Michelle McNamara was a beloved fixture in the true crime community, known first for her blog True Crime Diary where she connected with other websleuths to work on cold cases from their living rooms. The stay-at-home mother of one, and wife to comedian Patton Oswald, was found unresponsive by her husband on the morning of April 21, 2016 after an accidental combination of medications interacted with an unknown heart condition. She was only 46. Michelle’s sudden death left a massive work unfinished that Patton has since prepared for publication. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer ended up much different than she intended, and the second part of the title is apt. The book is full not just of case details, of theories and questions, but full of her, the strong, thoughtful person who dedicated herself to taking down a sadistic killer she never met and never would.
Michelle would wait until her daughter was napping and then pour over message boards full of other true crime obsessives. Her focus eventually centered on an unknown serial killer and rapist who had been active in Northern California in the 1970s and 80s, known to police as the Original Night Stalker, with an MO similar to the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, who began his spree of rapes and murders just as the Original was settling down. Michelle says she read all 20,000 posts about the killer on A&E’s message board for their now-cancelled show Cold Case Files, as well as the single self-published book that existed about the case, Sudden Terror by retired detective Larry Crompton. She was shocked at how little attention this unidentified serial killer was receiving in the mainstream.
Also known as the East Area Rapist and the Diamond Knot Killer, it was Michelle that gave him the name that will undoubtedly stick: The Golden State Killer. He seemed to target upper middle class neighborhoods, often striking homes that were mere blocks from one another. There are at least 45 rapes and 12 murders attributed to him. As Michelle worked pouring over the evidence, she also met with detectives and online sleuths, trying to find the missing links that could finally crack the decades-old cold case. In 2013, she organized her research and experience into an incredible article for Los Angeles Magazine.
Michelle said that her obsession with unsolved murders began in 1984, when she was just 14. Her neighbor and fellow church member, Kathleen Lombardo, was found in an alley with her throat cut. Michelle describes secretly walking to the scene of the crime a few days later, picking up pieces of Kathleen’s broken Walkman. The man, who was seen by neighbors watching Kathleen as she jogged, was never caught.
Like many serial killers, the Golden State Killer graduated slowly from burglary and rape into murder, meaning that many of the women and girls (and their husbands or boyfriends) that he bound and assaulted heard his voice, saw his eyes through the ski mask he wore, smelled his aftershave, and would never forget, never fully heal from the electrifying trauma that he caused, nor would their loved ones. He would get to know his victims before he entered their home, always through the window, prying it open, always choosing single story homes near schools, creek beds, or the woods, so he could escape more easily. He played the long game, practicing what appeared to authorities as detailed reconnaissance, often calling their homes prior to the attack, sometimes hanging up, sometimes threatening them. Almost all the victims who were left alive told police that they had seen someone prowling outside in the days leading up to the attack. He would sometimes continue to call the homes after the assaults, demonstrating a truly sadistic nature, one that thrived on the power of creating fear. Michelle writes:
The Golden State Killer was a destroyer of all that was familiar and comforting to his victims. Sex was secondary to instilling terror. It’s no accident that one of his signature threats was “I’ll be gone in the dark.” He wasn’t a mere rapist. He was a phantom who kept his victims perpetually frightened with the threat that he lurked, ligatures in hand, around every corner of their unassuming tract houses.
She goes on to point out that the Golden State Killer could have never predicted the forensic breakthroughs that were to come in the mid 1980s, and it is likely that his crime spree halted in 1986 due to this fact alone. DNA profiling revolutionized police proceedings, and the Golden State Killer was not a stupid man. Michelle wonders over and over again what his life looks like now, about the people who know him without knowing all that he has done, and all that he is still capable of.
