Visalia Police Det. Bill McGowen sat in the garage of the single-story home on West Kaweah Avenue and waited for the man who had stalked these streets for more than a year.
That night in December 1975, McGowen watched as a shadowy figure prowled between the home he was hiding in and the house next door. McGowen ran outside and ordered the man to stop, according to media reports at the time. The suspect ran, and after McGowen fired a warning shot, he begged the officer not to shoot.
As McGowen shined his flashlight at the unmasked man, the suspect reached for a gun in his jacket and took a shot, police said. The bullet hit McGowen’s flashlight, and shards ricocheted into his eye. The man fled.
The shooting was the final crime attributed to the Visalia Ransacker, Visalia Police Sgt. Damon Maurice said.
Between April 1974 and December 1975, the Visalia Ransacker slinked through this small town’s streets and alleys and burglarized about 100 homes, police said. The burglaries turned deadly in September 1975, when Claude Snelling, a journalism professor at the College of the Sequoias, was shot outside his home on South Whitney Lane.
Although police never recovered the weapon, they later discovered that the gun used to shoot Snelling was the same one that was stolen from a nearby home.
After last week’s arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., the Visalia Police Department said it believes the ransacker and the killer are the same man. But in the absence of crime scene DNA, police are working to use fingerprints found at the burglary scenes, as well as items that were left behind at the crimes, to prove the connection.
DeAngelo’s arrest has provided a “jolt” to Visalia police’s investigation, Maurice said. Police are working with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department to determine whether any of the items stolen in Visalia were found in DeAngelo’s Citrus Heights home.
“This is the ghost we’ve been chasing,” he said.
The ransacker’s pattern was unique, Maurice said, because most burglars enter a home, grab what they want and leave as quickly as possible. But the ransacker would linger. In some cases, he would stay for an hour, maybe two. He would ignore valuable items, like jewelry, and take trinkets or photos instead.
“This guy was completely different,” Maurice said. “This is a small town. We didn’t have serial criminals.”
The burglar had rifled through Pat Monno’s home while he and his family were away in Fresno, Monno recalled. When he pulled into his garage that day, he saw the screen had been removed from a window facing the backyard, near his swimming pool.
He walked into his bedroom and saw that someone had taken every pair of his underwear and placed them down the hallway and into the family room “like stepping stones.”
“Everything in that house was out,” Monno, 83, said as he sipped on a cup of green tea. “Every kitchen drawer, everything, dumped on the floor.”
The ransacker didn’t take anything of value, he said, except for his pistol — the one used to kill Snelling. His wife’s jewelry remained untouched, but the burglar had taken pieces of costume jewelry from his daughter’s room — one earring from each set and a bracelet — and photos of her that sat in frames in her room.
“I was wondering what the heck happened,” Monno said.
About 130,000 people live in Visalia, but at the time the ransacker prowled through this town near Sequoia National Park, it was home to about 30,000 people.
Most of them knew one another, leaving their doors unlocked and their windows open when they went to work. The streets the burglar hit near the local community college and high school were lined by single-story homes with perfect lawns. The freeway abutting part of neighborhood was a simple two-lane road.
“This was Any Town, USA,” Maurice said. “You could run across the freeway if you wanted to.”
Driving through the streets the ransacker once plundered, Maurice explained that the burglaries fell into two clusters on either side of South Mooney Boulevard.
Back then, many of the homes were poorly lighted. Most didn’t have fences surrounding the property. The alleys that still run along the homes had no lights, either — a prowler could easily sneak by unnoticed, Maurice said.
“If you’re the Visalia Ransacker, these are your streets,” he said. “He could come and go as he pleased.”
Some of the houses the ransacker hit backed into a canal called Evans Ditch. The canal, a dirt path filled with rocks and weeds, provided an easy path for the burglar to follow undetected.
Maurice turned onto South Whitney Lane and stopped his car. As he stood outside the home where Claude Snelling was killed, he explained that the shooter had fled on a stolen bike. The street looked different then, he said — the brick wall separating the neighborhood from the freeway didn’t exist, and the freeway was street-level.
The house, which now has an iron screen on the front door and motion sensors on the corner, has been repainted cream.
Michelle Goans, an artist who moved into the home a few months ago, said neither she nor her landlord knew the house’s history. They found out only after reporters began knocking at the door last week.
“It’s surreal,” Goans, 29, said. “It doesn’t bother us, but I always thought we’d know if we were in this situation, not that we would find out about it six, seven months later.”
Goans walked through her living room and into the backyard where Snelling was killed. The carport where the shooting occurred is now gone, but Goans said she believes it used to stand near the garage, where there is now a laundry room.
The house has seen a lot of turnover in the last few years, she added, with new tenants moving in and out.
“I’m not a superstitious person,” she said. “Most places you live probably have had something happen in it. I just happen to know now.”
By Sarah Parrvini