Billy Jensen has been helping solve murders long before he was researching the Golden State Killer case with Michelle McNamara. Part of the allure of true crime is this idea that you can also be the detective. You can help solve a crime. Billy actually does that and the best part is, he’s just like you and me. He’s not a member of any law enforcement agency. Billy gets it done with his laptop, a phone and gumption. That’s such an old-fashioned word, but apart from his use of technology in this journey, Billy’s kind of an old-fashioned guy. That’s what got him interested in true crime and that’s what motivates him today. In his book Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders (released by Audible this April) Billy details this process and lets us in on the secret to becoming a citizen detective.
Brightest Young Things: Why true crime?
Billy Jensen: When my parents finally let me stay home by myself with the cable and a couple of Stouffer’s French Bread pizzas I watched a show on HBO called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. I was probably about 11 or 12 and it was about Nostradamus and how he…it was narrated by Orson Welles about all these things he predicted. It was all bullshit but I was really into it. Eventually it would show he predicts the end of the world and World War III and it should have freaked me out but it didn’t. What freaked me out was the JFK stuff. So they showed JFK and showed that Nostradamus had a quatrain about him being shot from the front. Then they showed the grassy knoll and I freaked out.
BYT: Nostradamus’ writing was very vague though, like The Barnum Effect. There is something for everyone! It’s thrilling. I love this stuff and I truly believe in it. Why would I want to live in a world where this isn’t possible.
BJ: Yes it was very vague but the television show started showing the JFK stuff. So I went to the librarian at my school and asked for books about JFK’s assassination. Every lunch period I would study these and I started learning about ballistics and blood-spatter patterns. Eventually I solved the JFK assassination which was that there was no man on the grassy knoll. It was just Lee Harvey Oswald and every schmuck has his day. It just so happens that he had his day that day. That got me into it and from there that was when I really started doing crime.
BYT: Reading about it of course, not doing it.
BJ: That’s what really started it. Then my mother gave me a book called The Ultimate Evil by Maury Terry which had stuff about the Son of Sam which was probably the first true crime book I ever read. I went to school for religious studies. I studied apocalyptic cults.
BYT: I almost went to school for religious studies as well. I went through a pretty intense Egyptology phase growing up and have the shitty tattoos to prove it. What drew you to that?
BJ: First it was really trying to…you know you’re 18 years old and you’re in college and you’re trying to figure out life and why people do the things they do. I got introduced to Joseph Campbell and so I started to think about how we can boil everything down to some central tenets that every religion and every human being kind of follows. I was very much interested in that but the crime stuff started creeping into that so I did that for my undergrad but for my grad school I studied Christian apocalyptic movements that were radicalized. I studied that at Kansas.
BYT: Well yeah there’s literally no other state where you can study that.
BJ: Idaho is pretty good.
BYT: Oklahoma is probably a solid place to go for this kind of nonsense. You know one could say that the true crime and religious studies are gently intertwined. Allegedly the first murder was written in the Bible. Guess that was the first true crime story.
BJ: Absolutely, at least in Judeo-Christianity it’s the first murder. The Bible is full of crime. What was Passover but mass murder. And more people have been killed in the name of religion than anything else. I then got into journalism and from journalism got into true crime. It was more daily crime. I was a stringer for the New York Times and was working at the Village Voice. I always wanted to do unsolved crimes.
BYT: Well yeah, you’re just regurgitating information, not to put it callously. With unsolved cases you have the potential for new information.
BJ: I just want to know about the other victims, how to help them. When they found DeAngelo a switch turned off. I didn’t care about him anymore and this was a guy I’d seen looking for for two years while helping finish Michelle’s book. A switch turned off and I was like “Fuck this guy. What other victims are there that we don’t know about?” And that’s where my entire focus went with that case. He’s not talking anyway and I don’t think he ever will. I started writing strictly unsolved crimes for a couple reasons but you can’t just go to a newspaper and say you just want to do unsolved because you’d never work. I became an editor so I could do what I wanted.
BYT: What else drew you to unsolved crimes?
BJ: I do work cases now and when I figured out a system on how to solve them.
BYT: Wait, what cases? How!
BJ: In my book I detail about a half dozen solves I was able to either get myself or had a hand in. For the show [How To Solve A Murder at Death Becomes Us], I will be talking about the homicide in Chicago I solved, which was my first. That was a combination of Twitter, Snapchat, online mugshots and actually walking the streets and interviewing people to confirm I got the right guy.
It moved from there to a fugitive case as he skipped town. I was able to track him through Facebook and delivered all the information to law enforcement. We will also be going through active cases, including the Owl’s Head Park Murder case, which I have been chasing for two years now. If we could get a solve out of that, I would be over the moon. We are going to transform everyone at the Gramercy Theatre into citizen detectives in New York. I would love for people to come with their own cases they would like to work on. Or even send me messages of ones they would like to get started on in New York.
BYT: At this point in your career you probably have access to things that regular folks do not have access to. I’m curious about what kind of access you may or may not have. I guess there are no weird legalities behind law enforcement agencies sharing information with you?
BJ: They’ve usually gotten to the point where they’ve thrown up their hands and have said “We don’t have anything,” and they reach out to the public. I’m just going to them at first, not even as a journalist but as a victim’s advocate. I say “Hi I have this system. Let me help and I’ll show you how.” A lot of times they’ll say “Okay great,” and I’ll send them testimonials from other police officers I’ve worked with. I then go out and do my thing. I don’t ask for a reward or money. I put my own money in it. It is something I realized “Hey I can chip away at this giant murder mountain and help families.” I’ll talk to families at 3 o’clock in the morning on Facebook if they need someone to listen.
BYT: Now your work is a little different than say a podcast that is just interested in true crime. Do you feel like we are glorifying the genre of true crime too much. I think merely by existing, the genre of true crime has already crossed a line regardless of how we approach it. In theory why should we be speaking about this in the ways in which we do. I don’t think it makes any sense to keep asking if we’re moving the goal post further and further back. I think we’re already there. It’s almost hypocritical to ask if we’ve gone too far. I think we’re already there. Don’t get me wrong I love it but…
BJ: Anything you can shed light on as long as we’re being respectful to the victims, that’s always going to be my focus. I do cringe when I see serial killers’ faces on T-shirts and mugs and things like that.
BYT: For me I often get tired of what I consider the tragedy porn of splashing victims’ faces across the screen. If people don’t know ladies are getting murdered and you need to see that to be reminded then that’s fucked up for you (the royal you). I need everyone to see that Ted Bundy, for example, looked and acted like everybody else. I don’t need to see that these are the women he murdered. I know women are getting murdered.
BJ: I see that but there’s a big difference in putting a guy on a T-shirt. I don’t agree with that. You don’t put people who have taken lives on a T-shirt. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I wish I did, a million times over I wish I did, but for anybody to take away anyone’s life it’s the thing I cannot abide by. I’m never going to glorify that person. The reason why I think it’s important to focus on each individual victim is for me it’s the each individual victim and each individual story that’s important to me.
BYT: You must encounter these fans all the time. I don’t think they mean anything bad.
BJ: I don’t think they mean anything bad. I just like to sway the conversation over a little bit. I’d rather see their time spent trying to solve an unsolved murder. I see time as precious and that’s a better use of it.