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.”

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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

Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.