How an Amateur Sleuth Became a Serial Killer’s Final Victim, Revealed in Gripping New HBO Doc

Liz Garbus’ six-part documentary ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ is essential viewing, despite sometimes struggling to achieve the right balance between showing the hunt for the Golden State Killer and the personal tragedy of the writer leading the effort to find him

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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An image of author Michelle McNamara in HBO's "I'll Be Gone in the Dark."
An image of author Michelle McNamara in HBO's "I'll Be Gone in the Dark." Credit: /AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

“Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life – long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer,” writes Michelle McNamara in her best-selling book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” forebodingly adding: “In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish.”

Her 2018 book is a brilliantly written account – “literary true crime,” if you will – of her efforts to unmask a serial killer and rapist who murdered 13 people and raped 50 women in California between 1976 and 1986, yet somehow evaded capture. (This review contains some spoilers pertaining to the real-life incidents the book and series are based upon.)

McNamara was a self-described “laptop investigator,” a digital sleuth who used online resources to try to crack cold cases the police had long since consigned to the archive.

The hook with this particular case, she explained, was that it “seemed solvable” because the perpetrator had “left behind so many victims and abundant clues,” dragging her into the mire like so many others, both professional and amateur, before her.

Her sudden death at the age of 46 in April 2016, before she got to put a name to the killer whose actions had increasingly come to dominate her life, presented director Liz Garbus with a dilemma she never quite overcomes in her otherwise excellent new six-part HBO documentary: How to recount the horrific acts of the Golden State Killer through the voices of those who either pursued him or were pursued by him, without getting sidetracked by McNamara’s own tragedy.

In effect, “Dark” goes on the hunt for a 20th-century Jack the Ripper, but gets almost fatally distracted by the life of his biographer.

A recreation of a crime scene in HBO's six-part documentary "I'll Be Gone in the Dark."
A recreation of a crime scene in HBO's six-part documentary "I'll Be Gone in the Dark."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

Perhaps it’s McNamara’s “fault” for being such an engaging character. The book’s subtitle, “One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” places her at the heart of the story. But what works well as a few chapters in the book – including McNamara’s first brush with murder at age 14, after a female jogger was killed just a few blocks from her family’s home in Oak Park, Illinois – threatens to unbalance the documentary, especially when it spends so much time on the author’s own family history and the fate of McNamara’s unfinished book after her sudden death.

Indeed, the book is treated with such reverence, you’d think McNamara was planning to give it to her publisher on a tablet at Mount Sinai.

Too much precious screen time is given over to subjects I’m sure the author herself would never have wanted the documentary to be about – missed deadlines, her strained relationship with her mother, a personal incident in Northern Ireland that doesn’t appear in the book and is very sketchily portrayed here; and family members and friends lamenting her tragic demise. It’s all valid, but I wish they’d saved it for another time.

In fact, I wonder if the best way of presenting this amazing story might have been first via the two-thirds of the documentary that showcases McNamara’s efforts to track down the Golden State Killer, including interviews with the inspirational survivors who were willing to relive not just the night of the attack but also the lasting effect it had on them. Then, second, through a fiction film along the lines of “Capote” – the 2006 drama that saw Philip Seymour Hoffman win an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote working on his true-crime classic “In Cold Blood.”

This would have allowed us to learn more about McNamara’s remarkable life, including her preoccupation with the case that did little to improve her health in her final years.

Some of the archive Michelle McNamara was granted access in her pursuit of the Golden State Killer. She was still working her way through these 37 boxes when she died in April 2016.
Some of the archive Michelle McNamara was granted access in her pursuit of the Golden State Killer. She was still working her way through these 37 boxes when she died in April 2016. Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

Immensely powerful

Even allowing for the documentary’s disruptive digression, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” remains immensely powerful, blessed as it is with heroic public figures who even after retirement never stopped working the case, and those indomitable women (and one man) who open up about the attacks, many for the first time. (The book/film’s title comes from the words the rapist growled to one of his many victims.)

Then there’s the underlying mystery that at first sight defies logic: How could a man create over 230 crime scenes in the space of 12 years, in three California districts, yet evade capture for as long as he did? I’m not going to reveal anything here about the serial killer’s identity, suffice it to say it’s quite the twist – one that few saw coming.

