Something about true crime has always drawn me in, but nothing like the case of the Golden State Killer. Why? Because of one woman, Michelle McNamara. I’ve always been drawn to women who have mastered their craft and are driven by elevating female stories like myself. Michelle’s craft was writing about true crime, and it all started with the case and story of Kathleen Lombardo:
I had no particular interest in crime aside from reading the occasional Nancy Drew book growing up. Yet two days after the killing, without telling anyone, I walked to the spot near our house where Kathleen had been attacked. On the ground I saw pieces of her Walkman. I picked them up. I felt no fear, just an electric curiosity, a current of such unexpected, searching force that I can recall every detail about the moment—the smell of newly cut grass, the chipped brown paint on the garage door. What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me. (McNamara, Michelle. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (p. 45). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.)
The six-part series that aired last year on HBO focused on the search for the Golden State Killer through the lens of Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which the series was named after. It was created by the powerhouse documentarian Liz Garbus, and co-produced by Elizabeth Wolff. In the series, we meet some of the survivors who were attacked by the Golden State Killer, and follow the clues that Michelle had gathered with her team of citizen detectives. Right before the book went to press, Michelle died after taking a mixed cocktail of pills, specifically fentanyl. A couple years after her passing in 2016, the series follows the capture of the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. Today, a special episode of the series will premiere on HBO that focuses on the Kathleen Lombardo case and the wrap-up of the Joseph James DeAngelo case. I was fortunate to speak with the director of the episode and producer of the series, Elizabeth Wolff.
Before we dive into our conversation, I wanted to start with some words from my previous pieces that I’ve written on the series that I feel connect with this interview, starting with my personal essay, “’I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ celebrates the persistence of Michelle McNamara”
. . . Another connection I felt with Michelle, besides the fact that we’re both from the Chicago suburbs, is the ability to channel heartbreak and difficult past experiences into our work. We learn in the series that Michelle, during her younger years, was assaulted by a man she worked for in Northern Ireland. What happened here, I feel, is reflected in the sensitivity of her record about the stories of the survivors of the rapes, and the vemenant emotion against the Golden State Killer. The book ends with her “Epilogue to an Old Man”, asking him to come into the light following her biting words, dismantling him of his power. At the end of the series, the killer (Joseph James DeAngelo) is caught. He is brought into the light for everyone to see, and he cannot hide any longer.
Sexual assault is the truest true crime there is. Sexual assault and the treatment of women is sadly the most inclusive crime there is. I don’t know a single person, forget man or woman, who has not been somehow, whether you know it or not, been affected by rape and sexual assault, and the impact of that intergenerationally. You think about the children of the women who were affected by the Golden State Killer, who were raised by a mother who had to somehow emotionally bisect herself from the assault, or the partners who felt enormous pain and powerlessness in those marriages, and their marriages dissolved. Even finding out about Michelle, I was like, “oh my god, her too”.
This episode also shows Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, being given eleven life sentences on the condition that he listened to all the survivors speak their truths. The alternative was being sentenced to death with potential for parole. Although there is finality for the survivors with the conviction, the pain and damage is irrevocable, and there is still a sense of unrest with the Kathleen Lombardo case, as the Oak Park police closed the case four months after Kathleen’s attack and murder. We are introduced to a new person in this special episode, Grace Puccetti, who was a survivor of an Oak Park attack that happened a little before Kathleen’s murder in the same area. Her case was not dealt with in a serious way, and we see that not a lot has changed when it comes to our justice system with cases of sexual assault. I spoke with Elizabeth about all these things, and how she continues to fight such injustices through her storytelling by bringing an awareness to them through her lens.
You can watch this one-hour special episode of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” tonight on HBO at 10:00 p.m. ET
In my interview with Nancy Miller last year about her podcast “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and her relationship with Michelle McNamara, she said “Sexual Assault is the truest crime there is.” What does that statement mean to you?
It makes me think about something that one of our characters in our series, Melanie [Barbeau], the social worker says, “rape is a soul murder.” She said that to me a lot in the process of making the show, and I think that also echoes what Gay Hardwick said, which is that it’s shocking that a rape is not treated the same way as an attempted murder, and it should be. But it’s not treated that way. I think that speaks to how traumatizing, and how all-encompassing, something like that can be, and how disproportioned the way that sexual assault is treated in law enforcement. The fact that there are no statute of limitations for armed robbery, but that there is statute of limitations for rape, speaks for itself right there. It’s shocking.
How did you get to working on this project, and also working with Liz Garbus?
I finished producing “Bobby Kennedy for President” that played on Netflix with the director Dawn Porter in 2018. I just remember saying, ‘Dawn is a really strong female director based in San Francisco.’ And I said, ‘I want to work with a strong female director based in New York. That is what I want to do next.’ And when you say that, the number one person on that list is Liz Garbus.
