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By Erik Ortiz

In 1976, nursing student Jane Carson-Sandler was living northeast of Sacramento, California, when she says a man wearing a ski mask and black leather gloves broke into her home and held a butcher knife to her chest as she lay in bed.

Her 3-year-old son was beside her.

"Shut up or I'll kill you," she remembered the man saying through what sounded like clenched teeth.

The man blindfolded and gagged both her and her child with shoelaces and cloth, Carson-Sandler said. Then, he raped her.

For the next 42 years, she lived with the fear and trauma of the unknown — until Wednesday, when police in California announced they had caught the man suspected in at least 45 rapes, 12 deaths and 120 home burglaries in the 1970s and '80s.

Police said they used DNA to tie Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, to at least four killings in Sacramento and Ventura counties. He was charged with eight counts of murder, but is expected to face dozens of more charges.

"I feel like I'm in the middle of a dream and I'm going to wake up and it's not going to be true," Carson-Sandler, now 72, told The Associated Press. "It's just so nice to have closure and to know he's in jail."

But Carson-Sandler, who wrote the 2014 book "Frozen in Fear" about her experience, also wants the chance to look her alleged rapist in the eyes.

Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were found beaten to death in their home in 1980 in Orange County, said DeAngelo's arrest will launch a healing process for victims that has been delayed for decades.

"It is time for the victims to begin to heal," Harrington said at a news conference in Sacramento.

Image: Golden State Killer Joseph James Deangelo
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, of Citrus Heights, Calif.Sacramento County Sheriff's Department

Despite an outpouring of thousands of tips over the years, DeAngelo's name had not been on the radar of law enforcement before last week, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said.

"We knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack, but we also knew that needle was there," she told reporters. "It was right here in Sacramento."

DeAngelo, who was arrested Tuesday night at his modest home in Citrus Heights, had worked at a Roseville distribution center for Save Mart grocery stores for 27 years before retiring last year, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Save Mart said in a statement that DeAngelo's actions at work never set off any alarms or led employees "to suspect any connection to crimes being attributed to him."

In the 1970s, he was an officer at two different police departments: in Exeter, south of Fresno, and Auburn, near Sacramento. He was reportedly forced out of Auburn after being charged with stealing a hammer and dog repellent from a drug store in Citrus Heights.

The crimes DeAngelo are accused of stretched across California.

An armed and masked prowler sneaked in through windows at night and surprised sleeping victims who ranged in age from 13 to 41.

When encountering a couple, the Golden State Killer was known to tie up the man and pile dishes on his back. He threatened to kill both victims if he heard plates crash to the floor while he raped the woman. He then ransacked the house, taking souvenirs, notably coins and jewelry before fleeing on foot or bicycle.

Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones said detectives with "dogged determination" were able to get a sample of DNA from something DeAngelo discarded, though he wouldn't say what the item was. The genetic material was not a match, but there were enough similarities for investigators to return for more until they were able to get a conclusive match.

Jones said investigators still can't say definitively whether DeAngelo actually killed or raped people while he was on duty.

"We are trying to fill a lot of gaps in his life," the sheriff said. "We don't have a full picture yet."

DeAngelo has grown children who are cooperating with investigators, he added.

The cold case's profile gained renewed attention in recent years because of journalist Michelle McNamara, who wrote the best-selling book, "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," about her obsession with finding out the identity of the Golden State Killer.

McNamara died in her sleep in 2016, and the book was finished with the help of her husband, the actor and comedian Patton Oswalt.

"She always said: 'I don't care about credit. I want to know that he's in jail,'" Oswalt said Wednesday on NBC's "Late Night with Seth Meyers."

"And now he's caught," Oswalt said, "and it feels like this thing that she wanted so badly is now done."

Joe Fryer and Associated Press contributed.