The first time I heard of Billy Jensen was when I read I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book detailing her dogged attempts to catch the serial killer she dubbed “The Golden State Killer.” After McNamara died suddenly in April 2016, Jensen—a journalist and friend of McNamara’s— joined her research assistant Paul Haynes and her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, in their mission to finish the book McNamara had been obsessively writing in the months leading up to her death. Then, two months after I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was released in February 2018, the Golden State Killer was finally caught, and Jensen and company’s book tour suddenly became so much more. In the frenzy that followed, Jensen emerged as a media figure in his own right. Now he’s got two podcasts, The First Degree and The Murder Squad, an audiobook called Chase Darkness With Me, and he’s helping develop a I’ll Be Gone In The Dark docuseries for HBO.
But, like many seemingly rapid rises, Jensen’s is anything but. He’s been an investigative journalist since 1997, when the Village Voice recruited him for a story based on the strength of his hockey zine (ah, different times). Since then, he’s been surfing the various waves that have crashed on the shores of media over the past 20 years, from alt-weeklies and syndicated TV to podcasting and social media. His beat is true crime—specifically, unsolved murders. (On a lighter note, he also solved the nerdier mystery of identifying the actor who played BoShek in Star Wars.) His experience investigating cold cases informs the philosophy Jensen calls “True Crime 2.0" in his book Chase Darkness With Me, which premieres exclusively on Audible today. In the book, Jensen lays out his vision for a movement where true-crime fans can turn their interest into something more productive, using the wide reach of social media to crowdsource information that can be used to identify victims of violent crime, as well as clues that can help detectives solve murder cases.
That’s also the concept behind Jensen’s new podcast Jensen And Holes: The Murder Squad, co-hosted by Paul Holes, the former cold case investigator who’s become something of a celebrity himself thanks to his dedication to catching the Golden State Killer. The first episode of the season asked for listeners’ help identifying women in a cache of photographs recovered from the home of convicted serial killer William Bradford; some of the women in the photos have come forward to confirm they’re okay, some have been identified as murder victims, and the rest are still unidentified. The second asked for assistance in identifying the Allenstown Four, three young girls and one adult woman whose bodies were found in metal barrels in a New Hampshire state park. Their killer was identified in August 2017, but their names remain lost to history; we know that the woman and two of the girls were related, but that’s all we know. Those calls to action are typical of Jensen’s victim-based approach to true crime reporting, and he discusses the Allenstown Four specifically in much greater detail in Chase Darkness With Me.
We talked with Jensen about his hopes for a new movement in true crime, as well as his friendship with the My Favorite Murder crew, which Avenger he identifies with the most, and the case that haunts him to this day.
The A.V. Club: I read that your new podcast debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. Congratulations!
Billy Jensen: Yeah, it was! The podcast is really an extension of the book, and a natural progression of the audiobook, so it’s nice the way everything is kind of coming together.
AVC: You’ve got a lot going on right now. Is this the busiest you’ve ever been?
BJ: No, because my kids are grown now. If my kids were younger—that was definitely me at my busiest, when I was hustling and working at a magazine and working on the weekend on crime stuff and then dealing with two kids. So this is a cake walk. (laughs)
AVC: So a book, two podcasts, and a TV show, it’s nothing.
BJ: And a day job! But that’s nothing compared to raising children, I would say.
AVC: On that note—Investigating crime stories has to be very emotionally draining work. What kept you going in the years when you were doing it in obscurity?
BJ: The victims, and the victims’ families. That’s the thing that keeps me going. And I’m consistently getting letters every day from the mothers of victims that say, “please help. Nobody will help me.” You can’t stop [when you get letters like that]. You’re not going to stop. So that’s what kept me going.
And whenever you’d get emotionally drained, or get tired, you’d just think about that. Or you’d get a letter from one of them, or an email or a phone call, and it just turns it back around. You need that. You can’t be tired because you’ve got to keep working towards something, especially when you have so many irons in the fire and you’re working on so many cases. There’s always going to be one question that—there are so many cases that are out there that you need to keep asking questions about, or there’s one answer to keep digging for. You can’t really afford to give up.
But you can definitely get discouraged. You’re a human being, you get discouraged. But as far as ever giving up, or not wanting to keep going, that’s never an option because of that.
AVC: I’ve read some of your work, and you seem to have this drive to memorialize the victims, and keep them from being forgotten.
