I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part HBO documentary series based on Michelle McNamara’s book, explores the author and her obsessive investigation into the dark world of the “The Golden State Killer” who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s. It is mostly due to McNamara’s investigative reporting that this cold case was kept alive and solved. Incredibly, that didn’t happen until late 2018 when the perpetrator was identified, charged and convicted of 50 rapes and 12 murders out of more than 100 known rapes.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints an intricate tapestry of a convoluted flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. Bureaucratic dysfunction was rampant. The lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, unwieldy early phase DNA technology, and a blatant sexist culture enabled the Golden State Killer to roam free for close to 40 years. Victims were treated as responsible in part for their rapes by the way they dressed and the way the women freely walked through their own suburban neighborhoods at night. The extensive archival footage as well as interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer are riveting. More than forty years later, the viewer sees the horror of the crime itself as well as the sustained impact on the victims and their families. Interviews with the husbands or boyfriends are similarly unsettling as many of them were traumatized or in denial in a culture in which rape is not yet fully viewed for what it is…a violent, heinous crime.
One of the least expected features of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the backstory of McNamara. Her sensitive uncovering of the cold cases of the women begins with her True Crime Diaries blog. She hones her skills as an amateur sleuth more competent than some of the police she deals with as she crosses the state looking for clues. The subtext is her obsession with finding the rapist and murderer. She suspects from the beginning that the rapist is a solitary agent personifying “alchemized hate” for the victims. It turns out that the victims are stand-ins for a fiancée who broke off the assailant’s engagement. His violence grows and the viewer sees him trespass, invade a home, violently assault his victims in the middle of the night, and then reach for a beer and food in the kitchen refrigerator. Chilling indeed.
After more than ten years of dogged analysis of internet clues, hunting for mementos the killer sold online, and visits to the victims’ homes, her determination to find the killer and rapist eventually exacts a toll on McNamara. At first, she feels that she manages the horrors of the crimes at arms-length. But eventually, McNamara has to take sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs, gets a gun and installs a complicated security system as she is encouraged to write a book about her research. Tragically Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose while in reach of the deadline for her book.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a depiction of the most evil and poisonous of human acts, in scene after scene of crushing helplessness and the courage of the survivor, even when that horror was half a lifetime ago. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not for the faint-of-heart–and keep the lights on, if you decide to watch this!
Note: Joseph James DeAngelo, now seventy-four, was finally identified, partly through McNamara’s detective work, in close collaboration with retired detectives, forensic specialists and geneticists who used a gene/ancestry database to track DeAngelo down. He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and scores of rapes on June 29 and was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences without parole.
Note: Barbara Rae-Venter, a renowned geneticist, is the main resource for solving the genetic puzzle that emerged in the Golden State Killer investigation. She has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in arrests, not everyone in genetics database technology is comfortable with the alliance with law enforcement. See the August 29, 2018 article on Venter and the June 28, 2020 article on genetics genealogy and its methodology to identify the DNA.