In the Footsteps of a Killer

Fifty rapes. Ten murders. Two identities. One man. From 1976 to 1986, one of the most violent serial criminals in American history terrorized communities throughout California. He was little known, never caught, and might still be out there. Now a determined investigator, a retired detective, and a group of online obsessives are on the hunt to track him down

[ 8 ] NEW WORLD

I’ve always been a restless, jittery sleeper, prone to waking with a start. One night I’d fallen asleep after reading the Original Night Stalker police files. The bedroom door creaked open. I heard footsteps in the dark. Without thinking, I grabbed the lamp on my nightstand, leaped from bed, and lunged at the figure in the room. It was my husband. When we discussed the incident later, what was curious to us both is that I didn’t scream. In fact, I didn’t even swing the lamp. I just asked a question: “Who are you?”

It was the only question I had anymore.

The world has changed for the Golden State Killer in ways he could never have predicted. We know from the tennis shoe impressions under windows and how, for example, he knew exactly when one victim would be home alone even though her husband had just changed shifts the day before, that he was a voyeur at a time when physically standing in front of a window was the only way to stalk. But if he’s alive, he’s growing old in a world where every day more and more windows are opening around him—on computers, on smart phones, in DNA labs.

He couldn’t have predicted that one day we’d be able to identify people by a single skin cell or that a quarter of a century after his last known crime, a stranger in Florida—who’s never been to Sacramento and wasn’t born when the rapes began—could painstakingly cycle through a dozen public records aggregators, narrowing down the possibilities, zeroing in on his name.

The Kid’s list reminded me of something he and I had connected over from the beginning. What drew us to this mystery, we both agreed, was that it can be solved. Technology has made that possible. I may not have what it takes to do so, but someone out there does.

I wonder at times if I need to step back. It’s not easy. Several months after our first meeting, Pool tells me he’s decided to retire from the sheriff’s department and pursue a career in the private sector. He will remain on the Golden State Killer investigation, however, describing the case as “my great unfinished business.” He’s not the only veteran cop who refuses to give up. During a family trip to Portland, I took a train trip an hour south to meet Larry Crompton, the man whose book sparked my interest in this case, at a museum café in Salem. He hasn’t actively worked on the investigation since the ’70s, and he retired from the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department in 1998. But the toll the experience took on his life is still evident. “I was supposed to catch him. And I didn’t,” he says. “I have to live with that.”

I think of the tag line from the movie Zodiac: “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”

Crompton is dressed in a dark blue cotton shirt and has the stiff, rugged posture of a retired cop turned rancher. He often pauses to find the kindest way to say something. He expended great effort trying to warn his colleagues about the East Area Rapist: that he was going to return and attack the other teenage girl in Walnut Creek (he did), that he’d moved to Southern California and started killing couples (did that, too).

In return for his efforts Crompton endured frustration and heartbreak, though he’s too polite to say that directly. He recalls the damaged  lives of the victims after the attacks, how many of the husbands were riddled with guilt that they didn’t do more to fight back. The two of us sit long enough for a distracted waitress to serve me five iced tea refills. At one point Crompton turns his head and mutters to no one in particular, “I just want to catch him before I die.”

“If he were caught and you got to ask him one question,” I ask, “what would it be?”

He thinks for a beat and smiles mischievously. “Remember me?”

Then, becoming serious, he says, “What’d I miss?”

[ 9 ] STOLEN LIVES

The police files depict in clinical prose the ordinariness of the victims’ lives in the moments before the attacks—a single mom watching the last minutes of The Tonight Show in bed, a teenager sticking a frozen pizza in the oven and setting the timer.

The Golden State Killer was a destroyer of all that was familiar and comforting to his victims. Sex was secondary to instilling terror. It’s no accident that one of his signature threats was “I’ll be gone in the dark.” He wasn’t a mere rapist. He was a phantom who kept his victims perpetually frightened with the threat that he lurked, ligatures in hand, around every corner of their unassuming tract houses.

One victim never went back inside the house where the crime took place. Another rape survivor, victim No. 5, told me she came to despise her house. She had to stop skiing because of her attacker’s ski mask. “And his black tennis shoes,” she said. “I’ll never forget them.” A former nurse, she now volunteers as a rape crisis counselor. “I’ve forgiven him. He was such a heavy burden on me for so long.”

Mad appeared to be his favorite word. Is it still? Or is he no longer the masked intruder working the bedroom screen with a screwdriver but the father in the button-down cardigan checking the locks on his back door?

In “Excitement’s Crave,” the poem he allegedly wrote, the Golden State Killer alludes to going underground. “Sacramento should make an offer. / To make a movie of my life / That will pay for my planned exile.” My bet is he’s enjoying a comfortable exile, leading an unremarkable life among the unsuspecting. A suburban dad passing unnoticed behind the hedge wall.

The other night when I couldn’t sleep again, I opened my laptop, positioning it so as not to wake my husband. I began studying Flickr, scrolling through Goleta Little League team photos from 1978. I couldn’t pull myself away from studying the men in the back rows, the assistant coaches, the young dads, searching their faces for who among them might have been hiding in plain sight, for the everyman with a baseball cap and a twisted glint in his eye.

In the past, when people have asked whether it worries me that the killer may still be out there, I’ve waved dismissively, pointing out that he’d be much older now—62, if I had to guess. “He can’t hurt me,” I say, not realizing that in every sleepless hour, in every minute spent hunting him and not cuddling my daughter, he already has.

 

This is Michelle McNamara’s first piece for Los Angeles.


This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

Facebook Comments