“We always catch the dumb ones,” cops like to say. They could tick off ninety-nine out of a hundred boxes with these kinds of arrests. That one unchecked box though. It could vex you into early death.
I bought my copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer at a March event in San Francisco featuring the late Michelle McNamara’s husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. I had become intrigued by the case several years ago when McNamara wrote a piece about the man previously known as “EAR/ONS” (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker—McNamara was marketing-savvy enough to know that a catchy name is essential in generating interest in a cold case) for Los Angeles magazine. The article featured an email sign-up form at the end, promising to keep readers updated on new developments. I submitted my address, looking forward to finding out more about the hunt for a man who had committed heinous crimes not far from where I live, terrorizing this area long before I moved to California.
Sadly, McNamara died before the killer was caught, and before she finished her book. Oswalt gave the researchers she had been working with access to her voluminous files and notes, and they completed her work. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a testament to her skill as a writer and her colleagues’ determination; there are notes in the book indicating when the duo, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, are working from notes, early drafts of her Los Angeles article, or interview transcripts.
So this is not the book McNamara would have released into the world had she lived, but we’re lucky to have this version of it, because it’s an instant classic in the true-crime genre. There are plenty of thoughtful passages where you can tell how immersed she became in the case, like this one, where she tries to truly understand the man she’s been tracking for so long: “Violent fantasy advances to mental rehearsal. He memorizes a script and refines methods. He’s the maltreated hero in the story. Staring up at him anguished-eyed is a rotating cast of terrified faces. His distorted belief system operates around a central, vampiric tenet: his feeling of inadequacy is vanquished when he exerts complete power over a victim, when his actions elicit in her an expression of helplessness; it’s a look he recognizes, and hates, in himself.”
I will admit that I was kind of scared to read the book because I’m a little bit of a true-crime wimp (at least I can reassure myself that fictional murders are simply the product of some writer’s imagination), but once the Golden State Killer was caught, I immediately picked it up, figuring that it would be less creepy once he was no longer on the loose. To be honest, I’m glad I waited, because it was fascinating to read it in light of what we now know about James DeAngelo, the man investigators are convinced is the culprit. “If we could just submit the killer’s actual genetic material… to one of these [DNA] databases, the odds are great that we would find a second or third cousin and that person would lead investigators to the killer’s identity.” Bingo.
For armchair crime buffs, it’s perhaps a little disappointing that DNA ultimately brought down the killer instead of the obsessive sleuthing of both professionals like ace investigator Paul Holes and enthusiastic amateurs like McNamara and Haynes. Known online as “The Kid,” Haynes compiled a 118-page document “with some two thousand men’s names and their information, including dates of birth, address histories, criminal records, and even photos where available.” We now know that DeAngelo’s name was almost certainly not among them. And yet, reading this book after DeAngelo’s capture shows how correct some of the hunches were. Holes told McNamara that he felt the killer may have attended California State University, Sacramento; that turned out to be right, since news stories following his arrest have revealed that he graduated from that institution with a criminal justice degree.
Why did his killing spree come to an abrupt end? “After May 4, 1986, you disappear,” writes McNamara. “Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change… memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves. You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.” On April 24, 2018, it finally happened, exactly as McNamara predicted it would: “The tables have been turned. Virtual windows are opening all around you. You, the master watcher, are an aging, lumbering target in their crosshairs… Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”