True crime books and podcasts have always given audiences a glimpse into the most depraved aspects of human society, but perhaps no other true crime writer has gone as deeply into her subject matter as Michelle McNamara. The author of 2018 thriller I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer — now an HBO documentary of the same name — McNamara was obsessive in her quest to find the so-called Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Northern California for the better part of two decades.
McNamara was drawn to true and unsolved crimes from a young age due to a neighborhood tragedy. The youngest of six siblings growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, McNamara was just 14 when local jogger Kathleen Lombardo was, according to the New York Times, murdered near McNamara’s family home. Lombardo’s killer was never caught, and this event spurred a lifetime obsession for McNamara. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame and getting an MFA in Creative Writing from the University Of Minnesota, McNamara moved to Los Angeles, where she started writing TV pilots and screenplays to pay the bills.
Soon after, she married comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. But she didn’t forget about her love of true crime, and in 2006, McNamara launched True Crime Diary, a blog where she spoke at length about the unsolved murders that she couldn’t get out of her brain. According to the site’s “About” page, the blog was “not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, wow.” Instead, it wanted to look “at unfolding cases and [ask], who?”
McNamara focused on small murders and other crimes that normally wouldn’t inspire huge press attention, like the alleged murder of Peter D’Agostino in Oak Park, Illinois, and the alleged Satanist-related murders of “Syko Sam.” At the end of many of her posts, McNamara implored readers who had any additional information into the crimes she recounted to go to police, to share, help bring the assailants to justice. She also dabbled in speculation, analyzing Charles Manson and his gang and asking if their murders would have happened at all if the world had the social media in 1969 that we have today. She also asked if perhaps Manson was responsible for more deaths that authorities knew. McNamara took special focus into all of these unsolved crimes, but the one that she made her mission to solve, the one that took all her attention, ended up being the case of the Golden State Killer — a moniker she coined on her blog.
According to the Los Angeles Times, this man, also called the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, committed “at least 50 rapes, 13 murders, and dozens of burglaries” in the 1970s and 1980s, all the while disappearing for times and popping up to strike again. It seemed natural that a true crime buff like McNamara would be interested in the case, as, per The New York Times, so much was known about the criminal’s methods and motives. There was information there, and it just took looking at all the clues to find the answers. Once McNamara was hooked, she was, by her own admission, consumed by finding the Golden State Killer.
“I'm obsessed. It's not healthy,” she wrote in one entry in 2011. “I look at his face, or should I say someone's recollection of his face, frequently. I study his jaw; it's pronounced. His nose is unique. Big. Not bulbous, but aquiline. Maybe it's what I know of the time and place, but his hair, hanging over his ears to his collar, seems so '70s that I can almost hear Lynyrd Skynyrd's ‘What's Your Name’ playing in the background.”
McNamara’s blog posts on the Golden State Killer soon nabbed her an invite to write serially about the case for Los Angeles Magazine, where she documented the investigators and “online obsessives” determined to slam it shut. Per Biography, McNamara worked with fellow true crime aficionados to gather clues about the Golden State Killer, and eventually, she hired a full-time researcher, Paul Haynes, to help her on her quest. Soon, HarperCollins came calling, and she landed a deal to write a tell-all book about the case.
But according to Oswalt, McNamara’s constant consumption of the gruesome details of murders and sexual assaults weighed on her. He told the New York Times that she suffered from insomnia and had anxiety. She would wake up in the middle of the night claiming to have heard suspicious sounds that ended up being routine — a neighbor taking out the garbage, Oswalt heading to bed. “She had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications,” Oswalt told the newspaper. McNamara’s friend Sarah Stanard echoed Oswalt’s statements to Vulture in 2018. “[McNamara] fell down a wormhole,” she said. “She had a room full of bankers’ boxes of files she was going through. 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.”
Unfortunately, McNamara passed away on April 21, 2016 at age 46 due to a deadly combination of prescription drugs in her system and an undiagnosed heart issue — mostly likely, Oswalt told the New York Times, because she was using the pills to cope with the difficult details of the Golden State Killer case. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published posthumously in 2018 and with the help of Oswalt, McNamara’s researcher Haynes, and crime writer Billy Jensen. The book was a surefire hit, so much so that HBO bought the rights before it was published to start on a documentary as soon as possible. In an interview with Refinery29, Liz Garbus, who directed the documentary, said of McNamara, “I admire so many things about her, but really, just as a writer, she was such an incredible wordsmith and she so vividly brought these scenes alive that I’m just floored by her.”
Though McNamara didn’t live to see it, her work did bring an arrest in the case — former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was taken into custody in 2018 in the Golden State Killer case, according to the Sacramento Bee, with the help of McNamara’s research and a genealogy website. In March 2020, DeAngelo offered to plead guilty to a long list of crimes, including 13 felony counts of murder with special circumstances, in order to be sentenced to life in prison and avoid the death penalty. His next hearing is June 29, 2020.
Today, Oswalt, Garbus, and those others involved with the I’ll Be Gone In The Dark documentary see the film as the next iteration of McNamara’s legacy. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s hopeful,” Oswalt told Rolling Stone. “It means that she’s not really gone.”