LABOR OF LOVE
Patton Oswalt Looks Back at His Late Wife’s Serial-Killer Obsession
Before she died in 2016, Michelle McNamara was close to finishing a book about a still at-large California serial killer. Oswalt and others made sure the book got published.
Michelle McNamara had been obsessed with cold cases since the age of 14, when the murder of a neighbor went unsolved. She eventually became a journalist and blogger, whose True Crime Diary website became sort of a clearinghouse for information about unresolved cases. “Unsolved murders became an obsession,” McNamara has said. “I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details.”
“Michelle became interested in these cases for two reasons,” adds her husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt: “Because they were cold cases, and because she could see in real time how connectivity was changing and more information was being digitized. So the combination of those two had intriguing potential.”
McNamara first became aware of the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer in 2007. From 1976 until 1986, this psychopath was responsible for 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders, first in the Sacramento area and later in Orange County, California. Also known to police as the East Area Rapist (EAR), he had disappeared from view, his identity a mystery. But his sick legend lived on. So McNamara decided to write a book about him, hoping it would help her discover his identity.
“It might help convey what Sacramento was like in the ’70s, and something about the EAR,” McNamara has said, “that whenever I tell an inquiring native that I’m writing about a serial rapist from Sacramento, no one has ever asked which one.”
“The case was so massive,” says Oswalt, explaining why McNamara chose to pursue this cold case out of all the unsolved murders she had dealt with in her blog. “A lot of the cases she was covering were just starting, but this was a massive multi-decade case with dozens of victims, witnesses and police working it.” But in 2016, with her book two-thirds complete, McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep of a prescription drug overdose at the age of 46. Yet her work, titled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, has been completed, and is a luridly fascinating compendium of personal commentary about her search, with creepy looks into the killer’s mind and methodology. It also includes material—editor’s notes, audio transcripts of a discussion with a police investigator, bits and pieces of magazine work, a whole section on the science of geographical profiling, used to try to discover an offender’s place of residence—added after McNamara’s death by her lead researcher and a colleague.
“I contacted her researcher” after McNamara’s death, says Oswalt, “and started talking what do we do about the book? How do we structure the narrative? It became a bunch of meetings and get togethers.
“The thing just happened,” he says, while admitting that he remembers little about the time because he was so shocked by his wife’s death.
“The story was amazing, the idea that there were these two separate crime sprees linked up to the same person,” says Jennifer Barth, who oversaw the editorial process at Harper publishing. Harper bought the rights to the story in 2013, following a magazine piece about the killer McNamara had written for Los Angeles Magazine.
“This felt transcendent,” says Barth of the book. “It was the voice, the way she writes so intimately about crime, but doesn’t sensationalize it; she is very aware of the victims. And she even manages to humanize the criminal, which is not sensationalized.”
It’s easy enough to see why McNamara was obsessed with the EAR. Evidence suggests he was both vicious and psychotically idiosyncratic. He was described by his victims (the ones who lived) as a slim, short young white man. His modus operandi included stalking specific victims and neighborhoods, a preference for single-story homes, hang-up phone calls before his attacks, and throwing a blanket over a lamp or TV in the living room where he brought his female victims so there was just enough light to see by but not enough to be seen from the outside.
He also enjoyed what McNamara calls “connect-the-dots puzzles,” such as stealing a pack of cigarettes from one victim and leaving it outside another victim’s house, leaving pills or bullets stolen from a victim in a neighbor’s yard, and choosing victims who shared surnames or jobs. “It was a power play, a signal of ubiquity,” says McNamara in the book. “I am both nowhere and everywhere.”
The title of the book seems to emphasize this creepy ubiquity. It comes from a comment the killer made to one of his victims: “Make one move and you’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”
The search for this madman was complicated by the fact that his crimes occurred in a number of jurisdictions, many of which did not share information. And because DNA fingerprinting wasn’t discovered until 1984, the confirmation that all the crimes were actually linked didn’t come until 2000. Ultimately, the case generated 8,000 potential suspects, several hundred of whom had their DNA run, with no success. But it also inspired California Proposition 69, passed in 2004, which mandated DNA collection from all felons, and from anyone charged with crimes like sex offenses and murder.
“Going to talk to survivors and surviving family members” was an especially tough part of the researching process for McNamara, says Oswalt. “It became about the wreckage of the lives he destroyed, and there were times she would get very frustrated, very sad. These cases do take a toll on you.”
Both Oswalt and Barth argue that the fact the identity of the EAR is still unknown is not really a negative in terms of potential reader reaction to the book. Like the notorious Zodiac killer, whose case is still unresolved (and has been the subject of several books and the great 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac), I’ll Be Gone In the Dark is about the search—the journey, not the destination.
“From the very beginning, Michelle and I discussed that we wouldn’t be able to ID the killer by the end of the book,” says Barth. “I felt that wasn’t the core of the story; I felt it was the search for the killer, and the people who search for them. We always said it would be amazing to unmask him, but that wasn’t the plan.”
Oswalt says the book works on a number of levels. It’s an intimate look at the difference in police work between the ’70s and today, and “you get a great insight into the risks of homicide work, how you can waste weeks and months going down the wrong path.”
Whether or not McNamara’s work will eventually help uncover the EAR’s identity is almost beside the point. “The narrative is not about catching the killer,” says Oswalt. “It’s the feeling you get during the pursuit. It’s a multi-character study of the victims, and of the killer.”