To catch a serial killer
One woman’s obsession with One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Everyone had a story. Some firsthand, many passed down from parent to child. Each with similarly eerie details: The sound of twigs snapping underfoot in the backyard on a moonless night. An unnerving sense of being watched by someone driving slowly down the street. The whir of police helicopters overhead, circling endlessly.
Everyone had a story about the Golden State Killer, it seemed, except me.
When police announced they’d finally arrested the suspected serial killer and rapist, however, I gasped with shock.
I’d lived in Sacramento for years but never heard of the Golden State Killer, also known as the East Area Rapist (or EAR) and Original Night Stalker, until nearly five years ago when a friend emailed, wondering if I had any memories of him. She was asking for a writer researching the subject, she said. Before my time, but it sounded fascinating, I replied—then tucked the mention of him deep into the recesses of mind.
In April, I finally picked up that writer’s book, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, and realized how closely his crimes once tracked a path through my community.
Then, on April 25, authorities announced they’d arrested a suspect, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, now charged with 12 counts of homicide, including the 1978 murders of Brian and Katie Maggiore. Turns out he’d been here this whole time, living in Citrus Heights for the last 30 years.
Police captured the former Auburn police officer after linking him through DNA evidence, and if they were right, they’d found the man responsible for killing a dozen people, raping as many as 50 others and burglarizing more than 120 homes across California in a crime spree that ranged between 1976 and 1986.
Finally, closure for the victims and their families. Relief for the detectives who’d spent decades chasing down clues. Validation for McNamara, who’d put in years exhaustively researching her subject in hopes of identifying him through geographic profiling, DNA and other clues.
Did Michelle McNamara ultimately help nab the Golden State Killer?
“That’s a question we’ve gotten from all over the world … and the answer is no,” Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones told reporters after DeAngelo’s arrest.
Her work kept the story in the public eye, Jones said, but that’s it.
“There was no information extracted from that book that directly led to the apprehension,” he said.
Others disagreed, including those who helped to complete the book after McNamara died unexpectedly in 2016, and her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, who posted a video to Instagram the day news broke.
“Looks like they’ve caught the East Area Rapist, and if that’s true they’ve caught the Golden State Killer,” Oswalt said wearily into the camera. “I think you’ve got him, Michelle.”
’I’m more optimistic there will be closure here’
The email landed in my inbox on November 1, 2013.
“Do you guys remember the East Area Rapist? There’s a writer who runs a crime blog who’s been working on the case and almost has it solved,” Apryl Lundsten wrote in a message addressed to several family members and high-school-era friends, including me. Lundsten, a writer and filmmaker now living in Los Angeles, had reached out to McNamara after coming across her True Crime Diary blog.
“I wrote to her immediately, because this story has haunted me for years,” Lundsten explained.
In her correspondence with Lundsten, McNamara, who’d also written on the subject for Los Angeles magazine, sought to learn more and better understand Sacramento.
“I’m just looking for those kind of flavorful details that make good writing—where did the kids hang out?” she wrote. “What were considered the nicer neighborhoods and/or did neighborhoods have kind of reputations or vibes about them? Did it seem like a scary time in the ’70s or more a small town feel?”
She seemed confident, too, that she’d get her man.
“By the way, the investigation is progressing rapidly,” McNamara wrote in closing. “I’m more optimistic there will be closure here than I’ve ever been.”
Most of Lundsten’s friends were too young to fully understand the EAR’s crimes, but recalled their parents’ fears.
“I think it was before I really grasped what rape even meant,” one woman wrote, adding a detail that stuck with her over the years. “My mom started to sleep with a hammer under her pillow.”
Lundsten shared these and other memories with McNamara, many of which eventually ended up in the book. Part memoir, part true-crime study, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark mined rich detail from interviews, police reports and newspaper clippings. The prose is concise yet elegant, the reporting meticulously researched. McNamara’s interest in the case was rooted in another unsolved murder.
McNamara was 14 and living in Oak Park, Ill., when a neighborhood woman, 24-year-old Kathleen Lombardo, was dragged into an alley while out jogging one late summer evening. There, someone slit her throat as McNamara, less than a half-mile away in her attic bedroom, daydreamed about starting high school. The murder haunted McNamara.
