Last year, HBO released a six-part docuseries based on Michelle McNamara’s engrossing true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. (We spoke to her husband, Patton Oswalt, when the series premiered.) In the book, McNamara recounted her “origin story,” the rape and murder of a young woman named Kathy Lombardo in McNamara’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. A new epilogue episode of the HBO series, premiering Monday, June 21, focuses on that unsolved case—while also providing closure to the main case the book was about.
McNamara had a hunch about how the Golden State Killer would finally be caught: through a consumer-friendly DNA site like 23andMe. And that’s exactly how it happened. Prosecutors uploaded a genetic sample from an old rape kit to the sites FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, which led them to a close relative—which led them to Joseph DeAngelo. The mysterious predator who prowled California through the 1970s and ’80s, assaulting 50 women and murdering 10 people before he suddenly vanished in 1986, was finally identified and imprisoned.
Sadly, McNamara wasn’t alive to taste the victory. After reigniting interest in the cold case through her blog and a popular article for this magazine—coming up with the name “Golden State Killer” herself and becoming an effective, full-time citizen sleuth—the author died in her sleep from an accidental prescription drug overdose in April 2016 while in the throes of writing her acclaimed book.
“So often in our field, you’re not seeing stories about unsolved cases,” says Elizabeth Wolff, co-director of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “And this was an issue that Michelle had in her work, too, which was: she was really interested in cold cases, but so often distributors or buyers of content want to know: how is it going to end? Luckily for her, her publishers saw the potential for her story and bought her book. But when she was writing it, the Golden State Killer hadn’t been caught, and it was very hard, and a struggle for her, to figure out how was she going to end it.”
Wolff and writer/co-director Liz Garbus began working on the docuseries in a similar position. Wolff was shooting interviews in Oak Park on the day she found out DeAngelo had been collared. Suddenly the series had an ending—the ending McNamara could only dream of.
The reason Wolff was in Oak Park was to retrace McNamara’s footsteps on the cold trail of Lombardo’s homicide, which had shaken a teenage McNamara in 1984 and lit her lifelong obsession with unsolved murders. Wolff interviewed Lombardo’s relatives and the man who found her body, visiting the scene of the crime just like McNamara had done as both a teen girl (when she memorably picked up pieces of Lombardo’s shattered Walkman) and again as a grown-up investigator. But when Wolff and Garbus started cutting the series together, they found there just wasn’t room to tell this other story.
“We spent a lot of time going and getting material for it, and then working with it in the edit,” says Wolff. “Our blessing and our curse in this series was that we had so much story, and it became very clear towards the end that we were not going to be able to go into Michelle’s investigation of the Kathy Lombardo case, and that it was just going to exist as its own sort of standalone in episode two. It was really sad to see all that stuff go. I had developed a relationship with [Kathy’s brother] Chris Lombardo. I had been to Chicago many times. Even Michelle’s family and Patton really wanted the Lombardo story to be told, because they really felt like this could advance Michelle’s white whale, and that we could pick up where she left off.”
After the series aired last summer—lauded for the way it captured McNamara’s unique voice and her empathetic centering of victims and survivors rather than the grisly crimes or killer’s mystique—the filmmakers got in touch with another survivor of (presumably) the same man who murdered Lombardo. Grace Puccetti narrowly escaped Lombardo’s fate when a man held her at knifepoint and threatened to rape her on her walk home from ballet lessons. On the advice of her mother, who believed “the victim becomes another victim of the system,” Puccetti kept the attack to herself ever since. But now she was ready to talk.
“Michelle learned about Grace Puccetti in the course of her own investigation, and even reached out to her,” says Wolff. “So we retraced those steps, and when we reached out to Grace she was aware of our series, aware of the book, obviously aware of Michelle—and was in a place that she was ready to talk about her story. I also think it coincided with some of her own growth. I think when Michelle reached out to her, she was just starting to grapple with the decades of keeping this buried.”
Puccetti’s mother wasn’t totally misguided when she worried about what would happen if her daughter reported the attack. Liz Garbus points to the Golden State Killer survivors she talked to for the series: “First you go through this assault, and then the lack of training, at that time, for police dealing with sexual assault… I mean, there wasn’t real training. This was something that Gay [Hardwick], one of our survivors, says in the main series—that her body became this sort of crime scene again, and it was, for her, incredibly difficult and violating to go through that. So I certainly think that Grace’s mother was responding to something that was very real in the culture—and also, a disbelief when girls said that they were sexually assaulted.”
“I do think,” Garbus adds, “that while it’s unfortunate that they didn’t go public—because obviously that was painful for Grace to keep this secret for so long, and also obviously, maybe, could have helped the process of finding this person…it’s understandable, given how female sexual assault survivors or victims were handled during that time.”
But in finally telling her story, Wolff believes, Puccetti was able to experience some of what the Golden State Killer survivors did. “When you bury something, when you hide it in the dark, it festers, and it grows in different ways,” says Wolff. “And really the best way to reach personal peace is to let some of these demons out into the light. This is something that Patton himself talked about in terms of grief, that our survivors talked about in terms of the culture of secrecy surrounding sexual assault, and the way in which they were treated amongst law enforcement and in the criminal justice system. Grace’s story really felt of a part of this theme that we were exploring. And I think she got very emotional in talking about her mom, because she recognized that her mom was trying to protect her. And so often, talking about the hard stuff is really, really hard in the moment—but it’s the thing that, in the long term, will help you find peace.”
The other major thing that’s happened since the series aired last summer, of course, was DeAngelo’s trial, which took place in Sacramento in August. The former cop was given multiple life sentences without parole, and he was confronted by rape survivors and relatives of his victims. Because it was during the thick of the pandemic, Garbus and Wolff (both based on the East Coast) were unable to be there, but they had local camera crews capture the proceedings. That material—and particularly the heart wrenching testimony of survivors—provides a bittersweet, triumphant coda to the mystery at the heart of the series and to McNamara’s quest.
“He wasn’t charged with the rapes that we talked about in the show because of the statute of limitation,” says Garbus. “But it was really important for those survivors to have acknowledgement of his guilt in those cases, even if that’s not what he was going to go to prison for. Sexual assault is a loss, you know, and they wanted their loss acknowledged in the criminal justice process.”
In the footage of the (masked and distanced) court proceedings, DeAngelo is hunched over in a wheelchair, looking and sounding like a weak, frail old man. But Wolff and Garbus were also able to obtain—through the Freedom of Information Act—eerie security footage taken inside his jail cell that betrays just another of his deceptions.
“That was footage the district attorney decided to share with the survivors in the course of that summer of hearings that we document,” says Wolff. “And because they showed that footage to the survivors, we were able to get it. We weren’t able to get the interrogation video and other things that they have still not shown to the public.”
So this epilogue episode ends with the satisfying echo of a judge’s gavel—but also with the cold void of the unknown perpetrator in the Lombardo/Puccetti case. That wasn’t something to lament, though, says Wolff (who was three months pregnant while directing the episode). “There was something very poetic for us about: how can we end our series in the same way that Michelle ended her book? Shining a light on how a lack of closure lingers in so many millions of people whose cases, and the loved ones’ cases, have not been solved.”
Wolff’s episode ends the series in the same spirit McNamara decided to end her book, “which was this call to action,” Wolff says. “The line at the end of our episode, about ‘inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes’—that comes from the email that she wrote to her publisher, talking about ways to end her book. I feel satisfied that many more people will know about this case, and maybe this will get people talking, and that will lead to new leads that will help solve it. That’s the goal.”
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