Michele Magwood
Michele Magwood
Image: Shannon Daniels

A writer’s book has helped to crack a cold, decades-old, serial-killer hunt in the US. Tragically, she died before the suspect was arrested. Michelle McNamara was obsessed with the case of the so-called Golden State Killer, a man who sowed hell across California in the ’70s and ’80s, notching up 12 murders and close to 50 rapes. His victims included women at home on their own, and women at home with their children. He then went on to rape women with their husbands present before murdering them both.

He was described as a six-foot tall, white male with blond hair and a peculiar, gravelly whisper, wearing gloves and a ski mask. He would pause for a snack after raping the women, sometimes piling their husbands with plates and warning them he would kill them if he heard the china rattle. Many he did kill, by shooting them or bludgeoning them to death with whatever was at hand.

Communities panicked. Open neighbourhoods became fearful and kept their doors and windows locked. Families bought guns. One woman slept with an ice pick under her pillow. In those days before cellphone records and advanced DNA analysis the police had little to go on. And then, in 1986, the murders abruptly stopped and gradually the case went cold.

Michelle McNamara was a teenager in a suburban Illinois town when a woman was murdered while out jogging. The police never found the killer, but the case sparked an interest in the writer about unsolved murders. She started a true-crime blog in 2006, and soon one case became her sole focus: the Golden State Killer. For years she gathered evidence and research, convinced that she could solve the mystery. “It became her career,” says her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt.

But it might have cost McNamara her life. Over the five years of her research she became anxious and exhausted. She died in her sleep in 2016, at the age of 46. An autopsy found that she had an undiagnosed heart condition, and had taken a mix of prescription drugs for pain and anxiety.

Oswalt was heartbroken but was determined that the book his wife had been writing should be finished. “She was close to figuring it out,” Oswalt told the The New York Times. He hired an investigative journalist, Billy Jensen, and Paul Haynes, who had worked with McNamara on the book as a researcher. Together they pieced together the story, using her handwritten notes and thousands of files on her computer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark — the Golden Gate Killer once taunted a victim by saying: “You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark” — was published in February, with a foreword by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, and it quickly sold 150,000 copies. The enormous publicity around the book reignited interest in the case and police in Sacramento reopened it.

'I'll Be Gone in the Dark' by Michelle McNamara
'I'll Be Gone in the Dark' by Michelle McNamara
Image: Supplied

In April, Oswalt and the two writers were at the launch in Chicago, where they said they were confident the killer was close to being found. And he was. At 4am in the morning Oswalt’s phone buzzed with the news that a suspect had been arrested. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was hiding in plain sight in Sacramento, living quietly with his daughter in an ordinary suburb, a half-hour drive from where the 12-year rampage began.

He is a former cop, which is no doubt why he was able to evade arrest for years. Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and entered the genetic profile of the suspect into an online genealogy database. Officers found distant relatives of DeAngelo and traced their DNA to him. They tailed him and collected his DNA “from the public domain” before knocking on his front door. At the time of writing, DeAngelo is on suicide watch in prison and hasn’t entered a plea. He has been charged with six counts of murder so far.

Jensen and Haynes are hard at it updating I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. It would be something of a Hollywood ending to say that McNamara had identified DeAngelo in her investigation, but he wasn’t even on her radar. There’s no doubt, though, that the publication of her book stirred the authorities to blow off the dust on the files.

When news of the arrest broke Oswalt said he felt a strange mix of elation and deep sadness that his wife wasn’t alive to witness it. He hoped to visit DeAngelo, he said, and confront him with questions that McNamara had planned to pose. “It feels like the last task for Michelle, to bring him her questions at the end of her book — just to go, ‘My wife had some questions for you,’” he said.

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