Book Reviews, Nonfiction

I’ll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

Author: Michelle McNamara
Published Date: February 27, 2018 by Harper
Genre: True Crime
Hardcover: 352 pages
My Rating: 4 stars

Not that many people were aware that in California in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a man who committed 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders. The author and her publisher became fascinated by this decades old cold case that did not have the wide spread notoriety of other serial killers like Ted Bundy or the Zodiac Killer. They had a bit of a challenge though in writing this book. In most true crime books the killer is known. This book was an unsolved crime. What the author always wanted from this book, in lieu of there being a resolution in the end, was at least for the interest in it to lead to the solving of the case.

This guy, the Golden State Killer, was a serial violent offender from 1976 to 1986 preying on victims up and down California. He was active in Sacramento County for 2 years. Then he mysteriously stopped. Separate from that there started to be some incidents in Southern California in which couples were being killed in Santa Barbara County, Ventura County and Irvine. It wasn’t until 2001 when DNA testing got better that in a lab they discovered it was the same guy.

He had a very distinct M.O., but in those days, it was very difficult to link crimes happening in multiple jurisdictions. There was evidence that he cased the neighborhood before he attacked. He always parked his car just outside of the police perimeter, so nobody they talked to afterwards would be able to say “I saw this strange car parked on my street”. He only attacked single stories homes for easy escape. He would break into the house days before to make sure bullets were emptied out of guns. He turned off the AC so he could hear if someone was coming. He left side gates open and rearranged patio furniture so he had a straight shot out.
There are many fascinating details to this case, and McNamara handles it all with respect to the victims in mind. She doesn’t flinch from revealing key elements of the horror but yet avoids overindulgence in grisly details.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a lot of detail about the use of DNA to catch perpetrators, including if a family member of a perpetrator is in the system, you can trace the perpetrator that way, called Familial DNA. In a twist no one could have seen coming, a mere two months after this book was published, on April 25th, 2018, using familial DNA, authorities arrested James DeAngelo, a 72 year old ex-cop for the Golden State crimes. Authorities compared the suspects DNA (which they had collected at numerous crime scenes decades ago but had never found a match) to genetic profiles stored on genealogy websites. They ultimately determined the crime scene DNA was a match to the DNA of a female relative of James DeAngelo’s.

It was eerie to now see how close investigators were over the years. They suspected he had military ties partly because of the fact that the crime areas changed every couple of years and he employed tactics that he would have learned in the military. They also suspected at times he could have been someone in law enforcement which turned out to be spot on.

This book kind of grew on me. I think I like it more now that I’ve had a chance to digest it. At the time I was reading it, there were times it got a little slow for me – I kind of got bogged down with all the detail. The same type of crime happened to upwards of 50 people, all with the same M.O. It felt like it went on for a little too long. In addition, with fiction, and good storytelling, you get invested in the characters you’re reading about. In this book, you get a lot of brief stories of how people’s lives came to an end, so your investment in the characters doesn’t really come into play here, but it is a fascinating case, and a must read for true crime enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, the author, Michelle McNamara died in her sleep in 2016 at the age of 46 before the publication of the book. I have to believe she would have been thrilled that just two months after the publication, there was finally that resolution she always wanted for this story. In addition, this book is being made into a docuseries by HBO.

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