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Author Michelle McNamara has been credited for helping to catch the elusive Golden State Killer — but even before she contributed his capture specifically, she helped shape the true crime genre into something more nuanced and humanizing.
McNamara’s research on the Golden State Killer, which resulted in the 2018 book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” introduced the U.S. to the then-largely unknown serial killer who killed 13 people and raped dozens of women across California in the 1970s and 1980s.
McNamara became obsessed with finding the identity of the killer, who was known as the Original Night Stalker and East Area Rapist before McNamara bestowed the new moniker "The Golden State Killer" in 2011. She hunted him down for the rest of her life, until her sudden death in April 2016. While she is most known for work on the Golden State Killer case, her interest in true crime began years earlier.
McNamara's introduction to true crime kicked off when she was 14 — when a young woman named Kathleen Lombardo was murdered near the McNamara family home, the New York Times reported in 2018. McNamara actually scoped out the alley where Lombardo was killed to collect shards of the woman's broken Walkman. This presaged a lifelong passion for true crime stories.
When she was older, McNamara started a blog called "True Crime Diary" in 2006. The about section of the blog explains that the site was born after McNamara “decided the investigating she was doing on unsolved crimes to satisfy her own curiosity might be better shared.”
While McNamara was always drawn to murder, she was often frustrated by the way it was reported on in the news. She told SuicideGirls.com in 2007 that there was so much information about unsolved cases that didn’t make the news cycle and would frequently be lost.
"[Her husband Patton Oswalt] saw me yelling at the news anchors getting it wrong or I had it first or something. He said, ‘Well, you should start a website,’” she recounted. “So I kind of just did it almost as a lark at first, not figuring it would become such a regular thing.”
Her own interest in the macabre resulted in years of McNamara blogging about breaking true crime stories and unsolved cold cases alike.
“True Crime Diary seeks to find the angle others have overlooked - a suspect's revealing online activities, for instance, or a similarity between cases that hasn't been made public yet,” the site stated.
At the time, the true crime genre was not as popular or nuanced as it is now but those interested in the genre found her work.
“My Favorite Murder” podcast host Karen Kilgariff recounted in in HBO’s new docuseries “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, that she believed most true crime products at the time she got interested in the subject were cold and exploitative.
After Kilgariff discovered McNamara’s blog thanks to a recommendation, she fell in love with it. She was allured by McNamara’s storytelling abilities — but more than that she was impressed by her humanization of the victims.
“We spent a bunch of time watching a reenactment of a beautiful young actress being attacked over and over while wearing lingerie, but Michelle’s blog kind of changed — I think — the focus,” Kilgariff said. “She personalized those people.”
For McNamara, it was always important to give the victims the strongest voice as she notably did for the Golden State Killer’s victims in “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
“Someone must wonder about her,” McNamara began a 2012 blog entry about a murdered Jane Doe found in Los Angeles in 1969. “She was distinct looking, tall and willowy, and had a mouthful of dental work, suggesting a middle-class background and parents who cared.”
Other blog entries take readers right into the steps that the victims took before their lives were stolen.
“If you can remind people about the humanity at the other end of that gun,” crime writer and citizen detective Billy Jensen said in the new docuseries. “This was a person with hopes and dreams, with family, that could have done this, this and this. That’s what Michelle did in her writing.”
There was “nothing was like that in 2007," Kilgariff said.
McNamara’s friend Adam Drucker exclaimed in “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” that this empathy made McNamara a “pioneer” in the true crime genre.
McNamara died in 2016, two years before her book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” was published. Suspect Joseph DeAngelo, 74, was arrested two months after the book was published. Genetic analysis led officials to believe DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer and he’s expected to plead guilty to 13 murders and 13 kidnapping charges linked to rapes on Monday — one day after "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" premieres on HBO.
McNamara has been widely celebrated for shining a new light on DeAngelo’s alleged crimes and she will forever be known for humanizing his alleged victims and so many other victims of crimes on her “True Crime Diary.”
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