I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
**Update 4/26/2018 - When this book was published it was an unsolved mystery. It got a happy ending yesterday.**
I'd heard about Michelle McNamara before I even knew her name or that she was a true crime writer. She was married to comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who I’m a big fan of, and several of his bits over the years have involved his wife. Per Patton’s descriptions in his routines she was a brilliant woman, far smarter than him, who was always operating at a whole other level.
Now I know what he was talking about after reading this book. It’s about a pure monster that should be one of the best known unsolved crime cases in American history, but many people have probably never heard of the Golden State Killer. It began in 1976 with a serial rapist terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento. His MO was to break into homes in the middle of the night and surprise sleeping victims who he’d threaten with knives or guns. He often targeted couples or families and would rape a woman while her husband or boyfriend was tied up helpless in the next room. He’s also believed to have shot and killed a couple who had the misfortune to encounter him while out walking their dog.
His attacks spread to communities outside of San Francisco, but seemed to stop in mid-1979. Unfortunately, GSK had just moved south to the LA area where he started up again, but his first known attempt was thwarted when the couple fought back, and he narrowly escaped capture. Instead of scaring him off this triggered an escalation after which GSK would kill those he attacked until stopping in 1986, ten years after he began.
The full extent of the damage he’d done wasn’t known until DNA typing of cold cases was done in 2001. This confirmed what several detectives in various jurisdictions had suspected for years. The man called the East Area Rapist (EAR) during his crime spree in northern California was the same man who’d become known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) in the southern part of the state. The statistics of his victims alone are staggering with 50 women sexually assaulted and 12 murders, and those are just the ones that are confirmed. He may have also been responsible for a series of break-ins in Visalia a few years earlier, and if so there’s another murder to hang on him there for shooting a man who stopped an intruder from abducting his daughter in the middle of the night from their home.
It was Michelle McNamara who branded him the Golden State Killer after she began writing about the case on her blog and in magazine articles. She had became interested in true crime as a teenager after an unsolved murder of a young girl happened near her home. A big part of this story is about how this case came to obsess her, and she does not make an attempt to gloss over how much it took over her life. She has one story of asking her husband to leave a movie premiere party because of a new lead she was given that she couldn’t wait to get back to her laptop to start working on it. There’s another heartbreaking moment when she describes an anniversary dinner with Patton where she realized that not only had he given her gifts two years in a row based on her on-going work on GSK, but that she had been so consumed that she’d forgotten to get him anything at all.
Unfortunately, Michelle died unexpectedly in 2016 while in the middle of writing this book. Two of her fellow researchers finished it at Patton’s urging, and I’m incredibly glad that happened because it would have been a shame if the work she did on this hadn’t been revealed so fully.
She was an incredibly gifted writer who can provide detail about GSK’s crime in such a way that we feel the full weight of what he did, and how incredibly scary this story is. It’s there as she details the evidence the police found that showed that GSK was a relentless night prowler who crept over fences, through backyards, across rooftops, and peeped windows from the shadows. It’s in the way she tells us the stories from the victims who were very often sound asleep in their beds and were awoken by a man wearing a ski mask shining a light in their eyes, showing them a knife, and telling them that he’d kill them if they didn’t do exactly what he said. While it never feels exploitive she conveys all the ways that the surviving victim’s lives were changed by the attacks on them. When she describes a detective’s years of chasing dead ends you can feel the frustration, and when she tells the story of a new lead you also start tapping into the hope that this might be the one to break the case.
In addition to being a great writer Michelle was a relentless researcher. I sometimes have issues with books or documentaries about true crime cases because I think it too often it shows confirmation bias or prefers wild conspiracy theories to more likely mundane facts and scenarios. She avoids those by imposing clear and logical standards to this which depended on fact checking and interviews rather than indulging in hunches or pet theories.
It’s very clear from what she wrote here that Michelle believed that this case could be solved with technology. The cops have the DNA of the Golden State Killer to use as the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence. Geo-Mapping his crime scenes should give an approximate location of where he lived. Scanning old case files and using key word recognition and data sorting can bring previously hidden connections to life. DNA databases are growing all the time, and all it takes is one hit from a relative to narrow it down to the family. Michelle was convinced that GSK’s identity was in the existing evidence somewhere, and it’s just a matter of sifting through all the clues to find it.
Because of her death there several parts that rely on her early drafts, notes, old magazine articles, and even a tape she made of the conversation between her and a police detective while showing her some of the GSK’s crime scenes. That gives the book a bit of a disjointed feeling and makes you wish even more that she’d been able to finish it herself, but considering the circumstances it’s unavoidable and doesn’t prevent the full story from being told.
This will be going on my Best-of-True-Crime shelf, right next to In Cold Blood. And if they do ever catch the Golden State Killer I’ll bet it’s going to be due in no small part to the work of Michelle McNamara.
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