The Golden State Killer: Michelle McNamara’s ‘Obsessive Search’ for Justice
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
“If you commit murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn’t just pain but absence, a supreme blankness that triumphs over everything else.” - I’ll Be Gone In the Dark
She was the editor-in-chief of her high school’s newspaper and English major graduate from the University of Notre Dame before going off to write pilots and screenplays for ABC, FOX, and Paramount.
Michelle was a wife, a stay-at-home mother; and she was the woman who helped name and catch the Golden State Killer - a serial killer who committed at least 13 murders, over 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in California from 1977 to 1986.
How did Michelle find herself working alongside detectives and talking to victims of this notorious monster? What sparked her interest in investigations? What kind of legacy does she leave behind?
Let’s look at the sheet.
Michelle’s self-professed ‘obsession’ with true crime started back when she was 14-years-old living in Illinois. She writes in her Origin Story on her blog, True Crime Diary, that she remembers that on this specific day, the weather was hot. She was sitting alone up in her family’s third floor refurbished attic looking out towards Pleasant Street.
Her mother and sister were below on the second floor, looking down the street as well. Michelle recalls their tense energy, a feeling that something terrible had happened, that beaconed her to look out a window for herself.
“I felt in the truest sense of the word gripped --- like an unseen force had locked onto me, refusing to let go.”
Her twentysomething neighbor, Kathy Lombardo, was out jogging in the early morning before being raped and killed. Her body was left exposed in a nearby alley.
Two days later, Michelle snuck 1/3 of a mile away from her home to catch a glimpse of the crime scene. She says it was the first time she handled crime scene evidence – broken pieces from Kathy’s yellow Walkman ripped away in the struggle.
Kathy’s killer has never been found.
Michelle saw that moment as a turning point – a point where she would become a “rat in a maze given a task” to find details, evidence, and crack unsolved crimes.
“Never again would I tune out when the words “homicide” or “missing” or “mystery” came on the news. I had a murder habit, and it was bad. I would feed it for the rest of my life.”
Michelle’s story is something I connect to on a deeper level. I vividly remember sitting on the wooden floor of my elementary school’s gymnasium while an author of a children’s book gave a presentation. Many kids looked bored, playing with the velcro on their shoes or braiding the girl's hair in front of them. But I remember being enchanted, thinking, “I want to be a writer.”
Michelle felt this early enchantment too, citing that she would sign her teen diary entries as, "Michelle, The Writer."
While I never experienced a murder in my hometown, for as long as I can remember, my ears would perk up at the mention of a homicide or a missing person on the news. It was never that I wanted to feed off other’s misfortune – in fact, it’s always been the exact opposite.
I have a desire to be curious, and when there’s a hole in a case – a missing element, whether that be a person, perpetrator, motive, you name it – I get fixated on finding answers in the same way Michelle did.
I want to know every last detail, big or small; and that’s exactly what Michelle sought to do with the Golden State Killer.
Giving ‘Evil’ A Name & Story
Before Michelle gave him the catchy title, "Golden State Killer," the perpetrator was known by many different and confusing terms from the media. In his early years when he was sexually assaulting women in the Sacramento area, he was called the "East Area Rapist," or EAR for short.
When he moved down to southern California and started committing crimes there, authorities were calling him the "Original Night Stalker."
It wasn’t until DNA evidence linked the two mystery suspects that he was referred to as "EAR/ONS" – sounds riveting, right?
It’s unfortunate to say, but unless a monster like this is given a name that’s punchy enough to spark the interest of the public and the media, it’s not going to gain zeitgeist to motivate discussion.
Think of names of other famous serial killers: "Zodiac," "Son of Sam," or "The Angel of Death," – they all spark a level of intrigue, unlike “EAR/ONS.”
When Michelle looked at the connections of all the cases and coined him as the "Golden State Killer," investigators were coming forward to her saying ‘Thank god, you’ve given him a better name’ because it was finally something that would land harder and stick with people.
After gaining a new title, he still needed a narrative that would help police identify him.
Michelle spent years pouring over police documents and working with authorities and victims to cultivate a profile of who the sadistic killer was. She would revisit crime scenes in person and on Google Earth while sitting in her bedroom away from familial eyes. She’d scour the internet for yearbooks, marriage certificates, mug shots, and autopsy reports to find links and clues to the suspect.
Her rebranding, as well as the profile of him, started to gain more attention and it ultimately led to the modern crusade to find the killer. But, Michelle wasn’t alive to see his capture.
A Legacy for Other Writers
Michelle highlights everything most True Crime writers want to be. She was a gifted journalist. It took a lot of hubris to think she could crack a murder case that multiple jurisdictions who had received help from the FBI couldn’t even crack, but Michelle never let that stop her DIY detective work.
Unfortunately, her fiery obsession was a double-edged sword.
Michelle died tragically in her sleep at her LA home while investigating the Golden State Killer after an undiagnosed heart disease mixed with a lethal combination of Adderall, Xanax, and Fentanyl pills. Her death was ruled an accidental overdose.
Michelle’s story is full of takeaways. While it’s important and rewarding as a Criminal Investigative Journalist to push for details and go to great lengths to find out ‘Who-Done-It’, it’s equally important to separate yourself from the work because you can get so caught up that it can pull you away from yourself.
I believe the stress and never-ending “rat in a maze” feeling was a major factor in her death. Patton Oswalt, her husband, has disclosed to the media that Michelle was constantly getting all kinds of ‘Google Alerts’ about searches and countless messages from chatrooms.
Towards the end of her life, Michelle was riddled with depression and anxiety because of her intense investigating. Michelle was hardly sleeping, and when she did, she’d often wake from terrifying nightmares – a side effect of diving too deep into cases that I’ve experienced as well.
Looking at cold cases and using all of my forensic psychology knowledge to profile killers is draining and can feel like hitting a dead-end. However, just like Michelle, I have hope that someday the right person will see my work and it will motivate them to call in a tip, or an investigator will be inspired to look for clues in a different direction – that’s what true crime writing is all about.
The Killer Has a Name: Joseph James DeAngelo
Two months after Michelle’s book was posthumously published, police linked DNA from an old crime scene to discarded DNA in Joseph DeAngelo’s trash. He was arrested on April 25, 2018. Many of the observations Michelle made and points about the killer’s life and personality came to be true.
Finally, the Golden State Killer was caught.
Officials never disclosed how they first became aware of DeAngelo as a suspect, but I believe it has a lot to do with the media attention Michelle’s book was getting, and the public push for authorities to follow her profile and find the killer.
Michelle closes her book with a letter to the Golden State Killer. Joseph DeAngelo can finally sit in his cell, and read her words to him:
“One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk… The doorbell rings…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.”
I know that wherever Michelle is, she watched everything unfold with a peaceful smile.
Michelle McNamara’s book, “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for The Golden State Killer," published posthumously by her husband and fellow journalists, can be found here.