American author Michelle McNamara (pic.) researched the Golden State Killer for years.
She even wrote a New York Times bestselling book about the man who raped and murdered dozens from 1976 to 1986 in Southern California: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For The Golden State Killer.
(The book was released in February this year and is reviewed here.)
Earlier this year, a suspect was arrested in the case, but McNamara wasn’t there to see it. The true-crime writer died unexpectedly in her sleep in 2016 aged 46, leaving it to friends and family to celebrate her determination to see what she saw as a “solvable case” solved.
“When everyone woke up to that news, we were like, ‘Holy s***,” says Kera Bolonik, a resident of Brook-lyn, Illinois, where McNamara grew up, and the writer’s friend for 32 years.
“There’s a lot of pride and some sadness that she’s not here to experience that pride and relief and elation, but ultimately, what she did want to happen did happen.”
What McNamara wanted was for an identification to be made and resolution found for the victims and their families, Bolonik says.
The perpetrator was also known as the East Area Rapist and suspected of murders and rapes in 10 counties throughout California. While armed and wearing a mask, he would enter through windows at night and surprise sleeping victims who ranged in age from 13 to 41.
“Michelle said this guy wasn’t a genius, he just practiced a lot. That’s what this guy did,” Paul Haynes, a researcher who collaborated with McNamara on the book, said on My Favorite Murder, a weekly true crime podcast.
Former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, has been charged with several counts of murder. Sacramento County officials say DNA collected from a Golden State Killer crime scene was compared to online genetic profiles on genealogical sites to find him.
When the news broke, McNa-mara’s sister Maureen Stratton says the whole family was ecstatic but “so distraught” that her younger sister was not there to enjoy it.
Just before they got the news, the family was at an event for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark in an Illinois bookstore in April with McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, Haynes, and Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist who also collaborated on the book.
“We were in Naperville for the book event and (Haynes and Jensen) seemed very confident, talking about it like it was just a matter of time that an arrest was going to happen,” Stratton, a Northwestern University law professor, says.
“And I remember thinking to myself: ‘They’re never going to find him.’ I did not have that confidence, so it truly was stunning and shocking when we heard later, and I think we all just cried. I think we were all like, ‘Omigosh, this is incredible.’”
Stratton recalls McNamara’s writing of the book and the investigation of the case being a sort of push-and-pull that weighed on her.
“She just kept thinking: ‘I think we can solve this, I think we can solve this.’ She just felt so strongly that this was solvable and that it really needed to be solved because all of these victims … so it was her life’s mission to figure it out.”
Amid expressing their pride in her work and drive, McNamara’s circle reflected on her writing path – from poetry to editor of the Oak Park River Forest High School newspaper to short stories and, ultimately, true-crime writing. Her blog, TrueCrimeDiary, created soon after her marriage to Oswalt, according to Stratton, focused on hundreds of unsolved crimes. But it was the Golden State Killer that was her most defining case, Haynes says.
“Ultimately Michelle’s objective was singular: to identify the Golden State Killer,” he says. “It’s so sad that she died without knowing this person’s identity; it’s so sad that Michelle is not here to celebrate this momentous thing, which is really the prize at the end of the maze that she was seeking.”
After the arrest, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones told reporters that McNamara’s work helped build interest in the case – interest that led to television networks HLN and the Investigation Discovery channel doing series about the case – but he didn’t go as far as saying her book led to a suspect.
Haynes says otherwise.
“Without Michelle’s book and Michelle’s involvement, the motivation and thrust to solve this case wouldn’t be there, so I would say that Michelle’s involvement absolutely had an influence on this case being resolved,” says the Los Angeles-based researcher.
Bolonik agrees: “When you read her book, she was kind of putting pieces together. … Nobody knew that it was this particular guy; the cops who had been working on the case for 20 years didn’t know,” she says. “But Michelle had a very clear sense of what kind of person they were looking for and how it was going to come about – through DNA, genetic testing.
“She suspected, she says in the book, that he was connected to the military somehow, that he must have been in law enforcement. Plus she named him the Golden State Killer, which allowed all these jurisdictions to come together – that was the umbrella. Her work and the ability to talk among all these jurisdictions, it enabled her to look at information in new ways and ask questions that had never been asked.
“It was a cold case. No one was talking about this case. It had just languished. But she brought attention to it with her blog and through her article and then with her book. It created a sense of urgency that was so crucial. … She lived and breathed this.”
As the case evolves, McNamara’s sister wants people to remember one thing about her “brilliant, funny” sister.
“It wasn’t about solving the case and getting the glory. She wouldn’t care about that at all. She just wanted to put a face and a name to this horror and get some peace for people. I think she was a very selfless person that way,” she says.
HBO Documentary Films has acquired rights to the book for a docuseries of its own. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service