When true crime journalist Michelle McNamara unexpectedly passed away in April 2016, she was survived by her husband, the actor Patton Oswalt, their daughter, Alice – and an unfinished manuscript that had been five years in the making. McNamara’s death left a gaping hole in the lives of her loved ones; but she was still very much alive in the hundreds of written pages, and more than 3,500 digital files, documenting her obsessive search for the unidentified serial rapist and killer she named “the Golden State Killer.”
The case first captured McNamara’s attention in 2011, when DNA testing confirmed that a 1981 double murder in Goleta, CA, was the work of, as one investigator described him, “one of the least known, yet most prolific serial offenders to ever operate in the United States.” Authorities believe one man is responsible for at least 50 rapes in Northern California, and 10 murders in Southern California, between 1976 and 1986. McNamara was immediately intrigued – cold cases were her thing. Since 2006, she had written about dozens of unsolved murders on her website, True Crime Diary. Quickly, the case became McNamara’s obsession.
The book she was writing at the time of her death was the culmination of years of this GSK-induced mania; ensuring that it would be completed and published as planned was integral to mourning the woman Oswalt called a natural-born “crime-fighter.” McNamara’s lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen began combing through 37 boxes of case files, piles of notes, and interview transcripts, determined to finish what McNamara had started – the meticulously researched, uniquely evocative nonfiction opus, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.
This is no easy feat, especially when you consider the case’s complexity, depravity, and relative lack of notoriety – the Golden State Killer didn’t even have a catchy nickname until McNamara coined one. For many years, these crimes were thought to be the work of two separate and unrelated suspects known as the East Area Rapist (EAR) and the Original Night Stalker (ONS). In 2001, 15 years after the last known attack, DNA testing proved what investigators from various jurisdictions had already come to suspect based on their similar patterns and behaviors — EAR-ONS, as case aficionados sometimes call him, was just one man. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the first book to tackle the full scope of the terror GSK inflicted upon the middle-class subdivisions where he found his victims, and the exhaustive forty-plus-year effort to identify and bring him to justice.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially for a first-time author, but McNamara had the case’s lead investigators on her side – they trusted her with boxes and boxes of investigatory materials, shared candid on-the-record insights rarely revealed to law enforcement outsiders, and valued her contributions to their investigation as if she was one of their own.
“The ability to learn the case, have insights that many do not have the aptitude for, the persistence, and the fun and engaging personality all wrapped up in one person was amazing,” Contra Costa County District Attorney Paul Holes told Haynes and Jensen in the book’s third section, which begins after McNamara’s death.
“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,” said Detective Ken Clark of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
McNamara’s macabre fascination began when she was just 14, when a neighbor of hers was murdered during an evening jog, and curiosity compelled her to visit the alley where the victim’s body was found.
“What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be,” McNamara writes about the murder of Kathleen Lombardo in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me.”
Lombardo’s killer was never caught, and her unsolved murder spawned McNamara’s obsession with all things true crime — but GSK got to her like no other case had since.
“The hook,” she writes, “was that the case seemed solvable.” Police had his DNA, for starters –in fact, the case was a motivating factor in the establishment of California’s DNA database, which authorized the collection of DNA from all accused and convicted felons in the state. While DNA testing has led to the investigation’s most significant developments, it has not yet produced a positive ID.
Still, until he escalated to murder, GSK’s modus operandi had left his victims behind as witnesses. When he first began terrorizing the suburban communities in and around Sacramento County, GSK – then known as the East Area Rapist (EAR) — focused on single women, sometimes with children, creeping into their homes in the dead of night. He soon moved on to attacking couples exclusively, many of whom recalled hearing or seeing a prowler in the weeks prior to the attack, indicating he did reconnaissance before selecting his victims. EAR/GSK would often leave the males of the house bound and gagged, with a stack of dishes piled on their backs before taking his female victims into another room to rape them. If he heard so much as a rattle, he threatened, he would kill everyone in the home.
