The 13th Floor

Michelle McNamara’s Hunt For The Golden State Killer

It’s been a whole year since true crime writer Michelle McNamara unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. Consumed by her hunt for a prolific serial killer she dubbed the Golden State Killer, McNamara’s last days were dedicated to identifying him and finding closure for the families of his victims. Sadly, her quest was cut short before she could solve the case. Now her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, is picking up where McNamara left off.

The Golden State Killer is probably not a name many are aware of, nor are the other two names previously given to the monster who wreaked havoc across California between 1976-1986. The East Area Rapist, or the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, who was apprehended in 1985), sexually assaulted over 50 women and brutally murdered at least 10 people during his reign. Despite his immense criminal history, the killer and his victims are often overlooked, and the case remains unsolved.

His crimes first began with burglary and rape. Initially known as the East Area Rapist, he would stalk women in upper middle-class neighborhoods, and scope out their homes—learning the layout, studying family photos, and hiding rope to use later—before attacking them in their bedrooms as they slept.

He targeted young, single women before moving on to attacking couples. He would arrive on a bicycle, break into the home by prying open a window or door, wake up his victims, and threaten them with a gun. He bound and blindfolded them, and sometimes made the female victim tie up the male victim.

After he attacked, the intruder would spend hours inside their home. One time he ate leftovers in the kitchen as his victims lay helpless upstairs. He even brought his dog to his crime scenes. When one of his victims escaped and he was almost caught, the East Area Rapist changed his MO.

Graduating from rape to murder, the East Area Rapist would take on a new name: The Original Night Stalker. At the time, authorities were unaware the two cases were committed by the same individual because the killer would strike at different locations in California, and he would change his behavior.

One thing that remained constant throughout was the killer’s mental state. He was often described as shouting or talking to himself at the crime scene, and one of his outburst ruined a planned attack on October 1, 1979.

He broke into a home and startled the victims by shouting, “I’m going to kill them” to himself as he entered their room. As the couple screamed for help, their neighbor, an FBI agent, heard their shouts and chased the attacker as he fled the home.

The attacker left his bicycle at the scene, and dropped his knife. He proved to be too fast for the FBI agent, and managed to get away on foot—but not before he left footprints behind. The footprints linked him to the murders of another couple, but they didn’t help police discover his identity.

It wasn’t until DNA evidence was uncovered in 2001 that both the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were determined to be the same person. The frightening revelation connected the dots for detectives, but it made it even harder for them to solve the case.

Considering how the killer took his time at every crime, touched things all over the home, dropped evidence, was seen by numerous witnesses and chased from the scene, it should have been easier to uncover his identity. And not only did the killer take his time at the scene, but he didn’t shy away from the media.

The rapist and killer spent most his crime spree looking for attention. He sent poems to newspapers, and even submitted hand-drawn maps of suburban neighborhoods. His ability to escape every one of his crimes and remain unidentified made him cocky.

The Original Night Stalker was brazen with his attacks, and his torment didn’t end once he left the homes of his victims. The killer called his victims before and after their attacks. He called to wish one victim a merry Christmas in 1977, and he called another victim to say, “Gonna kill you,” repeatedly.

There’s even a rumor that claims a man spoke up at a town meeting discussing the East Area Rapist, and criticized other men for allowing their wives to be assaulted. Days later, the man and his wife were attacked by the East Area Rapist.

But despite all the evidence, the killer evaded police, and the case has remained unsolved until this day. His crime spree is relatively unknown to many because the cases were pushed to the side for bigger stories and other killers who were caught at the time—like Richard Ramirez.

McNamara became aware of the killer after reading a book by retired detective Larry Crompton called, “Self Terror.” Fascinated by the case, she scoured the web for any details she could find, and to her surprise, not much came up.

Eventually, she found a true crime message board and read through thousands of posts on the killer. In 2006, she created a blog called True Crime Diary, where she would share her research on unsolved crimes. Her biggest focus was the Original Night Stalker case.

Unlike other infamous killers in history—the Son of Sam, the Zodiac, or BTK—the Original Night Stalker/East Area Rapist didn’t have a catchy name. So, to bring attention to the case, and to show the immense ground the killer covered across California, McNamara titled him the Golden State Killer.

Giving the killer a catchy name was just the first step, and it certainly wasn’t going to solve the case on its own. So, McNamara stepped out from behind her computer screen to solve it herself. Far from an armchair detective, McNamara retraced the Golden State Killer’s steps, visited all his crime locations, met with witnesses, and actively searched for new evidence.

Oswalt described his wife to PEOPLE, “She was obsessed with cold cases – with crimes that, despite mountains of evidence and witness accounts and man hours committed to puzzling them out, still remained maddeningly unsolved… She could retell these stories and frame them in a way that made them feel immediate.”

McNamara’s passion and dedication to the case earned her respect from police officers who worked on the case. Her series of articles in LA Magazine dedicated to finding the killer sparked the interest of investigator Paul Holes with the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office.

Holes explained that McNamara was more than just a journalist obsessed with a story; McNamara was an investigator just like them.

Not only did McNamara follow and investigate leads from detectives, but she brought them leads as well. One time she tracked down a set of antique cuff links she believed were stolen from one of the killer’s victims. Sadly, they were not—but the lead made McNamara feel like she was getting closer on the killer’s trail.

Unfortunately, the trail would end for McNamara on April 21, 2016. Before she died, McNamara was working on a book about the murders, a book she hoped would identify the Golden State Killer. Following her unexpected death, her husband explained that the book will be finished.

In a Facebook post, Oswalt stated, “She left behind an amazing unfinished book, about a horrific series of murders that everyone — including the retired homicide detectives she worked with — was sure she’d solve. The Golden State Killer. She gave him that name, in an article for Los Angeles Magazine. She was going to figure out the real name behind it…”

He continued, “Any spare energy I’ve managed to summon since April 21st I’ve put toward finishing Michelle’s book…With a lot of help from some very amazing people. It will come out. I will let you know.” 

McNamara may not have lived to see the Golden State Killer’s true identity, but her efforts to find him have left a tremendous effect on the case. Her investigation brought new wide-spread attention, and her book may just help catch him.

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