I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Episode 1 – Who is Michelle McNamara?

The first episode of HBO doc I’ll Be Gone in the Dark focuses on an extraordinary citizen detective who shone light on a cold case.

Michelle McNamara I'll Be Gone In The Dark
Photo: HBO

This article avoids spoilers for everything but episode one of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

It’s clear from the very first episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that this isn’t going to be like other true crime documentaries. Described as based on the book of the same name by Michelle McNamara, it’s more like a ‘making-of’ the book, a behind the scenes look at how the book got written with a strong focus on its author, the cops that wouldn’t let the case go, the amateur sleuths who helped, as well as the survivors of the East Area Rapist.

McNamara is a crime writer you might not necessarily be familiar with already if you’re not a true crime nut or indeed a ‘Murderino’ (more on what that is, later). Directed by Liz Garbus who also made Netflix movie Lost Girls about The Long Island Serial Killer, episode one does a wonderful job of introducing of who Michelle was both as a wife and mother and as a writer and detective, with plenty of footage of Michelle as well as words from the book read by actress Amy Ryan. Here’s some more detail on Michelle’s life and work and some pointers to where you can read more.

McNamara was born on April 14, 1970 to Irish American parents. She got a degree in English and a Masters in creative writing then moved to LA with a view to writing for film and TV.

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She was a true crime obsessive and in 2006 launched the blog TrueCrimeDiary which is still live. The site became very popular among true crime fans and so people like Karen Kilgariff from immensely popular podcast My Favourite Murder, who appears in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, calls herself a fan of the blog and a friend of Michelle’s. There are a few MFM episodes you can listen to if you’re hungry from more on the case – fans of MFM are known as Murderinos – there’s ep 118 which focuses on the arrest of the Golden State Killer (with Billy Jensen who appears in the doc and helped finish the book) and ep 115 with Patton Oswalt, Paul Haynes and Jensen talking about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Episode one of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark talks about two cases which early on helped McNamara to understand police methods and taught her that it was possible that she might be able to spot links that others hadn’t.

The first was a double murder in 2004 in Jenner, California of a couple, Lindsay Cutshall and Jason S. Allen who were shot in their sleeping bags one night when they were sleeping on Fish Head Beach. At the time the crime was unsolved and McNamara visited the crime scene which gave her insights into the case she couldn’t have got from just looking at an aerial view of the area online. The case has now been solved. In May 2017 the police gave a press conference announcing they now had identified and arrested the killer – a man named Shaun Gallon. He was officially charged with the killings in 2018 though no motive is clear. Michelle passed away in April 2016 so she didn’t get to see the killer brought to justice in this case.

The second was the case of the 2007 abduction of Ben Ownby. When Ownby went missing Michelle posted an article on True Crime Diary speculating that it was possible the perpetrator was the same person who took missing boy Shawn Hornbeck, who had gone missing in 2002. Four days after his disappearance, Ownby was found, and when the police went to the door it was Hornbeck who opened it. The man responsible was Michael J. Devlin who is now serving 71 life sentences.

McNamara became obsessed with the East Area Rapist/ Original Night Stalker case after watching an episode of a show about it. What appealed to her was how prolific his crimes were and yet how little known the case was. McNamara was a big fan of Robert Graysmith’s book on the Zodiac killer – a cold case which is very well known – but could only find one book on the EAR/ONS – Sudden Terror by former Contra Costa detective Larry Crompton, who had worked on the case in the 70s and 80s while the crimes were taking place.

McNamara became obsessed with the case, carrying out her own investigations and talking to other armchair detectives with insights. She pitched her idea for a series of article on the EAR/ONS to Los Angeles Magazine and the first was published in February 2013, titled In The Footsteps Of A Killer. McNamara would go on to write multiple articles about the person she had begun to call The Golden State Killer (a moniker coin by her and now generally adopted) as well as other true crime articles including pieces on Charles Manson for LA Magazine

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McNamara built good relationships with law enforcement and investigators, including Paul Holes, who is instrumental in the case – you’ll see more from him later on in the series, as well as the survivors of the East Area Rapist. Harper Collins commissioned the book, which was completed posthumously by Paul Haynes, Billy Jensen and her husband Patton Oswalt. 

McNamara’s own personal ‘origin story’ – the point at which she became obsessed with true crime, is revealed in later episodes, but episode one does a fine job of introducing viewers to a loving wife and mother and an introvert married to a celebrity, who when she’s not playing with her daughter or hanging out with her husband, doggedly, rigorously and obsessively pursued a serial killer, convinced the case could be solved. 

The first episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premiered in the US on Sunday, June 28 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. It will be made available for streaming on HBO Max, HBO Now, and HBO Go. New episodes will air each subsequent Sunday. It’ll come to the UK later in the year.