For years, the Golden State Killer had been a cold case long abandoned by California police, but journalist Michelle McNamara, along with a few fellow sleuths and internet friends, turned the heat back on an investigation that would eventually become a national news story.
McNamara’s long chase would become an exhausting and all-consuming one, its grip on her so tight that it led to a homebrewed cocktail of pharmaceuticals that were meant to alleviate the stress but instead aggravated an undiagnosed heart condition and killed her. In a way, that made the 46-year-old McNamara the long-dormant killer’s final victim, but she ultimately achieved the justice for which she was searching: Two years after her passing, around the same time that her book about the chase, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was posthumously released, the killer was finally caught.
McNamara was obsessed with unsolved mysteries since she was a teenager
McNamara had been morbidly fascinated with unsolved mysteries and grisly crimes since she was in high school, when a woman was murdered just a few blocks from her childhood home. She later moved to Hollywood to become a writer and married comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who encouraged her to start that blog and pursue her twin passions, researching cold cases and writing about her findings with literary flair. And so in 2006, McNamara started a blog called True Crime Diary, providing her an outlet for her nascent career as a crime writer.
She first learned about the mysterious Golden State Killer case from reading a self-published book by one of the few remaining law enforcement agents that seemed to care about the case, a retired detective named Larry Crompton, and a Google search brought her to a message board devoted to the A&E show Cold Case Files, where McNamara found a community also obsessed with the odd saga.
It was originally two cases, later fused together with the help of new DNA testing technology. Between 1976 and 1979, a serial rapist assaulted around 50 women in Northern California, earning the nickname the East Area Rapist before seemingly going dormant. In reality, he really moved down to Southern California, where he killed around a dozen people and became known as the Original Night Stalker before murdering for the last time in 1986.
She came up with nickname for the serial criminal, helping to revive the case
In 2011, DNA testing revealed that the rapist and murderer were one in the same, creating the acronym mashup, EAR/ONS. It was McNamara who gave the mysterious monster the moniker of the Golden State Killer, a nickname meant to reflect his reign of terror across all of California.
The rebranding helped put the killer back in the spotlight, and McNamara made sure to fill her blog and articles for Los Angeles Magazine with identifying details. In a 2013 story, she wrote that he was tall, caucasian, with eyes that were either blue or hazel and a high-pitched voice in which he ranted about his poor finances.
McNamara pieced together clues and different leads with her message board comrades, some of whom had access to files and confidential information. As she became more obsessed and turned the case into her full-time job, she hired a research assistant named Paul Haynes.
In the 2013 piece for Los Angeles Magazine, she describes a close message board friend giving her tours of the neighborhoods and crime scenes in Northern California where the Golden State Killer’s decade of serial assault began. That friend was nearly a victim herself; the assailant would stalk his prey, learning all about them and calling their homes repeatedly. She received the calls, but never the visits.
The obsession and drive to catch the killer wasn’t an illness or vanity project. McNamara had bigger, more selfless motives.
“For digital sleuths, a killer who remains a question mark holds more menace than a Charles Manson or a Richard Ramirez,” she wrote in LA Magazine. “However twisted the grins of those killers, however wild the eyes, we can at least stare solidly at them, knowing that evil has a shape and an expression and can be locked behind bars. Until we put a face on a psychopath like the Golden State Killer, he will continue to hold sway over us — he will remain a powerful cipher who triumphs by being just out of reach.”
The quest to find the killer began to take a dark turn
Over time, her crusade took over her life. She and Oswalt had a young daughter, and McNamara was a homemaker and present mother during the day, but her evenings were consumed by the hunt for the Golden State Killer. No minutiae was too small, no lead too frivolous. She got to know police officers and detectives, acquired thousands of pages of evidence and plotted out an investigation that branched out into the horizon.
“She fell down a wormhole — she had a room full of bankers’ boxes of files she was going through,” Sarah Stanard, one of McNamara’s close friends in Los Angeles, told Vulture in 2018. “It wasn’t uncommon for her to not leave the house for days. And she told me she’d have a survivor or a victim’s family calling or emailing her every day. Above all, she wanted justice for them.”
McNamara died suddenly on April 21, 2016, in the middle of an investigation that she felt was finally beginning to make real progress. Her husband had no idea that she was mixing dangerous drugs to cope with the stress; he only found out after she passed, from the coroner’s report.
“It’s so clear that the stress led her to make some bad choices in terms of the pharmaceuticals she was using,” Oswalt told the New York Times. “She just took this stuff on, and she didn’t have the years of being a hardened detective to compartmentalize it.”
The case and coverage continued after her death, with help from her widowed husband
Her book was about half-written when she died, but Oswalt didn’t want all that work to go to waste. So he hired Haynes and an investigative journalist named Billy Jensen to make sense of her thousands of files and handwritten notes and finish the book. It reads like a brilliant woman’s investigation and unraveling, then a post-script written by other people, laying out their best guesses of where her search would have taken her next.
The year she died, authorities in California opened up a task force devoted to finding the killer, counting on tips from the public and DNA evidence.
The Golden State Killer was finally caught in 2018, just months after McNamara’s book was released. The serial rapist and murderer was a former police officer named Joseph James DeAngelo who left the force after being caught shoplifting. While police were reluctant to give McNamara credit, Oswalt defended his late wife and said it would have never happened without McNamara’s public crusade.