Some of his victims caught glimpses of their attacker in the terrifying moments after being woken by the harsh glare of his flashlight and before their vision went black behind a blindfold. There were enough commonalities for law enforcement to have a detailed, if somewhat generic suspect description, though it’s been reduced to near irrelevance with the passage of time – a white male between the ages of 18 and 30, approximately five foot ten with sandy light-brown hair. GSK, if he’s still alive, would be in his sixties or early seventies now. More than 8,000 potential suspects, barely a handful of whom were considered significant by investigators, have been eliminated by DNA testing. Some believe GSK must be dead, but not McNamara. In a letter to the killer as an old man, which serves as the book’s conclusion, McNamara taunts, “You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”
A psychological profile of the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez), developed in the mid-’80s, described a chillingly banal sexual sadist who was exceedingly adept at hiding in plain sight. So confident in his ability to stay one or several steps ahead of investigators, GSK would even leave behind clues to help them “connect the dots.”
This signature was “part of the thrill of the game,” McNamara writes, “a power play, a signal of ubiquity.” A number of his separately targeted victims were later discovered to have some sort of shared connection, like the same surname or job; a prolific burglar with a peculiar fondness for pocketing clock radios, GSK would also steal junk jewelry or packs of Winston cigarettes from one crime scene, only to leave them behind at another weeks later.
“I am both nowhere and everywhere,” McNamara goes on, channeling his mindset. “You may not think you have something in common with your neighbor, but you do: me. I’m the barely spotted presence, the dark-haired, blond-haired, stocky, slight, seen from the back, glimpsed in half-light, thread that will continue to connect you even as you fail to look out for each other.”
McNamara’s all-consuming determination to uncover the killer’s identity is the book’s narrative throughline. There are amusing moments — for two anniversaries in a row, Oswalt gave her a GSK-themed gift, while she was so distracted by the case that she forgot to get him anything at all. In the book’s afterword, Oswalt describes of McNamara’s passion with affection and admiration, her bedtime rants about the killer’s methodology being “her version of pillow talk.”
“There were mornings when I’d bring her coffee and she’d be at her laptop, weeping, frustrated and worn flat by another lead she’d chased that left her smashed nose-first against a brick wall,” Oswalt writes. “But then she’d have a slug of caffeine, wipe her eyes, and hammer away at the keyboard again. A new window opened, a new link pursued, another run at this murderous, vile creep.”
With unflinching self-awareness, McNamara captures the adrenaline rush that accompanies each potential lead and the crushing disappointment that follows when most inevitably hit a dead end. The excitement of “falling” for a new suspect is “a lot like that first surge of stupid love,” she write. “Despite vague alarm bells, you plow forward convinced he’s The One,” only he never is.
“My advice? Grasp a straw,” one retired detective tells McNamara. “Work it to dust.”
Her dogged search for a pair of monogrammed cufflinks, stolen by GSK from one of his victims, breathlessly crescendos with the discovery of a similarly described set at an Oregon vintage shop. “I think I found him,” she tells Oswalt, only to learn a few chapters later that they’re not the same pair. Such disappointments are par for the course, and that $8, plus expedited shipping, was still money well spent.
“Seeking is the lever that tips our dopamine gush,” McNamara explains, but it’s accompanied by “the uneasy realization … about how much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior – the trampled flower beds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls – of the one we seek.”
GSK’s victims, most of whom are given pseudonyms, are never far from her mind. The true crime genre has been criticized for exploiting trauma, but McNamara’s attention to specific details – a bridal veil sentimentally hung from a doorknob; the dry, matter-of-fact manner of Sacramento residents; a petty fight over a swimsuit between a teen and her mother – humanizes but doesn’t overexpose her subjects. Their trauma had become a part of McNamara in some small way, and her narration serves as a constant reminder of the case’s emotional and psychological toll.
“There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now,” she writes.
Following his wife’s death, Oswalt acknowledged that the case had taken its toll on McNamara’s health — she was plagued by anxiety and insomnia, and on the nights when she could sleep, she was haunted by nightmares. But even he couldn’t have anticipated the extent to which her fascination with the Golden State Killer would become her undoing. The coroner’s report revealed that in addition to suffering from a previously unknown heart condition, McNamara, seeking a full night of peaceful sleep, had consumed a dangerous combination of pharmaceutical drugs — Adderall, Xanax, and the pain medication fentanyl – and died of an accidental overdose.
Instead of being filled with bitterness toward the obsession that pushed McNamara to her limits and beyond, her loved ones, colleagues, and admirers have chosen to make her mission their own. “We will not stop until we get his name,” Jensen and Haynes promise in the book’s final pages.
We’ll Be Gone in the Dark is narrative true crime journalism at its very finest, a complex, multilayered, chilling portrait of a faceless monster, and a remarkable tribute to the woman who, up until her last day, believed she would one day have him in her crosshairs.