July 14, 2020

‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’: Who Was Michelle McNamara?


HBO’s new series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark isn’t your typical true-crime documentary. Yes, the six-part docuseries (which premieres June 28) chronicles the decades-long search for a serial predator dubbed the Golden State Killer who murdered at least 13 people in the 1970s and 1980s. But it’s also about one woman’s obsessive quest to find that killer. 

Michelle McNamara was a crime writer who spent years investigating the Golden State Killer’s crimes. Her interest brought new attention to the cold cases, and she began working on a book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.  Unfortunately, her sudden death in 2016 at age 46 meant she couldn’t complete the manuscript. It was finished by several other writers and published posthumously in 2018.

An unsolved murder in Michelle McNamara’s hometown led to a lifelong interest in crime 

Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara | Photograph by Robyn Von Swank/HBO

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McNamara was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. When she was 14, someone murdered a young woman named Kathleen Lombardo in an alley near McNamara’s home. Her killer was never caught, and the unsolved crime led to a lifelong interest in crime. 

“Kathy Lombardo was gone. She wasn’t coming back. But he, whomever he was, was still out there. The hollow gap of his identity was violently powerful to me,” McNamara wrote on her blog True Crime Diary in 2012. 

Michelle McNamara eventually moved to LA and married Patton Oswalt

Michelle McNamara and Patton Oswalt
Michelle McNamara and Patton Oswalt | Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

After graduating from high school, McNamara earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. Later, she completed an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She met her future husband Patton Oswalt at a comedy show in Los Angeles in 2003. 

“It was love pretty much immediately for me,” The King of Queens star told People in 2016. The two married in 2005. Their daughter Alice was born in 2009. 

McNamara had moved to LA with the idea of becoming a screenwriter, according to a profile in Notre Dame Magazine. But at Oswalt’s urging, in 2006 she started a blog dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes

She was obsessed with the Golden State Killer 

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McNamara wrote about a number of crimes on her blog. But she became obsessed with a series of unsolved rapes and murders committed by a man she dubbed the Golden State Killer. 

The Golden State Killer was active in both the Sacramento area as well as Southern California for more than a decade. Originally, cops thought two different serial killers may have committed the crimes. Then, DNA testing revealed a connection. But they still had no idea of the perpetrator’s identity. McNamara worked to track down leads and interviewed both victims and police officers involved in the case. A 2013 article in Los Angeles Magazine brought new attention to the crimes and led to her book deal. 

McNamara died of an accidental drug overdose 

McNamara’s all-consuming interest in the Golden State Killer case took a toll on her. 

“She had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications,” Oswalt told the New York Times after her death. He shared that his wife had begun taking a variety of prescription drugs as she struggled with insomnia and other issues. 

“It’s so clear that the stress led her to make some bad choices in terms of the pharmaceuticals she was using,” Oswalt said. “She just took this stuff on, and she didn’t have the years of being a hardened detective to compartmentalize it.”

In April 2016, McNamara died in her sleep. The cause of death was the result of an accidental overdose of Xanax, Adderall, and Fentanyl, combined with an undiagnosed medical condition, Variety reported. 

In 2018, two years after her death, authorities identified Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer and arrested him at his home. In June 2020, the 74-year-old reportedly agreed to a plea deal that would see him spend the rest of his life in prison. 

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