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Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases


Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases

UNMASKED reads like a gripping, ticking-clock thriller of a novel. Paul Holes comes by his street cred the hard way. Inspired by the 1970s procedural TV show, “Quincy,” he joined the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California in the early 1990s, where he was able to combine his two loves of science and investigation. Says Holes, “Crime solving for me is more complex than the challenge of the hunt, or the process of piecing together a scientific puzzle. The thought of good people suffering drives me, for better or worse, to the point of obsession. But I had always taken pride in the fact that I can keep my feelings locked up to get the job done.”

Holes has worked on high-profile cases such as Laci Peterson, Jaycee Dugard and, for over 20 years, the Golden State Killer. And while his compartmentalization skills make him a shrewd investigator, they tend to make his home life challenging: “My ex-wife used to say my job was my mistress, and I chose my mistress over everyone.” In his memoir, Holes details the cases that have haunted him, the ones that gave him nightmares, and --- in the case of the Golden State Killer --- the satisfaction when decades of investigative work and chasing endless leads finally pay off.

Just as he was starting out, Holes stumbled upon something that would change the trajectory of his career: “Poking around one afternoon, I discovered a treasure hidden in plain sight --- the crime library. It was about the size of a truck container…. Many of the books looked like no one had taken them off the shelf in years. For me, it was like discovering gold…. I had figured out what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a criminal profiler.” Upon further investigation, he discovered the cold case files and became instantly entranced. His day job didn’t give him much time beyond perusing these unsolved cases, but he couldn’t help returning to them again and again.

"Not only is Paul Holes an incredible, scientifically minded crack investigator/profiler, he has emerged as a master storyteller.... On each page, you feel Holes’ commitment and passion to solve these cases and bring about not only justice, but also some solace for the bereaved families left behind."

In the interim, Holes worked his way up the law enforcement ladder, with cases such as Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, murdered by her husband, Scott Peterson, on Christmas Eve in 2002. There was also the unbelievable case of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at 11 years old and held captive by Phillip Garrido and his wife for nearly 18 years, bearing him two children and living right under authorities’ noses in Antioch, California, in a makeshift lean-to in their backyard.

But perhaps the case that took up most of Holes’ time, the one to which he dedicated over two decades, is that of the Golden State Killer (or, as he was known when he first started his reign of terror in Northern California, the East Area Rapist). From the early days of his work in the sheriff’s office, when he first discovered the cold case files, finding this elusive predator became Holes' mission: “EAR had disappeared in 1979. A sixteen-member multi-jurisdictional task force had tried and failed to identify him. The fact that no one had been able to solve the case was a challenge I couldn’t resist. Some people might call it hubris, and maybe it was, but at that early point in my career, it never occurred to me that I might fail to figure out a case that had eluded the best criminal minds for decades. I knew I could solve it.”

The East Area Rapist had graduated from home invasions and rapes to murder, leaving so many grieving families in his wake, so Holes felt a responsibility to find him and bring him to justice. In addition to his day job, he would track down leads and talk to former cops on the case whenever he could.

In 2012, Holes began talking to writer Michelle McNamara, who was working on an article about the Golden State Killer for Los Angeles magazine. Knowing that it would be hard for a seasoned professional to open up to a newbie reporter, the clever McNamara knew that Holes would never share information about the case just to be congenial: “I need inside information, and you have that. And I have things that you don’t.” McNamara was the one who coined the new moniker, Golden State Killer, after all. Her dedication and interest in this case revitalized his commitment.

When McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep in 2016, Holes was bereft: “It was because of Michelle and her gift of the homicide files that I was finally able to evaluate these murders. The Southern California contingent, even after the task force was formed, had continued to keep critical information close to the chest and not share. I didn’t blame them. Everyone wanted to be the one to crack the Golden State Killer case --- but not everyone was willing to jeopardize our collective chances of success by withholding information…. It was through these files that I got to know the Golden State Killer. Through thousands of pages of documents, I followed his evolution from the rapist I knew so well into the cold-blooded killer whose compulsion to kill was as strong as heroin to an addict.”

After exhausting every conceivable avenue of investigation into the Golden State Killer, Holes began learning everything he could about the new science of using genealogy to hunt down family members of offenders, hopefully leading them to their killer. He was taught “a technique that genealogists had been using for years to find the birth families of adoptees. The triangulation technique, which had never been used to solve a homicide, involved utilizing distant relatives and triangulation back to a common ancestor. Evaluating family trees allowed us to narrow our focus…. We were one generation closer and a giant step further in the search.” And ultimately, this is what brought them right to the killer’s door.

Not only is Paul Holes an incredible, scientifically minded crack investigator/profiler, he has emerged as a master storyteller. Co-written by New York Times bestselling author Robin Gaby Fisher, UNMASKED reads like the most riveting crime novel. On each page, you feel Holes’ commitment and passion to solve these cases and bring about not only justice, but also some solace for the bereaved families left behind. Seeing him tirelessly chase down leads and go down blind alleys, you truly get a sense of what is required for this line of work and how good he is at it.

UNMASKED is a great companion read to McNamara’s I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK, which is about the same case. Holes is also the co-host of the popular true-crime podcast, “Jensen & Holes: The Murder Squad,” where even in his so-called retirement he is still chasing down those cold cases.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on May 6, 2022

Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases
by Paul Holes

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250622808
  • ISBN-13: 9781250622808