On April 21, 2016, actor, comedian, and New York Times bestselling author Patton Oswalt discovered his wife, Michelle McNamara, dead in their Los Angeles home. At the time of her death, Michelle was in the midst of researching and writing about the 50+ unsolved rapes and 10+ unsolved murders attributed to the Golden State Killer, a moniker she’d given the murderer formerly known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker.
Her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, was published to critical acclaim on February 27, 2018, and became a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Many people, including GSK criminologist Paul Holes, believe McNamara’s book aided in the identification of the alleged killer—former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo of Citrus Heights, California, who was 72 at the time of his arrest. (He’s currently awaiting trial.) Holes and McNamara were in constant touch for the three years before her death. They both believed DNA would eventually lead to the killer’s arrest. And it was Holes who followed a chain of DNA, genetics and genealogy to identify DeAngelo’s ancestors, which a team of investigators then used to home in on DeAngelo.
On March 27, 2019, true crime author Suzy Spencer sat down for a conversation with Oswalt to discuss his late wife’s book. The live event, held at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, was sponsored by BookPeople bookstore. The following is an excerpt from that discussion.
Of all the cold cases Michelle covered on her blog, True Crime Diary, what was it about the Golden State Killer that hooked her so fully that she couldn’t stop researching him?
I think the first thing was obviously that it was such a massive crime. There were so many victims. There were so many survivors and eyewitnesses. And yet he was uncaught, which just seemed—especially nowadays—impossible.
For someone to commit that number of crimes, and commit that many rapes, and the rapes to be so brutal and the murders to be so brutal, and then to have DNA from him and he’s not in the system… for a guy that twisted to not have been caught, or have ever been arrested for anything…maybe the writer in her felt like this is bad storytelling…sloppy writing, like…an editor needs to come here and look at this and maybe figure that out.
Also, when she would research true crime for her website, she would start reading about the lives of the victims and the lives of the survivors and would go deeper…into those lives. And a lot of the lives of these people were so fascinating that…I think she realized that this is an amazing snapshot of California, both northern and southern, in a very specific time. And that very specific time, in a very weird way, maybe abetted some of these rapes and some of these killings. Because of the way that attitudes were about women—especially about single women, independent women and more self-actualized women—where there was that ‘what was she wearing, how was she acting’ that kind of thing. I think [Michelle] really wanted to go into that.
Do you think Michelle changing the rapist/murderer’s name—from East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker to Golden State Killer—helped or hurt the investigation?
It definitely helped. And I’m saying that because that’s what some of the investigators said. Investigator [and criminologist] Paul Holes said that. (He and Oswalt have met in-person twice, according to Holes, and keep in contact through social media.)
He also said—and he said this is terribly sick—one of the reasons the case stalled was because the guy didn’t have a cool name. It was bad marketing. So when she dubbed him the Golden State Killer, a lot of [the cops] went “good. We’ve got a really good name now.” That sounds really sick, but it is true. Zodiac. Night Stalker. That helps a case get solved, if he has a really good name. And that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s true.
On April 24, 2018, Joseph DeAngelo was arrested and charged with multiple counts of murder. I believe it’s now about a dozen. Tell us about the day you found out the Golden State Killer suspect had been identified and arrested. Did you have a ‘heads up’?
Yeah, we were in Chicago on a book tour. And we started getting texts—me, [investigative journalist] Billy Jensen, [Michelle’s lead researcher] Paul Haynes [both of whom helped complete the book after Michelle’s death]—started getting texts at like 4 a.m. that the Sacramento District Attorney just announced she’s going to have a press conference.
So what was your reaction?
It was bittersweet… Part of me was very happy because…I know what a horrible person this guy was. So to know that he’s now locked up and would be diminished and reduced from this boogeyman he had made himself out to be [was good]. But the biggest part of me [thought] Michelle should be here to know this and see this and be whisked off to [the news shows]. Because I was flying to New York to be on something like Good Morning America, and [I was told] “CNN wants to talk to you.” So it’s like, this should all be Michelle right now. I can’t talk about this as good as she could. So there was that frustration.
It felt a little better later when I did a book event in Sacramento and I met a lot of the survivors. And they were like, ‘We’ve been in court. Every day he’s been in court, we’ve been staring at him. He won’t meet our gaze, which makes us feel so good, but we see how hunched up and cowered and terrified he is.’ And it’s like that felt like closure for them, his survivor-victims show up in court and look right at him, and he can’t even look at them.
Actually, that part made me feel good, and it also made me feel sad. Because I really wish Michelle could have met them and talked to them and heard them say, ‘We’re going to court, we’re looking at him and it’s helping us deal with a lot of the stuff.’
When he was in court the first time, he looked kind of green around the gills and was in a wheelchair.
He had been sedated. I talked to Paul [Holes]. He had been sedated. Remember how his head was all red or he looked like he’d [been] beaten up? He was smashing his head against the wall of the cell. So they had to drug him because he was trying to hurt himself.
What were your thoughts the first time you saw him?
They were exactly what Michelle had always told me. Whenever they catch a serial killer, it’s not this dark, sexy anti-hero like they make him out in movies. They are always just doughy zilches. They’re the blandest people on the planet.
You’ve discussed publicly that Michelle died from an undiagnosed heart condition and an accidental overdose of Adderall, Xanax and fentanyl—drugs many people have in their medicine cabinets. In the last 20 years, there’s been a more than 400 percent increase in prescription-drug deaths in the U.S. So talk to us about these dangerous pills and what you’ve learned.
Here’s the main thing I learned: Do not assume that just because your partner is the most brilliant person you’ve ever met in your life, that when they tell you, ‘No, no, I’m just taking a little bit of Adderall in the morning, and I’m taking a little bit of Xanax at night so that I can go to sleep because I’m so stressed out,’ don’t take that confident reassurance. Because unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about the prescription drugs… So someone going, ‘Oh, no, they’re just prescription pills I use,’ it sounded like a shoulder shrug to me.
I think one of the dangers of prescription drugs is [they don’t] have that dark underworld [connotation like] heroin, pot, LSD—[they] come in prescription bottles. It’s the same that you see your mom and dad having, so it just seems so harmless. But this stuff is so much more powerful and dangerous than you know. Of course, unfortunately, I know now way too late and after the fact. I just didn’t understand what the dangers were, and I’m sure that I’m part of a huge group of people that is like, I had no idea that was that dangerous.
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Inside Michelle McNamara’s Obsessive Hunt for the Golden State Killer
Why Aren’t Police Solving More Murders With Genealogy Websites
Familial DNA and Other New Ways Forensics Is Changing How Murders Are Solved
Phenotyping: How a DNA ‘Snapshot’ Can Create the Face of an Unknown Criminal