“[T]he monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write,” she wrote in her first chapter.
I picked up the book a few months after its February release and found myself consumed with McNamara’s obsession. I read passages aloud to my husband, pored over details with friends and hijacked my book club discussion.
I’d moved to Sacramento in 1983, several years after the EAR’s last known crime in the area. But now McNamara’s obsession became mine as I read stories that crisscrossed through the quiet, leafy suburban neighborhoods where I spent my teenage years, including a possible sighting of the EAR at the elementary school my brothers attended, just a few blocks from our house. It seemed obvious to me that her book, at least in some small way, led to DeAngelo’s arrest.
In the course of her research, for example, McNamara made a critical decision to rename the East Area Rapist. “Golden State Killer” was more accurate, she reasoned, because his crimes eventually stretched up and down the state. There was another justification, too.
“Here was a case that spanned a decade. … Neither the Zodiac Killer … nor the Night Stalker … were as active,” she wrote. “Yet the Golden State Killer has little recognition. He didn’t have a catchy name until I coined one.”
A bold move, sure, but one that stuck. Upon his arrest, local law enforcement agents used McNamara’s nickname.
McNamara would never see this nod to her moniker. The 46-year-old writer died in her sleep, the result of a previously undiagnosed heart condition worsened by painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. It was April 21, 2016—just two months before Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced the formation of a Golden State Killer task force and a $50,000 reward.
Journalist Billy Jensen doesn’t believe the timing is coincidental. Jensen worked with McNamara, conducting extensive DNA research they hoped would eventually unmask the GSK. After McNamara’s death, he helped complete the book, piecing together notes and interview transcripts and revising rough drafts. McNamara’s tenacious reporting shouldn’t be dismissed, he says.
“We’d been doing the same thing [law enforcement were doing],” Jensen says. “We were putting his [DNA] profile into public databases. It was just a matter of time.”
Paul Haynes, a researcher who worked with McNamara for seven years, devising geographic profiles of the killer and researching any and every lead, echoes this sentiment.
“Michelle put the spotlight on this case in a way that had eluded it before,” he says. “It created an impetus in the various agencies to continue to put in time and resources.”
It’s hard not to connect the dots between spotlight and outcome, between her death and that press conference.
“It’s the timing of the book that’s gotten us here. It’s writing the article, it’s her working with so many people and putting it out there,” Jensen says. “It’s her dying.”
The East Area Rapist case dogged Gary Gritzmacher for decades.
It started February 2, 1976, when the 27-year-old narcotics detective was working in Rancho Cordova, more worried about area drug dealers than murder. Then he got the call from dispatch. Reports of shots fired. He and his partner raced to the spot where Ryan and Katie Maggiore lay bleeding. They were the first ones on the scene.
Katie Maggiore was already gone, but Gritzmacher jumped in the ambulance, hoping to get something from her husband. He rode with him first to Mather Hospital and then later to UC Davis Medical Center where Maggiore died without giving a statement.
Gritzmacher would spend years working on the case, laboriously sifting through tips and clues.
“In those days we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have DNA, we operated off of a three-by-five lead card,” he says.
Eventually he moved to a different beat but never stopped thinking about the East Area Rapist.
Gritzmacher kept in touch with other detectives working the case. He never met McNamara nor heard of her book until DeAngelo’s arrest.
“I don’t think [the book] had anything to with his arrest and neither does Anne Marie Schubert,” he says.
For her part, Schubert says the timing of the press conference after McNamara’s death was coincidental. The task force had formed loosely years before as a way for detectives to share information. Its official launch and subsequent reward were meant to capitalize on the 40th anniversary of the EAR’s first known assault. For Schubert, the case was personal.
“I knew this case not only as a professional but [for] its significance on the Sacramento community,” says Schubert, who describes growing up carefree in her Arden-area neighborhood until reports of a killer on the prowl made parents take new safety measures and usher kids in long before dark.
“It significantly changed the community in the way of fear; we went from an innocent town to a place where people locked their doors and women took self-defense classes.”
