As It Happens

Michelle McNamara's Golden State Killer book had 'a big effect' on the case: colleague

Crime writer Michelle McNamara's diligent work investigating the so-called Golden State Killer helped lead to an arrest on Tuesday, says her colleague.

Former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, arrested in connection with California killing spree

Crime writer Michelle McNamara, left, is pictured with her husband comedian Patton Oswalt. (John Shearer/Getty Images for LACMA)
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Crime writer Michelle McNamara's diligent work investigating the so-called Golden State Killer helped lead to an arrest on Tuesday, says her colleague.

Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer, was arrested Tuesday after a DNA sample came back as a match to the Golden State Killer.

He has been charged with eight counts of murder for the California killing spree in the late '70s and early '80s. He is suspected of killing 12 people and raping about 50, and could face more charges.

McNamara was still writing her book about the cold case — I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer — when she died in April 2016.

Her book was published posthumously with the help of her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, and her colleague, crime reporter Bill Jensen.

Police say the book had no information that "directly led to the apprehension," but Jensen credits it with keeping the case alive. 

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the arrest and McNamara's legacy. Here is part of that conversation. 

How does it feel hearing that the suspected Golden State Killer has been arrested?

It was surreal.

We had just done a book event in Chicago in Michelle's hometown. So her family was there. [Novelist] Gillian Flynn was there, who wrote the foreword of the book. Patton was there. [Researcher] Paul Haynes was there.

We were all sleeping in the same hotel, and I got a text message saying that there was a press conference.

Copies of the books I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara are stacked at Books Inc. bookstore in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

How do you think Michelle McNamara ... would feel today if she knew?

Yesterday, there would be elation.

Today, she would be now going through all of her notes trying to see what matches up and ... and what makes sense and what doesn't.

What do we know about the man who has now been arrested?

He was a regular guy. He was an upstanding member of the community. He had a family. He had a wife. He lived in the same home for 30 years.

We knew that this guy was going to be part of a community. We didn't think he was going to be a guy living in a cabin. We didn't think he was some frothing animal.

None of the people that we talked to — the victims of sexual assaults that we talked to — had said that.

This was going to be somebody that is not outside of society. But, you know, when the lights go down, that's when he starts to play and his true colours come out.

Police believe Joseph James DeAngelo is the California serial killer who committed at least 12 homicides and 50 rapes throughout the state in the '70s and '80s. (Sacramento County Sheriff's Office via Associated Press)

What do you make of the fact that [the accused] is a former police officer?

That was a theory that we all had, one of them, that he was a police officer.

The bigger theory was that he tried to be a police officer and failed, which actually kind of came true too.

We thought maybe he was somebody that really did like military and law enforcement, but couldn't quite make it.

Turns out that [the accused] was a police officer and he was accused of shoplifting  two particular items that were interesting — dog repellent and a hammer — and was dismissed.

He didn't fight the charge, which should have sent up a red flag.

Investigative crime journalist Bill Jensen helped to finish and publish Michelle McNamara's book about the Golden State Killer after she died. (Submitted by Bill Jensen)

[McNamara] picked up on this when the case had gone cold. No one was investigating. Why was it so important to her?

She was just so amazed at how much material there was, and there were a lot of things that you could get obsessed about.

Eventually the police started listening to her and she was bringing them together. Because even though there was a lot of evidence, it wasn't centrally located because he was doing it in so many different jurisdictions.

She had such a gift for disarming people and putting them together and saying, "Listen, I'm going to buy you guys dinner. You're going to sit down and we're going to talk and share information."

Authorities gather outside the home of suspect Joseph James DeAngelo on Wednesday. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

What effect do you think Michelle's work had on the fact that this case is now solved?

I think it had a big effect.

Nobody knew of this case, you know, outside of Sacramento and, you know, a couple of people ...  in Irvine and Santa Barbara.

She was the one, and it's sad because it really was her death that promoted the case into really popular consciousness.

She named it the Golden State Killer.

When she passed, everybody learned about this woman who was a wife of a comedian and she was working on a book about the Golden State Killer. 

And when you have something like that and you have national news about a guy that killed 12 people and raped 50, that brings upon pressure onto law enforcement.

What do you think Michelle McNamara would say if she could be face to face with the alleged Golden State Killer?

I think that she would just start a conversation with him first about whatever — and then, you know, lead them down the path and get him to tell her things that he might not normally tell somebody else. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.