Paul Holes is a New York Times bestselling author, podcaster, and true crime media expert. During his 27 year tenure as an investigator, Holes developed and applied investigative, behavioral, and forensic expertise in notable cases such as Zodiac, the Golden State Killer, and Jaycee Dugard. He currently resides in Colorado Springs, where he enjoys mountain biking and off-road Jeeping.
SunLit: Over the course of such a long and eventful career, when did it strike you that you’d amassed material for the ultimate true crime book? What finally provided the impetus to take stock of all that had happened and share it in “Unmasked”?
Paul Holes: After I retired the public had a fascination with the Golden State Killer. I initially started to write the book as a deep dive and behind the scenes into that case. I knew all along I had an unusual career but didn’t think anybody would be all that interested until I started working with my collaborator on “Unmasked”— Robin Gaby Fisher.
As she was getting to know me, she was blown away by all the other cases I had been involved in, including Laci Peterson and Jaycee Dugard. The next iteration of the book was to tell the story of my career and some of the other cases besides GSK. However, one of the issues I was running into on a personal side was revealing the personal toll working these types of cases had taken on me.
I was breaking down as I was telling Robin about various aspects of my career. The publisher also weighed in, telling me the readers will want to know more about me than just the professional side — to get personal. I was initially resistant but as I thought about it, the impact such a profession has on a person along with the sacrifices made became a really important issue for me to reveal in “Unmasked.” I took a deep breath and went all in, revealing very personal aspects about me.
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“Unmasked” really evolved from the original concept and I was very nervous about how people would receive what I wrote and how they would look at me after reading it. Since the book came out I have had other investigators reach out to me telling me how much they related to the book and that it had a very positive impact on them knowing they weren’t alone. I’ve also had many lay persons communicate their appreciation for how vulnerable I made myself. At this point I couldn’t be happier about how the book was received and the impact it is making on people’s lives.
SunLit: So many high-profile cases came across your desk before you retired as chief of forensics for Contra Costa County. Tell us about the territory you covered and why it produced so many exceptionally horrific crimes. Was it an anomaly?
Holes: Working regionally, I worked on cases and consulted on cases as far south as the Santa Cruz/San Jose area and as far north as Marin/Sonoma. I was juggling quite a few cases from this region, but most were out of my own jurisdiction and focused on cases that had occurred in the mid 1960s or later as cold cases, as well as catching cases as they occurred such as Laci Peterson and Jaycee Dugard.
We had so many of these crazy cases over the decades, where it’s hard to put a finger on what happened. The region has a large population base, and at least in California there was a pretty big spike in serial crime. One high profile case after another happened to hit Contra Costa County while I worked there.
In retrospect, it was great experience to be involved in these high-profile cases, but I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I kept thinking, “Why here?” Because it was so much work.
SunLit: The tools you had to work with, beyond your own investigative skills and instincts, changed significantly over the years. How did DNA testing, and variations on that, change the game for law enforcement?
Holes: When DNA started being used by law enforcement, it was revolutionary. In the United States, law enforcement had access to DNA testing in the early 1990s, using an old technology that couldn’t do much with the forensic grade samples from crime scenes.
The next step with DNA testing was when we went to PCR technology which allowed us to work with tiny samples. Oftentimes, the forensic samples we got from crime scenes or victim’s bodies were degraded, so there was very little to work with. This new PCR technology was a game changer; now many cases could be worked.
Over time, that technology grew. Not only did it help solve current cases, but it became the tool to use on the cold cases. But so many of these cases didn’t have DNA that could process in the FBI’s DNA database and hit an offender. Even though we had the DNA, if the person wasn’t in the database, the cases remained unsolved.
What Steve Kramer from the FBI and I pursued in 2017 was this genealogy tool and used it to solve the Golden State Killer; it was the next big revolution for law enforcement. Now, we don’t have to rely on the offender being in the FBI’s database, or coming up as a suspect, we can draw upon extended family from the offender to lead us in a better direction.
SunLit: The decades-long search for the Golden State Killer played a key role in your life. And eventually your work, and that of journalist Michelle McNamara, helped bring Joseph James DeAngelo to justice only a few years ago. How much of an obsession was that particular case, and how did you deal with the years of frustration?
Holes: It was an obsession — I started in 1994 and I always kept that case with me as I promoted up through the ranks. As I changed offices, the case files were moved from my old offices and into my new offices. It ebbed and flowed over the decades as I got busy with other cases, but I always returned to it.
The reality is that in the last three years of my career, even though I was juggling other cases, I put all my efforts into the Golden State Killer 24/7. I thought that if I retired, this is the case I want to solve. The frustration was there because there were many times that I solved the case only to have DNA eliminate a suspect I had developed. It was crushing when I had spent two years of my life pursuing my suspect and finally found him and got his DNA, but had to eliminate him. I would feel like those two years were wasted.
But persistence paid off; the improvement in the DNA technology was really the reason we got to solve the case.
SunLit: There’s a chapter in the book where, on your last official day of work, you drove to DeAngelo’s house when he was just a possible suspect. You thought about engaging him but chose not to get out of your car and left. What was your thinking on that day and did you make the right call under the circumstances?
Holes: When I was parked outside of his house I thought I had been here before. In fact, I had multiple other previous suspects that I thought were “better” suspects than DeAngelo, and I had eliminated them as options. I thought, “What is the likelihood that DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer?”
