When Michelle McNamara died in April 2016, her book about the Golden State Killer was still unfinished. Investigative journalist Billy Jensen, along with Paul Haynes and McNamara’s husband Patton Oswalt, finished what she started, and the book, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, was released in February 2018, eventually hitting number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Just two months later, the killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, implicated in at least 13 murders and 50 rapes, was identified and captured.
That anecdote alone seems worthy of a follow-up, but Billy Jensen’s new Audible original audiobook, Chase Darkness With Me, which launches April 11, is much more than that (he’s also speaking tonight, March 21st, at the Death Becomes Us festival in New York). Being a true crime enthusiast himself for 20-plus years, Jensen understands that much of the genre’s appeal relies on closure, on “solves.” Yet as an investigator, he’s drawn to cases where his work can actually serve a higher purpose than just entertainment value, and that means focusing on the notably unsolved ones.
Jensen’s new memoir/recounting of his most prominent successes manages to serve both causes, entertainment and public service, offering a compelling account of his life (his father ran away from home at 15, punched a cop, and got addicted to heroin), bite-sized nuggets of true crime cases,, and a how-to guide for prospective citizen detectives on how to do the work without hurting victims and screwing up cases (or getting yourself hurt).
In addition to helping finish the story of the Golden State Killer, an ex-cop who became, in Jensen’s words, a “real life boogie man,” hiding in houses and raping and killing women there, he also details his hunt for more victims of Terry Rasmussen, the killer behind the 30 years cold Bear Brook murders, whose method involved seducing mothers, then killing them and kidnapping and molesting their daughters, only to use a sympathetic single dad act to attract new women and start the process over again.
Jensen, who began as a stringer and crime reporter for the New York Times, New York Post, and Village, eventually “saw the writing on the wall” as it were, and left the news beat, trading the notepad and recorder for SEO and traffic metrics. But he never stopped being obsessed with unsolved murders, and one positive to grow out of the decline of local journalism was that his new day job had given him new crime-solving tools. The book details how he used Facebook ads to find potential witnesses, getting a few collars (and spending $25,000 of his own money) along the way.
I spoke to Jensen by phone this week.
So you compared consuming true crime to watching blackhead popping videos. Can you explain that?
Every true crime story that you see always starts out nice. It always starts out very calm, like everything is perfect and then there’s something that is a foreign element in that perfection. There’s something that goes wrong, and then what people like to see is order being brought back out and making it perfect again. So really, what we’re doing is you’re bringing order back to chaos. When people watch those blackhead popping videos or whatever, they go in and they see that there’s something that shouldn’t be there, and there’s the satisfaction knowing that there is a way to get it out. I think that’s kind of very similar to what we’re experiencing, especially in this true crime renaissance now.
With me and the stories that I would do, I would never really have that satisfaction at the end of it until I figured out how to solve these murders. So I would write a story because I was trying to solve a case, but for 17 years, I wasn’t able to, so I didn’t get that satisfaction at the end of it.
So your motivation’s a little different then.
My motivation has always been different with true crime, yeah. I learned very early on that I didn’t want to do the typical stories. I was on the path to being a crime beat reporter, but there’s an episode that I dealt with with the New York Post where I was just like, “This is not doing anything to move the story along. It’s just very much rubbernecking and I don’t want to do it anymore,” so I had to switch courses. I went from going down that path of being a reporter to being an editor. I started in alternative journalism. The Village Voice was starting a newspaper on Long Island, so that’s how I got my start, and then from there, I was stringing for the Times and things, but I was always in that alternative journalism world. I became an editor in order to be able to pick my own stories, and all the stories I wanted to do was to move the story forward, which meant that they were gonna be unsolved. I wanted to tell the ones that nobody else was telling, and maybe I might be able to solve them.
What was that moment where you decided, “Okay, I don’t want to do this anymore”?
Well, I was stringing for the Times a lot, and then the Post called my editor at the Voice and said, do you have anybody, and then gave them my number. So I was like, wow, this is the Post. The Post is the ultimate crime rag, “headless body in topless bar,” this is it. They sent me to a hospital at Stonybrook University and these two girls had gone around a railroad crossing and gotten hit by a train. I’d go in to talk to the man, who is trying to wait for his daughter to see what’s gonna happen with her in the emergency room, and he looks up at me and he doesn’t want to talk. There was not much I can do there. So I remember calling [the editor] back on a pay phone, and saying, “He doesn’t want to talk,” and he’s like, “Go back in and ask him again.” I was like, “Really?”
