Many women keep adorable photos of their children on a laptop, ready for easy sharing with visitors. Not every mom has autopsy pictures mixed in with ones of her daughter as a flower girl. Michelle McNamara ’92 is not every mother.
“My friend was over, and while I was doing something in the kitchen, she was on my computer, looking through pictures of Alice,” McNamara’s 3-year-old. “I heard a lot of ‘aw,’ but then she shrieked. I ran in, and she had this horrified look on her face. ‘Uh, what’s up with that?’” Her friend, also a mother, pointed accusingly at a photo of a naked torso stretched out on a medical examiner’s table.
“I really need to figure out how to create separate folders for my pictures,” McNamara says with fine comedic dryness.
What she has figured out is how to write. A daughter and granddaughter of Domers, the Notre Dame English major won two awards from the College of Arts and Letters: best short story and best poem. While completing her MFA at the University of Minnesota, she was awarded a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Impressed by her first screenplay, a professor encouraged her to move to Hollywood and write for television and film. So she did, selling two TV pilot ideas and a movie pitch. She even wrote for two groundbreaking comedy websites.
So it makes perfect sense that the Oak Park, Illinois, native is the author of a popular blog. What perhaps doesn’t make quite as much sense is that she spends her time in her home office in Los Feliz, a hilly neighborhood east of Hollywood, attempting to solve cold case homicides on her website True Crime Diary (truecrimediary.com).
“This all started when I was 14,” she says. “A neighbor of mine was brutally murdered. Very strange case. She was jogging, close to her house. [The police] never solved it. Everyone in the neighborhood was gripped with fear and then moved on. But I never could. I had to figure out how it happened.”
Her focus on the details of the case led to an interest in other murders. “Some people are obsessed with sports and can rip off random statistics.” She, on the other hand, can tell you “exactly how many whacks Lizzie Borden’s dad got.” That can make for some unnerving conversations.
“When I meet people and hear where they’re from, I can rattle off details of an unsolved case from their town. They’re always like, ‘How’d you know that?!’ Locations are fixed in my mind based on horrible crimes.” She shrugs, as if it may have taken a while, but she’s now at peace with her quirks. “Most people form bonds over nice things; I can’t do that.”
Her husband, Patton Oswalt, the well-known comedian, author and actor (among other roles, he played the character Spence on the sitcom King of Queens and was the voice of Remy on the Pixar film Ratatouille), has learned to live with her quirks. Or maybe not. “I don’t sleep well,” McNamara confesses. “One night, I nearly brained Patton with a lamp, after he entered the bedroom when I was asleep.”
Clearly, there is a price to be paid for the accumulation of vast amounts of murder details. “It has wormed its way into my brain in a way that leaves me jittery.” She quickly adds, “Fortunately, there are very few cases where an investigator or journalist was a victim. The guy plotting like that is from the movies, not real life.”
That doesn’t make her husband feel any better. “It creeps me out!” Oswalt says.
But do not feel sorry for Mr. Oswalt. He has no one to blame but himself, since he encouraged his wife to pursue her calling as a “murder nerd.”
Early in their relationship, the couple watched a lot of Nancy Grace, mostly because McNamara liked yelling at the Headline News host for what she considered Grace’s incorrect and irresponsible accusations. “We’d be watching, and I’d always get to things before them. If there was a missing girl, I’d read her blog and see that she’d talked about her creepy piano teacher. I’d share that with Patton, and then six hours later Nancy Grace would finally bring that guy up as a suspect.”
On their autumn 2005 honeymoon in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, her husband urged her to put her skills to work. That makes for quite the contrasting images: amid love-drunk newlyweds lounging on a beautiful beach discussing their futures — children, homes, vacations — Michelle and Patton decided she needed to catch murderers. Four months later, she launched her website devoted to breaking news and cold cases.
“It’s like that old question: ‘What would you be doing at 3 in the morning that didn’t feel like work?’ My answer is: ‘This.’”
