Did Michelle McNamara Ever Find the Golden State Killer?

HBO's I'll Be Gone in the Dark details her exhaustive research.

Days after the two-year anniversary of author Michelle McNamara's tragic accidental death, a suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer was arrested: Joseph James DeAngelo. McNamara had spent years of her life hunting the killer and had said her greatest wish was to see him behind bars. On June 28, HBO released I'll Be Gone in the Dark, a docuseries that chronicles McNamara's work, death, legacy, and the murderer she dragged into the limelight.

At the time of the arrest, her widower, comedian Patton Oswalt, was promoting the finished version of McNamara's book, also titled I'll Be Gone in the Dark. “I had no idea there was going to be this break,” Oswalt said in a The Cut interview with Kera Bolonik, who'd been friends with McNamara since high school. Bolonik quotes Oswalt as saying:

"'It wasn’t even in my head. And all that synchronicity...no, I’m not going to say there was, because Michelle'—who had a comically fierce distaste for the notion of serendipity and coincidence—'would just laugh at that.'"

The immediate reason DeAngelo was arrested: DNA belonging to a relative of DeAngelo matched DNA found at one of the crime scenes. The relative had submitted their DNA to a genealogy website to learn more about their family history (police use of DNA databases has proven controversial). Detectives traced the relative's family tree to DeAngelo, who fit the profile of the Golden State Killer they'd been hunting for decades. The profile of DeAngelo was also similar to the one McNamara had developed: DeAngelo was revealed to be a Navy veteran and former cop who'd been fired in 1979, andMcNamara had speculated that he was affiliated with the military and/or police.

But Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones did not credit McNamara's work with directly cracking the case, saying, "It kept interest and tips coming in but other than that there was no information extracted from that book that directly led to the apprehension."

Oswalt responded at the time: “They haven’t been very clear...For all we know, what if one of his family members read Michelle’s book and ratted him out? Or someone in his community? She spent years keeping this case alive and out there, so the whole story hasn’t been told yet.”

Either way, it's clear that McNamara played a vital role. The late writer spent years bringing awareness to the case, interviewing victims, researching and visiting crime scenes, working with investigators, and bringing together disparate pieces of research and investigation from different cities and precincts. She even coined the nickname The Golden State Killer. At the time of the arrest, Oswalt commented, “It’s so ironic to see a press conference where they say the book gave us no help but they’re using the term ‘Golden State Killer,’ which she coined, and which gave them the umbrella to put these cases together.”

In fact, criminalist Paul Holes, who spent two decades looking for the Golden State Killer, said McNamara was an “investigative partner. She just wasn’t riding shotgun with me.” He gave context to the official statement: “Law enforcement is funny, because even though, particularly in this case, where the model of an interagency cooperative, there’s still territorial boundaries."

Holes added, "Michelle had the freedom to call anyone she wanted, whether it be victims or witnesses or original investigators across various jurisdictions, so she talked to people that I hadn’t and [found] out details that weren’t written in the case files and she would pass those on to me.”

At the time, Oswalt also explained that McNamara didn't care about having a bestseller or receiving praise for the capture of the accused killer. "She cared about the Golden State Killer being behind bars and the victims getting some relief."

Katherine J. Igoe
Contributing Editor

Katherine’s a contributing syndications editor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle. In her role, she writes stories that are syndicated by MSN and other outlets. She’s been a full-time freelancer for over a decade and has had roles with Cosmopolitan (where she covered lifestyle, culture, and fashion SEO content) and Bustle (where she was their movies and culture writer). She has bylines in New York TimesParentsInStyle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Her work has also been syndicated by ELLEHarper’s BazaarSeventeenGood Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. In addition to her stories reaching millions of readers, content she's written and edited has qualified for a Bell Ringer Award and received a Communicator Award. 

Katherine has a BA in English and art history from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in art business from the Sotheby's Institute of Art (with a focus on marketing/communications). She covers a wide breadth of topics: she's written about how to find the very best petite jeanshow sustainable travel has found its footing on Instagram, and what it's like to be a professional advice-giver in the modern world. Her personal essays have run the gamut from learning to dress as a queer woman to navigating food allergies as a mom. She also has deep knowledge of SEO/EATT, affiliate revenue, commerce, and social media; she regularly edits the work of other writers. She speaks at writing-related events and podcasts about freelancing and journalism, mentors students and other new writers, and consults on coursework. Currently, Katherine lives in Boston with her husband and two kids, and you can follow her on Instagram. If you're wondering about her last name, it’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.