So I went back in. I remember walking around at the hospital for 10 minutes to get up the courage, ’cause this guy was just broken. I went back up and asked him again, but he didn’t even answer the next time. He just shook his head no. And I called back again, and then the editor said, “Oh, it’s okay. We just found the girl’s rap sheet and it’s a mile long. We’re good,” and then he hung up the phone. I left that day saying, “No, I don’t want to do this. This is nothing. This is not gonna feed my soul. This is not gonna feed the story. There’s nothing good about this at all,” so that’s when I made that decision.
And then going back to restoring order to chaos, I think that’s sort of a movie trope too, right? I always say if the family is too happy at the beginning of the movie, you know one of their kids is about to get kidnapped. Does that shape the way that we think of crime? Do we expect the victims to be too innocent somehow?
Yeah, and that’s something that I fight against all the time. Having been out here in Los Angeles doing TV too, if something happens to a young rich person who’s pretty, they’re gonna get enough attention. You’re right, those are the stories that end up on television, but when I would try to do stories about women who were heroin addicts and had to become sex workers in order to support their heroin addiction and then they end up being murdered, it is very hard to get those stories on television. But those are the stories I want to cover. Their life is not worth any less than somebody who seemingly has a perfect life.
That’s the pit that true crime has always fallen into. The cases that I do, and I talk about this, none of these cases would ever really end up on television. The first one that I solved was a street crime. If somebody’s shooting somebody in the street, a lot of it’s male on male, which you don’t normally see. The big true crime stories that become big usually have a female victim, like The Jinx and Making a Murderer and Serial, or they have a female killer, like with Jodi Arias or the one in Florida with the baby.
I try to fight that as much as possible because of the 15,000 murders that happen every year in America and the more than 5,000 that go unsolved. They weren’t all perfect in the Hollywood way that we think of something that’s perfect, but it doesn’t mean that their lives mean any less. Not everybody’s life is perfect. If you peel back the covers on anybody’s life, there’s gonna be something weird about it.
How punishment-based is the motive? Like in that one first crime that you solved, it was a street crime, like you said, where the guy punched the guy and then the victim got run over by a cab. So going in, you always knew that the guy who punched him that you were trying to catch wasn’t gonna be getting charged with murder. He wasn’t gonna get a huge sentence, even best case.
Well, the motive is to get the family justice. The family, after four months, they still didn’t know who this guy was. The family is sitting there. The family’s from Atlanta. They’re miles and miles away. The cops aren’t answering their phone calls anymore, and they’re just like, “What can we do?” I see the video and I say, “You know what? Well, how is this guy not being able to be identified?” So, as far as the punishment goes, I saw it as two things. I saw that that should’ve been a manslaughter case because he punches him, and he attacks him, too. He’s gonna attack other people because this is what this guy does. This guy looks like a bully. So, it’s saving the next victim at least to get him in the system for a couple years.
You have a background in SEO and web metrics and new media. Can you explain what you did and then what tools that gave you in terms of investigating cases?
I was in charge of digital for Village Voice Media at 17 newspapers, just the social content of that. So I had to get page views, and I had to figure out how to make people click on content, whether it’s off of Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or SEO. So, my entire life was based on how to get more page views, and it was very segmented, too. I had to figure out how we’re gonna get more unique page views in Broward County for the Broward paper, Broward New Times. You’ve got to really think what’s gonna make somebody click, so my entire life is being an attention merchant after I switched over, when I saw the writing on the wall when it came to newspapers and how this wasn’t really a sustainable business for the future. I was the guy that said, “I’m gonna create content and then have it have a picture and a little bit of text that’s gonna make it impossible not to click on it.” The two biggest things are getting somebody’s attention, and then turning that person into a sharer.
So that was kind of what Michelle McNamara tried to do with the Golden State Killer, right? She was trying to change the branding to get more people to pay attention to it?
