Courage and persistence

A year ago Michelle McNamara died in her sleep. She was only 46 years old. An autopsy found that she had an undiagnosed heart condition and had taken a mix of prescription drugs, including the pain medication Adderall, and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Adderall is the brand name for fentanyl citrate, a narcotic pain killer.

She had spent much of the last part of her life immersed in details about unsolved murders. She left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Golden State Killer, who committed a string of unsolved rapes and murders in California in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt teamed up with author Billy Jensen, researcher Paul Haynes, and her publisher to pull together roughly 3,500 files on her computer and her handwritten notes. In February, her manuscript was published. “Illl Be Gone in the Dark” has sold around 150,000 copies and has been optioned by HBO, which is adapting it into a documentary series.

The book is a chilling and vivid narrative of a serial killer’s crimes. It also reveals Ms. McNamara’s obsession with the case and the psychological toll it took on her. The book ends with a letter from her to the killer, in which she predicts his eventual capture: “This is how it ends for you.”

The prediction came true.

On Wednesday, law enforcement officials said they had finally arrested the notorious Golden State Killer in a suburb of Sacramento. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was taken into custody outside his home and charged with six counts of murder. He lived just a half-hour drive from where the 12-year rampage of terror began. He was a former police officer and was an active duty officer during the time when many of the crimes he is accused of occurred.

Two years ago Monica Miller, who was in charge of the Sacramento F.B.I. field office from 2013 to 2017, convened a task force on the 40th anniversary of the attacks in the Sacramento suburbs. The arrest was a culmination of decades of traditional police work and the use of new DNA evidence techniques.

“We found the needle in the haystack and it was right here in Sacramento,” said Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

The dedication and even obsession of a few people kept the case alive and led to solving a string of crimes that had sparked fear in the residents of the community for decades.

Of course the arrest is just the beginning of a lengthy process of presenting evidence and seeking a conviction. It isn’t over for the families of the victims. But thee is a sense of relief in knowing that an arrest has been made. It isn’t that the fear is the same as when the rapes and murders were actively being carried out. For reasons that are not yet understood, the killer stopped his crime spree in 1986. Perhaps he sensed that investigators were closing in. Perhaps there was some twinge of conscience left in him. Whatever the reason, the crimes stopped and the years passed without a break in the case.

There were, however, those would not give up.

Sharing headiness with that case and arrest this week is the conviction of Bill Cosby on charges of sexual assault. It does seem like there has been a change in our country. It was just a year ago when Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose dominated morning TV. Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire seemed untouchable. In just months, it has all come tumbling down.

It is a different world and the country is in a different mood than was the case in 1991 when Anita Hill told her story to a public unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the term sexual harassment.

The nation is learning to listen to the victims. It is learning to believe credible accusers. Powerful men in media, entertainment, business and politics have abused women for far too long. Attorney Nacy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes said, “This is fast culture change and an important milestone, but it’s taken centuries to get here.”

Congressmen, comics, business moguls, actors and journalists from across many industries and workplaces have tumbled one after another. As the song says, “The times, they are a changing.” We are now in the #MeToo era.

It has been reported that there were as many as 60 additional victims of Bill Cosby. 35 accusers appeared on the cover of New York magazine’s July 2015 issue. Many of them were in attendance and watching as the jury handed down its verdict: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” The Washington Post reported that “the courtroom rocked with emotion.” And there have been many other victims of many other violent men. Many of them suffered harassment or abuse without being believed. There have been many cases over the years when the public and the courts didn’t take the victims seriously and didn’t believe what they said.

Maybe we are learning to listen to the victims and take them seriously.

The change started with one woman’s courage to tell her story, but it could not end there. Over the decades hundreds of woman have had to go public with the truth before the country would start to listen. Countless victims have suffered while a few risked everything to bring the truth to light. The truth, now exposed, isn’t pretty. The Golden State killer was especially cruel, moving from raping single women to raping women in front of their children and even in front of their husbands before murdering both. Other abusers weren’t so bold or so messy, but caused irreversible damage all the same.

It seems as if every day brings a new story of a victim’s claim being sustained against a powerful offender. The perpetrators have not all been outed and they have not all been convicted. The crimes are more common than we want to believe. Many women, like Michelle McNamara, have died before justice was seen. Nonetheless, we will be a better people because of their courage.

It is a courage that those who abuse their power will never understand. It is a courage for which we should all be grateful.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!