Janelle Cruz was the last known murder victim of the Golden State Killer. She was raped and murdered in her family home on May 4, 1986, at the age of 18. Not only was Cruz the final victim, but her death came five years after the last murder attributed to the serial killer, who had until then been much more active.
In April 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested and charged with the crimes committed by the Golden State Killer after DNA evidence from crime scenes were uploaded into a genealogy website. On June 29, 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty and admitted responsibility to all crimes he was charged with, including the brutal rape and murder of 18-year-old Cruz.
Here’s what you need to know about Janelle Cruz’s death:
1. Cruz Was Brutally Murdered & Her Body Was Found the Next Morning by a Realtor
Cruz was staying at her mother’s home in the Northwood area of Irvine, in Orange County, California. On May 4, 1986, her parents were away on vacation and Cruz decided to invite a friend over in the evening. Her friend later said they heard noises and a disturbance outside and in the garage, but they dismissed the sounds. Near midnight, Cruz’s friend left.
A newspaper article published a few days after Cruz’s death states that her nude body was found bludgeoned in her family home, according to the police. The home was for sale and her body was found by the realtor the following evening. The Irvine police lieutenant at the time, Mike White, said that the autopsy revealed that Cruz died of blunt force trauma to the head. She had also been raped prior to her death.
There were tennis shoe prints in the yard, police discovered. Although a murder weapon was never recovered, a pipe wrench that the family kept in the backyard was missing.
2. The Investigation Went Cold Soon After Her Death & It Wasn’t Until Years Later That It Was Connected to Other Golden State Killer Murders
Investigators had few leads and first looked into the last people who saw Cruz alive and her ex-boyfriends, but were unable to make progress. They managed to collect the suspect’s DNA through a rape kit but it was placed in storage for years because of lack of testing capacity at that time, the BBC reported.
It wasn’t until a decade later that the DNA recovered from Cruz’s body was matched to that recovered at the crime scenes of Manuela Witthuhn’s murder as well as the murder of Keith and Patrice Harrington. In 2001, the DNA profile linked together the cases attributed to the Original Night Stalker (responsible for Cruz’s death) and the East Area Rapist. It was one and the same person. However, despite having a complete DNA profile, the identity of the person it belonged to was a mystery until 2018.
The serial killer’s DNA was uploaded by investigators into GEDmatch, a genealogy website. Out of the dozen or so results, investigators were able to create a family tree and establish suspects, which is how they successfully identified DeAngelo and arrested him in April 2018. Two years later, on June 29, 2020, he pleaded guilty to all the crimes committed by the Golden State Killer and admitted responsibility for the crimes he could not be charged with due to expired statutes of limitation. The move came as part of a plea deal that would see DeAngelo avoid the death sentence.
3. Cruz Was a Job Corps Graduate Who Had Just Returned Home for the Summer
Cruz was a member of the Job Corps for 10 months and she was featured in a Los Angeles Times article about the program on March 20, 1986. According to the article, Cruz was a graduate of the program who enrolled in order to get her high school diploma. She hadn’t dropped out of her regular high school, she said, but she wanted to “get out of my family situation so I could finish high school” following her parents’ divorce.
Cruz described a regular day at the training center: “You get up at 6:30, have breakfast, do your chores, then go to school. You get into trouble if you don’t get to class on time or finish your chores.”
Cruz attended the Job Corps center in Clearfield, Utah, and tested for aptitude in job skills before entering the training program. The article continues, explaining that Cruz graduated in the fall of 1985 with straight As before becoming a full-time student at Orange Coast College and studying to become a legal secretary.
In an interview with First Coast News, Cruz’s mother Diane Stein said Cruz loved being in Utah and had just come home for the summer when she was killed. “I’m sure she had some thoughts about what she wanted to do and she didn’t talk to me yet, we got robbed of all those things, because she was just getting out of school and deciding, she was going to go back to the Job Corp., she was just home for the summer.” Cruz was working as a cashier at Bullwinkle’s pizza while home for the summer, one outlet reported.
4. Cruz Was Killed 5 Years After the Last Golden State Killer Victim & She Was the Youngest Murder Victim
The Cruz family wouldn’t know it for decades, but Cruz was the last known victim of DeAngelo. The Golden State Killer’s crime spree lasted over a decade and involved break-ins, assaults, rapes and murders in multiple California counties. He was known in some areas as the “Visalia Ransacker”; in others, the “East Area Rapist.” Cruz’s murder was attributed to the “Original Night Stalker,” which was how the serial killer operating south of Los Angeles was known.
After the summer of 1979, the MO for the Golden State Killer tragically changed from home invasion rapes to murder. From 1979 to 1981, he attacked six different homes. The couple in the first attack survived and escaped, but after that, he killed all nine of his victims, either by bludgeoning them to death or by gunshot. After the July 27, 1981, murder of Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez, the attacks appeared to end until the lone rape and murder of Cruz five years later.
After DeAngelo’s arrest, people reviewed his timeline and compared it to the periods he was active as a serial rapist and killer. They found that DeAngelo’s first of three daughters was born in September 1981, just two months after the last murder in his two-year killing spree. After a five year gap, his second daughter was born in November 1986, a few months after Cruz’s murder.
5. Cruz’s Family Spoke About Her Murder After DeAngelo’s Arrest & Confession
Cruz’s mother, Diane Stein, spoke to First Coast News after DeAngelo’s arrest in 2018, her first interview about her daughter’s death after decades of silence. She said, “First of all, my daughter must have been a very brave girl at that moment and she probably fought him off. I left for vacation and gave her a kiss goodbye.” She said she was in Mexico with her husband and their son, a baby, and it was the first time she’d left Cruz home alone overnight. She added:
This is one of the situations when they call you in the middle of the night, midnight, and give you the news that your daughter has just been murdered. The first thing you think of is, I want to go home and help my daughter, but she’s not alive, but that’s the first thing a mother thinks, oh I want to go home real quick and help her … but, you can’t.
She told the outlet she tries not to think about it every day and to be present for her remaining son and daughter. She said, “I guess this is every mother’s idea of sadness, just very sad, she was just a beautiful girl, she was robbed of her life and we were robbed of loving her and having her, but she still lives, she lives in the story.”
Cruz’s sister Michelle also spoke about her relief at DeAngelo’s capture in an interview with ABC News. On April 26, 2018, after his arrest, Michelle told the outlet she can “finally breathe again.” She said, “I’m so thankful this journey is finally over. And I can rest and go to bed at night, and rest easier knowing that he’s in jail and he’ll never walk free again.”