Paul Holes, Author of Unmasked, on Internet Detectives and Dealing with Trauma

A man in a law enforcement uniform stands beside an image of a book cover titled "unmasked: my life solving america's cold cases" by paul holes with robin fisher, suggesting he may be the author or connected to the content of the book.

Celadon Books sat down with detective and author Paul Holes to talk about his new true crime memoir, Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases.

Celadon: Many readers are familiar with your work on the Golden State Killer case, which you helped solve in 2018. How has this case impacted your career and personal life?

Holes: I started getting involved in what became known as the Golden State Killer case back in 1994. My interest in the case started out more akin to a passing hobby, but the last 10 years, it turned into a raging passion that consumed me. This case was one that I took on — no boss at the Sheriff’s Office assigned it to me, so it was not considered part of my job responsibilities. I had to work on my obsession whenever I could, often at home, taking me away from family.

While at work, I would sneak out of the office to track down leads, always anxious that my bosses would find out I was halfway across the state when they thought I was in my office. The obsession (after I became attached to some of the killer’s victims and family members it turned into an obligation) would take over all my thoughts, both at work and at home I neglected my family and my own mental health. 

No question, capturing DeAngelo was an accomplishment I’m proud of, but most readers are unaware of the toll that working a case of this magnitude for so long had on me. The book will give readers insight into what I was exposed to during my career, along with the all-consuming nature of the Golden State Killer case, and how those factors really had a negative impact that will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

Celadon: You've worked on so many cold cases, often spanning many years. How do you keep the fire alive for each case?

Holes: Why certain cases stay with me is complicated, but it fundamentally boils down to the innocence of the victims and seeing firsthand the horrors they suffered in the last moments of life. None of the victims should ever have suffered or lost their life, yet they did all because of the sadistic selfishness of a predator. With certain cases I don’t ever have to force myself to stay involved and try to develop an emotional attachment. It comes naturally due to the outrage I experience when I put myself in the victim’s mind at the time they are being attacked. I put myself in the offender’s position, seeing the terror on the victim’s face. I study crime scene and autopsy photos. I go to the scene and relive the victim’s last moments in the very space where the crime occurred. 

For many, the crimes are stories. Not for me: They are real. I don’t have to stoke the fire to keep each case alive, the fire burns by itself.

Celadon: Exposure to this heartbreaking work must take a toll. How do you think it's affected your emotional well-being at work and home? And how do you cope?

Holes: I struggle to remember how I thought and felt prior to starting my career. I know I was naive and ignorant to the realities of violent crime. I wonder how different a person I would be if I had chosen a different career path or didn’t focus on serial predator cases. I do know that what I experienced utterly changed me.

This work is traumatic but often in an insidious way. The trauma typically is not acute, like a soldier experiences in war or a patrol officer deals with after making a life-or-death decision. When I started to recognize the impact the decades of work had on me it drove me to see a therapist not too long ago. She described it best: The trauma I experienced is akin to a slow bleed from multiple cuts inflicted over the years that never heal. Her insight explained why I will be reviewing yet another tragic case and start to cry when that didn’t happen before, why I can’t fully engage in my marriage or in being a father. I never have let those bleeding cuts close, and I continue to make more, because I must continue to do what I do best — work cases. 

Celadon: True crime is having a real moment, and so is the idea of the citizen detective who uses social media and Internet forums to help solve crimes. Does this have any impact on how the professionals work?

Holes: I have a long and complex history with online sleuths, first starting with my foray into the Zodiac series back in the early 2000s and then with the explosion of interest in the Golden State Killer case. Some are very skilled and contribute a great deal to the case. Many have the best of intentions, but their efforts can cloud the investigation and consume resources. A few are outright dangerous. 

With the Golden State Killer and Zodiac cases, the citizen detectives became overwhelming, each pursuing their own thoughts on the case, developing their own “POIs,” and trying to get the attention of the official investigators. I often received 30 communications from these individuals per day. Some looked at me as their personal private investigator. At a certain point, I realized that the leads they were generating were not going to solve the case, so I stopped communicating with most so I could focus on what I knew would solve the case – genealogy. That change obviously worked out, but many in the sleuthing community became bitter once I no longer responded.

Online sleuths do have a place in an investigation, but they must be focused versus left to their own devices. My podcast Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad does just that. We educate listeners about aspects of a case then give out assignments, and that is likely the best way for law enforcement to use this kind of resource. 

Celadon: What is something readers will learn about you in your book that may surprise them?

Holes: Who I really am as a person. My struggles, my failures, and my inadequacies. I am naturally a very private person, and of course the type of work I did required a high level of privacy out of safety concerns. For my book, I have had to open up and be exposed really for the first time in my life. That has not been easy for me to do. Of course, the book also provides great insight into many different cases I’ve worked on, including the Golden State Killer, but the reader is going to learn about who I am. For better or worse. 

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