The detective who caught the East Area Rapist suspect ... 40 years ago

In July 1979, Jeff Gardner was a newly minted Sac State grad working as a clerk at Pay ’N Save Drugs in Citrus Heights.

Then 22 years old, he worked as a cashier, stocked shelves and helped out in various departments while waiting for his career to take off. He was inside the store at Greenback Lane and Sunrise Boulevard on July 21, 1979, when he and co-worker Ron Stilwell caught a shoplifting suspect.

The man was trying to get away with a hammer and a can of dog repellent when the two confronted him, then finally got him tied to a chair in a back room until Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies arrived.

The suspect went to trial and was convicted, in part because of testimony from the two clerks.

Over the next 40 years, the event slipped from Gardner’s memory as he focused on a career as a Sacramento Police Department homicide detective. His cases included investigating the Unabomber’s last bomb attack in Sacramento and sending Tammy Holycross to prison for the 1996 torture and murder of her 3-year-old son, Adrian Conway.

But the shoplifting incident – in essence, Gardner’s first arrest – may be as notable as his other cases: the shoplifter was Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist suspect now sitting in the Sacramento County Jail facing 13 murder counts.

“I can’t recall, it’s just too far back,” Gardner, now 62 and retired, said in an interview in his Sacramento-area home recently. “I wish I could give you details, but I can’t.”

Even after DeAngelo’s arrest last April, Gardner didn’t place the suspect as anyone he had encountered until he got a phone call on April 1 from a Sacramento-area researcher who wanted to know if he was the Jeff Gardner who once worked at a Pay ’N Save who had helped detain DeAngelo.

“I had no idea,” Gardner said, adding that the fact the call came in on April Fool’s Day made him suspicious. “I thought it was a friend of mine that I worked with in homicide who was pretty good at practical jokes,” he said.

Eventually, he made the connection, but says even now much of his recollection of the events comes from old news stories about the incident and subsequent trial in the Auburn Journal.

At the time, DeAngelo was an Auburn police officer, and three of the killings he is charged with were committed before his shoplifting arrest.

The Journal covered his trial and subsequent firing, and also cataloged snippets of DeAngelo’s life in Auburn, including a 1964 brief noting that he had completed basic training in the Navy in San Diego.

A February 1977 story notes that he was one of three new police officers added to the department in 1976, and another story that same month credits him and another officer with chasing down a 15-year-old who had escaped from Placer County Juvenile Hall by tossing a skillet through a kitchen window.

In 1978, the Journal reported, DeAngelo was walking out of the police station when he surprised a 17-year-old boy “apparently intent upon decorating an Auburn Police patrol car with toilet paper.”

In May 1979, six weeks before the shoplifting incident ended his police career, he was the subject of a complaint from a woman whose illegally parked car he had towed away, according to the Journal.

DeAngelo was fired from the department the month after his arrest, and although he appealed the firing he later dropped the effort following his conviction in a three-day jury trial in Sacramento Municipal Court, the Journal reported at the time.

DeAngelo settled into a home in Citrus Heights after his firing, and in 1996 he once again come to the attention of authorities, but not for the killing spree. Instead, he was arrested in a sting operation aimed at suspects with outstanding warrants and spent several hours in the Sacramento County Jail before being released.

He had been wanted for allegedly trying to hold up a gas station, but that case was dropped and DeAngelo later sued, claiming the incident was a misunderstanding over a confrontation he had with the station clerk.

By then, Gardner had joined the Sacramento police department. Over the years, he likely saw bulletins about the mysterious East Area Rapist, who raped at least 30 victims in Sacramento between 1976 and 1979 and is suspected of killing a young couple walking their dog in Rancho Cordova.

While he was a college student living in a Carmichael apartment, Gardner says he was aware of the crime spree that had terrorized the region.

“It was in the news all the time, the East Area Rapist which is what he was known as,” Gardner said. “People were very aware and concerned, including myself and people that I hung around with that were in law enforcement classes at the university.

“Everybody kind of had their eyes looking for him, but nobody knew who to look for.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.