Late Oak Park native tracked Golden State Killer

Michelle McNamara's interest in true crime writing began with 1984 murder in Oak Park

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

April 24 was a good day for the family of the late Michelle McNamara, who grew up in Oak Park and River Forest. It was the day police in California announced they'd captured a man they believe to be the Golden State Killer.

McNamara, who died in 2016, posthumously published a book in February, "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," about the serial killer and rapist she dubbed the Golden State Killer, who committed 12 murders and dozens of rapes, among other crimes, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Earlier this week, McNamara's widower, celebrated standup comedian Patton Oswalt, was in the Chicago area promoting the book when the Sacramento Police Department was arresting Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 72. DeAngelo was a former police officer, who worked at the Exeter, California, police department from 1973 to 1976 and Auburn Police Department, also in California, from 1976 to 1979.

Mary Rita Skrine, 53, a co-owner of Skrine Chops, 7230 Madison St., Forest Park, and the older sister of McNamara, was at the April 24 book event in Naperville with Oswalt and other family members when DeAngelo was being arrested.

Skrine said that about a week before the event, HBO announced it is producing a doc-series based on the book.

"To see this book come out and have people see the beautiful writer that she was, was just amazing," Skrine said.

Skrine said McNamara's interest in true crime writing began in 1984 with the murder of Kathleen Lombardo. McNamara was 14 and lived near the corner of South Scoville Avenue and Randolph Street, a block and a half from the alley where a man raped and murdered Lombardo.

The Lombardo murder, which stunned Oak Park, has never been solved.

McNamara wrote about it on her blog, True Crime Diary, in 2012, calling the event her "Origin Story" as a true crime writer.

"By fall talk of Kathy's murder, an aberration inflicted on us from an outside force, faded. Not for me," she wrote. "I was still gripped. In fact, I was changed. I was a 14 year old in Tretorn sneakers with Duran Duran posters on my bedroom wall that sneaked away not to smoke cigarettes or see a boy but to an alcove in an alley .3 miles from my house where I searched and found and handled the broken pieces of Walkman that belonged to a murdered girl."

She continued later in the article to explain that she traces her obsession with true crime writing to that moment when she collected the pieces of Walkman. "Kathy Lombardo was gone," McNamara wrote. "She wasn't coming back. But he, whomever he was, was still out there. The hollow gap of his identity was violently powerful to me. I wanted to see his face. I wanted to know who he was."

McNamara continued with her pursuit of truth and justice at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where she rose up to become editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, Trapeze.

Skrine said McNamara continued writing about cold cases for years, primarily focusing on smaller cases that hadn't gotten much attention.

"She was such a victim's advocate and wanted cases that hadn't been publicized much," she said.

After several years of writing about unsolved murders, Skrine said McNamara came across the Golden State Killer case, which Skrine said "really shook her."

She researched the case for three years and published a story in Los Angeles Magazine. "It was such a great article that (book publisher) HarperCollins called and asked her to do a book," Skrine said.   

Skrine said her sister's relentless effort took a toll on her. "She put a lot of pressure on herself at the end," she said. "She handled it really, really well."

Skrine described her as a "people person" who was able to relate to police and get them to open up about the Golden State Killer cold case.

"She just had a way of being able to get them to trust her and open up," Skrine said. "She had a way making it so personal and talking about observations and families and relationships. She had a way about her."

McNamara built such positive relationships with law enforcement officers that several of them attended her funeral in 2016 and "talked about her in a beautiful way," Skrine said.

Skrine said the FBI reopened the case after her sister's death.

Oswalt, who continued the book project, told the New York Times that he was "elated" and saddened by DeAngelo's arrest.

"There's exhilaration, and I don't feel it now, but I can sense that tomorrow or the next day there's going to be a huge drop in serotonin and happiness when I realize she really isn't here," Oswalt was quoted as saying in the New York Times story. "There were insights and angles that she could keep bringing to the case."

Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at an April 25 press conference that DNA technology connected DeAngelo to the crime.

Skrine said McNamara always believed DNA evidence would capture the killer.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones told reporters at the press conference that law enforcement had been investigating DeAngelo and collected discarded DNA that connected him to the crimes.

DeAngelo has been charged by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office with the 1980 murders of Lyman and Charlene Smith.

The New York Times story noted that police officials acknowledged that the release of the book "kept interest and tips coming in." McNamara never identified DeAngelo in the book.

McNamara's book debuted as the No. 1 seller on the New York Times best-seller list.

Her obituary, which ran in Wednesday Journal in May 2016, said McNamara was "an avid reader and precocious writer of journals, poetry and essays" from an early age.

She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English, and the University of Minnesota, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

The obituary noted that McNamara "had a very special relationship with both her parents, but particularly with her father after her mother died."

"In his last years, Tom McNamara followed Michelle and Patton's careers, and especially the book Michelle was writing about the 'Golden State Killer'," the obituary stated. "We hope and expect that the book will be finished and will include the inscription she planned, 'To my father, who believed.'"

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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