In January 1978, a Sacramento woman answered her phone and heard the horrifying sound of heavy breathing on the other end. "Gonna kill you," a sinister voice repeated breathily. "Gonna kill you... bitch... fucking whore."
Detectives had tapped the phone after the woman had been raped by a brutal and sadistic monster who would become known by several different names: the East Area Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker, and eventually the Golden State Killer. In 2018, authorities identified the voice on the other end of the line as Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer who terrorized communities up and down California from 1974 to 1986, murdering at least 13 people, mostly women, and raping 50 women and girls as young as 13. The story of those attacks, the survivors, and the intrepid blogger who worked tirelessly to identify a killer that authorities couldn't catch make up the six-part HBO docuseries I'll Be Gone in the Dark.
"I did not know about the case. When I started reading about it, I was shocked that I didn't know that this incredibly prolific destroyer of lives was not more of a household name," director Liz Garbus told VICE. "As we all know, publicity drives public pressure, and then also [with] Michelle McNamara I was being introduced to a voice that I didn't know that I thought was so powerful and so empathetic and so smart. Putting those elements together was really exciting for me as a filmmaker."
By now, anyone who has devoted hours to true crime podcasts is familiar with Michelle McNamara, the beloved true crime writer who spent years investigating and writing about the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer on her blog, the canonical True Crime Diary, her Los Angeles Magazine piece "In the Footsteps of a Killer," and, eventually, the New York Times bestselling book I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. McNamara's persistence and meticulousness, and the compassionate and caring manner in which she wrote about DeAngelo's victims, inspired awe within the true crime community and beyond. And then, during the process of writing the book, McNamara died suddenly of an accidental overdose of Adderall, Xanax, and fentanyl (coupled with a heart condition) in 2016. She was discovered by her husband, actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, with whom she shared a daughter, Alice.
The book was completed by McNamara's research assistant and fellow amateur sleuth Paul Haynes, investigative journalist Billy Jensen, and Oswalt, and it spent 15 weeks at the top of the New York Times best seller's list. While McNamara didn't live to see the success of her book, the docuseries, or DeAngelo's capture, viewers see the many ways in which women survive beyond the moment they're freed from their attacker's grasp. McNamara's persistence and dedication to the victims fills this story with life.
The series thoroughly captures McNamara's years of searching steadfastly and exhaustively for DeAngelo at the expense of her well-being—digging through cases of decades-old files, visiting crime scenes, working closely with detectives, interviewing witnesses and victims, meticulous online sleuthing, and considering new frontiers in DNA research, all while battling a deep anxiety that rendered her reliant on a dangerous mix of medications. To really go through every cranny of her investigations you'd need 20 seasons. Her morbid curiosity became a cause, as McNamara puts it in an interview seen on the series—she felt hunting for this man who tormented and brutalized women and got away with it, and telling the victims' story, was something she was "born to do." And it became her obsession.
"We're getting to see even more of a full picture of the extraordinary woman that she was," Oswalt told VICE. McNamara was a survivor of sexual assault herself, and the docuseries shows how she grappled with the impacts of her assault long after it occurred, and how it fueled her persistent work ethic.
It's that care that permeates throughout I'll Be Gone in the Dark, as Garbus and fellow directors Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane and Josh Koury emphasize how much sexual assault victims have to survive beyond their attack, and how a society that has historically placed the blame of rape and even murder on its victims perpetuates that victimization.
It's impossible not to see the meticulousness of DeAngelo's evildoing as the sinister twin of McNamara's—how he chose a victim; stalked them by calling their homes incessantly for days leading up to the attack, perhaps to pinpoint times when they would be around; surveilled and inspected their home for points of easy entry unrecognized by its very inhabitants; tormented and brutalized them in cruel and unimaginable ways for hours; left ligatures under cushions so as he was attacking he could grab them easily, leaving his victims with the realization that he'd been inside waiting for god knows how long; and in some cases, bludgeoning them to death, leaving their families the burden of wiping away their loved one's blood from the walls. This is a man who took a snack break, cracking open a beer in between raping a woman while she laid naked and bound a room away, and made it part of his ritual of terror. The people who were lucky to survive their attack with their lives had to contend with what comes next.
