Monday, April 30, 2018

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

Reviewed by Christy

            The Golden State Killer wasn’t always called that. In fact, his crimes were so widespread and prolific across California that he held many monikers. It wasn’t until Michelle McNamara’s 2013 article for Los Angeles magazine “In the Footsteps of a Killer” did she publicly coin the more cohesive nickname.

            In the mid to late 1970s, Sacramento was terrorized by a man who snuck into couples’ houses late at night, tied up the men, and raped the women. Many victims told of mysterious footprints around their homes in the days leading up to the attack. Neighbors spoke of suspicious men lingering in the neighborhood who maybe didn’t seem suspicious at the time.  Sometimes the perpetrator would make comments during the attack that made the victims believe he might know them personally. At the very least, law enforcement believed he meticulously planned his attacks and monitored his victims for days before striking. From 1976 – 1979 he stalked Sacramento before slowly moving outside of his comfort zone to other cities, occasionally popping back in Sacramento.   He was known as the East Area Rapist, and he is believed to have assaulted approximately 50 women.

            In the fall of 1979 murders with very similar MOs began occurring in southern California: home invasion late at night, man tied up, woman assaulted. Police communication between districts was very poor at this time so no one made the connection. The murderer was dubbed The Original Night Stalker, and it is believed he killed at least 12 people. It wasn’t until the early 2000s with advances in DNA technology that law enforcement realized the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were one and the same. He then became known as EAR/ONS for short.

            McNamara knew that EAR/ONS was a rather clumsy and confusing nickname. Even among true crime readers, EAR/ONS isn’t nearly as well-known as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, though his depravity could certainly match both. To get the public’s attention he would need something catchier and more succinct: thus the Golden State Killer.

            In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara’s writing is lovely and full of compassion. With so many locations and so much evidence it would be easy to pack the book densely with facts and risk becoming very dry but she avoids doing that. It’s part true crime, part memoir as she examines her obsession with true crime research and briefly touches on her familial relationships. At times it feels a little disorganized but I’m not sure I can really fault anyone for that. While in the middle of writing this book, McNamara died in her sleep from a combination of prescription medication and an undiagnosed heart condition. With encouragement from her husband Patton Oswalt (or begging, as he puts it), her colleagues finished the book as best they could with McNamara’s many, many notes.

            The book is quite sad to read at times for the content alone but also because I felt certain that the Golden State Killer would never be caught. Law enforcement (and McNamara) long thought he could possibly be a police officer or in the military. Being a policeman would explain how he always seemed to be one step ahead of them or how he could possibly track down survivors’ numbers after decades to call them and psychologically torture them once more. It would certainly help keep him above suspicion. But it had been so long. He very likely could be dead. He could go the way of the Zodiac or Jack the Ripper.  I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

            With less than a third of the book to finish, I woke up April 25th to the unbelievable news that the Golden State Killer had been caught. His name is Joseph James DeAngelo, he’s a 72 years old Vietnam veteran, and he was at one point a police officer. He was arrested at his home in the Sacramento suburb Citrus Heights – where at least six of his crimes took place.

Like many others I had one question on my mind: what was it that led investigators to DeAngelo? Since at least five years ago lead investigator Paul Holes was using genealogy websites in hopes of getting a hit on the Golden State Killer or, more likely, a relative. While they could only use genetic markers, as opposed to genetic material, Holes and McNamara were convinced the answer lay somewhere in those sites. The possibility kept McNamara up at night. But and 23andMe would not work with law enforcement in cases such as these, citing their privacy policies. But GEDMatch, per their terms of use, is an open-source genealogy site. After homing in a on a relative, law enforcement put DeAngelo under surveillance. After collecting a discarded DNA sample, they finally got a match.

It’s an ending that Michelle McNamara often imagined.  Oswalt firmly believes that her 2013 article helped renew the public’s interest which ultimately lead to his capture. A task force was brought together in 2016, and he was caught two short years later, so it’s certainly plausible. Regardless, the fact that the “Golden State Killer” has become the go-to nomenclature in regards to DeAngelo speaks to McNamara’s influence.

McNamara didn’t care who caught him, she just wanted him caught. In her book she ends with “A Letter to An Old Man” and describes how she imagines that day would go: a car pulls up in the driveway, the doorbell rings…

 “This is how it ends for you.
‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once.
Open the door. Show us your face. Step into the light.”

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