I thought I should knock on his door and introduce myself and tell him about how his name has come up in the case, and he would give a voluntary sample, and we’d eliminate him.
But then as I sat there and went over what I knew about him, that he had a strong Sacramento connection where the East Area Rapist was active. That he had been engaged to a Bonnie, and we had the East Area Rapist yelling, “I hate you Bonnie, I hate you Bonnie,” to one of his victims.
Then you had the fact that the police chief who had fired him had told me that he was sure DeAngelo was shining a flashlight in his daughter’s room late at night at the time that DeAngelo was on administrative leave for stealing dog repellent and a hammer. I went over all these facts and decided there was enough there that he could very well be the Golden State Killer, and I didn’t want to blow it.
I decided to drive home, and the next day I turned in my badge and gun. I didn’t quite solve it before I retired, but I was able to get within 50 feet of the person I had spent 24 years looking for.
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SunLit: You investigated some high-profile serial killers and sexual predators. Aside from DeAngelo, what were the toughest cases? The most emotionally taxing?
Holes: It’s hard to say the toughest cases — plenty of cases that have been tough I haven’t solved and are still out there. A case I’m currently working on is Cassette Allison, which we have tried and still haven’t kept physical evidence in that case. I fell in love with the case — I had to find out what that predator did to her. When I look at what was recovered and imagine what that girl went through during her last moments of life, it’s very emotionally taxing. It’s haunted me throughout the decades.
SunLit: Obviously, cold case investigation isn’t for everyone. What elements of your own personality led you to this line of work?
Holes: I think in part there is a form of ego. I’m looking at a case that other investigators had tried to solve but couldn’t, but I think I can solve it. I’m always optimistic that even if other investigators failed on these cases, I can make a difference.
You’re dealing with the dynamics of a human committing crime on another human, and all possibilities could potentially exist. Going through the case is like solving a Rubik’s cube, and I enjoy that challenge.
But also, the idea that an offender had committed these horrific crimes and gotten away with it really irks me. I feel like it’s almost my obligation to remove this person from society, this person who is out there living a life they don’t deserve because they took somebody else’s life. I’m stubborn and persistent and will always continue to work on those cases.
SunLit: What was the personal toll for you of chasing all those very difficult, very gut-wrenching cases for as long as you did? How did you manage – or not manage – the stress and anxiety?
Holes: This is really what my book evolved into telling. Of course there’s the cases in my career, but as I was writing, the toll of working these cases over such a long period of time bubbled to the surface.
I recognized that I had suffered a form of trauma, and it had a psychological impact on me. My commitment to these cases over the years had an impact on my family. Physically I was gone, or emotionally I wasn’t present even when I was there. This is something that many people who get involved in this profession end up ultimately experiencing.
I didn’t do a good job of managing it; that’s where the anxiety that I naturally have exponentially increased the stress that I feel. It’s an ongoing struggle to quiet the nerves going in the background.
SunLit: You worked with the writer Robin Gaby Fisher on your book. What was that collaborative process like and how did it work?
Holes: When Robin was brought on board, I had already written about a deep dive into the Golden State Killer investigation. We decided we needed to get to know each other, so we met up in Sacramento and went on a road trip.
I gave her a tour of some of the East Area Rapist attack locations and I drove her up to DeAngelo’s house. We drove down to the Bay Area, but on the way we made a stop in Davis, which was really a primary focus of the last year of my investigation into the Golden State Killer.
It just happened that when I drove her by one of the attack locations, the victim was standing in her driveway. She previously had reached out to me after DeAngelo was caught, yet we never met before — and here she was.
She invited Robin and me into her house and showed us where she was attacked. Robin got to see firsthand how I dealt with victims. It really established our relationship; at first she had recorded our conversations in the car during our two days out there, but as the pandemic hit and we had to do everything over the phone she became a real part of it. I hope to have more collaborations with her in the future.
SunLit: You retired as a cold case investigator, but at 54, what do your next chapters look like?
Holes: I’ve got two new podcasts: “Buried Bones” with Kate Winkler Dawson, and I’ve joined the “Small Town Dicks” team as a co-host along with Yeardley, Dan, and Dave. I’m also working on shows for HLN and am now the host of a series for them called “Real Life Nightmare,” and we’ll be doing other shows as time goes on.
I’m still actively consulting with law enforcement across the nation as well as trying to pursue some of my passion cases from my past.
SunLit: When you left work in Contra Costa County in California, you chose Colorado as your next stop. What went into that decision?
Holes: As my wife and I were talking about our retirement, we both agreed that we wanted to move out of California, and didn’t have a particular place in mind. One area that we had open was the Pacific Northwest, but as we binge-watched a Netflix show called “The Killing” that was based out of Seattle, in every single episode it was pouring rain; we said no thanks.
My wife had been talking to some military wives and a fair number of them said that their favorite place was Colorado Springs. We researched the Springs and flew out about six months before I retired. We spent 3 days driving around getting to know the place and decided that this was it.
When we flew out and were shopping for homes, DeAngelo was followed by undercover FBI agents hoping to get his DNA. When we moved to Colorado Springs, that’s when I got the phone call that the initial DNA from DeAngelo had been obtained, and that it had matched the Golden State Killer.