These serial killers start to live in our consciousness, to take up more and more space. They enter like vampires that we have invited in, and they reenter at will. They continue to take in invisible ways, the way the Golden State Killer took without heed, even from those of us who never saw his face, never smelled the sickening mist of his aftershave hovering in the room, never heard him chanting gonna kill them gonna kill them from another room. They take up space inside of us, they wake us up in the night, they quicken our hearts and put knots in our stomachs. Some people do not understand the ones who let these murderers in, who study them, who stalk them right back in the ways that they can, like Michelle did, from a laptop in her living room, and eventually out onto the very streets they walked. The ones who become human bloodhounds, following the shiver of fear left behind in each neighborhood. The courage of that, the sacrifice, the dedication of facing true horror, is not one that always gets the respect it deserves. Sometimes people have a hard time understanding this type of work, that someone would voluntarily study a serial killer. But sometimes obsession itself serves as the only real way to find what you are obsessed with and to end it.
The desire to simply see his face, to identity this man, seemed of paramount importance to Michelle. It was about more than justice; it was about what unknowns do to our collective subconscious. It was about the fear that these killers left triumphantly in their wakes, along with the trauma and grief. She knew that a question always yields more pain than an answer:
For digital sleuths, a killer who remains a question mark holds more menace than a Charles Manson or a Richard Ramirez. However twisted the grins of those killers, however wild the eyes, we can at least stare solidly at them, knowing that evil has a shape and an expression and can be locked behind bars. Until we put a face on a psychopath like the Golden State Killer, he will continue to hold sway over us—he will remain a powerful cipher who triumphs by being just out of reach.
When Michelle writes, I’ve studied the Golden State Killer’s face, drawn from composite sketches made decades ago, more than my own husband’s, you can feel the sacrifice. The way that these serial killers can become more than they are, which is simply pathetic, empty husks seeking power over people who are physically weaker, but actually stronger in every other conceivable way. They can become symbols for the fear we are forced to feel in a world that seems to pump out floods of brutality continuously, the way a heart pumps blood. But Michelle also felt his weakness, felt herself as having the power, and appeared absolutely unafraid in her writing. She let him into her mind, and she saw him as he truly was and possibly, still is (the FBI calculated an 85% chance that he is still alive):
Sometimes after he violated someone, the bound, blindfolded victim would later recall hearing him in another room of the house, sobbing. Once, a victim remembered hearing him cry out over and over again: Mummy. Mummy. Mummy. Another woman said he told her that news reports of his crimes “scares my mommy.”
The Golden State Killer’s weakness was most palpable when a notebook of his was found at the scene of one of his assaults, displaying the kind of self-pity that narcissists and psychopaths often muster for themselves, a gentle sympathy for their own (often mundane) pain, and a complete and utter disregard for the pain of everyone else:
Mad is the word that reminds me of 6th grade. I hated that year
I wish I had know what was going to be going on during my 6th grade year, the last and worst years of elementary school. Mad is the word that remains in my head about my dreadful year as a 6th grader. My madness was one that was caused by disappointments that hurt me very much. Disappointments from my teacher such as field trips that were planned and then cancelled. My 6th grade teacher gave me a lot of disappointments that made me very mad and made me built a state of hatred in my heart, no one ever let me down that hard before and I never "hated anyone" as much as I did him. Disappointment wasn't the only reason that made me mad in my sixth grade class, another was getting in trouble at school especially talking thats what really bugged me was writing sentences, those awful sentence that my teacher made me write
hours and hours I'd sit and write 50-100-150 sentence day and night I write those dreadful paragraphs which embarrassed me and more important it made me ashamed of myself which in turn, deepdown inside made me realize that writing sentance wasn't fair, it wasn't fair to make me suffer like that, it just wasn't fair to make me sit and wright until my bones ached, until my hand felt ever horrid pain it ever had and as I wrote, I got mader and mader until I cried, I cried because I was ashamed I cried because I was discusted I cried because I was mad and I cried for myself, kid who kept on having to write those dame sentances. My angriness from sixth grade will scar my memory for life and I will be ashamed of my sixth grade year forever
I think Michelle realized, in some small way, that she could beat his curse of fear, of the terror he enjoyed creating so much. Although he occupied much of her thinking, although his crimes and his victims haunted her sleeping and waking life, she stopped the fear of him in front of her like a magic spell, like a force field. It’s because when you really dive into the personalities of serial killers, you see how small they really are. She knew that the obsession hurt her, but she would not give him the satisfaction of her fear.
