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Golden State Killer: HVSF Alum recorded ‘Gone in the Dark’ bestseller

Originally published on April 27, 2018 by Peter D. Kramer, LoHud

[HVSF Alum] Gabra Zackman couldn’t help but gush a little.

The voice actor and Larchmont native — a longtime mainstay and favorite at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison — took to Facebook Wednesday night.

“I am one lucky lady to have gotten to record this EPIC true crime thriller, but I am simply beside myself today. Forty years a cold case, and today they got him. In Michelle’s words: ‘Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.’”

“Michelle” is Michelle McNamara, whose true-crime blog, True Crime Diary, chronicled the grisly and gruesome cold cases that kept her up, and writing, at night.

“This EPIC true crime thriller” is “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” McNamara’s non-fiction book, a work of journalism currently No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list.

“Him” is Navy veteran Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer, who this week was charged with eight of the Golden State Killer murders.

Zackman has a small piece of this story, a “ride on this train,” she called it. She spent three days recording the audio book for HarperAudio. Released on Feb. 27, it is now a bestseller on Audible.com.

It tells the story of the Golden State Killer, a man believed responsible for a 40-year-old series of cold-case crimes that included 20 murders, 45 rapes and more than 100 burglaries across California in the 1970s and ‘80s.

McNamara connected the crimes and even dubbed the perpetrator “The Golden State Killer.” The crimes had previously been attributed to the “Original Night Stalker” and the “East Area Rapist.”

But McNamara didn’t live to see the news about DeAngelo’s arrest Tuesday that got Zackman so excited. She died of an undiagnosed heart condition, her book unfinished, on April 21, 2016, at age 46.

Her husband, the actor Patton Oswalt, hired journalists to complete the book, from McNamara’s hand-written notes on yellow legal pads and thousands of files on her computer. It was published in February.

Zackman, a graduate of Mamaroneck High School, has lent her voice to nearly 300 titles on Audible.

From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” to Jude Devereaux’s “Highland Velvet” to Mark Shaw’s “The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of ‘What’s My Line’ TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen.”

But McNamara’s writing, and the story she told, was something new.

“When a story is captivating, the job of recording is usually very different,” she said. “I get involved in a different way when I’m really really attached to the story.”

McNamara’s narrative is chilling.

“This story I was so drawn into that I was really excited to record it and I was fascinated while I was recording it. Although, of course, I was also terrified, which doesn’t happen very often. I was actually, legitimately really, really scared.

“I live alone in an apartment in New York. So you can imagine what it was like coming home after reading this material,” Zackman said. “It was actually quite terrifying. My brother has been listening to it, as well, and he was like ‘How did you sleep at night?’ And I said ‘I did not, actually, while I was recording this. I really couldn’t sleep, I was so scared.’”

The recording session was slotted for four days, but only took three.

“We were all really engaged,” she said. “That’s not often, I don’t think, where everyone involved, the engineer, the director and the narrator, myself, were all just really engaged in the story. We were fascinated by it.”

It also scared the daylights out of them all.

“We couldn’t wait to get back to it, but we also couldn’t wait to stop, because we were all so terrified. We’d pick places where we were ‘Couldn’t we take lunch there? Because I don’t think I can read any more of this right now.'”

Zackman said she told an interviewer recently that “it feels like (McNamara) is guiding from beyond the grave to solve these crimes — and lo and behold, it really feels that way, doesn’t it? Like this voice from beyond the grave is saying ‘Why don’t you take another look here?’ and ‘Do you think you’ve looked at this?'”

How else, she wonders, do you explain the big break four decades in the making?

“I think the book, in some ways, shined a different light on the situation or reopened the case to some extent. I don’t know what it did but it’s a little too coincidental that the book comes out and two months later he’s caught.”

The book — part crime report, part personal story of her journey to find the killer — closes with a “Letter to an Old Man,” written to the killer, in which McNamara describes his eventual surrendering to police.

California authorities, after a 40-year manhunt, on April 25, 2018 announced the arrest of a 72-year-old former police officer on suspicion of being the notorious “Golden State Killer.”

“Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths,” she wrote. “Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

“‘The Letter to an Old Man’ is epically brilliant,” Zackman said. “She knew he was still alive and she knew he would be caught as an old man. She somehow knew something and everything she knew is true. It’s exactly as she outlined it. People can say there’s no direct link, but there was.”

Investigators said the break in the case came from DNA sent to a genealogy website, not from McNamara’s writing. Investigators used technology to find DeAngelo — running DNA left at long-ago crime scenes and seeking matches on online genealogy databases.

A distant relation to DeAngelo had similar DNA, which investigators then traced to quiet, suburban Citrus Heights, California, where DeAngelo matched the age and profile of the suspected killer and was in the proximity to the crimes.

One official this week said McNamara’s book managed to keep the crimes in the public eye.

DeAngelo’s name does not appear in the book, and police are still working to link him to the other crimes in the spree, including 12 murders, 45 rapes and the burglaries.

“So much of the book is her tallking about the DNA websites,” Zackman said. “She mentions it constantly, there’s gotta be some way they’re going to catch him through a DNA website. She said ‘He cannot hide forever.'”

Wednesday’s arrest left Zackman emotional, for Oswalt and his family and for the victims of the Golden State Killer.

“You don’t forget about traumatic crimes, no matter if they’re 40 years ago,” Zackman said. “A couple of these victims said ‘I went to bed every night thinking about it.’ Every single night, you get into bed and your turn off your lights and that moment is still there.

“So the very idea that there could be some kind of closure, or some kind of peace or some kind of ease for the victims really moved me. It made me very emotional.”

HarperAudio also has a three-part podcast about the recording of the audio book, available wherever podcasts are found.

Zackman is contemplating the possibility that the week’s developments will force her to return to the recording booth, to lend her voice to a new chapter, an epilogue, about the capture of a man who authorities believe is the Golden State Killer.

“I very strangely have found myself with a front-row seat to, like, one of the stories of the century. I already felt so honored to be chosen to be the voice of this person. I never knew her, but boy do I admire her now.”