“This” began with a burning need to solve puzzles. “I like being a dog with a bone about stuff,” she admits. “I like picking up a thread and going to another thread and then getting wrapped up in the pursuit.” Such behavior, according to a recent New York Times op-ed by Sean Pidgeon, is now so common that it is a condition with its own name. “Research rapture,” writes the author and reference publisher, is “a state of enthusiasm or exaltation arising from the exhaustive study of a topic or period of history; the delightful but dangerous condition of becoming repeatedly sidetracked in following intriguing threads of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact.”
Finding the puzzle pieces in a cold case and putting them together is slow and tedious work. Fortunately, McNamara possesses both patience and tenacity. Think of what happens when you Google something but don’t find exactly what you want on that first page of search returns. Do you keep clicking? Probably not; studies show that fewer than 6 percent of people even get to the second page. Michelle McNamara? She clicks to the 30th page. Her determination is rooted in a famous police breakthrough. “Son of Sam was busted because of a parking ticket. Someone saw the importance of that. All these cold cases have the equivalent of that parking ticket, it’s just figuring out what that is.”
Rather than combing through dusty files, the fair-skinned and blue-eyed brunette maximizes the reach and scope of the Internet. With Grumpus, the flatulent French bulldog she calls Crime Pup, at her feet in her uncluttered home office, she uses her MacBook Pro to pore through such .com websites as ancestry, classmates, peoplefinders and ussearch.
The sleuth says she is “fascinated by the intersection of crime and technology. How technology changes and helps solve crime. A lot of that is DNA, which, to me, is astounding and amazing. Nothing makes me happier than when someone is wheeled out of a house for something they did in 1957. It’s happening all the time.”
In fact, she recently spent two hours interviewing a woman leading the cutting edge of crime-fighting technology in California. “Good Irish Catholic named Colleen Fitzpatrick. She’s working on identifying killers by tracing their ancestry through the paternal line’s genetic pattern.” McNamara notes that in California it is legal to test crime scene DNA and then see if anyone related to that strain is or has been in jail. This is how authorities caught The Grim Sleeper in Los Angeles in 2010 — his son had a prior conviction. “The more that people add to gene databases like 23andMe, the more chance of catching killers,” she says.
Social media provides yet another means of nabbing murderers, although the guilty may not realize it.
“Criminals try to remain islands unto themselves,” McNamara says. “But they have sisters who are chatty on Facebook” — So glad Joe could make it home for Christmas! — “or post pictures of the family from the 1970s. No one can control what their family does or what their workplace does” online. The latter setting — the office — provides innumerable opportunities for co-workers to unwittingly pin down perpetrators in terms of time and location, key elements in a homicide investigation.
True Crime Diary first gained national attention in January 2007, after a 13-year-old boy named Ben Ownby went missing outside St. Louis. The blogger immediately wrote about the case:
“One intriguing lead investigators should examine is a similar disappearance four years ago and thirty-eight miles from Beaufort.
“On October 6, 2002, Shawn Hornbeck left home on his bicycle in the rural area of Richwoods, Missouri. . . . Though Ben was two years older than Shawn, he looked young for his age, and both boys have strikingly similar stats — Shawn was 4-foot-8 and 90 pounds, two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Ben.”
In addition, she provided a map of the area, pointing out that these two boys and a third victim had vanished from places equidistant from I-44. She posted her blog on a Thursday and police found both Ben and Shawn — in an incredible twist, the latter had been living with their abductor, Michael Devlin, for four years — on Friday. Since McNamara was the first to blog about the connection, producers for Geraldo Rivera’s news program, Geraldo at Large, asked her to appear on his show. Short on time, though, they cut her interview from the program. However, the producers displayed her map — without giving her credit.
But McNamara likes pulling on one thread to find the next. Closely following the news reports after Devlin’s arrest, she made a further discovery, one that highlights yet another skill that makes her perfect for her job: Michelle sees the small things.
Reading an interview with the molester’s brother, she stopped cold at a throwaway mention of “family vacations on Lake Michigan.” Her parents have a weekend home in Palisades Park, Michigan, near South Haven, and she is familiar with the lake area. So McNamara did an online property search and learned that a man with the same name as Devlin’s father owns a home in western Michigan, right near the lake. She next searched “Missing boys SW Michigan,” and found a case in Benton Harbor in which the victim closely resembled Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck.