The depressing answer to that question is in part because California was overrun with “wackos,” as one detective puts it, in the 1970s, including – and none of these are fictitious – the Early Bird Rapist, the Stinky Rapist, the Car Key Rapist and the Pillowcase Rapist. Allied to this is the fact that at the time, prison sentences for convicted rapists were jaw-droppingly low (as little as 30 days, or even just probation in some cases).

These were also the days before DNA testing. In fact, it wasn’t until 1996 that criminologists finally starting linking the rape cases in different towns to one man, and it wasn’t until McNamara started trying to identify the killer a decade later that the crimes of what were regarded as the actions of two men – the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker – were belatedly recognized as being the work of one.

At one point, McNamara describes her efforts as a “talmudic study” of the Golden State Killer, and she did holy work in raising awareness of a killer and rapist who would otherwise have slipped through the pages of history, denying his victims much sought-after closure.

The documentary offers a scary insight into just how primitive criminal investigations were 40 years ago, when the most “high-tech” way of finding the ski mask-wearing rapist seemingly came via hypnotism sessions with those who had caught a rare glimpse of him.

Some of Michelle McNamara's notes as she sought to identify the East Area Rapist (EAR), who she later dubbed the Golden State Killer when it became apparent he was also the Original Night Stalker. A Post-it says "EAR behavior."
Some of Michelle McNamara's notes as she sought to identify the East Area Rapist, whom she later dubbed the Golden State Killer when it became apparent he was also the Original Night Stalker.Credit: HBO / yes דוקו

It’s obviously a forlorn hope, but does show how much archival material the documentary team was able to unearth. Most chilling are the taunting phone recordings made by the rapist to one of his victims. Most “Dirty Harriet”-esque are the comments of Carol Daly, the lead female detective working the case in Sacramento, who urged members of the public to shoot the rapist if they got the chance.

Seamless segues

Naturally, McNamara’s death created a huge creative challenge for Garbus and fellow director Elizabeth Wolff: how to have her narrate her story. It’s one they overcome brilliantly, thanks to artful usage of the copious audio recordings the author made over the years – interviews with police investigators, victims, fellow “citizen detectives,” and magazine, book and podcast editors. These often seamlessly segue into present-day interviews done specifically for the series.

There are also several video interviews with the author – the only time she sounds uncomfortable when discussing the case – and lots of voice-over excerpts from her book (with actress Amy Ryan providing McNamara’s voice). The directors also had access to McNamara’s emails and text messages, including those she exchanged with her comedian husband Patton Oswalt. And while, as noted, these do distract from the main story, there’s no denying the power generated by using these personal messages to show McNamara’s mental state in the days and weeks prior to her death (she died in her sleep after an accidental drug overdose).

For those who haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend watching “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” in tandem with “Unbelievable,” the brilliant 2019 Netflix thriller dramatizing the efforts to catch another real-life rapist who was also able to evade capture for so long because rival police districts never shared information with each other.

What both shows have in common is a refusal to turn rape into a form of entertainment and a steadfast determination to showcase the victim over the perpetrator. It is more than enough to hear the words of the victims – women like Kris Pedretti, raped at 15 but forbidden to ever discuss the incident by her parents; and Gay Hardwick, raped while her husband Bob was tied up in an adjacent room, and who only recently allowed herself to start seeing a therapist – to understand the true impact of the crime.

Two of the survivors of the Golden State Killer attending a gathering of survivors, following the arrest in 2018 of a man believed to be the perpetrator of 13 murders and 50 rapes between 1976-1986.
Two of the survivors of the Golden State Killer attending a gathering of survivors, following the arrest in 2018 of a man believed to be the perpetrator of 13 murders and 50 rapes between 1976-1986. Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

As the final episode makes clear, though, thanks to the efforts of people like McNamara and those dogged police investigators who refused to admit defeat, these women are now the ones enjoying their moment in the sun while their attacker rots in a cell, facing the darkest of futures.

Postscript: On Monday, a day after “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” debuted on HBO, the Golden State Killer pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 counts of kidnapping. He was not charged over any of the 50 rapes due to California’s statute of limitations.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” premieres on HBO in America on Sunday and debuts in Israel on Yes Docu, Mondays at 10 P.M, and Hot Channel 8, Thursdays at 10 P.M. It will also be available on Yes VOD, Hot VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom TV.