The horror first in Sacramento.
Women were awakened in the middle of the night, blinded by a flashlight held by a slim young man in a ski mask. Sometimes he carried a knife, other times a gun. Always he brought rope, twine, shoelaces. He tied the women up, then raped them.
He repeated the sick routine nearly 50 times between 1976 and 1979. The cops called him the East Area Rapist, after the part of the city where he prowled. He would expand his hunting grounds to Modesto, Walnut Creek and San Jose.
He was never caught.
The second wave of horror washed over Southern California. This monster walked into houses in Santa Barbara and Orange County, carrying whatever blunt object he picked up along the way. Whoever was found inside, he would beat them to death. Sometimes he would rape them first.
Then he vanished, slipping into the night.
He did this perhaps a dozen times between 1979 and 1986. Later, he would be dubbed the Original Night Stalker, because his crimes predated the more infamous Richard Ramirez — picked up in 1985 after a bloody two-year reign. But Ramirez’s predecessor was never found.
Years later came the third and final wave, when police departments across the state finally compared notes and realized the Original Night Stalker was the East Area Rapist.
The two madmen were really the same monster. And he was probably still out there.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” tells his story.
Comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, Michelle McNamara, first became obsessed with the tale years ago, writing about the case on her True Crime Diary blog and in several magazine pieces.
She dug deep, looking for clues, evidence and suspects. She was still working on the book when she died in 2016.
The book came out last week, posthumously finished by friends and colleagues. It’s a portrait of a particular criminal and a particular time, before the internet, before sophisticated forensics.
A push by the brother of one of the Golden State Killer’s victims actually led to California’s creation of a DNA database for all felons.
The early Sacramento crimes stunned police from the start. At times, the East Area Rapist acted like a cold, calculating pro. He cased neighborhoods. He entered quietly, slitting a window screen or popping the latch on a patio door. He wore gloves.
If a man was inside the house, the killer made the woman inside tie the man up and ordered him to stay face down. The Golden State Killer would place a cup and saucer on the man’s back with a warning: If he heard it move, he’d kill the man.
Then he would take the woman into another room.
After the twentieth unsolved crime, panic took hold.
“May 1977 was the year the wrought-iron bars went up and the all-night vigils began,” McNamara writes, “when a group of 300 neighborhood men patrolled East Sacramento County in pick-up trucks outfitted with CB radios. Hard acrylic panels were bolted behind windows and doors. Dead bolt locks were on back order.”
Police discouraged the patrols, worried that amateurs would only make things worse. But people had to do something. Vigilante didn’t seem like a dirty word. People wanted justice, or at least revenge.
“I’d feel cheated if someone blew his head off,” one rape victim told the local paper. “I’d ask them to please aim low.”
The fear increased. The crimes continued. But beyond a vague description — youngish, size 9 sneaker, about 5-foot-10 — police had trouble creating a profile, much less identifying a suspect.
Yet sometimes the careful criminal acted more like a disturbed adolescent. After the rapes, he’d often pace and cry and call for “Mom.” He stole trivial things — rolls of coins, high school rings, clock radios.
He made his getaway on a 10-speed bike.
He would hide out in the woods, smoking cigarettes and writing in a spiral-bound notebook. Once, he left a few pages behind. They included a half-finished school report on General Custer, a rambling account of how much he still hated his sixth-grade teacher and a single word, scrawled large and cut deep across a page: PUNISHMENT.
He seemed to leave Sacramento after that. And he seemed to lose his last bit of control.
Breaking and entry, bondage and rape were no longer enough. He seemed to need more. He needed blood. One couple was beaten to death with a piece of their own firewood. Others were brutalized with what police figured were the victims’ garden tools, wrenches, crowbars. The murder weapons often remained as unknown as the motives. He left nothing behind.
When the murders seemed to stop in 1986 — the horror went on.
In 1991, one of his surviving victims picked up the phone and heard him on the other end. She could hear another woman and children in the background as he whispered.
Then, 10 years later, another survivor received a phone call. Another soft-spoken, terrifying question.
“You want to play?” he asked the women. “Remember when we played?”
He was still out there.
As McNamara details his deepening violence, she also talks about her own expanding and increasingly unhealthy fascination with the case.
She travels the state, traversing old crime scenes with retired detectives. She meets with obsessed crime buffs. She trades flash drives and photos with other amateur investigators.
She stays up all night on her laptop, looking for clues. She disappears down internet rabbit holes, paging through ’70s Sacramento high-school yearbooks, searching. One witness said he had big calves; another who glimpsed his face said he resembled a big baby.
Once, spying an oddly familiar pair of old cuff links online, McNamara orders them. At first, she hopes they’ll match the description of ones stolen from a victim’s house.
But then she worries. What if it’s the killer himself she just ordered them from? What if he decides to deliver them in person?
Nothing happens. Except that McNamara keeps finding it harder to relax, to stop, to sleep. Standing on a red carpet next to Oswalt, she thinks about blood types. Tucking her daughter safely into bed, she wonders about her own nightmares.
“There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now,” she writes. “When my husband, trying to waken me, tiptoed into our bedroom one night, I leaped out of bed, grabbed my nightstand lamp, and swung it at his head.
“Luckily I missed. When I saw the lamp overturned on the bedroom floor in the morning, I remembered what I’d done and winced. Then I felt around the covers for where I’d left my laptop and resumed my Talmudic study of police reports.”
McNamara was found dead in her sleep on April 21, 2016. An autopsy revealed a previously undiagnosed heart condition, along with Adderall, Xanax and fentanyl.
Her in-progress book was finished for her, with “Gone Girl” novelist Gillian Flynn contributing a foreword, Oswalt penning a tribute, and fellow writers filling in further details from her notes and articles.
She’s gone. Her book lives.
And maybe — somewhere — so does the Golden State Killer.
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