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SACRAMENTO — Throughout 1977, the terrified residents of Sacramento County wanted to know when their horror movie of an existence would end.

In packed community forums, they expressed their fears about the sadistic predator who was committing sexual assaults in their previously tranquil neighborhoods every few days — someone nicknamed the East Area Rapist.

At one gathering, in a school cafeteria, a Sacramento sheriff’s detective named Carol Daly gave a brief tutorial about defending oneself against the attacker.

But before the few hundred audience members dispersed into the California night, a man questioned how anyone could possibly get away with raping a woman in the presence of her husband, who would do everything in his power to prevent an assault.

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A few months later, the East Area Rapist targeted that very man and his wife, in one of the more brutal attacks of the dozens he had committed. Daly, now retired, said Friday that she has no doubt:

“The rapist was there at that meeting.”

The horrifying moment reflected how the meticulous criminal — whom investigators strongly suspected had law enforcement connections — taunted his pursuers with catch-me-if-you-can brio. He was flaunting his power, it seemed, as well as his belief that he could elude accountability forever.

He was wrong.

On Tuesday morning, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was a retiree and former police officer, known to his neighbors as an occasional crank obsessed with lawn care. By that night, he had been arrested as the suspected East Area Rapist, aka the Original Night Stalker, aka the Diamond Knot Killer — aka the Golden State Killer.

The widely disseminated mug shot of the older, balding DeAngelo, juxtaposed beside a decades-old police sketch of a young suspect with longish hair parted in the middle, twinned the distance of the long-ago with the immediacy of now.

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Beyond Sacramento, that year of 1977 unfolded apace: a new president named Jimmy Carter; a hot movie called “Star Wars”; the death of Elvis. But in and around the capital city of California, reports of yet another horrific attack by the East Area Rapist overshadowed everyday life, becoming the obsession of, among others, Daly.

The first occurred in June 1976. Then another in July, in August, in September. After several more in October, law enforcement officials announced that they were looking for one perpetrator tied to attack after attack.

The attacks were devastating to women and their families. But Linda O’Dell, one of the victims, recalled Daly’s deftness, at a time when victims of rape were often revictimized by the law enforcement procedures that followed. “She was a trailblazer,” O’Dell said of the detective. “She was very comforting to me.”

Investigators soon developed an outline of their suspect: an agile young man, just under 6 feet tall and with a size 9 shoe, whose tactical precision suggested military or law enforcement experience.

He was also particularly audacious: After a local newspaper noted that he raped his victims when no man was at home, Daly recalled, he began assaulting women while tying up their husbands.

This calculated audacity fed into the suspicion that, at the very least, the perpetrator had had law enforcement training.

The rapes and murders continued for years in California locations far beyond Sacramento County. In 1986, the predator’s 12-year rampage of break-ins, violence, and death stopped — at least, it seems, in California. Twelve dead, at least 50 women raped, and more than 120 homes burglarized.

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The reasons remain unclear. Daly surmised that the killer had lost his agility to outrun police officers, or perhaps had come so close to getting caught that he decided to stop. “I felt that something happened that he just wasn’t able to do those crimes anymore,” she said.

Late last year, law enforcement officials had uploaded the suspect’s DNA profile, culled from the scene of a 1980 double murder in Ventura County, to a website dedicated to genealogy.

That approach was a Hail Mary from Paul Holes, an investigator with the Contra Costa district attorney’s office who had worked the case for 24 years and was about to retire.

Four months of sleuthing on the genealogy website led to distant relatives of DeAngelo, and from there genealogists helped pinpoint DeAngelo himself — whose DNA, taken from items he discarded outside his home, was a match with the killer’s, according to the police.

On Friday afternoon, DeAngelo was rolled into a Sacramento County courtroom, his wrists shackled to his government-issued wheelchair.