In The Footsteps of a Killer: The Writer’s Cut


Ten murders and 50 rapes. That’s one way to describe the crimes of the Golden State Killer, a serial attacker who terrorized California from 1976 to 1986. What that tally doesn’t reveal is the psychological horror this criminal—known by authorities as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker—inflicted on many of his victims. Writer Michelle McNamara brings the Golden State Killer’s most twisted sins to light

Ligatures on the floor. Note the towel near the bed. The Golden State Killer often threw towels over his victims’ heads as a head covering/blindfold.


Rancho Cordova, 1976

The Golden State Killer’s first attack—on June 18, 1976, in Rancho Cordova, just east of Sacramento—in many ways resembled the 49 that followed. The 23-year-old victim woke to a man in a navy blue T-shirt and white ski mask standing in her bedroom doorway. He wore no pants and was erect. She thought she was dreaming until he leaped onto her bed. “If you make one move or sound, I’ll stick this knife in you,” he whispered, pressing the blade into her right temple. Later, after he’d tied her up with electrical cord from her hair dryer and raped her, she waited until she was certain he was gone and backed up to the telephone, pressing “0.”

Sacramento investigators had no idea how many times in the next two years they’d encounter the same scene, how they had only to see knotted shoelaces on a shag rug and a crying victim with deep red indentations around the wrists to predict the rest. Prowling or break-ins in the area often preceded an attack. Victims received hang-up or crank phone calls before and after the attacks. Scratches, similar to pry marks, were often found on window screens in the area; some investigators came to believe they were code for which houses to hit. The attacker was young (18 to 30) and lean and athletic, able to jump roofs and hop tall fences. Most victims first became aware of him as a masked figure next to their bed, shining a flashlight in their eyes and whispering angrily at them through clenched teeth. “I just want food and money for my van,” was his lie.

His tenth victim was playing the piano when he materialized, a man in a red ski mask, at her left side. As with other victims, he professed interest in money but took little of value. He tied her hands behind her back with shoelaces he’d stolen earlier from her sister’s shoes. He had her masturbate him with hand lotion, a habit of his, while he quizzed her on her sexual history. The victim was a virgin. He raped her anyway. “Oh, isn’t this good?” he asked. He held a knife to her throat until she said yes.

In the first moments of an attack he seemed almost frightened, several victims reported to police, until he had them tied up and was in complete control. He seemed unable to have intercourse. There was a lot of fidgeting, getting up and leaving the room, then returning. He never put his full weight on his victims but draped their legs around him and rarely touched them. He liked to make them use crass words. Sometimes a blindfolded victim would be asked to identify what she was hearing. “What does it sound like?” he’d ask as he masturbated. One victim decided to try a bit of reverse psychology and told him he was a good lover. He stopped abruptly and said no one had ever told him that before. People made fun of him because he was small, he said.

Several victims reported that it felt like he had a particular script in his mind that he wanted to follow and he grew agitated when anything interfered with the scenarios he had constructed. “I’ll kill you,” he threatened them. They believed him. He might have been acting out a scene in his head, but for his victims the terror was in not knowing how it was going to end.

When Sacramento police were quoted in the media as saying the Golden State Killer only targeted women and girls at home alone, he responded by attacking couples. When a man rose at a crime prevention meeting at Del Dayo Elementary School and questioned how men could fail to protect their wives, he and his wife became victims—case number 21 in the files.

By May 1977 the fear in Sacramento was palpable. Hardware stores were completely sold out of guns, locks, and alarms. Helicopters buzzed overhead. One woman from Rancho Cordova recalled how her family tied tambourines to their doors and windows. “Crazy with fear. It was all anyone talked about,” victim number five remembered. She listened as friends exchanged rumors about the kinky things the rapist made his victims do, and said nothing.

The tips flew in from possible witnesses, a well-intentioned but confusing stream of information. There were several reports about a white station wagon, possibly a Chevrolet. Someone else thought it was gray. A vehicle with a noisy exhaust pipe or muffler was frequently noted. A two-tone Ford Mustang. A light-colored Volkswagen Bug.

The victims provided glimpses. Most felt he was around five feet nine, with a slim to solid build. One saw a belt buckle with two revolvers lying on top of each other. Another, under hypnosis, reported a tattoo of a black bull’s head with white horns on his forearm. The ten-year-old son of one victim saw his eyes and nose in the light and said the man had very white skin and very blue eyes. And possibly a funny gait, as if he were bowlegged.

On July 6, 1979, a man in Danville, a light sleeper, woke to see a stranger a few feet from him in his bedroom, putting on a ski mask. He leaped out of bed. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he said. The intruder was wearing a dark blue ski mask with raggedy, homemade-cut eyeholes.  The man got up close to the intruder and locked eyes with him.  Later, under hypnosis, he described the intruder’s eyes as deep-set and boyish, with large irises and strangely full lashes. The intruder never uttered a word while the man yelled at him. He just blinked slowly and stepped back. But the man and his wife were aware of the Golden State Killer and knew he carried weapons. Not wanting to risk being attacked, they fled.

After that, the Golden State Killer seemed to disappear.

NEXT: Excerpt II: A Narrow Escape