How Paul Holes Helped Catch the Golden State Killer

On the eve of the release of new book ”Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases,” the criminalist delves into some of his most difficult cases in our far-ranging Q&A.

The prologue of criminalist Paul Holes’s new book, Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases, which comes out April 26, reads a bit like a simulacrum of a Raymond Chandler novel—a hard-boiled investigator gone rogue, haunted by his unsolved cases, throws back bourbon in a Hollywood Blvd bar, trying to, as he writes, “flip the switch.” But after a few chapters, the retired Contra Costa County Chief of Forensics’ memoir grabs its reader in a stranglehold and proves more fascinating than fiction and darker than any noir narrative.

Holes garnered fame in 2018 after he pushed through bureaucratic red tape and used DNA “genetic genealogy” to help nab the Golden State Killer (a moniker given to murderer Joseph DeAngelo Jr. for the first time in this publication by journalist Michelle McNamara). The innovative forensic scientist—who stepped outside the boundaries of his job description on the regular— spent thirty years nursing an extracurricular obsession with the man known at the time as the East Area Rapist.

Unsolved murders are Holes’s idée fixe. In his chapter “Serial Killers,” Holes recounts attempting to match killer to cold case; true crime buffs will recognize Phillip Hughes Jr., AKA “The East Bay Strangler,” who murdered multiple women with the help of his wife, and Charles Jackson Jr., AKA “The East Bay Slayer,” a handyman who killed at least seven women. (Side note—Someone should probably investigate the correlation between being a “Jr.” and becoming a serial murderer.) Holes also contributed to more active investigations, including the abduction of eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard—who was kept in a makeshift prison for almost twenty years—and the murder of Laci Peterson at the hands of her husband.

What sets his memoir apart from other crimefighter tell-alls is Holes’s self-awareness: He discusses the crippling panic attacks he developed in high school, his social anxiety and inability to connect with his first wife, and the PTSD he suffered from after so many forays into the depths of human depravity. He covers his relationship with McNamara, calling her DeAngelo’s “last victim,” the unsolved murders that still give him nightmares, and his discontent with sitting behind a desk as he rose up in the ranks before retiring in 2017.

Paul Holes

These days, the handsome 54-year-old co-hosts a true crime podcast called The Murder Squad, continues to crack cold cases, and even has his own hashtag among his enamored fans: #hotforholes.

What’s up with all the monsters in Contra Costa? Joseph DeAngelo, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, Scott Peterson, countless serial killers and sexual predators… are there this many monsters everywhere, and you just happened to get the famous ones in your backyard?

Yes, there are, and that’s the scary part of it. But Contra Costa county— we’re East Bay—it’s a county with a population of 1.2 million. Relative to most places in the United States, it’s a large jurisdiction. And it’s surrounded by Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Oakland. There’s a larger population base that these predators could bleed into and a lot of victims that they could choose. And I think there’s a reason why Joseph DeAngelo drove down from basically Auburn and Sacramento in order to come down into the East Bay.

What was it like working on Lacy Peterson’s case? She was murdered in Modesto, but ended up in your jurisdiction.

I very vividly remember seeing the photos of Laci while she was missing, thinking the case wasn’t going to turn out well. I had no idea she would wash up in Contra Costa. When I went down and looked at her remains, I became much more engaged. She was in bad shape and contrasting what she looked like in the morgue versus that cute photo of her I had seen made me mad. How could someone do this? At that point I wasn’t focused on Scott Peterson but knew he had potential to have been involved. I just went into my typical process of inserting myself into the case by diving into what I could discern from the evidence I was seeing on her body as well as reaching out to the anthropologist Dr. Allison Galloway.

What was your reaction when Scott Peterson’s death sentence was overturned in 2020?

For me, this is just par for course in a death penalty case. Having heard the circumstantial evidence against Scott Peterson, I’m convinced he killed Laci.

How did you feel realizing that Jaycee Dugard had been under authorities’ noses for almost two decades?

She had been underneath my nose for two decades. That’s what really bugged me. I had responded out to that very neighborhood on multiple occasions, mostly for drug labs. But to think an abducted girl was right there, and I didn’t sense it, bugged me.

In your chapter “Serial Killers” you mention a seemingly unending plethora of possible suspects, and run into new ones as you’re DNA testing. How do you grapple with the fact that there is so much evil in the world—other than with bourbon?

Even when I was investigating the Golden State Killer, I was running across men, obviously that didn’t turn out to be GSK, who were doing other horrific crimes. And they’re not known; these are people that are under the radar to the general public. But when I’m looking at the crime scene photos, the autopsy photos, I see what these guys do. And then I start thinking about, oh my god, I can never live with myself if any of this happened to a loved one. I understand the atrocities that they do. And it’s very, very scary.

I found it interesting that you talk about your own fear, crippling anxiety, and panic attacks, and you’ve spent your life hunting people who trade in fear. Do you think your own issues motivated your obsession?

I guess I haven’t thought of it that way. Those panic attacks, you literally feel that you’re dying. It is out of control. So I think that gave me a realization of that true fight or flight feeling. And that helps when I think about some of these victims and what they were experiencing in the last moments of their life; they were in that fight or flight response. That’s just such a horrible thought— that the last moment of this person’s life is not only that feeling, but also the realization, “I’m dead.” So I do think that my personal experience with anxiety and the panic attacks, especially as a man, probably give me greater empathy than what other men would normally have.