Liz and I and her production company [Story Syndicate] had been talking about working together in the past, and the timing had just not worked out. When she approached me to work on this project, I was reluctant to get so involved in a dark story with this series of crimes, and Michelle’s story. But I spoke with Liz about it, and read Michelle’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and immediately, I was struck by the power of her story, and the opportunities for rewriting the narrative of this true crime space. I really saw Michelle’s story as a portrait of an artist as a young mom, and all of the opportunities we have to explore, the pressures that women and mothers face to pursue their careers, while also being a mom and a wife in today’s society. That was really appealing to me. I don’t think I would have taken on this story had there not been that Michelle’s story.
What brought you to putting more of a lens on the Kathleen Lombardo case in this special episode?
The Kathleen Lombardo case is one that we’ve been so interested in since the beginning. As you know, Michelle wrote about it a lot in her book. From day one, we were thinking about how can we incorporate this into the series. Actually it’s been written about a lot since the first day of our filming. We were in Chicago covering an event where Patton [Oswalt] was promoting the book [I’ll Be Gone in the Dark], on the same day that Joseph James DeAngelo was caught. What hasn’t been reported was that same day, which was day one of our filming, I also went to the alley where Kathleen Lombardo was murdered, with a boy, now a man, who found Kathleen’s body. I kind of retraced Michelle’s steps on my own because I knew it was going to be such an important part of the story. Also, we were in Chicago, so why not do that?
So from day one, this was really, really important to us because we knew it was so important to Michelle. But in the edit, as we got further and further into our story, it was so complicated to tell the Golden State Killer story. Michelle’s story and the Kathleen Lombardo case were also complicated, and we tried so many ways to fit it in. Then we realized that within the six hours, we really couldn’t give it the attention it deserved in that arc. Another reason was because HBO knew that we had all of this material about the case. We all wanted to give it it’s due.
I love how you included Grace Puccetti’s story in this episode. Can you talk about that?
As you know, we had Michelle’s laptop. Part of the research that we did as a production was to research Michelle’s research into this case. We had heard that she had learned that somebody she had spoken to had told her about this other case. When we looked in her email, we found notes that indicated that she had reached out to Grace Puccetti, or was going to reach out to her. She had written to her sister asking if she heard of Grace Puccetti, and then we reached out to her on our own. That was really the point of confirmation that we got that Michelle had reached out to her. Searching the email archives, it’s hard to find things. It’s not as easy as Googling, and Grace was willing to speak with us. She was ready to share her story. I’m not sure if we would have found her had we not retraced Michelle’s steps, because the little tiny article about her attack in the local press doesn’t mention her name. Maybe it would have come up for us while talking to some of the other people in the neighborhood, like it did for Michelle, but we really reached out to her because this was part of Michelle’s investigation. Also, in many ways, Grace was the only person that we could find that could help us understand what Kathleen went through, because she is not around to tell her own story.
Michelle said, “inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes, given the right clues, they could solve a mystery.” Do you feel that way with the Kathleen Lombardo case and do you intend to follow through to find the murderer?
One of the things that is different between me and Michelle is that I feel very at peace with the fact that I’m not an investigator, and that I am a storyteller and a filmmaker. My goal of portraying Kathleen Lombardo’s case was to bring awareness to it, and to bring the attention that Michelle wanted to bring to the case. Hopefully our show will put pressure on law enforcement to give more resources toward investigating Kathleen’s murder, and also all of the other unsolved sexual assaults and murders in that area around that time. I also hope us bringing an awareness to the case will inspire other responsible citizens to pick up where Michelle left off.
We have a lawsuit pending to get access to some of the police files, and I hope that advances the case somewhat. But I will not be investigating this case after this. If other people pick up that torch, maybe I could be the filmmaker following that. I want to–and will be–following the story of this case, and similar cases in the hopes that maybe there is some way that I can contribute through what I do. In that way, I will stay a part of it.
I love that you thread Michelle’s words throughout the series, including this latest episode. The title of her book and the series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” seems to be a continuous theme referring to DeAngelo. Something I noticed in this episode is that Joseph James Deangelo was covering the lights in his jail cell. Can you comment on that?
WOLFF: We know that part of his MO was that he liked to control the lighting of his face during an attack, like covering a television that was turned on. When we got access to the security camera footage from his jail cell, it was striking to us that he was doing the same thing in his jail cell. I don’t know why he was doing that. I think that he is a sociopath, and a control freak. We can only infer what he was hoping to get out of that, like was he doing that to relive past experiences, or is he a guy that just really likes dim lights?
But metaphorically, I do think it is noteworthy because so much of the series is about what happens when something stays in the dark versus letting it out into the light. This is something that the survivors talked about in terms of the shame of their attack and the more that they kept it bottled up inside, the more it came out and hurt them in other ways. It was so cathartic and healing for them to let their story come out to the public. We hear that from Patton when he’s talking about grief, and we also hear that in many ways from Michelle’s story where she didn’t confront a lot of the demons within her, and some of the darkness that was in her. We saw all the ways that it ate her up inside. There is a lot about dark and light in the series, so it’s interesting that DeAngelo is playing with the light in his jail cell.