“I’ll be gone in the dark” is more than the phrase a serial killer one said during a violent attack. It’s the way he operated. He broke into homes late at night, attacked his victims and left them either to die or to open their eyes in a darkened space hoping that they would survive the ordeal.
The serial killer, known as the East Area Rapist and the Golden State Killer, was responsible for more than 50 sexual assaults and more than 10 murders.
He left a trail of victims in his wake.
The late Michelle McNamara documents the cold case in a new book entitled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. McNamara, who passed while she was writing the book, painfully reviews many of the case’s details.
Some of the earliest chapters recount the dramatic events that unfolded when the killer attacked. He was known to attack women who were alone but then built up the nerve to attack couples (oftentimes forcing a wife to tie up her husband), oftentimes leaving sleeping children alone in their rooms. The killer would sometimes steal but he wouldn’t keep the items. He might drop them off on a roof somewhere or leave valuables from one home at another victim’s place.
His attacks were brutal.
McNamara is interested in the case and her book shows how meticulous she’s been with her research. There’s a paper trail covering the period — which lasted over a decade — when the killer’s crime spree continued unabated and the author documents it well. The killer changed his behaviors, his locations, and even his escapes over this period. The author tracks those changes diligently, painting a portrait of a psychotic young man with mother issues who always seemed to be lurking around the neighborhoods he was about to attack.
But the book is about much more than identifying an unknown assailant.
It’s about the quiet communities he attacked and the growing panic that ensued. “People’s relationship with nature changed,” McNamara writes after the killer struck Sacramento several times. “Sacramento’s prized abundance of trees, all those Oregon ash and blue oaks flanking the river were recast in their eyes, a once verdant canopy now a haunting blind.” There was a panic and as McNamara recalls the attacks, she captures the fear that seemed to stalk the areas around his crime scenes.
The book is also about the detectives who have been trying to uncover the masked man’s identities and it’s about how investigators were and continue to be haunted by this monster. McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt, the comedian and King of Queens actor, are present in this book.
The author was affected by her dedicated research and she was also changed by it. She writes, “When my husband, trying not to awaken me, tiptoed into out bedroom one night, I leaped out of bed, grabbed my nightstand lamp, and swung it at his head.”
Like the police that had chased the killer for years and online commenters who have dedicated countless hours to it, McNamara became involved in the case. She never settled.
To its credit, the book’s focus on the detectives and their highs and lows really brings a unique angle to the story. The author brings her own personality into the tale. She writes about how believing the perp has been identified creates its own kind of high. “Falling for a suspect,” she writes, “is a lot like the first surge of blind love in a relationship.”
The book is a masterful retelling of a cold case file but its personal prose keeps the reader invested in those surrounding the case. There’s no clear-cut or easy ending to the story, as McNamara knew, but it’s the substance of the book that keeps the reader interested. She quotes a detective who believes that over the course of the investigation, eight thousand suspects have been reviewed.
There may be many more before the case is closed but until then, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a haunting and tremendous book by an author who we lost too soon.