Michelle McNamara was an American true crime author, who spent her nights investigating a rapist and killer who would evade authorities for decades: the Golden State Killer. Now, HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” chronicles her search for the man as she wrote her book of the same name.
Liz Garbus directed episode 1 of the true-crime series, which debuted on HBO on Sunday. The first part chronicles how McNamara began her obsession with true-crime, and also how she met her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, and how McNamara balanced family life with pursuing her passion of bringing the East Area Rapist, as he was first known, to justice.
“There is no one like him out there,” McNamara says in the documentary. She teamed up with other internet sleuths and former detectives to trade information and theories about who the Golden State Killer, who ended up committing 13 murders and more than 50 rapes in California from 1974 to 1986, could be.
In 2018, authorities charged 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo with eight counts of first-degree murder, based on new DNA evidence. While he cannot be charged with rapes or burglaries from the ’70s because of the statute of limitations, he was charged with 13 related kidnapping and abduction attempts, and he is appearing in court on Monday.
McNamara died in April 2016, the coroner ruling it an accidental overdose. She never saw her work lead to who authorities believed committed all those heinous crimes she spent years investigating.
See below for four shocking details from the show’s first episode.
1. His M.O.
The killer would sneak into homes with a bright light shining at the victims so they could only make out his silhouette, and he would always wear a ski mask and gloves and talk through clenched teeth.
If there was a man in the house, he would have the women tie them up and he put dishes on their backs saying, “if I hear these rattle, I’m going to kill your wife.”
Later, when McNamara received 4,000 pages of police reports, it became clear that he traveled through drainage ditches and would study his victims and learn about them when they were home.
2. Where McNamara’s Obsession Truly Began
The turning point in McNamara’s obsession with true-crime came when she heard about a kidnapping of a 13-year-old boy in Missouri, also known as the “Missouri Miracle.”
Ben Ownby had been kidnapped in 2007 from a rural school bus stop. McNamara wrote a blog post about how she thought the kidnapper was the same person who kidnapped Shawn Hornbeck four years earlier. And just a few days later, law enforcement knocked on the door of an apartment they thought held Ownby — only to find Hornbeck open the door.
Oswalt said there was a “genuine addiction” for McNamara after that, and there were constantly so many cases she was following up at a time.
3. The Internet Sleuths Banded Together
McNamara teamed up with other internet sleuths to trade information and theories about who this killer could be, and McNamara even flew to Sacramento to meet a fellow sleuther, named Melanie Barbeau, when McNamara told her she had a theory about a suspect. The two drove around Sacramento to the crime scenes and traded ideas — and this is how McNamara would eventually get 4,000 pages in police files about all the rapes.
4. His Underage Victims
Out of his first 10 rapes in 1976 in Sacramento, two of his victims were 15 years old. Kris Pedretti, victim 10, was 15 at the time when she stayed home from a school dance because she had a cold. Her parents had gone out for the night, and at around 6:30 p.m., she started to play the piano, until she felt a presence next to her and a knife at her throat.
“If you scream or move, I will put this knife through your neck and I’ll be gone in the dark,” she recalled him saying. He then raped her multiple times over several hours, and kept dragging her inside the house and back outside to a picnic table.
She stopped playing the piano shortly after the attack.
“I always felt like there was somebody behind me.” “It was just a few hours, but it changed everything.”
New episodes will air every Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max.