

The following day the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department publicly announced the arrest of 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. After a breakthrough using DNA evidence, the former police officer was detained and charged with eight counts of murder, as authorities in surrounding counties prepare to bring further charges. (The Golden State Killer has been lin

“Today,” Sheriff Scott Jones told the media, “we at least brought the first step towards closure for the victims of these horrendous crimes.”

Four decades on, Margaret said she’s never shed a single tear about what happened that night. It’s not that she tried to forget, just that she was determined not to let it take over her life. Still, she told the Chronicle that she plans to watch the trial closely.

“I think justice will take its course now.”