Many of us on the Hillard Heintze investigation team are avid readers and lovers of the true crime genre. So when we heard about a newly released bestseller about a 40-year investigation to find the Golden State Killer, we knew we had found our September book club selection.
A Passion for Investigating Crimes
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, written by the late investigative blogger Michelle McNamara, tells of the decades-long search for the East Area Rapist (EAR) or Golden State Killer (as termed by McNamara), who terrorized several communities in California throughout the 1970s and 1980s with a series of break-ins, violent assaults and ultimately murders.
McNamara, a writer with a passion for true crime, began compiling an extraordinary volume of records and notes on this case starting in 2007, becoming fixated on finding the man who left more than 50 victims in his wake without ever facing the justice system.
McNamara’s book is an inspiring and engrossing story of a journalist seeking the truth for something so horrific that she couldn’t let another minute go by without answers. But more than that, it demonstrates how using the right investigative techniques can have incredible — and unexpected — results. When DNA finally revealed the killer, law enforcement lauded McNamara’s contributions in raising awareness about the decades-old case.
The types of records McNamara searched, as well as the methods she and law enforcement officials used, mirror the work we undertake in our Investigations practice in myriad ways. In particular, she emphasized three key parts of our investigative process: (1) police reports, (2) genealogy and (3) collaboration.
When the Trail Runs Cold on a Golden State Killer
There are several reasons the Golden State Killer succeeded with his brash carnage for so long. For example, the perpetrator broke into homes in the middle of the night wearing a ski mask and gloves, so accurate and complete descriptions of the assailant were difficult to come by. And because these attacks pre-dated DNA testing, law enforcement officials were left with few clues during their initial investigations.
This left his victims — many of whom are still alive and were even taunted by their attacker years after the original attack — without justice.
1 – Finding Clues in Police Reports
Arrest records and police reports can offer a host of information about a subject or a particular incident. In McNamara’s book, these records often noted items stolen by the perpetrator after he committed his crimes—such as jewelry and family photographs belonging to the victims—as well as fragmented descriptions of his appearance, voice and mannerisms. McNamara diligently requested records from sheriffs’ and police departments to learn more about this evasive killer, and despite varying physical descriptions, began to piece together a more complete picture of the perpetrator’s appearance, background and identity.
We often review police reports and other records for specific details that help verify whether cases pertain to the subject of our investigation, or shed light on a subject’s background, interests, work history or associates. In addition to the underlying crime details, arrest records often contain pieces of information like a current address, employer, other individuals with whom the subject was arrested, tattoos, gang affiliations and emergency contact names, among a variety of other important facts and data. All of these types of information can prove useful when attempting to learn more about a subject or past incident of interest.
2 – Exploring Family Records
Family records can provide a host of information for investigators, detectives and law enforcement officials. In fact, genealogy cracked the case of the Golden State Killer wide open. Law enforcement officials uploaded the offender’s DNA profile to a genealogy website in 2017, eventually locating distant relatives and slowly zeroing in on the eventual suspect, Joseph DeAngelo, who was charged with several counts of murder in April, May and August 2018.
Here at Hillard Heintze, family-related documents like obituaries, marriage certificates, birth and wedding announcements, and probate and domestic court records often provide important information about a subject, such as his or her current or past location, assets and financial situation, relatives, children and marriage history, and potential areas of concern, such as allegations of abuse.
3 – Sharing Information With Others
Unfortunately, not only did these horrific crimes pre-date DNA testing, they also occurred in an age when police agencies rarely communicated or collaborated with one another. As the killer moved south from the Sacramento area to San Francisco and Los Angeles, the various law enforcement officials involved often focused on the crimes committed exclusively in their jurisdiction. It wasn’t until 2001 that law enforcement officials discovered that the same man who committed the murders in southern California also committed the assaults that occurred in northern California.
In many ways, our practice areas are a microcosm of investigative collaboration. Our different departments work together on many cases that come our way; whether our social media team assists our investigators by identifying and reviewing a subject’s profiles for useful information, or our threat assessment team uses the investigators’ research to determine next steps in mitigating risk for a client, we realize our strength lies in working together holistically to best support our clients’ needs.
Although McNamara did not live to see the charges pressed in the case of the Golden State Killer, law enforcement officials agreed her research made an enormous contribution in raising awareness about the case. We can all learn not only from her diligence and determination in seeking justice for the victims, but her adept use of the records at her disposal to do so.