How I'll Be Gone in the Dark Really Affected the Hunt for the Golden State Killer

First of all, Michelle McNamara coined the term "Golden State Killer" as she pieced together the almost-forgotten story of one of California's most prolific predators

By Natalie Finn Jul 08, 2020 7:00 AMTags
I'll Be Gone in the Dark, Book Cover, Golden State KillerHarperCollins

For anyone who read I'll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara's meticulous accounting of the crimes committed by a serial killer and rapist who terrorized California for at least 13 years, the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. felt like the righteous culmination of the work that consumed the final years of the author's life.

When DeAngelo was arrested in 2018, the police showing up at his house more than three decades after he'd killed his last victim, McNamara had been gone for two years. The 46-year-old true crime blogger, podcast host and wife of Patton Oswalt died suddenly on April 21, 2016, from an accidental overdose. An autopsy found traces of multiple prescription drugs and a previously undiagnosed condition that caused artery blockage.

She left behind a husband, a daughter and an obsession that her widower and a devoted team of collaborators were determined to see through to the finish line.

"'Please assemble this and try to make it into a book,'" Oswalt, talking to the Los Angeles Times recently, recalled what he told McNamara's lead researcher Paul Haynes and her friend and investigative journalist Billy Jensen.

And that's exactly what they did.

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I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was released on Feb. 27, 2018, proving instant fodder for the world's ever-churning true crime obsession as well as much needed catharsis for Oswalt and everyone who had loved Michelle and supported her massive undertaking.

The title was taken from a rape victim's recall of what her attacker had told her while brandishing a knife: "Make one move and you'll be silent forever, and I'll be gone in the dark.'"

"It takes hubris to think you can crack a complex serial murder case that a task force representing five California jurisdictions, with input from the FBI, hasn't been able to solve, especially when your detective work, is like mine, DIY," McNamara acknowledged in the book's prologue. "My interest in crime has personal roots. The unsolved murder of a neighbor when I was fourteen sparked a fascination with cold cases. The advent of the Internet transformed my interest into an active pursuit."

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After writing about hundreds of unsolved cases on her blog, True Crime Diaries, McNamara chose to dig deeper into the "Golden State Killer"—as she started calling him—after seeing it referenced on TV and then getting her hands on Sudden Terror, a book about the investigation written by since-retired Contra Costa County Sheriff's Detective Larry Crompton, who had been a member of the CCCSO's East Area Rapist Task Force.

"The hook for me was that the case seemed solvable," McNamara wrote. "...I didn't consider him a ghost. My faith was in a human error. He made a mistake somewhere along the line, I reasoned."

That, and as far as she was concerned, it was a scandal in and of itself just how few people were familiar with the case, cold as it may have been.

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Sadly, about 80 percent of the way through the book, Michelle starts being referenced in the third person, marking where Jensen and Haynes took over to get the book finished after she died. The narrative is unmistakably interrupted, but the result of the copious amounts of research and hours spent peering under every stone—as well as a "still to do" list that was dated three days before her death—propelled the story forward.

Or at least as far as was humanly possible without naming a killer.

But on April 24, 2018, two months after the book came out, DeAngelo was arrested.

"I think you got him, Michelle," Oswalt tweeted that day.

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Neither McNamara nor her book was mentioned in the initial hard-news, front-page reporting on the arrest of the "Golden State Killer," and authorities—when asked—said that the book didn't factor into how they found DeAngelo.

"This was a true convergence of emerging technology and dogged determination by detectives," Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones told reporters at the time. "In this case, justice was delayed. It wasn't swift, but I can assure you it will be sure."

But the timing was obviously uncanny, coming 32 years after his last known alleged crime, and two months after the book came out. So what role did I'll Be Gone in the Dark, which does not include the name Joseph DeAngelo anywhere (though of course legally you can't just posit that a private citizen who hasn't been charged with any crime is a possible serial killer), play in how this all turned out?

FBI via AP

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the perpetrator was referred to alternatively through the years by authorities and the media as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Diamond Knot Killer and the Original Night Stalker (the last a reference to serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez, who was sentenced to death in 1989 and died of cancer on death row in 2013—and was so infamous he was a character in American Horror Story).

Because the crimes were so spread out, authorities didn't even conclude that one man was responsible until 2001, when DNA linked cases from the Bay Area and Southern California. 

