I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Episode 3 “Rat in a Maze” – Recap & Review

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This week’s episode starts with the breathy, chilling voice of the EAR. “Gonna kill you,” he promises on a recording from one of his victim’s answering machines.

In last week’s episode, survivor Kris Pedretti shared that in the weeks leading up to her assault, her family received multiple hang-up calls. But this is the first time that we’ve heard his voice. It’s higher than you might have expected, and gravelly, like he’s been smoking, or shouting. Hearing him speak is jarring in a new way. Somehow, it ups the ante. 

In the summer of 1979, the people of Sacramento believed that the EAR was gone. Sales of locks, home security systems, and guns leveled off. We learn from Larry Crompton that the Sacramento police department disbanded their EAR task force, against his advice. 

But the EAR hadn’t stopped. He’d only begun operating farther south, in the Santa Barbara area, where he’d be known as the Original Night Stalker. Largely because of the previously described lack of communication between police departments, each community he attacked was shocked anew. The wide geographic span of his crimes led to an accumulation of titles, which Michelle eventually united under the moniker “Golden State Killer.” This is how I’ll refer to him from now on.

Kim Stewart, a detective from the quiet Santa Barbara suburb Goleta, intimates that she and her colleagues were encouraged not to share information about crime in the area with the public. Ronald Reagan’s ranch was right up the coast, and negative news about the area could have damaged his reputation. “The Sheriff made an agreement with a board of realtors that we would not publicize certain crimes,” shares Stewart, “because the property values would go down…so when we get into the period of the homicides, we were quiet.” 

She also asserts that without the limitations and communication problems, “they could have solved these cases, there is no question.” In a later interview, we meet Orange County cold case task force investigator Larry Pool, whom Michelle encountered while attempting to discover if a pair of monogrammed cufflinks that matched a crime scene description might lead to the killer. He mentions with a small smile how the case of the Golden State Killer was something of a bucket list item for officers who felt it was “the case that they want to solve before they die.” These somewhat contradictory sentiments seem to imply that despite investment on the part of individual officers, larger institutional blocks and failures made real progress impossible.

In Goleta, the GSK invaded the home of a man and woman whom we know as only A. Himmel and J. Horinek. The woman was able to escape and summon help. When the GSK realized what had happened, he rode off into the night on his bicycle, pursued by a neighbor who lost sight of him. According to police, this was “the night that changed him.” 

At this point in the series, the details start coming faster, the murders compounding on one another in a way that almost breeds a sort of numbness, the way that atrocities can when they’re laid out end-to-end. With the GKC’s turn to murder, the scenes we are shown have become bloodier. Watching, I can feel myself teetering toward overload.

The next people he attacked were psychologist Debra Manning, and osteopathic surgeon Robert Offerman. Although he had already murdered the Maggiores at this point, their deaths had been unplanned. They had seen too much, fallen victim to the worst of circumstances. The attack on Debra and Robert, however, was premeditated. 

Header and Other Photos Courtesy of HBO

Next were Charlene and Lyman Smith. She was an interior designer who owned a jewelry business, and he was an attorney. In an interview, Lyman’s daughter Jennifer describes the day that her brother discovered their parents’ bodies. We are shown photos of the grisly scene he walked in on. He had come over to mow the lawn for them. 

“This was the first time that it goes the way he wants. He probably realized a huge psychological release from accomplishing this task,” says Contra Costa County retired Chief of Forensics, Paul Holes. Paul had been quietly working on the case for two decades by the time Michelle reached out to him, and after initial distrust, they began collaborating on their investigations.

The next people killed were Patrice and Keith Harrington, whom we learn were an RN and a medical student. After them came Manuela Witthuhn, a German immigrant whose husband David was hospitalized at the time of her murder. Because the case had so few leads, David would be considered a “person of interest” in Manuela’s murder for almost twenty years. His brother, Drew, shares how the suspicion toward David compounded the loss in a way that made his grief unbearable. “He was self-medicating for depression,” says Michelle in a phone conversation. Eventually, he died in his sleep. 

After Manuela came computer programmer and little league coach Greg Sanchez, and Cheri Domingo, “an old-fashioned romantic who loved to dance.” Cheri was a young mother. Her daughter Debbi tells Michelle that they were often mistaken for sisters. When Cheri was killed, Debbi was in tenth grade. She describes rebelling against her mother in a way that is painful in its mundanity. I think of my own mother, of my own adolescent rebellion and the time it took from me, time I could not have known was precious. “Why don’t you just get the hell out of my life?” Debbi remembers asking her mother, the last time they spoke.

