“There it was that I first felt the narcotic pull of an unsolved murder.” Although the majority of Michelle McNamara’s writing was turned outward, towards her single-minded quest to catch the Golden State Killer, she was also very frank about the deleterious inner effects—and strange allure—of her fixation on death. That particular quote comes from a chapter in McNamara’s posthumously published opus I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, about the unsolved killing of a teenage girl in her hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. According to McNamara, the rape and murder of a local girl, Kathy Lombardo, mere blocks from where she lived as a teenager was the event that sparked her interest in solving cold cases. In a new episode following up on HBO’s six-part docuseries version of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, we learn that, had McNamara lived just a few years longer, she would have discovered a whole new obsession.
Last year’s series skimmed over the Oak Park chapter in McNamara’s book, but even if there wasn’t material left to be explored, an update on the story was needed. You’d be forgiven for missing it amid the downpour of news that characterized that chaotic year, but in August of 2020, Joseph James DeAngelo, the man who has been identified as the Golden State Killer, admitted to multiple murders, rapes, and kidnappings and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This special follows the sentencing hearings in Sacramento, reconnecting with the group of victims profiled in earlier episodes as they finally confront their attacker in open court. (Or in a socially distanced ballroom, as the case may be.)
Unlike serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, DeAngelo is not a talker. Up until last summer, all we had heard from him were croaked “yes”es as he feigned corpse-like senility in court in an apparent attempt to try to gain public sympathy. It didn’t work, and I’ll Be Gone In The Dark shows security footage of DeAngelo pacing and talking to himself behind bars, clearly not the feeble old man he pretended to be in public. The calculated nature of his charade is chilling, as is the footage of him covering the light in his cell with a sheet—a signature of the East Area Rapist, another of DeAngelo’s nicknames from the late 1970s. But the moment that created a cold pit in this writer’s stomach was DeAngelo’s apology, when he stood up, dropped the dementia act, and said he was “truly sorry” to everyone he had hurt. Seeing how easily he can change into a different person, you can’t help but wonder about the faces he’s shown off camera, in the dark.
Now DeAngelo is in prison, and he will never get out. The Golden State Killer case is closed, and the victims, although their pain will never leave them, can find some measure of peace. That’s not the case for Grace Puccetti, an Oak Park woman who director Elizabeth Wolff tracks down as part of her followup to the Lombardo case that fascinated a young McNamara. Puccetti was the victim of a similar attack in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood, and never reported being stabbed in the neck in the alley behind her home because her mother encouraged her not to. (The reason why is sad: No need to re-traumatize yourself by telling your story to people who won’t believe you.) Wolff gives Puccetti a platform to talk about her experience and how it affected her life, and interviews Lombardo’s family about the investigation into Kathy’s death. It’s not surprising to hear that the Oak Park police didn’t seem to care that much about finding Kathy’s killer, but it’s sobering to realize the scope of what was happening there.
Over the course of the episode, we are presented with evidence that a serial rapist was operating in the Oak Park area around the time of Kathy Lombardo’s murder. And local authorities, eager to preserve Oak Park’s reputation as an idyllic tree-lined haven, did their best to make sure that no one knew about it. The disregard for the safety of residents is appalling, but what’s even more unsettling is realizing that, if you scratch the surface of any town in any area of any state in the U.S., you could very well find a similar pattern. If sexual violence was rare, discovering a serial rapist and murderer in the hometown of a woman who devoted her life to identifying a different serial rapist and murderer might feel a little too convenient. But it’s not, so it doesn’t.
Although the connection between the two storylines in this I’ll Be Gone In The Dark special is tenuous, both pay tribute to McNamara’s legacy in different ways. First is the conclusion of the Golden State Killer case to which she devoted the last years of her life, and which might not have been solved if she hadn’t brought renewed attention to it. Second is bringing a new injustice to light, with faith that there are more people like Michelle out there who will take up the burden of correcting it. The latter investigation is still ongoing: The show’s producers, as well as Lombardo’s brother Christopher, have sued the village of Oak Park for access to case records, and will presumably present their findings in another documentary down the road.
Midway through the episode, Puccetti reveals that McNamara had emailed her in 2016, but that she wasn’t ready to talk about the attack at that time. Before Puccetti could work up the courage to email her back, McNamara died. Not having known McNamara personally, it may be presumptuous to say that if she had more time to put more of the pieces together, she would have pursued the Oak Park rapist as doggedly as she did the Golden State Killer. But based on her writings, she would have. Now it’s up to us.