Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Paul Haynes about what happens when we die, the vestiges of a childhood fear of the dark, the sensation of teeth falling out and how he helped bring a notorious killer to justice.
I was afraid of the dark until I was eight. I graduated from a bedside lamp to a hallway light to ultimately being able to sleep in darkness.
Why do you think human beings are so interested in serial killers and horror? Oddly enough, when I want to relax, I find myself watching either romantic comedies or horror movies — something that makes me kind of uneasy about myself. Can you describe the day when you first became interested in the Golden State Killer?
I think for some of us, there’s something about fear that’s attractive. Contained fear, that is — as a consumer, not as a potential victim.
I was afraid of the dark until I was eight. I graduated from a bedside lamp to a hallway light to ultimately being able to sleep in darkness. In the late ’80s, I was an Unsolved Mysteries devotee. The theme music alone gave me goosebumps. That show was fucking spooky. I liked being spooked.
Serial killers are fascinating perhaps because they’re the real-life boogeymen, the closest real-world analogs to monsters or demons, and they hide among us. They’re your next-door neighbor, your uncle, your church council president, your town compliance officer. They look like everyone else. That’s what’s always fascinated me most: the contrast between their “mask of sanity” and their crimes. Until the case was solved and the two identities were reconciled, there was the Green River Killer — an elusive and highly prolific phantom whose crimes were national news — and there was Gary Ridgway, the unassuming truck painter living a low-key existence in suburban Seattle.
Some are fascinated by the psychology of serial killers, because it’s so unrelatable and different from our own. And yet others are probably drawn to serial killer media as a means of whistling in the dark and also equipping oneself with vigilance. Perhaps it’s the vestige of one’s childhood fear of the dark.
There wasn’t a single day I can pinpoint the genesis of my interest in the Golden State Killer, then known to me only as the Original Night Stalker. I first learned about the case from a rebroadcast of an old MSNBC Investigates special about an unsolved series of murders in (mostly coastal) Southern California communities — Goleta, Ventura, Dana Point and Irvine. DNA profiling had retroactively uncovered links among six murders, which were linked to an additional four by M.O.
A year or two later, the case popped back into my mind and I turned to Google to help bring it into sharper focus. That’s when I learned the full scope of the series, which wasn’t yet known at the time the MSNBC Investigates special had been produced. It encompassed 40-odd home invasion rapes in Northern California, and possibly an earlier series of burglaries in Visalia — and three additional murders between those two series. It was astonishing to me that a case of this magnitude could have flown — and continue flying, in fact — under the radar for so long.
In addition, can you describe the day/moment when you discovered that suspect Joseph James DeAngelo had been arrested? What did you do? How did you feel? Who is the first person you called? Do you think he is the real deal?
I was in a hotel room in Chicago, and I had just done a book tour event in Naperville. I had shared the stage with Patton Oswalt, Gillian Flynn, and Billy Jensen — all of Michelle’s posthumous collaborators, in one room for the first time.
I was settling into bed. It had been a long day following a near-sleepless night. A text (from Criminology podcast host Mike Morford) had chimed into my phone at 10pm Central. It read:
“I had two different people today tell me that police caught EAR and will announce it tomorrow. I think it’s BS.”
My interest was piqued but contained. We’d heard it all before. Years of false alarms. Morford and I exchanged texts for a while before I completed my nighttime routine and began to turn off lights. Around 11:15, Morford texted me again:
“He is IN CUSTODY!”
He seemed sure. He had more sources now, and they were indisputable. I knew it was going to be another sleepless night for me.
I texted Billy Jensen, and then everybody else under the sun. (I’m a texter and emailer, not a caller.) I waited for more info to trickle in. All I knew then was that the suspect was a 72-year-old former cop who lived in Auburn, and that the DNA was a 100% match. That evening, the only news item corroborating a break in the case was a cautiously worded after-midnight news alert from Sacramento’s Fox 40.
I miraculously managed a few hours of sleep, and when I woke up, I learned the name of the Golden State Killer. Joseph James DeAngelo Jr.
I don’t doubt that DeAngelo is the GSK. DNA doesn’t lie, and he fits the profile — geographically and personality-wise.
Investigator Paul Holes recently revealed that while searching DeAngelo’s house, he discovered that the man’s computer was shrouded by a towel — an echo of what the killer would do during rapes/murders past. (The murderer/rapist often put a towel over a switched-on TV so that he could see but not be seen.) Have you come across any details about DeAngelo that resonate in such a way with you? Any of your old theories proven/disproven?
It is somewhat of a shock to me that DeAngelo was living in Placer County throughout the series of attacks in Sacramento. We were all so convinced DeAngelo was a Sacramento resident. Yet, in hindsight, it makes sense that a cop moonlighting as the region’s most wanted serial rapist would avoid offending in his own jurisdiction.
Evil is one of those words, like love, that is often approached as though it has some kind of concrete definition and a measurable presence.
When reading about cases like these, I begin to truly believe in the existence of evil. How do you feel about such things? Do you think evil exists? Heaven, hell, judgment? Do you think this kind of capacity for evil exists in all of us, or are these people anomalies — mistakes?
Evil is one of those words, like love, that is often approached as though it has some kind of concrete definition and a measurable presence. Really, it’s abstract, and this sort of assignment of absolute meaning betrays the human brain’s impulse to think in black and white terms.
While I myself often indulge in describing people as evil, I think humanity is more complex than that. Rape and murder are evil acts. But also, at least for most people, unrelatable. I would agree that serial sexual predators are anomalies. I think we all have the capacity to do evil things, but in less confrontational and more banal ways. Calculatedly raping and murdering a stranger is a line most human beings cannot cross and never even come close to crossing; never even think about crossing.
