“It was a power play, a signal of ubiquity. I am both nowhere and everywhere. You may not think you have something in common with your neighbor, but you do: me. I’m the barely spotted presence, the dark-haired, blond-haired, stocky, slight, seen from the back, glimpsed in half-light thread that will continue to connect you even as you fail to look out for each other.”
TITLE & AUTHOR: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
GENRE: Nonfiction/True Crime/Mystery
PUBLISHED : February 27th 2018, by Harper
MY RATING: 5/5
Fair warning: this is the longest review I’ve ever written
First there’s the story of me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a true crime aficionado. I’ll never say a lover, or a fan, because in this particular genre it’s insensitive and just wrong. What I mean is, that I’ve always had an unhealthy interest in mysteries, especially the ones involving people. I never knew what exactly led me to it, what was the trigger, but I think I found out in this book. Michelle McNamara was like me. Actually, she went a few steps further, but more on that later. When she was a child, a young girl was murdered close to Michelle’s home, the killer was never found, and then and there she developed this insatiable obsession for mysteries.
“I had no particular interest in crime aside from reading the occasional Nancy Drew book growing up. Yet two days after the killing, without telling anyone, I walked to the spot near our house where Kathleen had been attacked. On the ground I saw pieces of her shattered Walkman. I picked them up. I felt no fear, just an electric curiosity, a current of such unexpected, searching force that I can recall every detail about the moment – the smell of newly cut grass, the chipped brown paint on the garage door. What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me.”
I never experienced anything like that, but I remember one day when I was a kid when my grandma was showing me my mom’s high-school yearbook (Grandma was her teacher), and we would look at these old photos of hippy children all strange to me – their hair styles, clothes, even the tint on the photos was weird and smelled funny. I would point to a picture and my grandma would tell me all about that student – she remembered each one. There were my mom’s best friends, her high school sweetheart, some misfits my grandma fondly remembered, and there was a boy. When I pointed to his picture, my grandma told me some anecdotes, followed by something a child should never hear – a few years after finishing high school, he was found dead at a construction site with his organs removed. No one was ever arrested. I stared at his picture for a long time and even snuck it out a couple more times later, until his face was burned in my mind. I can still see it. I remember feeling devastating sadness, for something so horrible to happen to a young man, for his parents who never found out who killed their son, for the boy who will never grow old, and is now just an image in a yearbook. That resonated deeply with me, and I often remember his picture. There were a few more incidents I won’t mention, some closely related to my family, but the point is that child’s mind absorbs things in a different way than that of an adult. That mystery is haunting me still.
Then there’s the story of the killer. Michelle decided to be a writer around the same time of that childhood incident, so it’s no wonder she ended up a true crime writer, journalist, and aficionado. She was determined to fill in the gaps. She turned her work into an obsession, and the one particular mystery she focused on was that of one of the most prolific killers/rapists in USA, and the one least known, The Golden State Killer. We all know who Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were, but The Golden State Killer was for a long time thought to be three different persons. The Visalia Ransacker, with around 120 home break-ins and ransacking; The East Area Rapist, with more than 50 known rapes; and The Original Night Stalker, named so after Richard Ramirez was dubbed with the same moniker, with more than 10 violent murders attributed to him at that time. The problem was that these three crime sprees were happening in three different California areas, through 70’s and 80’s, and police departments in different counties weren’t exactly known for mutual cooperation.
Over the years, major links were formed through DNA matches, and it was concluded that the same man was responsible for all these crimes, although The Visalia Ransacker is still circumstantial. It’s more than evident that it’s the same man. In the first phase he’d ransack the homes and steal only small, insignificant items; he scaled fences and established multiple points of entry and exit; he was interested in women’s underwear; he’d place dishes or bottles against doors and on door handles as a form of alarm system; he wore gloves. This phase ended abruptly when after 18 months he decided to up his game. He abducted a teenage girl from her home, but bailed after her father started chasing after them, whom he shot and killed.
