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After a more than 40-year search, authorities think they have the Golden State Killer in custody

A former California police officer has been identified as the so-called Golden State Killer believed to have committed 12 killings and at least 50 rapes across California from 1976 to 1986, authorities said Wednesday.

Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested after investigators matched discarded DNA from his home to evidence from some of the crimes, Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten told reporters.

The suspect seemed surprised when he was arrested without incident this week in connection with a crime spree that spanned 10 years and at least 10 counties throughout California, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said.

“We all knew that we were looking for a needle in a haystack but we all knew that the needle was there,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at a news conference outside the crime lab where the big break in the case came.

“It is fitting that today is National DNA Day. We found the needle in the haystack and it was right here in Sacramento.”

The suspect, who faces capital murder charges, is being held without bail in Sacramento.

“All too often we forget to talk about the victims and today we at least brought the first step towards closure for those victims of these horrendous crimes,” Jones said.

DeAngelo is a former Auburn, California, police officer who was fired in 1979 for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer from a drugstore, according to Jones. He worked as a police officer in Exeter and Auburn between 1973 and 1979.

“Very possibly he was committing these crimes while he was employed as a peace officer,” Jones said.

The suspect was also known as the “East Area Rapist” and “the Original Night Stalker.”

The first recorded rape was on June 18, 1976. The victim, Jane, was dozing in bed with her 3-year-old son after her husband left for work. Then, she was abruptly awoken.

A masked man stood in the bedroom doorway, holding a large butcher knife and shining a flashlight at her face.

He bound Jane and her son with shoelaces and blindfolded and gagged them with torn sheets. After moving her son off the bed, he unbound Jane’s ankles.

“And then I knew what he was there for,” said Jane, who didn’t want to share her last name.

Jane’s rape sparked the hunt for the man who authorities say went on to commit rapes and killings in California over the next decade.

It’s been more than 40 years since his first recorded attacks, which began in and around Sacramento in Northern California. No suspects were caught or even identified in the case. Police only had minor details about his looks, along with a sketch from an almost-victim.

In recent years, there was renewed interest in the case. This year, a book and a series from HLN were released, hoping to shed more light on the case.

When the Sacramento-area rapes were first being reported, it was always by women who were alone or with their children. But by 1977, a year after Jane’s attack, the list of victims had expanded to couples in their homes.

Police believe the East Area Rapist killed Brian and Katie Maggiore after the couple — who were walking their dog at the time — spotted him before he broke into a home in Rancho Cordova, California, just outside Sacramento, in February 1978. Those were his first known homicides.

“We thought he would never stop, but then two months after the Maggiore homicides, the East Area Rapist left our jurisdiction. It was like he disappeared in thin air,” said Carol Daly, a retired detective from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

That’s when a serial attacker began terrorizing Santa Barbara County, California — more than 300 miles south of Sacramento. Police didn’t realize it at the time, but the attacker’s crimes fit the same pattern as Sacramento’s East Area Rapist. He attacked women and couples across Southern California from December 1979 to May 1986, and became known there as the Original Night Stalker.

“These cases are some of the most horrific I’ve had to investigate,” said Erika Hutchcraft, an investigator for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. “They’re not a one-time, you know, crime of passion, but these are almost passionless crimes. Very cold, very violent.”

Even with such distance between Sacramento and Southern California, detectives in the north who heard about the Original Night Stalker believed he was the same perpetrator as the East Area Rapist.

“Over the years, we heard of homicides down in Southern California, and we thought it was the East Area Rapist,” said Larry Crompton, retired detective for Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department. “But he would not leave fingerprints, so we could not prove, other than his M.O., that he was the same person. We did not know anything about DNA.”

Once DNA tests were available to investigators, they were able to confirm the same man committed three of the attacks that had previously been blamed on the so-called East Area Rapist, according to Paul Holes, who investigated the case for the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.

“That’s when I reached out to Orange County” in Southern California, he says, “just to see, you know, if the East Area Rapist DNA was a match with the Original Night Stalker.”

In 2001, DNA evidence determined the East Area Rapist was the same offender as the Original Night Stalker.

In 2016 — 40 years after his first attack — the FBI offered a $50,000 reward for any information that could lead to his arrest and conviction.

“The sheriff’s department never gave up on this investigation,” Detective Paul Belli of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said at the time. “This person ruined a great number of lives, and he should be held accountable.”

The FBI describes him as a white male, close to 6 feet tall, with blond or light brown hair.

“We have his DNA,” said Holes. “If we find the right guy, we will know we got the Golden State Killer. This is a solvable case.”

Note: Unless stated otherwise, the interviews from this story came from the HLN series “Unmasking A Killer.”

By Elizabeth I. Johnson, Alanne Orjoux and Ray Sanchez, CNN