Insofar as any form of afterlife, I don’t know. Does anyone know? Do you know? I like to stick to what I know.
As a crime investigator, I’m curious about what nightmares recur for you. I, myself, dream of zombies (not sure why) — do you dream of creatures from the imagination or do you dream of men like the Golden State Killer? Do you have a recurring nightmare you can share?
Throughout my adult life, I’ve had two primary recurring nightmares. One involves the destruction or loss of my teeth. The first such dream I can recall, I was looking at my teeth in the mirror and discovered all of them were loose; I was able to move them back and forth like light switches. I’ve had other dreams in which my teeth have shattered like glass, fallen out, etc, but I haven’t dreamed about my teeth now in several years.
From what I understand, this is a common dream, signifying feelings of powerlessness, etc. For me, it may be more literal: I never want to lose any of my natural teeth. Losing any of my teeth is one of the biological things I fear most and think about. I want to keep all of my natural teeth into old age.
The other recurring dream is the aftermath of having killed another human being — crossing that line that can never be uncrossed. I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed about actually committing a murder. Only the knowledge that I have just committed a murder and am now, irrevocably, a murderer. The fear of being caught and spending the rest of my life in prison, and even if uncaught, inescapably carrying the knowledge with me that I am a murderer.
These dreams are particularly distressing in that they’re often lucid and I have a measure of free will enough to ask myself “Is this a dream?” and hope that it is. The last time I had such a dream, it was protracted and I was convinced it was the real thing. As always, I was relieved when I woke.
Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I will think about dying and about the notion of nothingness and my consciousness and sentience simply stopping forever, never to experience so much as a thought ever again, and it chills me to the core.
Can you describe for me the moment when you first realized that human beings die? I remember sitting up night as a child when I learned that this was inevitable, thinking about graveyards and shaking. I was a fun kid.
Wait a minute, what? Human beings die?
Ha ha, but seriously folks.
I don’t know if I remember that moment. There may not be such a moment for me.
My mother was always a hypochondriac and a neurotic and very Jewish in most ways, and she frequently spoke about people dying — people she knew, or people who knew people she knew, or just people in the news — in that mundane, offhand way that Jewish mothers and Jewish grandmothers often talk about death.
To give you an example: My parents used to frequent Jai alai games in the ’80s and would take me along sometimes in lieu of hiring a sitter. I remember my mother pointing out an area of the fronton where, years earlier, she’d seen a collapsed man being unsuccessfully administered CPR.
“They were tryin’ to revive him, but it was too late.”
I also remember her, around the same time, pointing out a house in the neighborhood where an old boss and her husband “got their brains blown out.”
“They think it was Mafia.”
And yet another house where a colleague used to live in the 1970s, with a son who disappeared around that time. (And is still a missing person to this day.)
So, I’ve been aware of and afraid of death for as long as I can remember.
Nighttime is the worst time to think about death. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I will think about dying and about the notion of nothingness — of ceasing to exist, and my consciousness and sentience simply stopping forever, never to experience so much as a thought ever again — and it chills me to the core. It’s no wonder the notions of heaven, hell, judgment, an afterlife, a spirit, etc, have existed since the dawn of man. The idea that this is it! — particularly when you’re someone who’s struggled, suffered to any degree, and hasn’t been born into privilege — is a profoundly chilling thing to contemplate. It’s hard to accept, and it’s easy enough to choose not to.
You mentioned in our correspondence leading up to this conversation that you are a fan of the Suburban Lawns. I asked a previous interviewee this, but, as an investigative researcher, what do you think happening to the elusive front woman, Su Tissue?
Suburban Lawns are the best punk/new wave act that pretty much no one knows about. (Wazmo Nariz is another.) Their sole LP (their self-titled 1981 debut) was never even released on CD until 2015, when the medium was pretty much dead.
Su was an art student when she joined the band, and was, as described by one of her bandmates, “a reluctant star.” She released a solo record in 1982 called Salon de Musique — which is great, though it doesn’t rock (it is to Suburban Lawns output what My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was to Remain in Light), and she had a small role in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (Demme was one of the unsung heroes of ’80s new wave, if you think about it). But from what limited information I’ve seen, she receded from the public eye out of choice.
I know, and know of, lots of people who, like Su Tissue, were in new wave bands in the early 80s, and eventually built careers that consigned their musical trappings to the past. None of those bands were signed, or were relegated to an even greater level of obscurity than Suburban Lawns — who really did have something of a moment (hey, you can spot a Suburban Lawns poster in Spicoli’s bedroom, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High!). Consider also Ricky Gervais, whose ’80s new wave band Seona Dancing was a one-hit-wonder. It’s pure coincidence that Gervais’ star happened to rise in an entirely different medium two decades later.
Now that the Golden State Killer has been found (at least we think he has…) what’s next for you? Do you have any other cases you’re working on that you would like to discuss or share?
I’m working with HBO now on I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the series. We have a terrific director, Liz Garbus — a two-time Oscar nominee who is incredibly prolific. She did that great HBO doc Bobby Fischer Against the World, and the equally fantastic Nina Simone doc What Happened, Miss Simone?. Creatively, this is a doc that’s largely being shaped by women: Michelle McNamara, Liz Garbus, our talented producer, Elizabeth Wolff, and the many former victims that are discovering how empowering and liberating it is to come forward and speak.
So, my involvement with this case will continue for a while. There are other things in development that I’m loath to reveal too much about at this time. I’m also writing some other material outside the true crime sphere. Like, for instance, I’m finally beginning to embrace the fact that my fucked-up childhood is a literary goldmine! I also have a couple of screenplays I’ve been shaping over the last couple of years. Stay tuned.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: June 15, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2352
Reading time: Eight minutes
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About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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