In 2011, DNA testing confirmed what investigators had suspected for years: The man behind the grisly slayings of beautiful 35-year-old Cheri Domingo and her 27-year-old boyfriend, Greg Sanchez, was the sadistic Golden State Killer, a notorious criminal responsible for 45 rapes and 12 killings in California in the 70s and 80s. The couple was found bludgeoned to death in a Santa Barbara home in 1981; Cheri was beaten and killed, and Greg, who attempted to save her, was shot in the face. The case quickly went cold and would remained unsolved for decades. Until now. On Wednesday, suspect Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested and booked on two counts of murder, according to The New York Times.
Will there finally be justice for Cheri? Her daughter Debbi Domingo, who was at a friend’s house that fateful night, opens up to GoodHousekeeping.com about cheating death and finally catching the elusive murderer who ruthlessly took her mother’s life.
When I saw the yellow tape, I knew something was wrong. It was mid-afternoon on July 27, 1981, and I was 15 years old. My mom’s best friend had just called the movie theatre where I worked. Thank God, you need to come home, she said, desperately. Debbi, you don’t understand. As I got in the car, I thought to myself, What’s so darn important?
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When we turned the corner onto our street, I saw the bright caution ribbon wrapped around our house: Oh, that’s what’s so important.
Several police vehicles were parked in the cul-de-sac as news crews and gawking neighbors stood across the street. I was scared, but I wasn’t sure what of.
“I want to go inside my house. When can I go in the house?” I told a police officer. He said, “You can’t; it’s too messy.”
After what seemed like forever, I was finally told two dead bodies had been found, but they hadn’t been identified yet. I put two and two together: If there’s two bodies in our house, it’s my mom and her boyfriend, Greg.
I didn’t know it then, but the killer who murdered them is known as the Golden State Killer. He was a methodical planner. He did reconnaissance and scoped out the neighborhoods, the houses, and the people he targeted. If I was there that night, I probably would have been murdered, too. And he’s still out there, somewhere.
My mom was my best friend growing up. She was only 19 when I was born, so when we’d go out to eat, she’d order a glass of wine with dinner and the waiter would ask her for her ID. She’d blush, and I’d bust out laughing, like “Come on, that’s my mom!
When I was 12, my parents divorced. My dad left for San Diego and mom stayed in Santa Barbara. My brother and I alternated between homes. She went to work for a computer firm, where she met Greg Sanchez. They dated on and off again for years. He was about seven years younger than my mom, but they were very much in love. And I of course thought he was handsome and charming.
By the time I turned 13 or 14, I started getting rebellious. I would break curfew and be up late talking on the phone when I should have been sleeping. I started smoking cigarettes and dating boys my mom would never have approved of. By the time I finished my sophomore year of high school, I was longing to do my own thing.
We’d argue over stupid stuff. There were times I’d storm out of the house and stay with friends for a couple of days.
On one occasion, I’d been gone for about three weeks, staying with a girlfriend 10 miles away, and I realized I’d left my favorite bathing suit at home. I called her on Sunday, July 26, 1981, the day before she was killed, and said, “When can I get my bathing suit?” She said, “If you don’t live here then you forfeited everything that you left.”
“Why don’t you just stay out of my life!” I shouted, and hung up.
Those were the last words I ever spoke to her. That final conversation haunted me for years. The guilt has been overwhelming at times, but now I know she knows I loved her and I didn’t intend to leave things that way.
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The following day, I learned more about my mother and Greg’s extremely brutal murder. My mom’s best friend’s husband was the one who identified mom’s body, and I later found out it took him a long time to do so because of the nature of the killing. At that time, nobody suspected it was a serial killer. Our neighborhood was safe: no car accidents, no robberies. I mean, nothing.
I spent hours talking to police. They asked me about mom’s habits and the people she knew. Did she have any jealous ex-boyfriends? Any enemies at work? Did she sell drugs? Dad was questioned extensively. They sat him down in the master bedroom and grilled him to get a confession, but his alibi checked out.
Police couldn’t come up with any good motives or leads. It was a mystery right from the get go, and it went very cold very quickly.
We spent the next few days packing up the house and preparing for a memorial service held at a church in nearby Montecito. After that, I moved to San Diego to live with my dad, stepmom, younger brother, and two step-brothers.
In the first few years that followed, I’d have dreams where I was home and asleep in my bed the night of the murder. In this dream, I could hear the killer breaking in, and I could hear a scuffle going on, and I could hear my mom scream. But I was able to pick up the phone and call the police and they came and saved the day. In my dream, everybody lived happily ever after.
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I’d wake up from that dream, thinking, Ugh, Debbi. You screwed up. You should have patched things up with your mom, and you should have been home where you belonged, because everything would have been fine.
I know how unrealistic that is, but the mental and emotional torment from everything took a toll on me, gradually building and building over the years. I eventually lost touch with Greg’s family and my mom’s side of the family. Our family felt broken.
I never really got mad at God, but I was in shock for a long time. I shut everything out, and it stayed that way for about 20 years. After finishing high school, I eventually started my own family. I developed depression and drug addiction issues. It kept getting worse and worse, until, basically, I hit rock bottom. I was a single mother with multiple children in foster care. I was homeless and addicted to drugs. I was hopeless.
It was at that really low point in my life where I had no choice but to pull myself out of it.
My children were living with my brother and his wife and they’d make arrangements for my visitation. At one point, my brother told me, “You should come over on a Saturday afternoon and stay overnight. Then, we’ll go to church in the morning.”
I jumped at the chance to sleep under the same roof as my kids. But going to church was hard. I’d sunk so low and my self-worth was non-existent. It was humiliating, so I sat in the back row and I tried to be invisible. But then something miraculous happened. The pastor kept quoting this verse: “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I felt like God was whispering in my ear over and over again, “I want to carry your burden.” I was so moved and so humbled.
I’m not going to say the heavens parted or anything like that, but I thought: “There really is a God who loves me, and cares about me, and wants to help me.”
From that point on, doors started to open. People came into my life who were able to help me with things like self-discipline and getting and holding a job. I regained custody of my children and now I have a successful marriage, relationship with my children, grandchildren and extended family. And I have a career in corrections. The family I’d become estranged from for many years? I’ve started rebuilding those relationships.
I didn’t have much contact with the investigators over the years, but in 2002, I got a call from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office saying they were actively investigating mom’s case again. The department believed the killing was related to a series of murders and rapes.
I was shocked.
My life had been so impacted by the wreckage of what the murderer left behind, but I’d finally been able to move on into a normal life. They believed her case was likely connected to a series of killings and rapes all carried out by the same man. He was called the East Area Rapist or the Original Night Stalker and, later, the Golden State Killer. About 10 years later, forensic experts extracted DNA samples that officially proved mom and Greg were murdered by him.
I’m 20.5 years sober right now, have a great family, and I feel incredibly blessed. The only thing that was missing? A lack of closure in my mom’s case.
Have police finally caught the Golden State Killer? He’d be in his 60s or 70s today and I used to picture him shopping in a grocery store or driving on a freeway or coaching a baseball team or he’s sitting on a front porch drinking iced tea.
For years he’s gone to great lengths to stay undetected, but we need to find him, I’m ready for peace.
Debbi Domingo shares her story in GOLDEN STATE KILLER: IT’S NOT OVER, a documentary on Investigation Discovery.