The second phase spanned 4 years and 51 rapes through Sacramento and surrounding areas. His MO remained the same, except this time he didn’t enter empty homes. He’d scour the neighborhood beforehand, scaling roofs and entering backyards, searching for easy entry points. Sometimes he’d even call the victims and just breathe into the phone. A few days after, he’d pay that same woman a visit, raping her in the night. He payed so much attention to every detail, that no one was able to catch him. Then he moved on to couples. He upped his game again. He’d make a woman tie up her husband, and then he’d place a set of dishes on the man’s back, telling him that if he hears a sound of porcelain moving – he’d kill them both. After the crimes were connected and made public, Sacramento went into a frenzy, a war-like state. People massively started buying weapons and sensor lights, trimming trees and hedges where someone could easily hide; couples slept in shifts, or stayed awake through the night. Then suddenly he was gone.
The third phase, in a different California area, started as a botch. He tried to up his game once again, and after tying up the couple the same way, he started muttering he’ll kill them. The couple managed to run away, and he fled. The second attack turned into a double murder, after the man apparently tried to fight him. The killer fled, possibly thinking the neighbors were alerted by gunshots. After that, he learned from his mistakes. Each subsequent attack was the The East Area Rapist style, ended with silently bludgeoning his victims. After 1981 he was gone for 5 years, came back for another murder in 1986, and then disappeared forever.
“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves. You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”
And now comes the story of Michelle. She spent years of her life actively pursuing this mystery. She was the one who named him The Golden State Killer. From starting a true crime blog, she went to hanging out with investigators, visiting the old crime scenes and scouring through dusty boxes of evidence. She put this story into a spotlight for years, rousing interest in worn out detectives. A significant part of her life was dedicated to this case, so naturally she started turning it into a book. This book, which she never got to finish because she died in 2016, mystery unsolved.
“The book you just read was as close as she got. She always said, “I don’t care if I’m the one who captures him. I just want bracelets on his wrists and a cell door slamming behind him.” And she meant it. She was born with a true cop’s heart and mind – she craved justice, not glory.”
In this book, you’ll learn more than sheer facts and MO’s I’ve listed. You’ll learn stories from victims’ lives, and that they were more than names on Wiki with expiration dates. You’ll feel empathy towards them, and a sheer hatred for the killer. You’ll learn of the numerous opportunities he might have been caught, were it not for the neighbors’ fearful silence, and were there more inter-county cooperation. Many detectives who were haunted by this case never gave up, unless stopped by old age and death. One of them is Paul Holes, who Michelle befriended and who he called an honorary detective. She sparked a new interest in him, and made him go on, even after her death.
“There’s no question as to Michelle’s impact on the case. In the words of Ken Clark, she brought attention to one of the least known, yet most prolific serial offenders ever to operate in the United States. If I hadn’t read the reports for myself during my years of investigation on this case, the story would be almost unbelievable. Her professional research, attention to detail, and sincere desire to identify the suspect allowed her to strike a balance between the privacy of those who suffered while exposing the suspect in a way that someone may recognize.”
A small portion of this book is also a memoir, where Michelle reflects on her difficult relationship with her mother, her daily life with her husband and daughter, the moment she realized she was neglecting them while pursuing her one obsession. You’ll quickly realize this book is a masterful legacy, not only because it revived interest in a heavily neglected crime spree, but also because it left a standing monument for a smart, passionate and determined woman, who didn’t give up until the day she passed.
The doorbell rings.
No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.
This is how it ends for you.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.
Open the door. Show us your face.
Walk into the light.”
She would be happy today. I’m 100% certain her efforts made a significant shift towards this case, made some eyes look closer, some hands dig deeper. Only two months after this book has been published, The Golden State Killer was caught. His name is Joseph James DeAngelo. He came into the light.
Out of all detectives mentioned throughout the book, Paul Holes resonated with me the most, probably because he was one of the last ones with interest in GSK, sparked by Michelle, and continuing vigorous research after her death. He continued checking online DNA databases regularly, and shortly before his retirement he got that incredulous match – he got him. He and Michelle, in my opinion. If you’ve read and liked the book, this interview with Holes might be interesting. I actually cried when he mentioned her. After more than 40 years, they got him.
“I’ve now come to realize that getting excited about a suspect is a lot like that first surge of stupid love in a relationship, in which, despite vague alarm bells, you plow forward convinced that he is the One.”