The third episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is bookended by a recording of EAR/ONS from a tap placed on a rape victim’s phone in Sacramento from January 1978. At first there’s a heavy silence, followed by some raspy breathing and then a message: “Gonna kill you … gonna kill you … gonna kill you … bitch.” At the beginning of the episode, the phone message presages the next phase in EAR/ONS’ violent exploits, which had been reserved to sexual assault but were about to be amplified to murder. One close call with a victim who’d escaped and summoned help had convinced him that he could leave no survivors — though it’s clear, over time, that bludgeoning people to death was more than just an act of cold practicality.
But then the recording comes back in the episode’s final minutes, threaded into a heartbreaking sequence when Michelle McNamara, facing a shortened deadline on her book in late 2015, was having trouble summoning the will and the inspiration to finish. In a series of texts, her husband, Patton Oswalt, who had more experience with writing under deadline, does his best to reassure her as a partner (“It will get done, all of it … These next 54 hours? All you need to do is wake up in the morning, have your coffee and cereal, and write your pages.”) and as a fellow scribe. (“Every creative object wants the safety and warmth of staying inside your head,” he writes. “You’re trying to drag it out into the light.”) He also, ominously, expresses concern over the drugs she’s taking to sleep and to give herself a boost.
Yet the reprise of that EAR/ONS recording suggests that McNamara was living with something else, too, beyond deadlines and writer’s block and even a dangerous cocktail of medications. She had his voice in her head. She had the details of 50-plus cases making endless cross references in her mental rolodex. And she had a sense of responsibility to do right by the victims, which meant telling their stories thoroughly and correctly, and advancing a case that she was utterly convinced was solvable. That’s not an ordinary writing assignment — like, say, filing a recap of the third episode of a true-crime documentary series — and the show implies that EAR/ONS’ voice was echoing through her headspace, too. The last line of McNamara’s Los Angeles magazine piece, reproduced here, reads, “‘He can’t hurt me,’ I say, not realizing that in every minute spent hunting him and not cuddling my daughter, he already has.”
As “Rat in a Maze” approaches the last few months of McNamara’s life, it also moves the timeline forward on EAR/ONS’ evolution from serial rapist to serial rapist and killer. The East Area Rapist stopped assaulting victims in the Sacramento area in 1979, much to the relief of the authorities he eluded and the middle-class neighborhoods he prowled. But he didn’t actually stop — he moved, 400 miles south to the Santa Barbara area. And the only change to his consistent methodology is that he’d added murder to his routine, preferring to bludgeon victims to death with a blunt object. It was enough to change his profile: He was no longer the East Area Rapist. He was the Original Night Stalker. And, comprehensively, he was the Golden State Killer, so let’s call him that from now on.
The Golden State Killer was McNamara’s invention, born out of a need to understand him as a monster who covered a broader swath of territory and who warranted a name commensurate with his crimes. Once DNA evidence and a pattern of behavior linked the Original Night Stalker of Santa Barbara with the East Area Rapist of Sacramento, it was clear to McNamara that the sheer breadth of his exploits needed to be acknowledged. He was, in her words, “10 times worse than the Zodiac killer,” but got only a tiny fraction of the attention. The underlying purpose of the Los Angeles magazine article was to offer that name like the hook of a pop song and invite scrutiny from anyone who wanted to pick up a loose thread and do their part to catch him. McNamara was deputizing her readers.
As the GSK moves to Santa Barbara and starts adding murder to the docket, he’s aided by a complete breakdown in communication between agencies and an institutional instinct to keep his crimes under wraps. Larry Crompton talks about how his bosses “danced with relief” after GSK left Sacramento, and it took persistence and happenstance for Crompton to start talking to a detective from Santa Barbara and conclude that his man was still active somewhere else. But the bigger problem in Santa Barbara is that the powers that be did not want to alert the public of a serial rapist and murderer in their midst, because the panic might cause real estate prices to drop. The wealthiest celebrities and moguls in California had homes in Montecito, for one, and property values would sink if the area was ever deemed unsafe. Juking the stats is a common administrative tactic — we’re seeing it right now, in fact, in the way some states spin reports on coronavirus infections and deaths — and in this case, it allowed that much additional cover for a predator.
The final connection “Rat in a Maze” makes is between McNamara and a survivor, David Witthuhn. Witthuhn was not home when GSK murdered his wife Manuela in 1981, and without good evidence linking the killing to another suspect, local investigators kept Witthuhn a “person of interest” in the case for two decades. Though he remarried, Witthuhn was traumatized by a combination of survivor’s remorse and the cloud of suspicion that lingered over him, and it ruined his life. He started drinking and self-medicating. He died in his sleep in 2008, just as McNamara would in 2016. Neither one would live to see the justice they sought.
•Good advice to McNamara from a retired detective when she felt she was grasping at straws: “Grasp a straw and work it to dust.”
• McNamara’s worries over her own safety started to increase in the wake of the magazine article and for good reason: The GSK clearly read his own press and often responded accordingly. He also terrorized survivors. McNamara did not want to catch his attention.
• The cufflinks McNamara found on eBay led to a dead end, but not in the larger sense that creative thinking is a valuable quality for an investigator to have, especially when dealing with cold cases. It opened doors for her.
• McNamara’s fraught relationship with her mother gives a fuller picture of her, but it’s also an example of how the documentary series format allows perhaps too much storytelling latitude. If the story needed to be told in two hours rather than six, it simply wouldn’t make the cut.