"The great tragedy of this case is that it's not better known," says Michelle McNamara in old footage from HBO's new six-part docuseries about the Golden State Killer, I'll Be Gone in the Dark.
McNamara not being better known herself feels similarly unjust, with the writer dedicating years to tracking down the criminal who would finally be caught two years after her death, largely as a result of her work.
Between 1974 and 1986 three violent crime sprees shook the Californian communities of Visalia, Sacramento and Santa Barbara, with a string of burglaries, thefts, vandalism, rapes and murders earning the unknown perpetrators the names the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker.
It wasn't until 2001 that DNA testing established that the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were in fact the same man, leading to the case being a factor in the establishment of California's DNA database, which collects DNA from all accused and convicted felons in the state.
That the crimes of these different figures had all been committed by one man is shocking when you consider authorities were looking at catching a man who had committed at least 13 murders, more than 50 rapes, and over 120 burglaries over the space of 12 years and hundreds of miles across California.
In 2012, writer Michelle McNamara started investigating these cases, publishing a series of articles in Los Angeles magazine about the man who she termed the Golden State Killer, a name which was later widely adopted. Her detailed and sensitive reporting raised awareness about the killer and linked together the different cases by finding commonalities between these crimes, armed with the knowledge that the same man would have left clues in the patterns of his crimes.
This methodical and intelligent detective work wasn't her first foray into investigating criminals either. Back in 2007, before McNamara started covering the crimes of the Golden State Killer, she also ran a blog called True Crime Diary where she correctly connected the cases of two missing people ahead of the police catching kidnapper Michael Devlin and beat the police to yet another case years before. A creative writing graduate, McNamara started the blog because she "realised there was so much information online available about these unsolved cases that wasn’t making it to the news."
In her reporting McNamara pieced together clues about the Golden State Killer's identity that he had inadvertently given, this included more obvious aspects about his appearance but also correlations between his behaviour that people had noticed.
In one Los Angeles magazine article from February 2013 titled 'In The Footsteps of a Killer', she wrote of home invasion he committed Stockton in September 1977: "At that time the Golden State Killer, as I’ve recently come to call him, hadn’t yet graduated to murder. He was a serial rapist who was attacking women in their bedrooms from Sacramento to San Ramon, targeting those who lived in quiet upper-middle-class suburban neighbourhoods. He was young—anywhere from 18 to 30—Caucasian, and athletic, capable of eluding capture by jumping roofs and vaulting tall fences. He frequently wore a ski mask. He had either blue or hazel eyes and, some victims reported, a high-pitched voice. He would rant to his victims about needing money, but he frequently ignored cash, even when it was right in front of him."
This writing lead to a publishing deal on her reporting but in April 2016, two years before her best-selling book I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was published, McNamara died during her sleep. It was only two months after its publication in August 2018 when McNamara's widower, the actor Patton Oswalt, was on a publicity tour and received a call to say that Joseph James DeAngelo had been arrested for the crimes she had been documenting since 2012.
The Golden State Killer had been tracked down through a genealogy website after the killer's DNA profile from a rape kit was uploaded to the genomics website GEDmatch. From there they were able to find 10 to 20 people who had the same great-great-great grandparents as the Golden State Killer and narrowed down the killer from that list using a family tree.
DeAngelo is a 74-year-old United States Navy veteran who worked as a police officer from 1973 to 1979, around the time he started his first spree of crimes vandalising houses. While alone in a police interrogation room after his arrest he offered a cryptic confession, saying that he had committed the crimes because of an inner personality named Jerry.
"I didn’t have the strength to push him out." he said. "He made me. He went with me. It was like in my head, I mean, he's a part of me. I didn't want to do those things. I pushed Jerry out and had a happy life. I did all those things. I destroyed all their lives. So now I've got to pay the price."
On 29 June 2020 DeAngelo plead guilty to 13 murder charges and kidnapping charges related to as many rapes in a deal to avoid the death penalty.
HBO's series, which is airing at a time of heightened interest in the case, interviews the survivors and their families to show the scale of the trauma caused by the Golden State Killer. It is also a testament to McNamara's dogged pursuit of a ruthless criminal in a case where she showed respect to the legacy of the victim's rather than sensationalising their deaths or focusing on gory details as though they are entertainment.
I'll be Gone in the Dark is available on Sky Atlantic in the UK now
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