Using online maps, she determined that the route from St. Louis to his family’s cabin would take Michael Devlin right through Benton Harbor. So she picked up the phone and called the BH police department. They had no inkling of the possible connection. She says this is unfortunately all too common due to “linkage blindness. Authorities simply refuse to see connections between cases from other jurisdictions.”
Inspired by McNamara’s tip, the Benton Harbor police pursued the lead. Sadly, there has been no closure. “The Missouri cops have enough to keep [Devlin] in jail for the rest of his life, so it’s unclear how hard [Michigan police] are pushing. But they came out with a press release naming him as the top suspect. He must not be talking. They don’t really know what happened, because when you don’t have a body . . . there is no hard evidence that he did anything outside Missouri.”
If you are imagining the frustration and rage felt by a victim’s family in that type of situation, McNamara can vouch for it; she hears their venting quite often. “Sometimes I’m able to relay to them what the detectives are thinking or saying. A lot of times relations break down between the family and the detectives, and things get so bitter that they don’t talk anymore. And that’s why [the victims’ family members] come to me in the first place. The problem is, we live in a CSI world where everyone thinks the DNA testing is going to be done in 24 hours.” The reality is much different.
Victims’ family members regularly reach out to her through her website. “Just yesterday I got this email about the murder of a Sunday school teacher in North Carolina. The subject line was ‘Please consider this.’”
The birth of her daughter has affected her writing, McNamara says. “The emotion goes deep. A) It’s very difficult for me to write about children now. And B) I completely understand the searing pain a parent would have.” The families clearly appreciate the respect and empathy she brings to her job. “They feel a little bit like they’ve been abandoned. I’ve had people weep to me on the phone about their daughter.”
Gaining the trust of confused and frustrated family members is one thing, but earning the confidence of police oft-burned by journalists is quite another. Yet McNamara has managed to do so. She attributes her success in that crucial area to her approach. “I’m meticulous, and I fact-check over and over, and always source things. With the Internet now, [reporting] is all about being first rather than being correct. I always try to be correct, not first.”
Additionally, True Crime Diary remains free of the blood and gore common to many other true crime blogs. In an interview with Almost Always Books, McNamara said, “It’s pretty easy to tell those who, for lack of a better term, ‘get off’ on murder, rather than have a real desire to see justice. . . . [For me] the overriding motivation remains sharing cold case stories, finding answers and seeing those responsible put away.”
That dedication convinced one Southern California investigator that this female blogger was for real. McNamara combed through some police files sent to her and handwrote a list of items that a killer had stolen from his victims. Later, she Googled a pair of cufflinks to see whether or not they’d ever shown up on eBay. “I repeatedly asked law enforcement if they were doing that, but they were not. So that was a good example of where I see an open path that has not been taken, and then check it out.”
She waves off any praise for her findings. “In the case of the cufflinks, they were a very specific style, so it wasn’t too hard to find them.” Although the private detective and the victim’s family members initially thought the cufflinks were a match, they were only similar; not the exact ones. Regardless, McNamara had a new fan. “The detective was very appreciative that I put in that effort and spent my own money.”
Apparently, the word has spread. In an obvious indication of True Crime Diary’s growing credibility, the police have begun contacting her, as well.
Cliff Shepard, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who spent 37 years on the force, reached out to McNamara in January of 2012. “There were four or five cases that really aggravated me,” he says in a phone interview. He gave McNamara information about a Jane Doe murdered in 1969. “I just want to find out her name. Everybody deserves at least that.” Detective Shepard had approached several people in the media, but he described McNamara as, “The only one to give me a forum. She was outstanding, extremely professional.”
Although the case attracted a great deal of interest thanks to the blog’s Internet reach (along with 2,300 followers on Twitter), no one could provide police with the frustratingly elusive name. Nevertheless, the former LAPD member is glad he contacted McNamara. “She gave the case the attention it deserves.” Shepard thinks she is a “great resource” whom he would recommend to his former colleagues.
