Author and true-crime buff Michelle McNamara devoted the final years of her life trying to track down the shadowy predator she dubbed the “Golden State Killer” — a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and ‘80s.
It was an obsession that dug its hooks into her and just wouldn’t let go.
“I had a murder habit,” she wrote, “and it was bad.”
That habit fueled the 2018 bestseller “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which was completed posthumously after McNamara’s sudden death two years earlier at the age of 46. And now her book is the basis for a riveting six-part HBO documentary series of the same name.
Deftly crafted by director and executive producer Liz Garbus, the series not only recalls the grisly details of the cases but delves deeply into McNamara’s relentless drive to bring wider attention to the crimes and find closure for the victims.
“The film is really told from the point of view of the survivors, and Michelle, as opposed to the point of view of the predator looking in on these women,” Garbus said. “ … (As for) Michelle, I was drawn in by her voice — as a writer, and a mother, and a woman and an artist.”
McNamara, we learn, was “down-to-earth and low-key as possible” — a mother and wife who preferred to distance herself from the Hollywood scene of her husband, comedian-actor Patton Oswalt.
But at night, as her family slept, she pored over crime files, mug shots, autopsy reports, penal codes and more — anything that might help her inch closer to finding the man responsible for 50 home-invasion rapes — including some in the Bay Area — and 12 murders.
She hadn’t really heard of this culprit — also referred to as East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker — until reading “Sudden Terror,” a 2010 book by retired Contra Costa detective Larry Crompton, who is interviewed in the series. Considering the size and scope of the Golden State Killer’s crime spree, McNamara was stunned at how little was known about him compared to other infamous predators like the Zodiac Killer.
And so, it was on.
McNamara’s pursuits put her in contact with a network of online “citizen detectives” who shared her interest. She befriended law enforcement officers, including Paul Holes, who, at the time, was a cold case investigator and chief of forensics for the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office. She also racked up frequent-flier miles crisscrossing the state to visit sites of Golden State Killer attacks.
Her writings about the cases for Los Angeles magazine and the book won raves from critics who admired her ability to separate herself from the “ghoulish gore hounds” of the true-crime genre and humanize the victims.
Garbus and her team evidently brought that same kind of diligence, sensitivity and thoughtfulness to their project, and the payoff is a mesmerizing series that expands on the book. Many of the survivors recount their experiences in chilling detail. There is extensive use of archival footage and crime-scene photos, along with new interviews with detectives and others associated with the cases.
Oswalt also appears on camera to provide some insight into the sleuthing fixation that ultimately took a harsh toll on McNamara. He reportedly was a key contributor to the film, providing tapes of her interviews, cellphone texts and videos she shot while retracing the Golden State Killer’s footsteps. And throughout “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” excerpts from McNamara’s book are read by actress Amy Ryan.
“Michelle was completely obsessive about her documentation and we, similarly, became obsessive — not just about the documentation of the Golden State Killer, but also of Michelle’s own journey,” Garbus said. “So you really felt you were alongside her as she was investigating these crimes.”
Of course, the series also is able to provide a twist in the story that McNamara unfortunately wasn’t able to witness: On April 24, 2018, two years after the author’s death and two months after “Gone in the Dark” was published, Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old Navy veteran and former police officer, was arrested on suspicion of being the Golden State Killer. He is awaiting trial in Sacramento.
While absorbing the series, viewers get a vivid sense of why the Golden State Killer was able to elude capture for decades. With seemingly disparate cases spread out across the state, there was a startling lack of communication and cooperation between law enforcement agencies back in the day. The serial rapist/killer also methodically staked out his victims and their dwellings, leaving little to chance. And advances in DNA forensics were still years away.
The HBO film also commendably conveys the dramatic shift in rape culture between the #MeToo now and the unjust then, when women were often ashamed to come forward, and/or made to feel like they had done something wrong when preyed upon in sexual assault cases. Most of the survivors in the film are speaking openly for the first time.
“Being on Team Michelle was helpful,” Garbus says of the effort to get the women to speak. “But also I think they believed us when we said we wanted to do a thorough job and not have them reduced to a sound bite of the most awful thing that ever happened to them. We strove to present a full, 360 picture of them, their evolution and their resilience in facing their trauma and living their lives.”
That their heart wrenching stories are finally being brought out into the light is perhaps the greatest triumph of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
‘I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday