VISALIA, Calif. – California law enforcement officials have long considered the 1975 murder of Claude Snelling as the first killing in the Golden State Killer’s statewide murder and rape spree.
Now, a sheriff’s department cold case investigator says he and his partner are investigating whether Joseph DeAngelo, who was arrested in April in a series of rapes and murders that terrorized California communities in the 1970s and 1980s, abducted and killed a Visalia teenager even before Snelling — in 1974.
That homicide would mark the earliest suspected crime committed by DeAngelo.
Tulare County law enforcement investigators suspect DeAngelo was the criminal dubbed the Visalia Ransacker who terrorized Visalia with a series of brazen break-ins and the deadly shooting of Snelling.
DeAngelo later moved to the Sacramento area, where he is suspected in 12 murders and 45 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s.
The 72-year-old former Exeter police officer was due back in court Thursday in Sacramento for a preliminary hearing in connection with those crimes.
In November 1974, Jennifer Armour, 15, left her home n Visalia and headed to the annual Cowhide Game – the historical football matchup between arch-rivals Mount Whitney Pioneers and the Redwood Rangers.
She never arrived at the game.
Armour’s mother reported her missing the next day.
Nine days later, Armour’s body was found in the Friant Kern Canal south of Woodlake.
Her case has gone unsolved for four decades.
Tulare County Detective Chris Dempsie and his partner Dwayne Johnson, who make up the sheriff’s Cold Case Unit investigating roughly 200 unsolved homicides in the county, now hope evidence released by a Sacramento County judge could help in their investigation of Armour’s death.
Even before DeAngelo was arrested in April, detectives suspected the Visalia Ransacker could be linked to her.
When Dempsie and Johnson heard about DeAngelo’s past as a law enforcement officer, their suspicions grew.
“As soon as he was arrested and we learned he was a police officer in Exeter that was a red flag,” Dempsie said.
The Visalia Ransacker also was in “close proximity” to the area Armour would have been walking that crisp fall night.
DeAngelo may have known the details of the investigation because of his connection to the Exeter Police Department.
However, there is little physical evidence in the case.
Because Armour’s body was in the water for nine days, it’s difficult to tell where the incident happen or what the killer did to her, Dempsie said.
The cause of death was drowning.
At the time of Armour’s death, there were several named suspects but no physical evidence to make an arrest.
“It’s an uphill battle when you don’t have physical evidence,” Dempsie said.
Today, there are roughly six persons of interest in the Armour case.
All of them are living except one — Oscar Clifton, Dempsie said.
In December 1975, Donna Richmond, 14, was kidnapped in Exeter and killed. Her body was later found in an orange grove north of Exeter.
Her killer, Clifton, was convicted and died in prison in 2013 while serving a life sentence.
Last year, the detectives said they felt there was a strong connection between the girls’ murders.
“Both girls were blonde and blue-eyed and their bodies were discovered south of Woodlake and north of Exeter about a year apart,” Johnson said.
Things changed in April with the arrest of DeAngelo, after a DNA sample linked him to the series of rapes and murders.
“We are in constant contact with the folks in Sacramento,” Dempsie said. “We’ve sent a synopsis of the case for review.”