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Michelle McNamara's Work Led to a Serial Killer—But She Died Before His Arrest

michelle mcnamara i'll be gone in the dark
Photograph by Robyn Von Swank/HBO

HBO's true crime docuseries I'll Be Gone in the Dark catalogues author Michelle McNamara's exhaustive search to uncover the identity of the serial murderer she dubbed the "Golden State Killer." But the series, which premieres June 28, is just as much about McNamara as it is the predator who's responsible for 12 murders, 48 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in the '70s and '80s. McNamara, the hero of the well-reviewed series, was happily married to standup comedian and actor Patton Oswalt and mom to their daughter Alice; she obsessively conducted research and interviews for her popular blog, True Crime Diary, in her spare time. Before McNamara tragically passed away in 2016 at the age of 46, she was bringing together disparate pieces of information from different police files to form one, cohesive look at one of the most prolific killers in United States history.

In one of the interviews with McNamara that made it into the series, she explains, "The great tragedy of this case, to me, is that it's not better known." Arguably, the work she did to highlight, bring together, and uncover new information changed that. McNamara gave the Golden State Killer his nickname—he'd been given several in different areas, including the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Visalia Ransacker, but it wasn't clear that they were the same person—and the spotlight her bestselling book placed on his crimes reestablished a popular awareness about what he'd done.

If you know anything about Oswalt, you'll have some context on McNamara, because the comedian spoke glowingly about his wife both on- and off-stage. There were funny stories about rats and house-hunting gone horribly wrong, but as silly and as hilarious as the stories were, he always made very clear that his wife was the fixed center and the inspiration of his life. He shared McNamara's horribly prescient mantra about the world—"It's chaos. Be kind."—in a comedy special after her death.

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McNamara was obsessed with cold cases, and devoted the last few years of her life to cracking the case of the Golden State Killer. Working with detectives, she spent many, many hours on Internet research, interviews, visiting crime scenes, and following leads. She said that her goal was not to write a bestseller but to sit across from the arrested killer.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
amazon.com
$25.19

McNamara died in her sleep on April 21, 2016, before the work was completed. She had been having trouble sleeping because of the horrific nature of her research, and Oswalt suggested she take a night off to "sleep until you wake up." She took some Xanax and died in her sleep. The autopsy later revealed that she had an undiagnosed heart condition, and that plus the accidental overdose (Adderall, Fentanyl, and Xanax) caused her death at 46 years old.

Oswalt, crime writer Billy Jensen, and McNamara's researcher Paul Haynes finished her book in 2018. Two months later, an arrest was finally made in the case: Joseph James DeAngelo, whose DNA from a genealogy website connected him to one of the crime scenes, was charged with 13 counts of murder. In 2020 he offered to plead guilty for life in prison instead of receiving a death sentence.

The book's closing words, highlighted frequently post-publication, had McNamara envisioning the scene when the killer was finally captured.

"One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk...Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. 'You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,' you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light."

"I hope you know, sweetie. I feel like you know," Oswalt tweeted when the book was released. "And I hope you know it when your work leads to his capture."

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During his 2017 Emmys acceptance speech, Oswalt paid tribute to his partner. "Every bit of growth that I've had in my career, especially in my writing and my performing, came because I met Michelle McNamara. Because I met and married this woman who just was so much wiser and self-actualized and aware of life than I was."

"I want to share this with two people: One of them is my daughter, Alice, waiting at home. The other one is waiting somewhere else—I hope."

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