You also mention your first wife, Lori’s, frustration with what she perceived as a lack of warmth or compassion from you at home. Do you feel like your obsession and the connection you feel with the victims’ families are outlets for the emotion you weren’t able to translate into everyday life and relationships?

For me, and I still experience this today, the extreme empathy and emotions that I was feeling towards the victims, basically exhausted my emotional capacity. So when I was at home, with Lori and the kids, I was spent. But internally, subconsciously, there was still trauma from experiencing it and suppressing it. And that’s part of what I really want this book to convey to people. People are fascinated with this career, but it does come with a sacrifice, and I’ve experienced it. And there are so many others, whether they’re homicide detectives, whether they’re CSIs, who are experiencing their own trauma, and there isn’t a good recognition that’s occurring. You have the victim, you have the loved ones of the victims who have been devastated by the crimes, but then the people working those crimes are impacted too.

In your book, you call Michelle McNamara the Golden State Killer’s last victim.

Michelle came from the media world. She was a true crime blogger. She blogged about many, many cases, but Golden State Killer became her obsession. She gets pulled in, you know, and now she is starting to—probably, I don’t know if she recognized this—but she’s starting to experience the psychological, emotional impact of being on the other side of working a case. She’s talking to victims, victims’ families, detectives. She had a young child at home, and she’s trying to meet publishers deadlines, get this book written, but she’s also more investigating than writing, and the pressures were building up. And then the impact, the trauma she personally was experiencing… And then she was self-medicating, just like I self-medicate with the bourbon.

You recount in the book that while you were unofficially investigating DeAngelo, but before you had clear proof he was the Golden State Killer, you drove to his house on your own, and then left without going in. What played into your decision to drive away?

Nobody knew I was in front of DeAngelo’s house. I never told my boss I was going up. I wasn’t on the radio. After the fact, after he was sentenced, a small group of us, Steve Kramer, Anne Marie Schubert—the prosecutor who prosecuted DeAngelo, we were having drinks in a backyard. And we got talking about that incident of me going there, and Kramer flat out told me, “Paul, if you had gone up there, he would’ve shot you, dragged you inside the house, gone out, got your car, pulled it in the garage and you would’ve just disappeared.” And it was like, yeah, in all likelihood that is a scenario. I would hope I would be able to get off a shot, but you know, who knows? When [my wife] Sheree found out that I had done that, she almost was punching me.

Modern technology, namely DNA genealogy, played a crucial role in finding and arresting Joseph DeAngelo. Do you anticipate more of that line of forensics in the future?

Ken Clark, from Sacramento homicide, he was the first one to tell me, after we got DeAngelo, he said, “Paul, you’ve touched off the next big revolution in law enforcement.” The genetic genealogy—Steve Kramer and I were the ones that pursued that. So we both take pride in the fact that we kept charging forward because we believed in it. And now you see all these other cases that were considered unsolvable being solved, and we take pride in that. We were the ones that basically broke through that barrier and got it going. And the hope is we’re not gonna see legislation that’s going to further restrict law enforcement’s use of that particular type of technology, because it’s a very powerful tool.

Is there currently legislation being proposed that could restrict the DNA?

A couple of states did pass some laws, Maryland and Montana. They’re not overly restrictive. But that’s the fear. I’ve been very public in terms of saying that this is far less invasive a tool than people realize. I never had access to anybody’s genetic information in the public databases as a law enforcement officer. I’ve spoken out that any legislators that are considering restricting access, well, you better understand how this tool is being used and don’t do a knee jerk reaction and write a law based on false presumptions.

The reality is, I think people would have greater fear about private companies [rather than law enforcement] having access to that. I think just got bought by a kind of sinister type of organization last year. You start thinking, “Okay, so now this other organization has access to all the Ancestry’s DNA profiles. How are they going to use that in a marketing sense? Are they gonna use it to sell to insurance companies? Are they gonna do it for genetic research?” Who knows, right? [Note: Private equity firm Blackstone Group purchased Ancestry for $4.7 billion in late 2020, causing some panic among bioethicists and privacy experts, but the investment group insists it will not access or share user data.]

By the end of the book, I was hit with the very palpable theme of good vs. evil; so many monsters are out there, and yet you mention so many people you worked with personally who have dedicated their lives to getting rid of them.

Most certainly that is the case. Back in the day, 15 years ago or so, I’m working on the East Area Rapist case, you know, and a lab aid and I were talking, and I told him about this case that I was digging into. And he says, “Paul, you solve that. You’re gonna be famous. And my response to him was, “Who solved the Green River Killer? Who solved BTK? That’s not the way it works.” And this is part of what I’m hoping to be able to bring out, particularly with now, the platform that I have is there are men and women that wear the white caps that are doing good work day in and day out in law enforcement that never get the recognition that I get. And yes, there is an army of us out there. The fact that you saw that in the book—I don’t think it was purposeful, but I am ecstatic that that’s how you read things—that yes, it’s monster after monster after monster, but they are being pursued by the do-gooders, the guys in the white hats.

So, I have to ask about your fangirl scene. The hashtag #hotforholes started up a couple years ago after your Oxygen show and your podcast took off. How does your wife feel about your heartthrob status? You’re still together, right?

Yep. She hasn’t kicked me outta the house just yet.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

You can order the book here.

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