Michelle McNamara was dogged. Fiercely dogged. Don’t-take-no-for-an-answe
She was a mother and a wife, but after she took her daughter to school or put her to bed, she spent seemingly every waking moment working on her book about a series of unsolved rapes and murders that took place across California in the ’70s and ’80s. Her ultimate goal? To identify the villain, to give the real name to the unknown assailant who goes by the monikers “The Original Night Stalker” and “The East Area Rapist.” She had written about the case in Los Angeles Magazine–where she rechristened him “The Golden State Killer”–and on her site, True Crime Diary.
Every month or so we would meet for lunch or drinks, where she would tell me about the latest clue she had uncovered–some bit of information that had been missed all those years ago. Her eyes lit up like Christmas as she walked me down the path of how the new clue might fit into the ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle she was putting together.
Then we would meet the next month, where she would excitedly tell me how that piece fit into the picture… or how it sent her down one of many rabbit holes.
She was unearthing an intense amount of information–boxes and boxes full of documents and police reports, old phone books, news articles. The kind of stuff you just can’t google. She went digging– into dusty archives, newspaper morgues. She knocked on doors. Shoe-leather work.
But her most amazing skill–what set her apart from any writer I have ever seen–was getting grizzled detectives from different police departments and law enforcement agencies to talk to each other and share details about their individual cases–something they never did at the time of the crimes. If they did, they could have helped solve the case and brought this serial killer to justice. But they are doing it now, because of Michelle. It’s not always easy talking to detectives about a cold case they worked on. It’s their unfinished businesses. Imagine if someone called you up to get you to talk about a project you failed to complete 40 years ago. Now imagine telling that person no. Now imagine that person not going away until you talked to them about it. Now you have an idea of Michelle.
She knew more about this case than anyone, and I truly believe she would have solved it. Hell, I bet she already has solved it. I bet she has the name of the bastard in one of her thousands of pages of notes. She texted me earlier this month saying she had a real good lead on a suspect. “A lot of tiny details in his favor,” she wrote. “We’ll see. Have been here before. But God I would be so happy.”
I don’t know what is going to happen to the book, but If asked I would do my damndest to help get it out there. I know our mutual friend and fellow crime writer Steve Huff feels the same way.
After the book was finished, Michelle and I were going to start a cold case group, a sort of Los Angeles Vidocq Society, where we would invite the smartest people we knew from Hollywood, law enforcement and journalism to a dinner one night a month and review an unsolved murder case. We would then give each person a task, and at the next meeting would present their findings, which we would deliver to law enforcement before introducing the next case.
Michelle was really excited to do this, as was I. We were building a list of people to invite and a list of cases to work. The only thing we didn’t know was what to call this little group. The Vidocq Society was named after the French criminal-turned-detective who is credited with ushering in a new era of detective work. Michelle was ushering a new era of citizen sleuthing, and her investigation is going to illustrate what a dogged woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer could do for justice. If I can ever muster up the strength to start this group without her, I guess I now know what it will be called.
Update: 826LA–which teaches kids creative writing out of the back of the Time Travel Mart in Echo Park–has set up a page to make a donation in Michelle’s name. On top of being a great investigator, Michelle was a fantastic writer. She merged her creative writing skills with true crime facts to build a different type of crime storytelling.
In this age of bytes and screens, we need to get a pen and piece of paper into more kids’ hands–and some guidance from fun, talented teachers. That’s what 826LA does, so please think about donating in Michelle’s name–so we can foster the next generation of true crime writers.
Michelle and I at SXSW in 2014 for our panel, Solving Murders With Social Media.