BJ: Definitely. I think especially working in this genre of true crime, there tends to be a romanticism about the villain. And the victims very much often get lost. I try to put the emphasis back on the victim, and really try to show what the perpetrator took away, not only from the family, but from humanity as a whole. What did these victims want to do? What were they going to do with their lives?What were they doing with their lives? What were they contributing? What were their dreams when they were little that got sidetracked? There’s always that [aspect of the story]. I always try to pin that, and put it back on there.
AVC: That was something I really liked about I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. I feel like Michelle McNamara did that a lot, too.
BJ: Yeah, she did. She wrote with great empathy, even though she was dealing with this killer. She was a good writer in that way, where she was describing all of these horrific crimes, but she definitely [put a spotlight on victims’ lives] as well.
AVC: As you were saying, there’s this stereotype about true crime—that it’s, I don’t know, callous or twisted. But I tend to find that there’s a thread of empathy running through the genre.
BJ: I mean, it depends. It depends on what the person who’s producing it is after. You do find empathy in certain spots, but there’s also a big problem with misrepresentation—or under-representation, rather, of certain types of victims. The idea of “ideal victims”—having been in Hollywood, those stories lead to producers’ meetings and pitch shows. They don’t want stories about victims of color, for the most part. They don’t want stories about victims who are sex workers, or who are addicted to opioids or other drugs. And I think every life is worth the same.
That’s one of the great things about audio in general. When you’re doing television, there are a million different gatekeepers you’ve got to get through. But with audio, you can just go with it. And that’s one of the main reasons why I wrote the audio book. It’s because I was running into so many problems with the first case that I solved, the Marques Gaines case. I was doing that initially as part of a television show, and the TV network was like, “okay, you, you identified him.” And I was like, “yeah, I identified a guy who the cops couldn’t identify who’s responsible for a death.” And then they were like, “well, we want a warrant for his arrest now.” And I was like, “I can’t go get a warrant!” So I’m begging police departments and trying to go through channels and finally get a warrant. And then they’re like, “we want an arrest.” So they kept moving the goalposts more and more. And then eventually they said, “you know what, this is going to be too hard.” And then we got the arrests like three weeks later.
At that point, I was like, “you know what? I’m just going to write a book and forget this TV nonsense.” Because this stuff is not fast. Justice is messy, and it’s frickin’ slow. You just have to stick with it. And television is not the medium for that. Maybe a Netflix or an HBO, but certainly not the cable networks.
AVC: And the timing can be so random, as you said. I was at CrimeCon last year, and I remember when you guys came out on stage and said, “well, our ‘Search For The Golden State Killer’ panel...we had to redo it.” Because the suspect had just been arrested.
BJ: Yeah, my line was, “we were going to do the top five clues that can help find the Golden State Killer. And well, that plan went to shit.” It became more of a celebration, which was good. And it was especially good for the survivors that were up there, which I liked. And we got Paul [Holes] up there as well.
AVC: I was so glad that you brought the survivors out. That was such a moving presentation.
BJ: Thank you.
AVC: That whole weekend must’ve been really wild for you guys.
BJ: Yeah, it was. And it wasn’t only that weekend, it was the whole two weeks after the case was solved. That whole two weeks were really just a blur.
The two main serial-killer cases in the audio book are the Golden State Killer case, obviously, and the Allenstown Four case. Those cases have always been connected in my mind, because I was working the Allenstown Four case the night I found out that Michelle had passed away. So I always lumped those two cases together in my mind. And [I found] out from Paul that the cases were actually connected—I go through this in the last chapter of the audio book—in real life, in the way that they were solved. Quite frankly, the Golden State Killer case wouldn’t have been solved without the Allenstown Four case in a strange, weird, twisted way—or at least wouldn’t have been solved within the same time period.
So everything was fitting. It was like serendipity, how everything just fell into place. Which, after 17 years of doing this and having things not fall into place, was amazing. Yeah, I was writing stories, and they were being published, and they were for Rolling Stone or whatever. That’s great. But we weren’t getting those final arrests, that final answer. So for it to all come into place all at one time was like, “oh, this is what it feels like,” you know?
AVC: By the same method, do you mean the DNA databases? [The Golden State Killer was identified using genetic information from a DNA ancestry database. -ED]
BJ: So, when Michelle died, I volunteered to help finish her book with Paul Haynes, her researcher. So Patton, her husband, gave us the keys and we ran with it. I had been talking to Paul on the phone, but I finally met Paul Holes at her memorial. I was talking to him, and I’m talking about the Golden State Killer case. And he was like, “well, what else are you working on?” And then I brought up the Allenstown Four case. I started telling him about this case, these four bodies found in barrels 15 years apart, a mother and three children.
