It took years for law enforcement to realize that the dozens of grisly crimes crisscrossing California in the 1970s and ’80s could be the work of a single man. As a result, he was given a series of nicknames—the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Diamond Knot Killer—before the writer Michelle McNamara coined one to encompass them all: the Golden State Killer.
On Sunday, HBO will air the first installment of the documentary I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, adapted from McNamara’s book of the same name by director Liz Garbus. The following day, 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, who was arrested in 2018, will appear in court, where he is expected to plead guilty to tens of criminal counts, including murder as well as kidnapping charges related to additional rapes. Now, at last, it seems we will be able to say definitively that the Golden State Killer is behind bars.
But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not meant as traditional true crime fodder, and neither was the book that preceded it. The story of the Golden State Killer is not just about his crimes and the many victims he left in his wake: It’s also about the amateur sleuths who spent decades poring over the case in search of leads.
McNamara, who died suddenly in 2016, is perhaps the best known of the self-appointed sleuths. A writer by trade, she began to dig into the Golden State Killer case as an extension of her blog, True Crime Diary. Eventually, her research—interviews with survivors, witnesses, and investigators; visits to the placid middle-class subdivisions that saw long-ago terrors; endless searches for some thread not yet pulled—turned into I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a book that was in equal parts about the Golden State Killer’s crimes and, as the book’s subtitle summed up, “one woman’s obsessive search” for him. She died before she could finish; the book was completed by a group that included her husband, Patton Oswalt.
With the premiere of the HBO documentary and DeAngelo back in the news, we thought it would be worth spending some time revisiting the case—and, especially, the investigators and technology that finally brought about his arrest.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
If the true crime genre is sometimes more interested in the gory details than anything else—well, this is not that. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is an impressively researched book—a remarkable work of journalism, really, even as she joked that her work was “DIY.”
McNamara found herself enthralled by the mystery of the Golden State Killer. This was, she wrote, in part because of his relative obscurity in spite of the terrifying breadth of his crimes: She herself confessed to not having heard of him until 2007, and didn’t begin writing about him until four years later.
DeAngelo was responsible for at least 50 sexual assaults, 13 murders, and numerous break-ins. The Golden State Killer seemed to revel in toying with his victims, often pausing during his attacks to get a snack from the kitchen, or placing dishes on the backs of restrained family members and telling them he would kill everyone if he heard them rattle. His reign of terror continued even after his violence ceased: In 2001, two decades after the end of his spree, he called a victim to taunt her. “Remember how we played?” he asked. He was a startling monster; that he remained less well-known than many other American serial killers lit a flame for those who, like McNamara, came to study him and, above all, aimed to identify him.
McNamara realized that there was an irony inherent in her obsession with finding him. “He was a compulsive prowler and searcher,” she wrote in her notes for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “We, who hunt him, suffer from the same affliction.”
GoldenStateKiller.com is the work of two of the case’s most dedicated amateur sleuths, Keith Komos and Kat Winters. Their site is rich with resources, including a timeline of every attack linked to the Golden State Killer. It’s a bracing read: Beyond the sheer brutality of the attacks, it’s breathtaking to see just how many people he hurt.
“Man in the Window” by Paige St. John (and its corresponding podcast), L.A. Times
St. John, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, penned a masterful series on the Golden State Killer following DeAngelo’s arrest. It seemed impossible that a monster of such proportions could have blended in for so many years; St. John’s careful reporting shows that violence spilling over into his ostensibly “normal” life as it built to a horrifying crescendo.
Golden State Killer: It’s Not Over, Hulu and elsewhere
The four-part documentary debuted in March 2018—just one month before DeAngelo was arrested. In it, the walls are closing in: Theories that the killer might have worked in law enforcement or lived in Sacramento—DeAngelo worked as a police officer and was ultimately arrested in a Sacramento suburb—are discussed, and McNamara’s research is mentioned here as a rallying force for what it calls “the civilian sleuth community.”
Amusingly, one expert, investigator Paul Holes, confidently explains why he believes that the Golden State Killer wasn’t also the Visalia Ransacker—which we now know he was. In a twist, it was Holes—who had spent two decades hunting the Golden State Killer—who eventually plugged the killer’s DNA into GEDmatch and cracked the case, precipitating DeAngelo’s arrest.
“The Fertility Doctor’s Secret” by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic
In the years leading up to DeAngelo’s arrest, it was clear to those investigating his crimes that DNA was the surest way to finally identify him. In the afterword to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, researcher Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen—who helped finish the book after McNamara’s death—joke that while other people’s bucket lists might have entries like “Trip to Paris” or “Try skydiving,” McNamara’s instead had “Figure out way to submit DNA to 23andMe or Ancestry.com.”
In an electric 2019 story in The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang traced how DNA testing unraveled another decades-old crime: that of Donald Cline, who operated a fertility clinic in Indianapolis in the 1970s and ’80s. Without his patients’ knowledge or consent, he repeatedly used his own semen to impregnate patients, resulting in at least 50 children to mothers who believed they’d conceived with semen from partners or anonymous donors. As DNA testing became commonplace over the last few years, those children began to piece together what had actually happened, finding each other and beginning a quest for justice.
“How an Unlikely Family History Website Transformed Cold Case Investigations” by Heather Murphy, The New York Times
It was GEDmatch, a little-known database operated out of a quaint Florida home with a white picket fence, that finally led to the Golden State Killer’s being put behind bars. Unlike ancestry sites like 23andMe or Ancestry.com, GEDmatch doesn’t provide DNA reports. Instead, it allows users to upload reports procured elsewhere and search for connections. Those profiles are, ostensibly, the users’ own—but, well, that’s not always the case. In the case of the Golden State Killer, investigators used DNA he had left at crime scenes long ago to create a profile for him, which was used to identify distant relatives. From there, investigators were able to narrow down the suspects, eventually procuring DeAngelo’s DNA from his trash as well as his car and confirming the match.
With recreational DNA testing surging in popularity, the potential for police use of a database like GEDmatch raises some serious privacy concerns. Indeed, GEDmatch founder Curtis Rogers was, according to The New York Times, “outraged” that the site was used for law enforcement purposes. That’s no longer the case: Rogers has since openly partnered with agencies conducting investigations that might turn on DNA evidence, and in December 2019, GEDmatch was purchased by Verogen, a forensic genomics firm.
Jensen and McNamara were colleagues, in a sense—both spent their spare time sifting through evidence as they attempted to solve cold cases, particularly that of the Golden State Killer. After McNamara’s death, he began Chase Darkness with Me, meant as both a history of his own true crime obsession and, explicitly, a how-to manual by others transfixed by the same pursuit.
The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James
Bill James is best known as a baseball writer and sabermetrician, but he also nurses a passion for true crime. The Man from the Train, which was coauthored with his daughter, marked his second book in the genre. It’s about a different cold case—a serial killer who roved the country by train at the turn of the 20th century—but it shows the power of turning modern research tools toward older mysteries.