Crime yarns, as I call them, have become a staple of Los Angeles magazine. Every year we publish several big and ambitious dives into unsettling terrain, asking questions like: Who really did kill mobster Bugsy Siegel? What pushed actor Johnny Lewis to commit a grisly murder? What became of a deputy who went for a run and vanished without a trace? Given how many mysteries reside on the bestseller list, it’s no surprise that readers respond with keen interest to the stories. When writer Michelle McNamara brought to us the tale of a serial rapist (at least 50 attacks were attributed to him) and sadistic murderer (ten victims) who terrorized California from 1976 to 1986, I was genuinely surprised. Why? Because I read a lot about crime and I had never heard of him. He’d never been caught, Michelle said, and because he was young when the crimes were committed, there was a good chance he might still be alive. She was deeply familiar with every facet of the case—there was nary a question I could ask her that she didn’t have a ready answer for—which is unusual for someone who is still in the pitch stage of a story. That was because this wasn’t any story to Michelle, it was an obsession, and as it turned out, not her obsession alone.
Michelle had launched a Web site in 2006 called True Crime Diary, in which she would turn up the heat on a cold case by searching for clues online, looking for “any digital crumbs authorities may have overlooked,” as she put it. Technology—think Ancestry.com, digitized phone books, school records, and census results, and Google Earth views—had created a world of online amateur sleuths who would tackle cold cases after they put their kids to bed. I could totally imagine the lure of joining their ranks in the dark of the night. (I confessed to Michelle that I’d set up my own amateur detective agency in elementary school.) Suffice to say we were mesmerized by Michelle’s pitch—and by her enthusiasm to seek justice for the victims.
It was her first magazine feature. As a writer she not only knew her facts but also could bring flair to her prose, which made her a natural storyteller. She was committed to getting every detail right; she was also lovely and self-deprecating. The killer had been known as EARS/ONS (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker); Michelle renamed him the “Golden State Killer” to reflect the breadth of his violent path, which had taken him from the East Bay to Santa Barbara to Orange County. The final piece, “In the Footsteps of a Killer,” was just as engrossing as Michelle’s first pitch promised; the case was laid out in forensic detail but also brought to life the oddball assortment of DIY detectives Michelle had met as a result of her interest in the subject. Working with then-deputy editor Nancy Miller, she also compiled a multimedia dossier to the case that included a guide to the existing evidence, voice recordings from the killer (every staffer who heard them is still haunted, fair warning), and a podcast about how the story came to be. She wrote follow-ups to the case online as needed, and then devoted her energies to writing a book on the subject.
Last Friday, April 22, we learned that Michelle had passed away, unexpectedly, in her sleep (as of now, we don’t know the cause). She was 46 and leaves behind her husband, the actor-comedian Patton Oswalt, and a young daughter. It was a terrible shock to anyone who knew her. It was a reminder of the fragility of life—something Michelle knew well from her solitary late-night searches online, learning about so many whose lives were cut short, as she tried to get to the bottom of why and who and how and when.
I am saddened that she will never see the Golden State Killer brought to justice—or at least identified, should he no longer be alive. Michelle had a unique voice and perspective, and we are the lesser for not hearing more of it.