Schubert says she first started looking into the EAR when she formed a cold case unit in the DA’s office in 2000. McNamara’s book didn’t solve the case, Schubert says, but it did bring helpful attention.
“I never met her and I haven’t read the book but I have tremendous respect for her work,” Schubert says. “The story … kept people passionate about the case.”
The idea that McNamara’s work didn’t help, at least indirectly, is false, Jensen says.
“It wasn’t necessarily the book, it was Michelle—it was Michelle working on her book,” Jensen says. “Once she died the whole world knew about the Golden State Killer.”
Certainly, a quick skim through LexisNexis, the database archiving decades’ worth of newspaper articles, reveals that Schubert’s first public mention of the “Golden State Killer”—McNamara’s nickname for the killer—didn’t occur until that 2016 press conference. Sheriff Jones, elected in 2010, never publicly mentioned the East Area Rapist until that same day.
The rush to distance the case from McNamara’s work is political, Jensen says.
“If you talk to the investigators [who continued working on the case] they would tell you something different.”
’One day soon’
Paul Holes is one of those investigators. The former Contra Costa County detective officially retired in March but stayed involved up until DeAngelo’s capture; he even helped write the suspect’s arrest warrant and is credited for tracing the genetic bread crumbs of DeAngelo.
He spent a lot of time with McNamara, too, driving her around the GSK’s crime scenes in the East Bay and Davis. He remembers McNamara as thoughtful, curious and knowledgeable.
“[Our] initial phone call, she was zinging me left and right with very detailed questions,” he says.
Initially, Holes worried he’d given away too much but that first Los Angeles magazine article proved otherwise.
“Once Michelle gained my trust, I was very open,” he says.
Holes, along with the other detectives working the case, eventually agreed to cooperate with McNamara, and the two regularly traded leads, clues and theories.
“She was naturally gifted,” he says. “I got [information] from her that I’ve never seen before in the case.”
McNamara was as much a part of the Golden State Killer team as anyone else, he adds.
“She was my investigative partner,” he says. “She was embedded as part of a working group. Michelle had access to information no one else had access to.”
Holes hasn’t read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark yet—“my wife says [I] need to hold off because of my emotional attachment to it”—but believes it was crucial.
“There’s no question that Michelle’s role, even outside of the book, is significant,” Hole says. “It goes back to the Los Angeles magazine article, in which she renamed him the Golden State Killer. That was a pivotal change in the public perception of the case.”
Before that, Holes says, interest and attention waxed and waned over the years, never fully gaining momentum in the public eye or with the media. The magazine article, McNamara’s book, the press conference, the tireless detective work and the reward all eventually steamrolled into DeAngelo’s arrest.
Still, Holes is careful to draw the line on giving McNamara’s book direct credit for the arrest.
“Was there that nugget of information that led to DeAngelo? The answer is no,” he says.
What the book accomplished, however, was equally important.
“It didn’t just keep the story alive, it pushed the story forward,” Holes says.
Ultimately, McNamara wasn’t seeking credit anyway. In a tweet, Patton Oswalt said his late wife just wanted the case closed.
“Michelle McNamara didn’t care about getting any shine on herself. She cared about the #GoldenStateKiller being behind bars and the victims getting some relief,” Oswalt posted. “She was Marge Gunderson in Fargo, not Chilton in Silence of the Lambs.”
Jensen agrees. All those years of work weren’t about accolades.
“[McNamara’s] ultimate objective was to see this person identified, and if still living, apprehended,” he says.
Soon, though, more people may know of McNamara’s obsessive dedication. An HBO docuseries is in the works and Jensen and Haynes plan to update I’ll Be Gone in the Dark with Oswalt’s help.
McNamara’s closing chapter in the book perhaps shines the biggest light on her compulsion.
“One day soon you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk. Like they did for Edward Wayne Edwards … like they did for Kenneth Lee Hicks,” she wrote in “Letter to an Old Man,” the prescient final chapter that imagined DeAngelo’s eventual capture and that, in the wake of his arrest, has been widely shared by those struck by McNamara’s final words on the subject. “This is how it ends for you.”