by Michelle McNamara
For 44 years, the Golden State Killer eluded capture for the 13 murders, 50 rapes and more than 100 burglaries he is believed to have committed between 1974 and 1986 in California.
Not until April 2018 were police able to connect DNA collected at crime sites with DNA samples submitted to a genealogical website to identify a suspect: Joseph James DeAngelo, Jr., a U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer, who lived close to where the vicious crime spree began.
According to the New York Times, DeAngelo is expected to accept a plea deal that will allow him to avoid the death penalty, although he will go to prison for the remainder of his life without the possibility of parole. The plea deal has to be approved by a judge. DeAngelo is also expected to admit guilt for numerous crimes for which he was not charged, some of which are past the statute of limitations.
Author Michelle McNamara, who coined the name “Golden State Killer,” captures the serial rapist/killer’s reign of terror in I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK.
In elegant, vivid prose, McNamara draws readers back in time to when Sacramento suburbs were gobbling up orange groves, life was simpler, police departments only loosely connected and DNA databases nonexistent.
Her descriptions of neighborhoods east of Sacramento and in Davis, Stockton, Modesto, San Jose, Irvine, Ventura and Santa Barbara, among others, are like postcards. You can almost smell the eucalyptus leaves as she writes of witnesses telling police of hearing someone walking on their roof, or footprints by a fence or seeing a masked face at a window.
In Walnut Creek, you see how well much-sought after Joseph Eichler-designed, California modern houses, with their glass walls overlooking the backyard, suited a serial killer and rapist. The killer could see into the house; the victim could only see blackness and reflections.
McNamara never turns her story into a rehashing of police reports. She is a master of telling facts and details that highlight the terror.
As the reported rapes grew to an average of two victims a month by April 1977, homeowners began ripping out shrubs and trimming trees to eliminate hiding places. Couples began sleeping in shifts. Women put hammers and ice picks under their pillows before turning out the lights.
Between January and May 1977, nearly 3,000 guns were sold in Sacramento County. In the 24 hours of May 17 and 18, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department received 6,169 calls, most about the person then known as the East Area Rapist. Police began to realize that they were dealing with someone who had great patience and possibly Special Forces-type military training for surveillance and surreptitious movement.
In May 1977, after a total of 23 attacks, deadbolts were on back order. Orders for backyard flood lights went from 10 a month to 600. As a reader, you feel the fright of couples being jerked out of sleep by the blinding light of a flashlight in their bedrooms.
Twenty-four years after one rape, the predator called the victim and asked, “Remember when we played?” His distinctive voice and words brought all the horrors back.
McNamara goes beyond the victims to write about the investigators – both official law enforcement and the amateur sleuths of the internet.
She met with many investigators in the communities that the Golden State Killer terrorized, men who went back to crime scenes again and again; were haunted by what they knew – and what they didn’t. Detectives working on these cases rode a roller coaster of finding promising leads only to have them eliminated with further investigation.
“The first generation of detectives who worked on the case were having health problems. The second generation of detectives, who worked it when they could grab time here and there, were retiring soon. Time was running out,” McNamara wrote.
In the end, neither McNamara’s book and magazine articles nor her blog, True Crime Diary, led to De Angelo’s arrest. They did help focus public attention on the case and reanimate the investigation. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies called a news conference on June 15, 2016, to announce a nationwide effort to find the killer and offered a $50,000 reward for his capture.
It took the advancement of DNA collection, profile building and database evolution for the suspected Golden State Killer to finally be identified and caught. Never having been arrested, his DNA wasn’t in any criminal justice database. But using a genealogical website, police were able to identify relatives and eventually pinpoint , as a prime suspect.
The Golden State Killer case may have one of the first and certainly one of the most publicized cases to use DNA and genealogy databases to find both suspects and victims, but it’s certainly not the only one. One organization, DNA Doe Project, that specializes in this kind of research was able to identify Dana Lynn Dodd, who had remained unknown for 13 years.
Tragically, McNamara died in 2016 before her book was finished. (Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, writer Paul Haynes and true crime investigative journalist and producer Billy Jensen finished it.) Despite their efforts, the book still reads as if it were incomplete.
McNamara’s book won a nomination for the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Non-Fiction Work.
HBO has purchased rights for the book and is developing it into a six-part documentary series directed by Liz Garbus.