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Onyx reviews: I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/18/2018

True Crime blogger Michelle McNamara dubbed him the Golden State Killer (GSK), but during his reign of terror from the mid-70s through the mid-80s he was originally called the East Area Rapist (EAR) and later the Original Night Stalker (ONS) because his crime spree predated Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker.

GSK operated in the greater San Francisco area at first, but his spree included crimes all over the state. Approximately fifty rapes and a dozen murders have been attributed to him, the crimes linked by specific elements of his modus operandi and by DNA. Despite the prevalence of DNA evidence collected at the scenes of his crimes, he has never been identified, nor have there been any familial matches in the various databases to assist in determining who he was.

McNamara became interested in true crime at an early age. A young woman was murdered in their neighborhood and the killer was never caught. She and her friends visited the crime scene and collected souvenirs. Over the years, her interest blossomed with the advent of websites devoted to specific historical mysteries in which amateur sleuths attempted to solve cold cases by sharing information and crowd-sourcing investigative avenues that were beyond the resources of local law enforcement. Someone might, for example, track down and digitize yearbooks or phone directories that could be used to cross reference with other evidence.

Her fascination became obsession with the GSK case. She was a frequent visitor to a blogging site where people exchanged theories and speculated about the killer's identity, quickly becoming one of the site's most prolific posters. Eventually she elevated her status from well-informed amateur to quasi-professional. Law enforcement officers—in particular, retired detectives who were themselves obsessed by the crime, the one that got away—provided her with reams and boxes of files from the investigation, and some even took her out to the locations of the crimes, providing first-hand insight into the way neighborhoods looked at the time and some details that never made it into criminal reports. One of the book's greatest strengths—and it has many—is the way in which McNamara is able to recreate the sense of the era...what life was like for these individuals some forty years ago during a time which seems somewhat alien to modern readers.

The GSK's M.O. is guaranteed to give readers sleepless nights, especially those alone at home at night. He stalked his prey for days, perhaps even weeks, making note of their routines. He surveilled their homes, making sure he knew how to break in and escape. At first, he attacked women alone at home, but he upped his game, attacking couples—forcing the women to tie up their partners so they would be helpless as he assaulted them. After a close call where he was nearly caught, the GSK changed his methods once again. No longer would he leave witnesses alive. Thus the EAR became the GSK.

He appeared to revel in terrorizing people. He was known to call or write to his previous victims, forcing them to relive the worst days of their lives. With so much evidence, it seems amazing in this day and age that he wasn't caught. Multiple theories abounded. There seemed to be a connection to real estate, as many of his attacks took place in houses where the victims had only recently moved in. A number of the couples had only recently been married. A number of the attacks took place in close proximity to regional airports, leading some to theorize that he owned a private airplane. And yet, the best IdentiKit portrait shows a man wearing a ski mask. The multitude of details pertaining to his physical description contradict each other wildly. Only his shoe size has been well established.

How obsessed was McNamara? She doesn't hold back from critiquing her behavior. The way she receded into the background at red carpet events, often looking to her phone to bring her the latest tidbit in the case. In one telling scene, she recounts the perfect, thoughtful gift her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, got her for their anniversary. She, on the other hand, had neglected to buy him anything at all, not even a card. Ultimately, the quest for GSK got the better of her. She died from an accidental overdose coupled with an undiagnosed heart problem before completing this book, which was finished by by her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and crime journalist Billy Jensen, who had to comb through her notes and stockpiles of evidence.

The book is subtitled "One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer." Despite her years of diligent work, and the clarity with which McNamara presents the details of both the crimes and her extensive research, she wasn't able to identify the killer. Everyone associated with the quest to find GSK shared a common belief: they didn't care who found out who he was so long as someone did. It's entirely possible that the killer is dead or moved to a different state after the dragnet grew too intensive. The fact that his DNA hasn't provided any help in identifying him is frustrating to everyone involved. Perhaps this book will spur the next wave of internet sleuths and ultimately bring this monster to justice.

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