On the phone with Debbi, Michelle describes the fights she had with her mom. In this episode, we learn about their strained relationship–one of unmet expectations on both ends.

Listening to her talk about the vindictive letters her mother would slip under her door when they had disagreed, I think for a moment that Michelle is being insensitive by trying to relate to what Debbi has been through. But then I realize, weighing my own heart, how much it can mean to be reminded that something is normal, even when circumstances have made it unwieldy with added meaning. She is not the first young person to have had a strained relationship with her parent, and though she may wish their last time together had been less contentious, she cannot blame herself for what happened. Michelle’s prowess as an interviewer is clear as they laugh together over shared experience. They’re connecting—not just for the story, but for both of their sakes. 

Talking about Janelle Cruz, the next woman who was killed, Michelle highlights the randomness of her death. In the GSK’s mind, Janelle was just, “the latest unlucky stand-in for the lustful sneering women–mother, wife–who formed a disapproving circle around the killer in his daydreams.” His misogyny and likely feelings of sexual and personal inferiority were not unique, nor was their outcome. “The act of bludgeoning,” says Michelle, “was arousal alchemized to hate.” 

And in some ways, the true crime genre can be equally dehumanizing, repackaging ruined lives to create puzzles or sideshows. But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark does not allow viewers to give in to this numbness. Although I teetered on the edge, I will not topple over. Even as I write this recap, aware of the limits that apply to both words and attention, I cannot leave out a name. Although not every person’s story is explored equally, likely due to a combination of time restraints, available information, and narrative choice, no person is left as just a number. They are framed not as a death, but as a life.

This is as much a credit to director Liz Garbus and all who were involved in the production of the show, as it is an homage to Michelle herself. This episode features many of her colleagues, discussing the unique and skillful way she told the stories of her subjects. “It was like every case happened to someone that was a friend of hers,” says Karen Kilgraff, host of the popular true crime podcast My Favorite Murder

Still, no amount of care or talent can fully mitigate the trauma. Nancy Miller, Michelle’s LA Magazine editor, says that she didn’t realize “how toxic and scary it would be,” to spend time immersed in such horror. By the time Michelle’s magazine piece was finished, Nancy was ready to return to lighter fare. Michelle, though, had signed on to write the book that would become I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. 

When Paul Holes connected with Michelle, it was in part out of the hope that her piece would spark interest in the investigation. He had reached out to Mary Hong, a criminalist working on as-yet unidentified GKC cases in another jurisdiction. Both suspected that their cases were connected, as did Larry Crompton, who reached out to Paul as well. Eventually, through advancements and by overcoming a slew of bureaucratic technical difficulties, they were able to prove the connection between their cases. 

There were headlines, to be sure–but they were sparks that died down quickly. The publication of Michelle’s LA Magazine piece on the case, years later, was a sort of ignition. The way her voice was woven throughout created an investment. She was a relatable point of entry to the larger story. “Maybe by having greater public attention,” said Paul, “the right person will come forward and give the right tip.”

“Until we put a face on a killer who remains a question mark,” says Michelle, “he will continue to hold sway over us.”As she points out, though every second she spends working on his case instead of holding her daughter is one in which he has already swayed her; already taken one of the moments that she could not have known were precious.

We see more of Michelle in this episode than we have before, visiting her hometown in Oak Park, Michigan, and hearing from her siblings Maureen, Kathleen, Mary Rita, and Bob. She was described as stubborn and opinionated from the start, able to fend for herself. As one sibling said, “She came out strong.” 

At the same time, we learn how her mounting anxiety and paranoia are beginning to crystallize into alarmed phone messages about unlocked doors and broken window screens. Several small details, including a pharmacy voicemail about refilling a prescription, an orange pill bottle, and a semi-joking text to a friend about drugs as a writer’s aide, seem to be building toward a breaking point. Her father passed away as she was nearing her book deadline. We hear voicemails he left for her, the everyday sound of love. Her brother Bob mentions how close they were, how she should have taken time for herself when she lost him–but she didn’t. 

The final minutes of the episode seem to wind tighter and tighter as Michelle approaches her book deadline. She’s spending Thanksgiving in a hotel room secured by Patton to help her focus. “I love you,” he tells her, and as the coil of Michelle’s anxiety constricts, the taunts of the Golden State Killer begin to play again. 

“Gonna kill you, gonna kill you,” the GSK rasps. 

“Alice and I are in the bleachers cheering you on. Now pin that fucker to the mat and claim your trophy,” reads a text from Patton, shown onscreen. “You deserve it.”

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