Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – Hunting the Golden State Killer

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. This is what makes the Golden State Killer into a real-life boogeyman.

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.

A brief history of the Golden State Killer

The crimes began in 1976 with a series of home invasions in Sacramento. A young man would appear in women’s homes and threaten them through gritted teeth as he tied them up. He would rape them and trash their homes stopping to eat food from 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, stalking families and slinking away before anyone could catch him.

He was nondescript. A blonde? A dirty blonde? A brunette? During his attacks he wore a ski mask, but many survivors remembered his cold blue eyes.

Between 1976 and 1979, he attacked nearly 50 people in Northern California including in Sacramento, Modesto, San Jose, and Walnut Creek. He would tie up couples, assaulting the women over the course of an entire night while their husbands and boyfriends lay helpless in the other room.  Between 1981 and 1986, there were a series of murders that claimed 10 lives in Santa Barbara, Ventura, And Orange Counties.

DNA puts the pieces together.

One of the cold case investigators referred to the killer as the Original Night Stalker, referencing how similar his methods were to Richard Ramirez. The awkward name stuck. 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. It wasn’t until 2001 that the DNA evidence connected the Northern and Southern California attacks. There was no recorded suspect to match it 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 he could still be caught.

Michelle McNamara was one of those people.

Michelle McNamara wrote a blog called True Crime Diary. In 2013, she wrote an atmospheric and nuanced piece for Los Angeles Magazine and re-dubbed the EAR/ONS the Golden State Killer. Commenters were critical of her new name for the killer, but I think it brought more attention to him and unified his identity. It’s less confusing and easier to remember. Basically marketing 101.

Many creators barely contain their prurient interest in serial killers, but McNamara’s work conveys a pure determination to uncover the truth. She, other amateur sleuths, and retired investigators refuse to let the Golden State Killer be the one who got away. She was working with people who compiled databases, and used geographical tools to whittle down possible suspects.

Unfinished business

Michelle passed away in 2016, in the thick of her investigation. At only 46, she accidentally combined several prescription drugs and exacerbated an undiagnosed heart condition. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, said that she’d been working doggedly on the book and was severely sleep deprived. It’s hard not to feel more resentment toward the killer because of this. As if he claimed another victim.

Fortunately, other investigators took up the project, and Oswalt worked with them to finish what Michelle started. Cowriters make clear delineations between Michelle’s writing and their supplementation. They admit that they tried to imitate her style but were unable to pull it off. She’s empathetic, fluid, sincere. Oswalt has a warm, but not cloying afterword. But Michelle gets the last word with her “Letter to an Old Man.” It’s a direct challenge to the Golden State Killer himself, urging him to come into the light. And promising him that one day he will have to.

I really hope she’s right.

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