And he gets interested and starts talking to me about it. And it turns out the guy I was working with on that case, [San Bernadino detective] Pete Headley— it’s kind of a convoluted story, but he got involved in the [Allenstown Four] case, and used [ancestral DNA] to identify this little girl who turns out was related to one of the potential victims. [You can read the full story here. -ED] So Paul ended up on the phone with the guy that I had been working with after I told him about it, and then he’s like, “wait a minute, I could use this for my case.” And that’s when the ball started rolling on that.
Paul couldn’t tell me at the time, because it was all active and he was still an employee [of Contra Costa County]. So he tells me that when we met right after the case was solved. He was like, “by the way, I really wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t. I was on the phone with Pete Headley, and that’s how I realized we could use the whole genome to do this search.” And that’s how it happened. That’s one of the ways that this world is crazy.
AVC: I’m getting the impression that this is kind of a small world, all the investigators and detectives and reporters working in true crime. Is that the case?
BJ: It’s kind of a small world, I would say. You run into the same people. You see people that dabble in it, and they go in and out of it. But when you’re around long enough and you’ve been doing this for 20 years, even if you’re doing it in relative obscurity, you’re going to have met lot of people along the way. Just yesterday, the photographer who took the pictures that you see in some of the promo materials for the book introduced me to somebody who’s writing a book about a well-known serial killer. It’s always just like, “you’re doing a story on this? I was working with Billy Jensen and he helped solve this and that, and he might be able to help you.”
So there are a number of people that are in it, but not many people that are really in it for the long haul. [The ones that are] do kind of all know each other, especially now with CrimeCon and these other festivals. When we meet each other, we have a sympatico there that most people don’t understand because we’re dealing with this stuff 24/7. So you immediately have something to talk about, and, you know, commiserate over and drink over.
AVC: Similarly, I really enjoy your rapport with the My Favorite Murder crew. Did you all bond right away?
BJ: Yeah. I had been listening to them, and I knew they were friends. I believe Karen had been friends with Michelle. And I went and saw one of their live shows, was in like a 30 or 40 seat theater—a room, really— at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood. And I came up to them afterwards, and we talked, and we had a little bit of a friendship going. And then when [I’ll Be Gone In The Dark] came out, they hosted events and I started seeing the power of their murderino community grow. What they’re doing is not just true crime. There’s an inclusiveness to it, and a vulnerability to it, hearing them talking about about their vulnerabilities and their connection.
They had me on the day [Golden State killer suspect Jospeh James DeAngelo] was caught, we were on live. They were one of the first, and they had gotten really big by that point. Patton and I had just watched the press conference, and then Patton had to go do something and then I did a phoner with the ladies of MFM. And then I brought Paul on.
By then, I was pretty much done with the audio book in terms of I knew what I wanted to write. And I was still working on my cases, but I was like, well, if I write this audio book, what do I do then? And everybody had been always asked me to do a podcast but I didn’t quite know what I would do. I knew it would be something that was unsolved, so I started thinking to myself, “what if I could do an extension of this book and talk about the cases that I couldn’t talk about in the book? One of them was the Bradford case, that we just did [in the first episode]. Yes. So I started writing it up, what it would look like. And I was thinking about Paul as a partner, because Paul and I had a really good rapport.
And right at that time, Georgia and Karen told me, “we’re starting our own network. If you ever do a podcast, ask us first.” And I said, “as a matter of fact, look, I’m working on this and here it is.” And then from there it all happened pretty quickly. I had the outline of what everything was going to look like in July, then we recorded two episodes in August. It was just a matter of deal making and lawyers and all that kind of jazz [after that]. Whenever me and Paul are in the same place we try to get together and knock out an episode or two, and we were able to make it happen.
But it really is an extension of the book. The book is kind of the prequel. It’s like in the Marvel Universe, where Paul’s book is like Thor and my book is like Iron Man, and then the podcast is The Avengers. Of course Paul would be Thor, the good looking guy. And I would be the guy that’s dark and drinking.
AVC: I mean, Tony Stark is canonically an alcoholic.
BJ: Exactly. Believe me, I know. I wish I had his bank account, too. But I have the brooding thing going on, so hopefully that counts for something.
AVC: I find your idea of crowdsourcing investigations really interesting. I would love it if you could break down the concept a little more.
BJ: It’s two ways. One is if you have an information about a crime—let’s say you have a video. You could put it on television or in a newspaper. But nobody’s going to see it, because very few people watch that stuff anymore. But you can target [people on] social media, through geo-targeted advertising or targeted interests or age brackets to try and hit everybody that has a Facebook account or a Twitter account or an Instagram account and show them the video. So there’s that aspect of it: Finding people and being an attention merchant and grabbing their attention and writing copy that is compelling enough and having video that’s identifiable enough that people are going to say, “I think I know who that is.”
