He caught the Golden State Killer, but the obsession took a toll

Photo by: Celadon Books

The first line in Chapter 1 of “Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases” tells you almost everything you need to know about author Paul Holes: “My ex-wife used to say my job was my mistress, and I chose my mistress over everyone.”

A retired California cold case investigator, Holes’s pivotal work on the Golden State Killer (GSK) led to the 2018 arrest and subsequent conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., responsible for at least 10 murders and 50 sexual assaults. The case made popular the use of genetic genealogy – identifying suspects through familial DNA on public databases. Somewhat controversial because of privacy concerns, the practice has since led to the closing of decades-old cold cases across the country.

Since Holes took off his badge in 2018, the attention he garnered from his role in solving the GSK case has made him a true-crime darling. He’s starred in his own television series, “The DNA of Murder With Paul Holes.” He’s also half of the investigative team with Billy Jensen behind the wildly popular podcast “The Murder Squad.”

Of late, true crime is hot, spawning documentaries, podcasts and books, and “Unmasked” has plenty to fascinate aficionados.

First, there’s Holes’s crusade to find the Golden State Killer. The case bookended his 24-year career with the Contra Costa County sheriff’s department. Holes became obsessed with it when he first took a job in the crime lab in 1994, literally happening upon dusty files. While he moved up the ranks, he picked away at it, analyzed evidence, explored suspects, sometimes tumbled down rabbit holes that took years to emerge from, starting over when he concluded that he’d been chasing the wrong guy. In the end, his background in science made all the difference. He had the killer’s genetic fingerprint, and Holes doggedly tracked advances in DNA technology. It was only in the weeks leading up to his retirement that he found a means to corner the monster.

Holes, of course, didn’t work on the GSK case in a vacuum, and he gives credit to those who helped. Readers who enjoyed “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” will find his portrayal of the late Michelle McNamara touching. As a true crime writer, I particularly appreciated that he showcased all she added to the investigation. Folks in law enforcement are often reluctant to acknowledge the contributions of journalists and lay investigators, but Holes commends McNamara for collecting and sharing evidence.

“Unmasked” is reminiscent at times of John Douglas’s “Mindhunter.” I was rapt by the chapter in which Holes laid out how he interpreted evidence from the GSK case files to build a psychological profile of the killer.

Since I’ve endured the frustration of researching cold cases myself – the unsolved Interstate 45/Texas Killing Fields slayings of dozens of women for my book “Deliver Us” – another aspect of Holes’s experiences rang painfully true: the lack of cooperation he found between agencies, hindering his investigation. Too often investigators protect their turf. Wanting to solve the cases themselves, they’re unwilling to share evidence, even when doing so could take dangerous killers off the streets. This is especially vexing with serial predators who jump jurisdictions to avoid capture.

Although he gives the GSK the most ink, Holes also reveals bits and pieces about other sensational cases, including the murders of Laci Peterson and Polly Klaas, and the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard. As much as I followed the case, I didn’t remember that blood on Nicole Brown Simpson’s clothing, evidence that may have come from her killer, was ruined by improper handling of her body.

Equally interesting are chapters on less-publicized cases: a teenager who never made it home after walking a lonely highway at night; the decomposed body found floating in a barrel in a garage; the murder of movie producer Pamela Vitale, wife of lawyer and TV analyst Daniel Horowitz, in the trailer next to the Italian villa they were building. Reading about the 1997 killings of Neal Abernathy and his 12-year-old son, Brendan, sent me to the computer to Google the case. Little of value was taken, and police thought the scene appeared to be a staged robbery. It’s still unsolved.

One caveat: “Unmasked” may not be for those with queasy stomachs. Crime scenes are described in gory detail – “unimaginable” stenches, maggots, puddles of “decomposition fluid.”

Yet, what sets this book apart is that it’s as much memoir as true crime. That brings me back to the quote from Holes’s ex-wife. Holes is open about his preoccupation with his work, frequently to the detriment of his private life. He stays up late doing research, works weekends and evenings, disconnecting from family in the process. He can’t concentrate enough to play a board game because evidence percolates in his mind. Yet the stories that preoccupy Holes are hard for others to hear. As one therapist tells him, “Most people don’t want to listen to stories about things like babies being put in boiling water.”

His relationships flounder, leading to one divorce. A second wife shares his passion with crime solving, but she complains about his rigid focus and asks, “Do you even care about us?”

Holes is brutally honest about his habitual reaction to such challenges: “When the conversation got tough, I walked away.”

Perhaps his inability to put work aside is explained in part by his compassion for the victims. While not maudlin, he describes them with respect and gives them their due. Caring too much, however, can sometimes make such tragedies too personal. That struggle echoes most clearly in Holes’s account of a crime scene in which a slain child’s sneakers remind him of his son’s.

While Holes claims an innate ability to compartmentalize, it ultimately proves impossible to file away so much pain and suffering. They resurface in middle-of-the-night panic attacks. A therapist describes his experiences as cuts that never heal. She speculates that Holes is “bleeding out” after so many years.

The portrait that emerges is one of a solitary man holding a glass of bourbon, drowning his sorrows, so absorbed in his job that he can’t connect with those closest to him. Yet the book ends with guarded optimism: his desire to become a better husband and father, to open his life up beyond his work. One hopes that Holes continues his quests – an astonishing percent of U.S. killings go unsolved – but also finds a sense of balance and some well-deserved peace.