Michelle McNamara was a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She was also—and this should sound familiar to a whole lot of us—an inveterate consumer of true crime, less interested in, as her own blog put it, “looking back at notorious criminals and saying, wow,” than in following up unfolding stories and tracking down new leads on cases that had gone cold.
In 2006, McNamara did what many aficionados have done—she transformed her fascination with true crime from a private hobby into a public blog. Her True Crime Diary blog chronicled everything from her own interest in active cases to reviews of true crime books and programs by other writers, and was featured everywhere from the Los Angeles Times to the website Suicide Girls to a panel at SXSW.
By 2014, however, the blog was—again, in McNamara’s own words—taking a “back seat” to a book that McNamara was researching and writing about the Golden State Killer, a term that she, herself, had coined for the rapist and murderer who had been known previously as the Original Night Stalker, the East Area Rapist, and other epithets. That book would eventually become the bestseller I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and would be adapted into the HBO show of the same name, but it wouldn’t see print while McNamara was still alive.
On April 21, 2016, McNamara died in her sleep, the result of what coroners determined was an accidental overdose. She left behind her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, and a daughter, as well as an almost-finished manuscript and pages and pages of her True Crime Diary blog. Tragically, McNamara also perished almost two years to the day before the Golden State Killer would finally be brought to justice.
It was April 24, 2018 when former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was taken into custody, having been identified as the Golden State Killer thanks to DNA evidence. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, a sentence he is currently serving in “protective custody” at the California State Prison in Corcoran, California.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was completed by Oswalt, crime writer Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen—mostly sequencing chapters that McNamara had already written—and released posthumously in February of 2018. This was two years after McNamara’s death, and just two months before DeAngelo was finally captured.
While the Golden State Killer had become McNamara’s abiding obsession near the end of her life, it was far from the only case she had become fixated on over her many years as a true crime writer and investigator. On her True Crime Diary blog, she followed and reported on numerous cases, both cold and ongoing, often bringing the same dogged determination that led her to help crack the Golden State Killer case to tease out connections between seemingly disparate events.
Here are just a few of the many cases that McNamara pursued as part of her true crime obsession before she was tragically taken from the world at the age of 46.
An “organized” serial killer, rapist, necrophile, arsonist, burglar, and more, Israel Keyes died by suicide while in custody awaiting trial, and the exact number of his victims may never be known. Just a few days after Keyes became his own last victim in 2012, McNamara’s blog ran a guest post from writer Steve Huff detailing Keyes’ crimes and asking for leads to find his other possible victims. Nearly a year later, in one of the final posts to True Crime Diary, McNamara herself broke down Keyes’ final note to the FBI (which she called “four pages of bad, junior-high level goth poetry”) and potentially linked the killer to several other arson homicides.
All the way back in 1972, two bodies were found “nestled together under a single sleeping bag” on Vancouver Island’s Radar Beach. Each had been shot four times in the head from close range by a .22-caliber rifle. The killings were attributed to Joseph Burgess, a “Jesus freak” who called himself Job Weeks. Burgess disappeared in the wake of the killings, and his whereabouts were never uncovered. In 2007, an article in the Los Angeles Times credited Michelle McNamara’s True Crime Diary blog as having pointed out a number of additional cases over the years that bore similarities to the shootings on Radar Beach, including a 2004 murder of a young couple on a secluded beach in Northern California, both of whom had been shot in the head by a rifle at close range. Were these killings—more than 30 years apart—the work of the same man? No one yet knows, but McNamara’s True Crime Diary was certainly trying to put the pieces together, posting about the 2004 murders as early as the blog’s very first post.
Charles Manson Trending
Not all of McNamara’s True Crime Diary posts were the usual suspects—chasing down leads on cold cases, hypothesizing possible twists in ongoing ones, or reviewing true crime books. The same speculative bent that allowed her to connect together seemingly disparate crimes was also flexed imagining other scenarios, such as a September, 2012 post positing how the infamous Manson Family murders of 1969 might have been changed by the existence of social media as we know it today. “Social media, had it existed, would have changed the way we learned about what happened on August 9, 1969,” she writes. “But, more controversially, I want to suggest that the existence of social media might have helped to avert what are now known as ‘the Manson murders’ altogether.” While some of her conclusions might seem a bit naïve just shy of a decade later, in the wake of a Trump presidency and QAnon conspiracy theories, there’s no denying the power of her suppositions, or the depths of her research.
The Hammer Man
One of the key elements of McNamara’s true crime reporting was trying to locate the perpetrators of ongoing, unfolding cases. Whether those were decades-old cold cases like the Golden State Killer, or ones that had occurred shortly before her writing—and might recur again at any time. She was especially interested in linking together crimes with similar MOs that hadn’t yet been attributed to the same assailant. “Experts say it’s extremely rare for a person to randomly kill a victim without having done it before or without ever doing it again,” she wrote about the alleged crimes of Joseph Burgess. Earlier, she had done the same thing with a series of hammer attacks perpetrated in and around Chicago, Illinois, including the 2005 murder of Peter D’Agostino. The two posts covering the attacks reveal not just McNamara’s investigative rigor and speculative imagination, but her unflinching sympathy and understanding for the victims. “In just seconds, the happy life you built for yourself is gone,” she writes, in the first of the two posts.
The Victims of the Hog Trail Murderer
McNamara didn’t limit her investigative work to trying to catch killers; she also tried to help lay the dead to rest, including finding out the identities of unknown victims. One such post concerned the 2007 discovery of eight sets of human remains in the woods near Fort Myers, Florida. While it is unknown whether the bodies were the work of Dan Conahan, known as the “Hog Trail Murderer,” who had been linked to the murders of more than a dozen people and sentenced to death row in 1999, McNamara put out the call to help identify some of the bodies found in the Florida woods.
Featured photo: ROBYN VON SWANK/HBO