But there’s also an [aspect] I talk about in the audiobook where if I have a specific question, there are people with knowledge out there. So say I have a video of a car. I’m not a car guy. So where can I go? If I go to the Reddit community for cars, I can write to them and within five minutes I’ll [get an answer]. I usually ask the moderator first, I say, “hey listen, I’m doing a criminal investigation, I am working with the police, I have a question and I want to try and find out using your crew.” And they usually say okay. Then I show them the image, and within five minutes I get back the exact model of the car, and what sport package it might have. I’ve done it with sneakers. I’ve done it with hats, people that are really into hats on Reddit or Facebook groups. And they love looking at it and saying, “hey, I know what kind of sneakers those are.” That all adds up.
It’s the same thing police would have to do back in the day; they’d take that image and drive to a dealership, right? And the one dealer that’s there that day might be like, “I don’t know what that is.” So then you show it to another dealer. Meanwhile, I’m going to the crowd. And the person that knows what that is is going to step up out of the 500 people that might be online at the time who are really into—let’s say trucks. And they’re going to say, “I know what that is.” The possibilities are endless when you have at least some sort of clue with some type of image. The majority of crimes that I have been solving have something like that, an image I can enhance and then bring out.
AVC: The crowdsourcing on the first episode of the Murder Squad podcast is interesting, too, because it goes back to what you were saying about centering victims. It’s like, we know who the perpetrator is, but we want to close the chapter on these women’s lives.
BJ: Listen, I don’t know how many people would know those women. Some of those photos go back to the ‘60s. So they’re not necessarily listening to the podcast, or are going to go on our social pages. What we want is just for people to share it, even offline. At the next family gathering, if you have a grandmother who used to live in southern California—”do you know who this person is?” And if it gets in front of enough people, we’re going to get some IDs on it.
AVC: That’s a wide net.
BJ: You have to do that. It’s the same reason why you go on a daytime talk show; we went on Dr. Oz for that very reason.
AVC: Do you ever have people going a little too far with the Facebook detective thing? I’ve read some statements from law enforcement that are like, “this is nice, but don’t take it too seriously.”
BJ: I go over this in the last chapter, it’s really an addendum to the book. I go over what I call “the rules.” The header of the addendum says, “so you want to solve a murder?” But I go over the rules before even starting with how to do it, because the rules are really super important. If you just follow those rules, we’re going to be okay. It’s when you stray from those rules is when it gets messier and you get in trouble. [Jensen’s rules include never naming names in public and never contacting victims’ families directly, among others.- ED]
The book is really an introduction to what I call “true crime 2.0.” What I wanted to do was show people that, if you’ve been watching these documentaries, listening to these podcasts, and even listening to these audiobooks for years, now’s the time to take all of those skills you’ve learned and, more importantly, the desire to try to help, and put that to use. That’s one of the main reasons why I wrote the audio book. I was like, “all right, I’m solving these murders, but it’s a drop in the bucket.” And if I can teach law enforcement how to do this— they’re still coming to me, I’m putting the money up and everything, but some of them are starting to learn how to do it.
But if I can do that, and also show private citizens how to do it, that’s going to be teaching the village to fish as opposed to just giving them the fish. And I’m hoping that you can come up with ideas that I haven’t even thought of. That would be great, if people are looking at what I did, but put a twist on it and do something that I had never even thought of. And then they have their own successes. That would be the greatest accomplishment from writing this audio book—other than the fact that it’s a good listen. (laughs)
AVC: So, like we’ve been talking about, you’ve been at this forever, and you get a lot of letters and things like that. Is there one that really sticks in your craw and keeps you up at night?
BJ: Yeah, the Owl Head Park murder case. That was a case of a woman who was found murdered in Owl Head Park in Brooklyn. I had a video of a perp walking in with her, and video of a perp walking away from the scene. And it was such clear video, I thought, “I’m going to catch this guy in a week.” And now, two years later, they’re still out there.
I was working with not only the police, but with her family trying to ID this guy. And we were spending thousands and thousands of dollars on ads, writing ads in Arabic and Farsi and Spanish all over Brooklyn and parts of the Bronx and all these other places. And when somebody saw the ad, they just had a four word response. It was, “that was my mom.” Her little boy had seen the ad. And after I saw that, I was like, “there’s no way I’m ever going to stop looking for this guy.” My fear is that he is overseas or something. But I won’t stop looking.
Chase Darkness With Me is out now on Audible, and will be available in hardcover on August 13.