I’ve had the privilege of interviewing and profiling many notable filmmakers and writers in my career, but none more fascinating than best selling author Ann Rule (1931-2015). Dubbed “America’s True Crime Queen,” she wrote 35 New York Times Best Sellers that probed the psyche of seemingly normal, accomplished individuals who murder. A former police officer and lifelong student of forensic science and criminology, Rule had a fascinating backstory. Inspired by Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, she remembered thinking, “If only I could get into a killer’s mind like Capote did. He took the truth and wove it into a seamless story instead of a staccato police report.”
While researching and selling true crime stories to True Detective and other publications, Ann Rule found herself in the thick of a breaking case that would inspire her own In Cold Blood. In 1971-72, she volunteered at a Seattle suicide hot line two nights a week with work-study student Ted Bundy. In 1975, she signed her first book contract to write about a baffling string of coed murders in the Northwest. The term “serial killer” had yet to be coined. Ted Bundy eventually confessed to those grisly murders and more in other states and became the subject of her first book, The Stranger Beside Me (1980).
The Bundy connection jump-started Rule’s book career, but shattered her innocence. “With all my training, nothing aberrant showed in him,” she recalled. “That’s what’s so frightening. He presented a kind, empathetic mask to the world.”
Rule confessed “I would’ve trusted him with my daughters.” During the time she befriended Bundy, he was already raping and burglarizing, but he never touched Rule. “I wasn’t his type. Serial killers don’t kill people they know.”
Oddly enough, during the 1970’s and ’80s, roughly about the same time Bundy was on the prowl in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, a string of idiosyncratic home burglaries, 50 brutal home invasion rapes and 12 murders were terrorizing clusters of low-crime neighborhoods in Northern and Southern California. Dubbed variously as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Raper (EAR), the Original Night Stalker (ONS) and the Golden State Killer, the predator or predators stymied original investigators who failed to link cases occurring beyond their jurisdictions. The cases went cold, and 37 boxes of case files were stockpiled and forgotten.
Left behind were a long list of traumatized survivors–those who were brutally raped as teenagers and young women; the parents, spouses and children of those women; the families and friends of the men and women who were murdered; the detectives who failed them–and the amateur and professional sleuths who kept the EAR/ONS cases alive in online chat rooms and crime blogs.
One of the most dogged online crime junkies was writer Michelle McNamara, whose blog, TrueCrimeDiary.com, chronicled her fascination with unsolved crimes. Like Ann Rule, she aspired as a writer to mirror Truman Capote’s novelistic approach. She was determined to bring the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS), whom she dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” to justice and assure closure for the rape victims, their families and the families of the murder victims. She began building bridges with the EAR/ONS victims, many of whom had never even shared their stories with their closest friends and families (rape victims were regularly diminished by the judicial system in the 1970’s and ’80s). Disturbing patterns emerged through her research, connecting the burglaries, rapes and murders in disparate California communities to a single perpetrator. She was hooked.
She found a willing market in Los Angeles Magazine for her story, and the hoopla generated by the magazine article led to a book contract with HarperCollins. She was on her way, but faced pitfalls that took an emotional and physical toll on her as a writer, wife and mother.
Her supportive husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; their tiny precocious daughter, Alice; Michelle’s siblings; the retired detectives whose memory of the crimes never faded; the true crime onliners who joined her team; her agent and her editors at Los Angeles Magazine and HarperCollins all played pivotal roles in the drama driven by Michelle McNamara’s obsession.
“When I’m puzzling over the details of an unsolved crime, I’m like a rat in a maze given a task,” wrote Michelle McNamara. “I’ve felt in the truest sense of the word, gripped.”
You too will be gripped by McNamara’s half-decade crusade as it is revisited in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the new six-part limited series debuting tonight, Sunday, June 28, 2020, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO (see below for details).
Based on Michelle McNamara’s 2018 book of the same name, the series is helmed by Emmy® Award-winning documentary producer/director Liz Garbus who corralled a brilliant crew of talented directors and editors to tell Michelle McNamara’s story.
Garbus and her team create a riveting portrait of a writer possessed. The six episodes are chockablock with relevant family and crime scene photos and ephemera, early home and school video clips, voice mail messages, podcast audio, and filmed interviews with McNamara, her husband and siblings, devoted colleagues and, most especially, the now middle-aged victims who have their own painful stories to tell.
Passages from her personal diaries, blog, magazine article, emails and text messages are threaded throughout, as are seamlessly incorporated dramatic recreations and clips from McNamara’s book read in voice over by actress Amy Ryan. It should be noted that Ryan’s and McNamara’s voices are indistinguishable here.
This is a masterful portrait of one young woman’s relentless obsession to right a boatload of horrific wrongs perpetrated almost a half century ago and left unpunished. There were powerful life-altering outcomes for Michelle McNamara and her family, friends, colleagues, and the victims who trusted McNamara and can now embrace closure and a community of supportive survivors as friends.
If you haven’t read McNamara’s book and are coming to this story for the first time, I won’t ruin this incredible documentary series for you by including spoilers. Suffice it to say that it is imperative that you stick with this series, even if it gives you nightmares. Better yet, stream it through to the end (the last two episodes especially will knock your socks off) to see why and how Michelle McNamara’s journey ended and if it fulfilled her dream to bring the diabolically evil perpetrator out of the shadows of time, enabling his victims and the criminal justice system to finally see him, as she had hoped to see him, in the light of day–old and powerless.
“Murderers lose their power the moment we know them,” she concluded. I guarantee that once you commit to this film series, you won’t be able to look away. I’m sure Truman Capote and Ann Rule would concur.
Episode One: “Murder Habit” of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, June 28, 2020, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for repeat air dates for all episodes once they debut and their availability on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, HBO Max, and other partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan