Michelle McNamara’s first personal encounter with murder happened when she was 14 years old: Kathleen Lombardo, a young woman she knew from church was raped and stabbed in McNamara’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. The killer was never caught and the crime changed the trajectory of the young writer’s life. As McNamara would write years later on her popular blog, True Crime Diary, “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.”
McNamara’s dogged determination to solve cold case crimes and her skills as a gifted writer synthesized in the form of her haunting and determined first book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer which detailed the unsolved crimes of one of America’s most prolific rapists and murderers, who terrorized California in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The book also reached out with tender empathy to the survivors and families of his victims.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” the he once taunted a survivor. McNamara was determined to bring the killer into the light.
And on Wednesday, April 25th, FBI agents and local police arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo as a suspect in the Golden State Killer case. Law enforcement officials say his DNA matches the profile of the long-elusive murderer and rapist. He was taken into custody in a suburb of Sacramento just a few miles from where so many of the crimes took place.
But McNamara would not live to see the killer brought into the light. On April 21, 2016, a week after her 46th birthday, McNamara died at home, in bed, from an undiagnosed heart condition that caused blockages in her arteries, as well as an accidental combination of the medications Adderall, Xanax, and Fentanyl. She left behind her husband, Patton Oswalt, and their daughter Alice as well as countless friends, fans, and the families of unsolved crimes who’d come to count on her as a kind of empathic super-hero.
I should have led with that maybe — McNamara’s untimely death and her famous husband. But to me, her work says so much more about her life, her obsessions, and her bravery than either of those things ever could. Oswalt has been a tireless advocate of his late wife and of her book. Along with her researchers and co-writer, he helped complete I’ll Be Gone in the Dark after McNamara died, and has toured extensively to promote it. In large part due to his efforts, it reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. But as Oswalt would be the first to remind you, the book belonged to her - to Michelle McNamara, not to “Patton Oswalt’s wife.” His devotion to her life and work only speak to the recognition of her talent and hard work.
McNamara was born in 1970, the youngest of six children. She was the editor in chief of her high school newspaper. She attended Notre Dame and received her MFA in writing from the University of Minnesota. When she graduated she moved to Los Angeles to write for film and television. She began True Crime Diary as a way to channel her writing and her obsession with crime. In 2011 she gave an interview saying, “One of the most gratifying aspects of True Crime Diary is that often a story is still a mystery when I write about; weeks, months or even years later new information is developed, and sometimes the perpetrator is caught. I wish that kind of closure for all the cases I cover.”
In the days since DeAngelo’s capture, Sacramento police have attributed the arrest to painstaking DNA research — in particular connecting a relative’s DNA taken from a genealogy website to samples collected from decades-old crime scenes. At a press conference, law enforcement stated that McNamara’s book did not solve the case. But many family, friends, and fans believes she deserves more credit. Oswalt stated in a tweet that, “The cops will NEVER and HAVE NEVER credited a writer or journalist for helping them solve a case. But every time they said Golden State Killer they credited the work of Michelle McNamara and Ill Be Gone in the Dark.”
He’s referring to McNamara’s rebranding of the serial murderer and rapist as the Golden State Killer — previously he’d been known as the EAR/ONS killer (a combination of East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker). This attention to detail — the recognition that a catchy name could be key to bringing attention to the case - is evidence of McNamara’s skill as a writer and of the role she played in humanizing and publicizing the case. It’s a role that cannot and should not be discounted.
In a poignant piece in New York magazine, Kera Bolonik, a close friend of McNamara’s discussed the toll that investigating the Golden State Killer case was taking on the writer’s life, speaking with a childhood friend who told her, “She fell down a wormhole — 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.”
Still, McNamara loved what she did. She felt she was close to figuring out the identity of the killer who consumed her days and nights. She told another friend that while she was physically and emotionally exhausted, “I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do,”
Too often, the victims of violent crime become footnotes to the lives and psychologies of their killers. McNamara saw the humanity of the lives that the Golden State Killer stole. She brought them back into the world. She reminded us how much they matter and relentlessly pursued justice for them, possibly to the detriment of her own health. She was a gifted writer, a loyal friend, a mother, a wife, and she was a hunter who looked into darkness and brought a killer into the light.
McNamara’s first brush with murder was that of a hometown girl she barely knew but never forgot - she was haunted that the family never found answers. And so if we call the case of the Golden State Killer her final murder, her last obsession, it is a bittersweet and fitting tribute to a hero and the obsession that consumed her life.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Michelle McNamara attended the University of Minnesota. Refinery29 regrets the error.
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