“It’s almost like he’s omnipresent,” Michelle McNamara says in an archival interview at the top of this week’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, “and I can’t figure that out.”
If you watched last week’s premiere of HBO’s disturbing-yet-compelling docuseries, you know exactly whom McNamara is referencing: The East Area Rapist, a criminal who attacked more than 50 women in the Sacramento, Calif., area in the 1970s and whose crimes eventually escalated, prompting McNamara to dub him the Golden State Killer.
Episode 2 of the series focuses on a bunch of survivors whom the Golden State Killer raped, with ample context about how ’70s attitudes toward the crime tended to shame and blame the victim. Apparently there were several rapists active in the Sacramento area in those years; per sheriff’s deputy Larry Crompton, the Golden State Killer was the most violent. “The sex was not his thing. The terror that he put in them was the thing,” he says.
The hour chronicles the criminal’s change to attacking heterosexual couples, as well as the diabolical way he would hogtie the man and place plates and bowls on his back, then threaten to do bodily harm if he heard any of the dishes hit the floor.
“He was just walking around the house like he owns it,” Linda O’Dell, Survivor #20, recalls, adding that her husband never knew how to process the trauma. “I don’t think a lot of men knew how to deal with it, to be honest.” In another interview with the survivors of Attack #31, Bob Hardwick clearly has a very hard time listening to his wife, Gay, talk about what happened to her while he was restrained in another room. It’s striking, how she’s (somehow) so poised and how he (understandably) looks like he’s been punched in the gut, even all these years later. Gay also brings up how the investigation of the crime, in which she wasn’t able to put on clothes or go to the bathroom until the police told her she could, felt like another violation.
“We were just a piece of evidence in our own home,” she says. Once she returned home after visiting the hospital, she says, the place was a wreck and was covered in fingerprinting dust: “Everything felt contaminated in that house, and it never felt the same.”
At the time, authorities feared it was only a matter of time before the rapist started killing people. But what they didn’t know was that he probably already had. The documentary walks us through the lethal shooting of Brian and Katie Maggiore, who were walking their dog in 1978 and — it is believed — saw the Golden State Killer in such a way that they could probably identify him. A neighbor who happened to be an art student also saw him, and contributed to the composite sketch at the top of this post.
Because the rapist often took monogrammed items from his victims, McNamara would trawl eBay in the wee hours of the morning, on the slim hope that one of these pilfered pieces would show up on the online marketplace. And one night, she was elated when she came across some distinctive cufflinks engraved with the initials “N” and “R” that seemed to match those taken during a crime. In narration, we hear how McNamara went into the bedroom where Oswalt was sleeping and stared at him until he woke up. “I think I found him,” she said.
Other notes for the file:
* In narration, McNamara talks about how the murder of Kathy Lombardo, one of her neighbors in a Chicago suburb when McNamara was 14, piqued her interest in similar crimes. “Everyone moved on,” she narrates, “and I couldn’t.” By the way, Lombardo’s killing remains unsolved.
* Patton Oswalt recalls how McNamara’s dreams often got the best of her. “One time she ran out of the back of the house,” he says, chuckling. “Again, a very, very, vivid, very present mind, and that was one of the, I guess, the costs of it.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!