I'll Be Gone in the Dark, page 1
No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair.
No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend
Smiling among the bric-a-brac and murder.
Only a suburban house with the front door open
And a dog barking at a squirrel, and the cars
Passing. The corpse quite dead. The wife in Florida.
Consider the clues: the potato masher in a vase,
The torn photograph of a Wesleyan basketball team,
Scattered with check stubs in the hall;
The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple,
The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased,
The note: “To be killed this way is quite all right with me.”
Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues
Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen;
Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.
—Weldon Kees, “Crime Club”
Time Line Map
Cast of Characters
Sheila* (Sacramento, 1976)
Jane Carson (Sacramento, 1976)
Fiona Williams* (South Sacramento, 1977)
Kathy* (San Ramon, 1978)
Esther McDonald* (Danville, 1978)
Claude Snelling (Visalia, 1978)†
Katie and Brian Maggiore (Sacramento, 1978)†
Debra Alexandria Manning and Robert Offerman (Goleta, 1979)
Charlene and Lyman Smith (Ventura, 1980)
Patrice and Keith Harrington (Dana Point, 1980)
Manuela Witthuhn (Irvine, 1981)
Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez (Goleta, 1981)
Janelle Cruz (Irvine, 1986)
Jim Bevins—investigator, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department
Ken Clark—detective, Sacramento Sheriff’s Office
Carol Daly—detective, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department
Richard Shelby—detective, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department
Larry Crompton—detective, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office
Paul Holes—criminalist, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office
John Murdock—chief, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Crime Lab
Bill McGowen—detective, Visalia Police Department
Mary Hong—criminalist, Orange County Crime Lab
Erika Hutchcraft—investigator, Orange County District Attorney’s Office
Larry Pool—investigator, Countywide Law Enforcement Unsolved Element (CLUE), Orange County Sheriff’s Department
Jim White—criminalist, Orange County Sheriff’s Department
Fred Ray—detective, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office
Time Line Map
Cast of Characters
Introduction, by Gillian Flynn
Dana Point, 1980
Orange County, 1996
Orange County, 2000
Contra Costa, 1997
East Sacramento, 2012
The Cuff-Links Coda
Los Angeles, 2012
Contra Costa, 2013
Los Angeles, 2014
Part Three, by Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen
Afterword, by Patton Oswalt
Epilogue: Letter to an Old Man
About the Author
About the Publisher
BEFORE THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER, THERE WAS THE GIRL. MICHELLE will tell you about her: the girl, dragged into the alley off Pleasant Street, murdered and left like so much trash. The girl, a young twentysomething, was killed in Oak Park, Illinois, a few blocks from where Michelle grew up in a busy, Irish Catholic home.
Michelle, the youngest child of six kids, signed her diary entries “Michelle, the Writer.” She said the murder ignited her interest in true crime.
We would have made a good (if perhaps strange) pair. At the same time, in my young teens, back in Kansas City, Missouri, I too was an aspiring writer, although I gave myself a slightly loftier moniker in my journal: Gillian the Great. Like Michelle, I grew up in a big Irish family, went to Catholic school, nurtured a fascination with the dark. I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at age twelve, a cheap second-hand purchase, and this would launch my lifelong obsession with true crime.
I love reading true crime, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that, as a reader, I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy. So like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make. I read only the best: writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.
It was inevitable that I would find Michelle.
I’ve always thought the least appreciated aspect of a great true-crime writer is humanity. Michelle McNamara had an uncanny ability to get into the minds of not just killers but the cops who hunted them, the victims they destroyed, and the trail of grieving relatives left behind. As an adult, I became a regular visitor of her remarkable blog, True Crime Diary. “You should drop her a line,” my husband would urge. She was from Chicago; I live in Chicago; both of us were moms who spent unwholesome amounts of time looking under rocks at the dark sides of humanity.
I resisted my husband’s urging—I think the closest I came to meeting Michelle was introducing myself to an aunt of hers at a book event—she loaned me her phone, and I texted Michelle something notably unauthorly, like, “You are the coolest!!!”
