In 1984, in the village of Oak Park, Illinois, the United States, a young woman was violently raped and killed after being dragged into an alleyway by a mysterious murderer.
The public’s fascination with the brutal murder faded with time, but one 14-year-old girl remained gripped by the case: She had handled crime scene evidence, pieces of a shattered Walkman that had been worn by the victim just prior to her death.
For the young Michelle McNamara, the gruesome experience sparked what she later described as “a murder habit” that would see her spend hours poring over true crime stories, driven by an obsession to remove the anonymities of monstrous murderers who could disappear without a trace.
For the amateur crime sleuth, it was the anonymity that gave murders power over the authorities and victims’ families. She wanted desperately to eliminate this power and help provide some sense of closure for the people whose lives had been so mercilessly ripped apart.
In 2006, McNamara – an American writer, who died in April, 2016 – launched her website TrueCrimeDiary, and later became obsessed with the murderer initially referred to as the East Bay Rapist. He had been linked to 38 attacks between 1976 and 1978, and would stalk victims for days to understand their routines and habits.
The reign of terror lasted until 1981, which seemed to mark the end of the spree by this murderer. Five years later, an 18-year-old was found raped and beaten to death in her home. It was the last killing attributed to the vicious murderer.
In April 2018 – after over 40 years of evading the law – 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested on suspicion of 12 murders, 45 counts of rape, and 120 home burglaries. The authorities had used improved DNA technology to link DeAngelo to the 1978 killing of a couple in the Californian city of Rancho Cordova.
The alleged murderer is now pinned to the notorious moniker, the Golden State Killer, the name coined by McNamara who penned a book of extraordinary investigative journalism and true crime. Her work – published posthumously in February this year – examines in-depth the evocative story of one man’s dark hatred within the boundaries of an American state known for its idyllic pleasures. (See story here.)
Appearing at the California Superior Court in April this year, DeAngelo – a former navy man, police officer, and truck mechanic – looked frail and defeated. This was a far cry from the murderer described in McNamara’s captivating book. She paints a picture of a man “in his late teens or twenties, about five foot nine, with a medium, athletic build. Always in some sort of mask. Forced, angry whisper. Clenched jaw.”
There are plenty of chilling segments that come with little details that accentuate the utter helplessness of the victims and the reader’s heart-sunken despair. Tales of women being forced to tie their husbands up before they are forced to engage in sex acts with the barbaric murderer are disturbing enough, but there’s a sick irony for the husband who watches his wife being brutally raped while a self-help book on assertiveness sits on his bedside table.
With a master’s degree in creative writing, McNamara crafted I’ll Be Gone In The Dark into a book that’s as educational as it is chilling and gripping.
In the final chapter, “Letter To An Old Man”, she predicts that the elusive killer will be no match for time and technology and would soon hear the heavy footsteps of justice approaching. She warns “… Your heyday prowess has no value anymore. Your skill set has been phased out. The tables have been turned. Virtual windows are opening all around you. You, the master watcher, are an aging, lumbering target in their crosshairs. A ski mask won’t help you now.”
As it turns out, her warning might have been prophetic as the state of California proceeds with its case against DeAngelo. As the eyes of the world watch the final act of a decades-long story, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is a book that will have readers riveted from the first page to the last.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For The Golden State Killer
Author: Michelle McNamara
Publisher: HarperCollins, true crime