Yeah, that’s definitely what she was doing with changing his name. [Before McNamara dubbed him “the Golden State Killer] you had the East Area Rapist, which is east area of what? East of what? And then “Original Night Stalker,” which is almost like a joke. So, she said when working with her editor at Los Angeles Magazine when she was just writing a feature for it, and she said, “I want to rename this guy to prop him up,” because a lot of it was that. She was always amazed that nobody knew more about this guy because his crimes were so horrific and there was also so many clues in order to be able to catch this guy, and he was still out there. So, she did do that as well and I hadn’t really thought of that. I knew she did it for the marketing sense of it, but I didn’t really put two and two together that that’s what I was doing, is the same as what she was doing, but it’s interesting.
So does the Golden State Killer getting caught validate the idea of amateur investigators in some way?
I don’t think the Golden State Killer getting caught does because he was not caught via amateur investigation. He was caught because two things: One was Michelle rebranding him, and then actually, it wasn’t necessarily Michelle’s book, ’cause it hadn’t really come out by the time that they had identified him and were kind of on his trail, but it was actually her dying. And people seeing that and seeing the powers that be saying, “Well, maybe we should put some more resources behind finding this guy,” because when she died it was an international story. People knew who the Golden State Killer was then.
I think the validation of citizen detectives comes from two places. One is the matching up of unidentified remains and missing persons, and the citizen detectives have been able to do that, finding people like Buckskin Doe, people that were victims of assault and a murder that they don’t know who they are and they’ve been able to put the pieces together.
What are some of the ethical guidelines that someone should be aware of when they’re trying to do amateur detective work?
It’s three things. The first is never name names in public. That’s the number one. If you think you have a suspect, never just put it out there. That goes to the investigator. Bottom line, never ever do that. The second is, don’t reach out to the victims’ families with information on anything. If you want to actually go and work on a case and you want to prop yourself up as a victim’s advocate, which is fine, you can reach out to them and say, “Hey, I would like to help you with this but I understand that this happened two years ago and maybe I can help.” That’s fine but you don’t say, “Hey, I might’ve found this,” or, “Hey, I might’ve found that,” or anything. You can’t do that. The third is, you can’t dox people. There’s a lot infighting that you see a lot in the citizen detective sort of forums and communities. It has become very territorial sometimes and you gotta stay away from that. We’re all after the same thing.
Also, don’t expect to get credit. I’ve gotten credit for some from police departments saying, “You helped with this,” and, “Because of Billy Jensen, this happened,” but I’ve gotten ones where they don’t acknowledge it at all. So, it’s gonna be a crapshoot. At the end of the day, the victim’s family knows it and what you hope, though, is that the police will say, “Hey, this actually works,” and they’ll be more open to it in the future, and they are.
It’s also not just putting the campaigns and stuff up, but how to deal with these tipsters when they come in. You gotta answer them right away. I’ve got my alerts on all the time because if somebody answers you, sends you a message at three AM, they might be feeling a lot more truthful than they would be at three PM the next day. If someone’s writing you at three AM, there’s a good chance that they might’ve had a little bit to drink and are feeling a little bit more truthful.
So the common criticism of people who write about true crime is that they’re doing it to exploit it or that they’re only in it for the money. What do you think your personal balance sheet in terms of how much you’ve spent on Facebook ads versus how much you’ve actually made off of it is?
It was really bad before. I’ve spent about $25,000 on Facebook right now at this point. Now with the book, I got a book advance and everything, but that money’s just gone right into that. It’s going a little bit into college tuition for my kids, but it’s also going right into more cases to solve. Also, I’ve reached out to the DNA Doe Network and I’m reaching out to small police departments through NCMEC [“nick meck”], which is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, saying, “If you have unidentified remains that are victims of homicide but you don’t have the money or the resources to run and run the familial DNA with, I’ll pay for it. I’ll do it.”
If like 50 came to me, I wouldn’t be able to, so I’m working on some of that stuff now and it’s like, yeah, you still go with what Walt Disney said: “I don’t make movies to make money. I make money to make movies,” and that’s the kind of thing that I really feel like is that I don’t do true crime to make money, I try to solve these cases. I make money in order to solve more cases.