I wouldn’t even know how to write about Patton’s devastation at finding his wife that morning, but I can write about the way he has honored her memory and her work. Patton hired Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, and Paul Haynes, who worked along side Michelle through the course of her research, to cobble everything together into a publishable manuscript. Patton wrote the afterword, which I imagine will have me in tears. The book ended up less polished than Michelle intended, but in its unfinished structure, the triumph of her unwavering dedication, cut short, is perhaps even more poignant.
Patton knew the importance of Michelle’s work: “I can’t help feeling that somewhere, in her final pages, she left enough clues for someone to finish the job she couldn’t—to put California’s worst serial killer behind bars,” he said.
Michelle often wrote through the night on her book, with an MFA in fiction under her belt. And her writing is truly good, a rarity in the genre of true crime, making her an even more important fixture in the lexicon. The power in Michelle’s writing surges into me. I feel emboldened when I read it; I feel like I can take on abusers simply with my mind, with my words, with my wit. Michelle may have died too soon, but in her wake she has left a quiet, simmering power that lives on in those of us dedicated to hunting the people who hunt us.
And yes, an irony exists. The notoriety that we give to serial killers certainly feeds their weak and beastly egos, and perhaps inspires others, the way that mass shooters can dedicate their killing sprees to those who came before. Michelle knew this. Still, without the public’s interest, without the creation of a catchy name, without a story, these cases slowly start to vanish. It is this same notoriety that strikes a rare fear into killers, the same that often leads to capture. It is their sensational nature that imprints on our culture, that inspires empathy and indignation, the kind that fuels a fire of public outrage, and puts pressure on investigators, links us all together as a massive database of possible clues, possible leads. Perhaps someone does know something, but they might not know they know without the work of the media. It’s a catch 22, certainly, but sometimes one has to ignore the philosophical questions in hope of stopping real, tangible pain and death. The Golden State Killer had to be named. And now, he has to be famous or we may never find him:
A handle that perfectly crystallizes the creepiness, menace, and horror of the perpetrator and what he or she has done can’t help but captivate the public’s imagination. A grisly pathological signature left at crime scenes will have the same effect. Either will put added pressure on politicians and police departments to apprehend the killer as long as he remains at large, even if he retires from murder and mayhem. And it will linger with the popular culture long after the perpetrator has been caught, with tales retold in best-selling books and feature films. But he benefited from not having a name people knew.
Michelle’s writing is so inspiring to me because she doesn’t hide from herself, and she doesn’t hide from the big questions, often analyzing her role in the world of true crime, and true crime’s affect on her. She doesn’t remove herself from her writing, all of it is very real to her, very close and very much about herself. She reflects starkly on her own mind and heart, her own personality; she uses the grueling work of tracking down a serial killer to understand her own emotional life, and in turn, leads us to think about our own. She feels the cost of all of this, and yet.
It’s clear that Michelle could not stop working on this case, and due to her untimely death, never did. She died combining anxiety meds with painkillers, her unwavering heart, unbeknownst to her, beginning to stop. Patton believes that she used these drugs to cope with the gruesome reality she chose to study every night. Fear got her, certainly, but it was a general fear, a fear of the possibilities of our sometimes frightening world. It was not a fear of him.
Michelle was dedicated to finding that single face, a face that terrorized, his effect rippling out through families, communities, the country at large, a face that sobbed somewhere after he killed but did not ever, in a single moment of empathy, offer himself up to justice. It was a face she died never getting to see, a face that now, as Michelle remarked, likely walks among us unremarkably. I want to see that face.
Michelle writes: I’ve always been a restless, jittery sleeper, prone to waking with a start. One night I’d fallen asleep after reading the Original Night Stalker police files. The bedroom door creaked open. I heard footsteps in the dark. Without thinking, I grabbed the lamp on my nightstand, leaped from bed, and lunged at the figure in the room. It was my husband. When we discussed the incident later, what was curious to us both is that I didn’t scream. In fact, I didn’t even swing the lamp. I just asked a question: “Who are you?”
It was the only question I had anymore.
And now, it’s up to us to answer that question. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is out February 26th. Here’s an excerpt. Let’s get to work.