To her surprise, the self-professed lone wolf likes the element of collaboration. “I don’t know how to read an autopsy, and there are a bunch of other things I can’t do. So working with someone like Cliff, who I appreciate so much, is fabulous.” It almost sounds like a TV premise: old-school cop joins forces with a Googling goddess. In fact, she has been approached several times by producers to write a one-hour drama or feature film based on her work. As of now, though, she has not settled on a format.
McNamara’s Internet wizardry has assisted police outside of her adopted state of California, too. She read about a homicide in Missouri (unrelated to the Ownby and Hornbeck abductions) in which the police’s only lead was an unusual car spotted in the area. “I called and asked the detectives, ‘Did you ever do an online search for that kind of car?’ Because what I was looking for was other cases in which maybe that car was seen. They said, ‘No, we never really thought of that.’”
By sifting through online records, she learned that a current inmate in a Florida prison had once stolen the same make and model. Additionally, that convict had been on a cross-country trip at the same time of the murder. “I sent that info to the detectives, so now they have it. I’m not saying he did it . . . but he looks a lot like he did it.”
Sadly, McNamara says, police departments throughout the nation find themselves hamstrung by their limited technological reach. “Some don’t even have working computers.” She believes this will change with workforce turnover; new hires who have grown up with technology will understand how it can help make their jobs easier. To that end, McNamara makes a habit of reading the online versions of local newspapers. The comment section underneath articles provides a treasure trove of information.
“People reveal local gossip in the comments. Or, as crazy as it sounds, there’s always someone who writes, ‘That was my next-door neighbor growing up.’ So, if you add searching online to knocking on doors — shoe-leather police work — that is the strongest combination of tactics.”
The cyber sleuth has herself branched out, serving as the guest on radio programs and podcasts. Jackie Kashian, host of The Dork Forest podcast (dorkforest.com), says her listeners rated the ND grad’s appearance the best of 2012. “Her attendant, palpable intelligence and research work make her a great guest.”
She also penned a 7,000-word feature story for Los Angeles Magazine’s March issue. In it McNamara details her do-it-yourself sleuthing on one of the worst serial violent offenders in modern American history: an unidentified man who was known in Northern California in the 1970s as the East Area Rapist, and as the Original Night Stalker in Southern California in the ’80s, before DNA science finally showed it was one man. He was never caught and could still be alive.
McNamara developed a rapport with several homicide detectives still haunted by the case. Subsequently, they gave her evidence never before publicly seen that they believe is from the killer — pages from a journal, a hand-drawn map — to publish in the article. The officers hope it might jar someone’s memory and give them the lead they have sought for so long.
Amazingly, even with all the grisly crime scene photos and details McNamara has trapped in her brain, she maintains a positive outlook about America’s ability to catch future serial killers. “The good news is that it’s becoming harder and harder to pull off any of this stuff anymore. There are so many security cameras everywhere, and now kids have cameras on their phones at 8 years old. It’s very hard to just abduct someone. People are so connected in so many ways.” The power of the Internet combined with social media — data mining plus crowd sourcing — will help limit the damage done by the deranged.
In this line of work, a morbid sense of humor proves handy and healthy. Her comedian husband helps out greatly in that regard. And a shelf in her tidy office boasts sketches by artist Scott Campbell of McNamara and various “bad guys” from history: the aforementioned Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson and the Zodiac Killer. One drawing depicts D.B. Cooper, America’s most infamous plane hijacker. Is she hunting for him? “Always,” she says. The puzzle, it is always about the puzzle.
When Alice bounds into the office, McNamara closes her laptop, both literally and metaphorically shutting off her work. In a flash, the super sleuth morphs into Super Mom. Beaming, she scoops up her little girl and heads outside into the sunshine.
Jamie Reidy is an author and screenwriter in Manhattan Beach, California. His latest book is A Walk’s As Good As a Hit: Advice/Threats from My Old Man. He and McNamara were classmates in Notre Dame’s London Program.