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.