The truth was, I was unsure whether I wanted to meet this writer—I felt outmatched by her. I create characters; she had to deal with facts, go where the story took her. She had to earn the trust of wary, weary investigators, brave the mountains of paperwork that may contain that one crucial piece of information, and convince devastated family and friends to needle around in old wounds.
She did all this with a particular sort of grace, writing in the night as her family slept, from a room strewn with her daughter’s construction paper, scribbling down California penal codes in crayon.
I am a nasty collector of killers, but I wasn’t aware of the man Michelle would dub the Golden State Killer until she started writing about this nightmare, who was responsible for fifty sexual assaults and at least ten murders in California during the 1970s and ’80s. This was a decades-old cold case; witnesses and victims had moved away or passed away or moved on; the case encompassed multiple jurisdictions—in both Southern and Northern California—and involved myriad crime files that lacked the benefits of DNA or lab analysis. There are a very few writers who would take this on, fewer still who would do it well.
Michelle’s doggedness in pursuing this case was astounding. In a typical instance, she tracked down a pair of cuff links that had been stolen from a Stoc
Many writers who have sweat and bled gathering this much research can get lost in the details—statistics and information tend to elbow out humanity. The traits that make one a painstaking researcher are often at odds with the nuance of life.
But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, while a beautiful work of reporting, is equally a snapshot of the time, place, and person. Michelle brings to life the California subdivisions that were edging out orange groves, the glassy new developments that made victims the stars of their own horrific thrillers, the towns that lived in the shadow of mountains that came alive once a year with thousands of scuttling tarantulas searching for mates. And the people, good God, the people—hopeful ex-hippies, striving newlyweds, a mother and her teen daughter arguing over freedom and responsibility and swimsuits for what they didn’t realize would be the last time.
I was hooked from the beginning, and so was Michelle, it seems. Her multiyear hunt for the identity of the Golden State Killer took a harsh toll on her: “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”
Michelle passed away in her sleep at age forty-six, before she could finish this remarkable book. You’ll find case notes from her colleagues, but the identity of the Golden State Killer—who dunnit—remains unresolved. His identity matters not a whit to me. I want him captured; I don’t care who he is. Looking at such a man’s face is anticlimactic; attaching a name, even more so. We know what he did; any information beyond that will inevitably feel pedestrian, pale, somehow cliché: “My mother was cruel. I hate women. I never had a family. . . .” And so on. I want to know more about true, complete people, not dirty scraps of humans.
I want to know more about Michelle. As she detailed her search for this shadowy man, I found myself looking for clues to this writer I so admire. Who was the woman whom I trusted enough to follow into this nightmare? What was she like? What made her this way? What gave her this grace? One summer day, I found myself driving the twenty minutes from my Chicago home out to Oak Park, to the alley where “the girl” was found, where Michelle the Writer discovered her calling. I didn’t realize until I was there why I was there. It was because I was in my own search, hunting this remarkable hunter of darkness.
— GILLIAN FLYNN
THAT SUMMER I HUNTED THE SERIAL KILLER AT NIGHT FROM MY daughter’s playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities. Our neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles is remarkably quiet at night. Sometimes the only sound was the click as I tapped ever closer down the driveways of men I didn’t know using Google Street View. I rarely moved but I leaped decades with a few keystrokes. Yearbooks. Marriage certificates. Mug shots. I scoured thousands of pages of 1970s-era police files. I pored over autopsy reports. That I should do this surrounded by a half-dozen stuffed animals and a set of miniature pink bongos didn’t strike me as unusual. I’d found my searching place, as private as a rat’s maze. Every obsession needs a room of its own. Mine was strewn with coloring paper on which I’d scribbled down California penal codes in crayon.
It was around midnight on July 3, 2012, when I opened a document I’d compiled listing all the unique items he’d stolen over the years. I’d bolded a little over half the list: dead ends. The next item to search for was a pair of cuff links taken in Stockton in September 1977. At that time the Golden State Killer, as I’d come to call him, hadn’t yet graduated to murder. He was a serial rapist, known as the East Area Rapist, who was attacking women and girls in their bedrooms, first in east Sacramento County, then snaking out to communities in the Central Valley and around San Francisco’s East Bay. He was young—anywhere from eighteen to thirty— Caucasian and athletic, capable of eluding capture by vaulting tall fences. A single-story house second from the corner in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood was his preferred target. He always wore a mask.
Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight’s blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? Their fear found direction when they heard the voice, described as a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening, though some detected an occasional lapse into a higher pitch, a tremble, a stutter, as if the masked stranger in the dark was hiding not only his face but also a raw unsteadiness he couldn’t always disguise.
The Stockton case in September 1977 in which he’d stolen the cuff links was his twenty-third attack and came after a perfectly bracketed summer break. Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.
He was after couples now. The female victim had tried to explain the foul odor of her attacker to the reporting officer. She struggled to identify the smell. Bad hygiene wouldn’t account for it, she said. It didn’t come from his underarms, or his breath. The best the victim could say, the officer noted in his report, was that it seemed like a nervous scent that emanated not from a particular area on his body, but from his every pore. The officer asked if she could be more specific. She couldn’t. The thing was, it wasn’t like anything she’d ever smelled before.
As in other cases in Stockton he ranted about needing money but ignored cash when it was right in front of him. What he wanted was items of personal value from those he violated: engraved wedding bands, driver’s licenses, souvenir coins. The cuff links, a family heirloom, were an unusual 1950s style and monogrammed with the initials N.R. The reporting officer had made a rough drawing of them in the margin of the police report. I was curious about how unique they were. From an Internet search I learned that boys’ names beginning in N were relatively rare, appearing only once in the top one hundred names of the 1930s and ’40s, when the original owner of the cuff links was likely born. I Googled a description of the cuff links and hit the return key on my laptop.
It takes hubris to think you can crack a complex serial murder case that a task force representing five California jurisdictions, with input from the FBI, hasn’t been able to solve, especially when your detective work is, like mine, DIY. My interest in crime has personal roots. The unsolved murder of a neighbor when I was fourteen sparked a fascination with cold cases. The advent of the Internet transformed my interest into an active pursuit. Once public records came online and sophisticated search engines were invented, I recognized how a head full of crime details could intersect with an empty search bar, and in 2006 I launched a website called True Crime Diary. When my family goes to
I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests. The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. In addition to fifty sexual assaults in Northern California, he was responsible for ten sadistic murders in Southern California. Here was a case that spanned a decade and ultimately changed DNA law in the state. Neither the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early ’70s, nor the Night Stalker, who had Southern Californians locking their windows in the ’80s, were as active. Yet the Golden State Killer has little recognition. He didn’t have a catchy name until I coined one. He attacked in different jurisdictions across California that didn’t always share information or communicate well with each other. By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man, more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority. He flew under the radar, at large and unidentified.
But still terrorizing his victims. In 2001 a woman in Sacramento answered her phone in the same house where she’d been attacked twenty-four years earlier. “Remember when we played?” a man whispered. She recognized the voice immediately. His words echo something he said in Stockton, when the couple’s six-year-old daughter got up to use the bathroom and encountered him in the hallway. He was about twenty feet away, a man in a brown ski mask and black knit mittens who was wearing no pants. He had a belt on with some kind of sword in it. “I’m playing tricks with your mom and dad,” he said. “Come watch me.”
The hook for me was that the case seemed solvable. His debris field was both too big and too small; he’d left behind so many victims and abundant clues, but in relatively contained communities, making data mining potential suspects easier. The case dragged me under quickly. Curiosity turned to clawing hunger. I was on the hunt, absorbed by a click-fever that connected my propulsive tapping with a dopamine rush. I wasn’t alone. I found a group of hard-core seekers who congregated on an online message board and exchanged clues and theories on the case. I set aside any judgments I might have had and followed their chatter, all twenty thousand posts and counting. I filtered out creeps with iffy motives and concentrated on the true pursuers. Occasionally a clue, like the image of a decal from a suspicious vehicle seen near an attack, would appear on the message board, a bit of crowdsourcing by overworked detectives who were still trying to solve the case.