Gay and Bob Hardwick were victims of DeAngelo's 31st attack, and one of the few married couples he targeted. Bob was forced to lay on his stomach with dishes on his back, warned by DeAngelo that of he heard the dishes move he and Gay would be killed. When DeAngelo finally left after raping Gay, and they called for help, it set off what Gay refers to as "phase two." "There you are, bound, incapacitated, in shock, and now there are four more men in the room that you don't know," she recalls in the series, noting she remained naked and bound until an officer cut her free. "We were very quickly inundated with crime scene investigators and more police officers and fingerprint techs. We were just a piece of evidence in our own home." She wasn't allowed to use the restroom, and when she tried to cover herself with a robe was stopped by police on site. As Gay recounts this, Bob sits quietly, visibly pained by the memory. He eventually admits he "blocked that out years ago" as a defense mechanism.
In another scene, Kris Pedretti, victim #10, recalls telling a friend about what she experienced. "My dad had I guess picked up the other line and heard me, and I got in a lot of trouble for telling anybody. And I think at that moment, that would probably be the beginning feeling of shame," she says while holding back tears.
Decades passed where the women who survived, and the families of those who did not, had no answers. "I really did think they were going to catch him, and it was a hard pill to swallow as the years went by that he could have gotten away with these kinds of things," Gay says. The trauma, grief, and fear of knowing the man who committed such heinous crimes remained free is depicted in its daily struggles. Pedretti, who was attacked while playing her piano at home, admits to never playing the instrument she loved again after her attack.
Other stories and vintage footage from that era show how rape was discussed in media at the time, warning women of how to protect themselves rather than telling men not to rape women. The documentary also shows victims discussing fears that they had asked for it; other victims discuss how police officers would openly talk about the their physical appearance, sexualizing them after a literal sexual assault. It's beyond disgusting, but pretending it's a thing that was left behind in the 70s and 80s would be disingenuous.
When you look at the number of untested rape kits sitting in backlogs, and the men with credible sexual assault allegations made against them holding seats in the Supreme Court and as president of the Unites States, and how often rape victims like Chanel Miller see their assailants often get minimal sentencing for their crime, it doesn't feel like much has changed. But there's hope and resilience that comes out of that, which I'll Be Gone in the Dark captures beautifully: after endless years of trauma and isolation, the Golden State Killer's survivors came together to build their community. They meet in person, celebrating DeAngelo's capture, attend crime conventions where they share their stories, and go to DeAngelo's court dates to face him in person, often sitting together to provide support.
"I think a lot of these women instinctually realized that one of this guy's power moves was not only was he going to commit this horrible act, but the thing that I do is going to damage and effect and haunt you forever. And once they realize that, they were like, 'well, I'm going to defiantly rise against that and rob you of that,'" said Oswalt.
On April 24, 2018, a then-72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested just as McNamara predicted in her book: a knock on the door from police, a body too frail to run away, and the unavoidable realization that he was being brought to justice. What finally led to his capture was in-depth genealogy mapping using DNA culled from long-gone crime scenes, and then testing trash detectives gathered from DeAngelo's garbage cans to determine assuredly if they'd finally got their man. With his capture, a new set of survivors entered the story: DeAngelo's former fiancé, Bonnie Colwell, who was indirectly blamed for DeAngelo's crimes in the media, and his family, who have had to contend with the atrocities committed by someone they loved. Their pain, shock, and confusion adds another layer of tragedy to the series. "You wake up one day and you find out that you're on this side of the spectrum, where your family member is the one that did all these heinous crimes. Can you imagine how we feel as well, to think that someone who we knew all of our lives was like this, and we had no clue," says DeAngelo's nephew, Wes Ryland. Even Oswalt will forever have the grief of losing his wife tied to a monster.
On June 29, DeAngelo plead guilty to all counts or murder, and admitted guilt to the many crimes that had passed the statute of limitations. He will go on to serve 11 consecutive life sentences in exchange for avoiding the death penalty.
"There was nothing more humbling and amazing to me than when I did the book reading in Sacramento and I met so many of the survivors and they talked about how they loved going to every single one of his court appearances and looking straight at him, and he could not meet their gaze," Oswalt said. "It made me feel so good that they saw this monster reduced to the insect it actually was the whole climb."
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.