People get obsessed. They get obsessed with growing orchids. With the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Browns. With the stock market. With mountain-climbing. With old books. With eating fancy meals.
Michelle McNamara was obsessed with tracking down the man she named the Golden State Killer.
This obsession grew out of her website True Crime Diary, launched in 2006. In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she explains:
When my family goes to sleep, I time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology. I start clicking, scouring the Internet for digitized clues authorities may have overlooked, combing digitized phone books, yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world. I share my theories with loyal regulars who read my blog.
I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests. The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most.
When the rapist-killer was active from 1976 through 1986, his crimes occurred in and around three California locations: Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Orange County. He was known as the East Area Rapist for 51 sexual assaults in Northern California and as the Original Night Stalker for 10 murders in Southern California. Much later, DNA tests showed that the criminal in both was the same man who was then referred to as EAR-ONS.
In addition, the perpetrator in those crimes is also suspected of being the Visalia Ransacker, responsible for one murder and more than 100 burglaries in central California in 1974-1975.
A testament to McNamara
McNamara’s book is about her search for the killer. It displays her vast knowledge of the crimes, her interactions as an “honorary investigator” with detectives, her sensitivity to the victims and her, well, obsessive doggedness.
She was in the middle of writing the book when she died unexpectedly in her sleep on April 21, 2016.
Using her 3,500 computer files of notes, her husband, the actor-comedian Patton Oswalt, and two friends completed the book for her, and it was published February 27, 2018, quickly becoming a non-fiction bestseller.
Fifty-seven days after the publication of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark — and more than four decades after the first crimes — police arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop, and charged him with 12 murders. They said they had tracked him down through matching DNA with one of his relatives on an ancestry database.
The arrest, said Oswalt and others, was a testament to McNamara and to the light she shone on the cold cases during her persistent research and her writing online and in print publications over the course of a decade.
Reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark a month after DeAngelo’s arrest, I was very aware of how justly proud McNamara would have been. I was also sure that she would have been fascinated to find out the details of the actual guy who was, allegedly, responsible for these dozens of crimes.
But I also had the sense that, after euphoria wore off, she would have felt a huge letdown.
Consider this: For ten years, she had been devoting much of her time, her energy, her imagination, all her many skills to trying to track down the Golden State Killer. As she says in her book, she was in it for the chase.
While writing about a meeting with another amateur sleuth obsessively trying to identify the killer, McNamara explains:
I once spent an afternoon tracking down every detail I could about a member of the 1972 Rio Americano High School water polo team because in the yearbook photo he appeared lean and to have big calves (at one point a purported EAR-ONS trait)….In the police files, suspects’ names are often logged last-name-first, and at my lowest, most dazed point, I actually began looking into one “Lary Burg” before my eyes and brain realigned to recognize Burglary.
The Golden State Killer filled up so much of McNamara’s life that I can’t help but wonder how it would have felt for her to have all that searching no longer necessary.
Would she have found the arrest of DeAngelo deflating?
“My Talmudic study”
McNamara writes that her obsession with unsolved violent crimes dated back to her childhood in Oak Park, a west suburb of Chicago, where, when she was 14, a young woman was murdered in a nearby alley.
Unsolved murders became my obsession. I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word “mystery.” My library record was a bibliography of the macabre and true. When I meet people and hear where they’re from, I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime.
It’s easy enough to say, well, growing orchids fills the world with beauty.
Or that developing an intense knowledge of the players and history of the Cincinnati Reds may not produce much for society in general, but having images of Vida Pinson and Homer Bailey and Jim Brosnan and Johnny Vander Meer dancing in your head isn’t likely to give you the horrors.
Not so with the search for the Golden State Killer, as McNamara notes:
There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now. When my husband, trying not to awaken me, tiptoed into our bedroom one night, I leaped out of bed, grabbed my nightstand lamp, and swung it at his head. Luckily, I missed….In the morning, I remembered what I’d done and winced. Then I felt around the covers for where I’d left my laptop and resumed my Talmudic study of the police reports.
“Long dead and being born”
I didn’t like how this book was intruding its way into my life during the few days I was reading it. Is there a window open? Why is that glasses case there? How easy would it be to case our home?
For McNamara, it would have been so much worse. So why not just walk about from obsessively tracking killers?
I don’t think we have much choice in our obsessions. I mean, if I’m that ga-ga Cincinnati Reds fan, maybe I could just turn away. But I’d probably get hooked on something else, maybe the Cincinnati Bengals.
McNamara didn’t think she had a choice:
Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life — long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer.
The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s DMX bike its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back.
To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot…In my case, the monsters recede by never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.
To catch an obsessive
From the few details that have gotten into the news reports, a lot about DeAngelo doesn’t fit with some of McNamara’s theories.
But her hunch, already being followed by police at the time of her death, that ancestry DNA would lead to the killer turned out to be right.
And, by channeling her obsession in the way she did, McNamara spotlighted the old crimes and raised their visibility. Would the case have been solved anyway? Who can say?
But McNamara was working for the good. In a way, her obsessive work for the good was the flipside of the killer’s obsessive rapes and murders.
Maybe it takes an obsessive to catch an obsessive.
Patrick T. Reardon