As Paul Holes recounts in the opening pages of his gripping new memoir, Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases, almost immediately upon stepping onto the field he discovered a natural affinity for the combination of scientific rigor and gut instinct demanded of detectives.
The former Contra Costa cold case investigator, who has worked with both the County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, rose to fame in 2018 when he helped solve the decades-old Golden State Killer case — in part through the use of innovative DNA technology and Open Source Genealogy Databases – was a recent graduate of UC Davis and newly married in 1990 when he began working as a drug analyst. He recalls walking into the windowless lab in Martinez, where he tested urine samples for drug and DUI cases, and immediately felt “enchanted,” he writes, with the retrospective clarity of someone remembering the moment when he found his calling.
Soon after, Holes was spending time in the crime library, poring over tomes on the psychology of crime and serial robbery.
“It was like finding gold,” he writes, comparing his total immersion in an unsolved case to “what a good drug high must feel like.” The challenge of solving a (murder) case was exhilarating.”
In Holes’ remarkably vulnerable and at times disturbing book (due to his detailed descriptions of the murders and rapes he worked to solve), Holes reveals not only the fact-gathering skills involved in handling cold cases, but also his damaging personal Tribute single-minded focus on such evil deeds. He experienced panic attacks, drank heavily and was emotionally distant from his family. But he was driven by a deep sense of connection and responsibility to the many victims, the intimate details of whom he remembers.
Holes worked on unsolved cases for nearly 30 years, applying his forensic and behavioral expertise to help solve the murders of Laci and Conner Peterson, the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard, and the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo as a Golden State Killer near Sacramento in the 2018, his highest profile success.
He is now widely featured in the media, but has left full-time detective work behind since retiring four years ago. By phone from Denver, where he now lives with his family, Holes spoke to The Chronicle about his book and reflecting on his career.
Q: Investigating cold cases is a tedious, sometimes grueling job that you discovered early in your career that you were exceptionally good at. Why do you think this is?
A: At the time, I was watching this TV show, Quincy, and I thought, I’m going to be a coroner. I marched down this path, determined to go to medical school and study pathology. But I didn’t know that most forensic scientists don’t go into the field. They’re in the morgue, not investigating cases. So I made my own career because I quickly realized that I needed to be outside to talk to people. I want to solve cases. That’s where my passion lies, on the investigative side.
There’s an objective aspect to the investigation and you can never lose sight of the facts, but there’s also that intuitive gut feeling. A lot of scientists get stuck in the final, the black and white, and I like to dabble in the gray.
Q: You write about the incredible emotional and psychological toll of trying to get inside the minds of killers to understand and grasp them. What was the hardest thing about it?
A: This toll, the (mental) damage, became fundamental to the book. When I first started writing, I just wanted to dig deep into the (Golden State Killer) investigation. But once I started talking to my associate Robin (Gaby Fisher) and telling her about my role on other cases, particularly my role on Laci Peterson and then when Ray (Giacomelli, a detective and friend) was killed, I broke literally crying down together. It became apparent that these traumas experienced over the course of a career doing this work are the most important thing I want readers to understand. Professionals like me who do this work sacrifice themselves to keep the public safe.
Q: You said your life changed instantly in 1994 when you found a file on the East Area Rapist, as the Golden State Killer was first called. Why do you think you were so obsessed with this one case?
A: In the beginning I worked on it more as a hobby. But when I made the DNA connection in 2001 that showed the East Area Rapist was responsible for the Southern California murders, I knew this was a serious case. But it was Orange County’s case, not mine. When I got promoted to Chief (Forensics) and got bored to death writing memos, I thought, “Let’s see what I can do.”
From that point on, it was 24/7/365 in terms of my obsession. It snowballed as I began interviewing the living victims and family members and saw the trauma they were still suffering decades after their attacks. … That’s when I felt motivated that I need to solve this thing. I didn’t just want to solve this puzzle; I wanted to give these victims answers.
Q: Is it hard to still see the inherent goodness in people while knowing firsthand the heinous violence some are capable of?
A: I keep thinking that the worst could possibly happen. This is a difficult thing to deal with in law enforcement. you get so cynical I tend to be suspicious of people, although children being kidnapped by strangers, for example, is really a rare occurrence. So does serial killers compared to the other bad things that can happen. But it’s harder for me to relax with my kids. That is part of the personal sacrifice.
Q: Have you felt less suspicious since you retired and moved to Colorado?
A: I’m getting better. My inner defenses are slowly fading. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a morgue and seen a dead body in person. That is a good thing.
Q: Are there any colds that keep you up at night?
A: I’ll probably work on cases for the rest of my life, just not at the level I was before. I literally have a folder right here with the case of Cosette Ellison (a 15-year-old murdered in Moraga in 1970). … I need to find out, and it’s a tough case from a physical evidence standpoint. She’s a victim I just fell in love with. Its a heavy burdan. I’m retired but how do I let this go?
Unmasked: My Life Solves America’s Cold Falls
By Paul Locher
(Celadon Books; 288 pages; $28.99)
Book Passage introduces Paul Holes in conversation with George Fong: Personal and virtual event. 1 p.m. Thursday 5 May. $35, including autographed book. 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera. www.buchpassage.com
Commonwealth Club of California presents Paul Holes in conversation with Brian Watt: Personal and virtual event. 6 p.m. Thursday 5 May. Personal admission $25 or $50 with book; virtual $5, registration required. 110 The Embarcadero, SF www.commonwealthclub.org