Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Few lurking threats keep one awake at night more than a home invader. Especially one who comes when you are home and at your most vulnerable: lying in bed on what seems like a normal night. Alone. Or even next to your partner. After all, they are sleeping too.

From the first time I stumbled upon the story East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (sometimes called EAR/ONS), I was horrified and intrigued. The story was unexpectedly relevant to me. Two of the Southern California murders happened in a city where I had once lived, very close to people I knew well. I discovered it in the same way that we discover many horrible things: clicking through Wikipedia articles. In my case, it was looking at suspected Zodiac murders that brought me to this case that had happened not only in my backyard, but up and down California.

The crimes began in 1976 with a series of home invasions in Sacramento. A young man would appear in women’s homes, tie them up, and then alternate attacks with trashing their homes and eating food out of their refrigerators. Then he escalated, attacking couples in their beds–shining a bright flashlight in their faces and subduing them before they even had a chance to react. He was spotted skulking through neighborhoods, watching families and individuals, but would slink away before anyone could catch him. He was nondescript. A blonde? A dirty blonde? A brunette? And during his attacks he wore a ski mask.

Between 1976 and 1979, he attacked nearly 50 people in Northern California including in Sacramento, Modesto, San Jose, and Walnut Creek, mostly tying up couples and assaulting the women over the course of an entire night.  Between 1981 and 1986, there were a series of murders–mostly couples in their beds–that claimed 10 lives in Santa Barbara, Ventura, And Orange Counties. One of the cold case investigators referred to the killer as the Original Night Stalker, referencing how similar his methods were to Richard Ramirez, and the awkward name stuck. It wasn’t until 2001 that the DNA evidence connected the Northern and Southern California attacks.

East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker combined into the extra-ignorable “EAR/ONS.” Most people had no idea the monster had ever existed.

He was reckless in a way that today’s criminals could not be in an urban area without being caught after the first few incidents.  His fingerprints and DNA were everywhere. But the database that stores DNA is only dependent on arrests and is confined to California. And if he’d never been arrested for anything else, or if he’d only been arrested out of state, there would be nothing to match him to.

That’s why so many people are baffled that he has never been caught. I’d kept that morbid curiosity quietly to myself. Others pursued the mystery with dogged persistence, confident that even though he was so stubbornly under the radar, he could still be caught. Michelle McNamara was one of those people.

Michelle McNamara was a true crime writer who kept up the blog True Crime Diary and wrote an atmospheric and nuanced piece on what she re-dubbed the Golden State Killer for Los Angeles Magazine. Many commenters are critical of her new name for the killer, but I think creating a new name for this previously obscure character brings more attention to him and unifies his identity. It’s less confusing and easier to remember. Basically marketing 101.

While many writers, podcasters, and filmmakers can barely contain their prurient interest in serial killers, McNamara’s work conveys a pure determination to uncover the truth. She cooperates with other amateur sleuths and retired investigators who refuse to let this be the case that got away. She was working with people who were creating historical databases, trying to use geographical tools to whittle down who had lived or worked in those different locations at those particular times and fit the profile.

Unfortunately she passed away in 2016, in the thick of her investigation, at 46. She had an undiagnosed heart condition and accidentally combined several prescription drugs in a way that exacerbated it. She was married to comedian Patton Oswalt, and he said that she’d been working doggedly on the book and was sleep deprived for a long time leading up to her death. It’s hard not to feel more resentment toward the killer because of this–as if he claimed another victim.

Fortunately, she had several passionate investigators working with her, and a loving husband with the resources and clout to make sure the book got done. Cowriters make clear delineations between her writing and their supplementation. They admit that they tried to imitate her style but were unable to pull it off. It’s empathetic, fluid, sincere. Oswalt has a warm, but not cloying afterword. But Michelle gets the last word: a direct challenge to the killer himself, an assurance that at some point a light will be shone on him.

I really hope she’s right.

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