"Whoever catches the killer is the one who can withstand and stomach the hours and weeks and months and years of going through documents and reports, and running down leads and names and faces," Oswalt said in a Q&A held during the LA Times Festival of Books a couple months after the book's release. "And it's this endless, frustrating thing. That's the most important weapon, I guess, in a serial killer's arsenal: If they want to stay uncaught, they hope people's—they hope their hunter's concentration and endurance will just flag and they'll remain uncaught that way."

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There was, of course, a large group of hunters who investigated the 13 murders and some 50 rapes attributed to DeAngelo, a former police officer and a divorced father of three who was definitively connected to the crimes through DNA evidence and a genealogy service through which they found a cousin of his and were able to trace the DNA.

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But it's evident that McNamara's determination helped drive renewed interest in the case, both among law enforcement and in the public arena—at first through her blog, then with her Los Angeles magazine article "In the Footsteps of a Killer," and then ultimately through both the news that she was busy writing a book when she died and the book's eventual release.

Enough so that, when DeAngelo was arrested, he was by then the suspected "Golden State Killer" as far as the media were concerned, the moniker popularized by McNamara.

Related: Patton Oswalt Speaks Out on Golden State Killer

"There's no question as to Michelle's impact on the case," Haynes and Jensen wrote in the book's final pages, dated May 2017. "In the words of Ken Clark [a detective in the Sacramento Sheriff's Office], she 'brought attention to one of the least known, yet most prolific serial offenders ever to operate in the United States. If I hadn't read the reports for myself during the years of investigation on this case, the story would be almost unbelievable. Her professional research, attention to detail, and sincere desire to identify the suspect allowed her to strike a balance between the privacy of those who suffered while exposing the suspect in a way that someone may recognize.'"

Haynes and Jensen concluded, "We will not stop until we get his name. We'll be playing the detective as well."

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Shutterstock

Per authorities' count, DeAngelo attacked 106 women, men and children in 11 counties all over California's broad expanse, from Sacramento County in the north to Orange County down south, between 1973 and 1986.

He'd break into people's houses while they were sleeping, often calling beforehand and hanging up to make sure they were home. He would tie up whole families and stay in their homes for hours, sometimes helping himself to food in the kitchen. Another of his signatures: before he raped a man's wife or girlfriend, he would tie up the partner and balance dishes on the man's back, warning him that if he heard anything fall he'd kill the woman.

Last month, in order to avoid a trial and the prospect of the death penalty, DeAngelo, now 76 and sometimes in need of a wheelchair to get around, pleaded guilty to everything he had been charged with: 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping for purposes of robbery. He also admitted to 62 other instances of rape and abduction, crimes for which the statute of limitations to charge him had passed. He'll be sentenced to life in prison.

Some of his assault victims, as well as family members of those he'd killed—including six relatives of 18-year-old Janelle Cruz, his last known rape and murder victim—were there in person to witness the proceedings, which were moved from a courtroom to a ballroom at Cal State Sacramento (where DeAngelo received a degree in criminal justice from in 1972) due to social-distancing guidelines. 

HBO

The night before DeAngelo entered his plea, the six-part series I'll Be Gone in the Dark—tracing McNamara's journey from initial obsession to the posthumous conclusion of her book, as well as the specifics and eventual solving of the case—premiered on HBO, ensuring that her work will find yet another audience.

"I remember Michelle ultimately wanted to serve helping to get this guy caught," Oswalt recalls in the premiere. "She looked at it from the hopeful, optimistic, humans putting puzzles together, trying to get closure, trying to make sense of violence and despair."

She didn't live to see it happen, but McNamara—true crime enthusiast turned expert that she was—did predict what caught DeAngelo in the end.

"What drives me is the need to put a face on an unknown killer," she explains in archival footage. "And what I love is this intersection of sort of technology and crime solving, in that people can get wheeled out of their house for something they did in 1957 because of the Internet, because of DNA. I really get off on that…

"Everyone has their cause, and this just feels like what I was born to do. I love digging for clues, I love putting things together, I love the puzzling part of it, I love being wrong—because sometimes it proves that you didn't know enough and you learn new techniques. I love every single aspect of it."

Clues, leads, facts and supposition, false starts and mistakes, progress and real hope: McNamara laid it all out there. And is the case with the best collaborations, the end result stayed true to her vision, and now her painstaking work is made all the more impressive by a story that ends in a period rather than a question mark.