Billy Jensen is a former crime reporter who, after 15 years of telling people the facts, decided he needed to do something more than just report murders. He wanted to solve them. His new book, Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, tells the gripping, twisted and heart-pounding story of his journey from journalist to cold-case investigator.
In the book, you talk about the shift that took place when you no longer wanted to write only about bad things that happened to people. Instead, you wanted to write stories that would help. Do you ever wish that you could go back to simply reporting what happened?
Absolutely not. Reporting what happened and after the fact telling the story is incredibly important, but when it comes to crime, and when it comes to what it was doing to my soul, I needed to move in a different direction. It was a bad decision to make from a professional standpoint because I couldn’t be a crime reporter anymore. I wouldn’t have been able to pick my own stories and say, “I just want to do unsolved crimes.” But I really like being part of the solution. And now I’m sort of a hybrid of a journalist, victims advocate and investigator as opposed to just a storyteller.
What skill that you learned as a journalist was most valuable to you when you began to solve the crimes you’d previously only reported?
One of the best skills you learn as a journalist is accuracy—and that has also served me well as an investigator because it’s so important to be accurate when you’re conducting investigations, especially in this day and age when information comes so fast. Everybody is trying to get things up fast, and you have to take a step back and make sure you’ve crossed all your t’s and dotted your i’s. And as a reporter, the most important thing you have to do is make sure the story is accurate. I learned that at the Times; accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. But the persistence and tenacity I have as an investigator came from my father. My father instilled those things in me, as well as never taking no for an answer. So accuracy and the willingness to keep moving forward—those skills are very important in what I do.
You describe the power of uncomfortable silences during interviews—leaving them wide open so that the interviewee will instinctively fill them with chatter. Besides criminals, do you ever use this technique on family and friends? (And similarly, what do they think of having a crime-solving expert in their lives?)
As humans, we are uncomfortable with silence. And if you’re trying to get information from someone who isn’t telling you anything, you just leave that silence out there and hopefully the truth will hit that silence. I don’t consider it a trick to be silent. I’m telling someone’s story in any interview, so I shouldn’t be talking over them anyways. Now with family and friends, I just keep talking—much to the detriment of my relationships.
How does my family feel about having a crime-solving expert in their lives? I think they like it because they, particularly my wife, saw how much frustration I had for 15 years working on these stories that had no ending. So now that I’m able to solve some of them—and believe me, there are far more that I don’t solve than I do solve—I’m losing a hell of a lot more than I’m winning. But to be able to solve one here and there is satisfying to me, and they’re happy for that.
You write, “The American media diet has gone from a fixed menu to an all-you-can-eat buffet.” It seems that our insatiable appetite for true crime is perpetuated by today’s constant stream of media. Has the never-ending news cycle been a boon to solving crimes?
You know what’s interesting? Take, for example, back in the 1970s—this is before cable and the internet—we had radio, TV news and the newspaper, so you didn’t have a lot of different places to get your news. So, if the media decided to run with a story, it was going to be everywhere. And there were so many murders that fell through the cracks because we had a lot fewer voices reporting the news. Now we have unlimited sources, and we’re seeing a lot more information about criminals and crimes that we never would have heard of before because they weren’t necessarily going to get ratings or gain listeners or readers. So the internet and podcasters are really the ones telling compelling narratives and telling stories that have never been heard before. So, yes, absolutely the internet has been a great boon for solving crimes.
You point out the danger of crowdsourcing. For example, internet sleuths on Reddit attempted to help law enforcement during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing by collectively gathering evidence and potential leads. However, they ended up targeting and exposing the wrong person as the suspect. Is there a role for armchair sleuths who just want to help, and how can they do so without overstepping boundaries that could lead to the ruining of an innocent person? How can internet sleuths and law enforcement work together safely and effectively?
When I wrote this book I knew that some people were going to just read it and some people were actually going to try it. So we created an addendum in the back of the book about how to solve crimes yourself using social media. The first thing I go over are the rules—because all it takes is one person to mess things up, and it drops citizen crime investigation down a peg or two when that happens. So, number one, you don’t name names in public. Second, when you do get information, it has to go to law enforcement—every piece of the information you collect should go straight to law enforcement—I can’t say this enough. Third, no contacting family members. We have to trust law enforcement and let them do their job, and letting them contact family members with relevant information is important. You also can’t put yourself in harm’s way. A lot of things can go sideways there.
Before her death, your friend and colleague Michelle McNamara predicted the importance of online genealogy sites like 23 and Me in playing a key role linking relatives of killers to unsolved murders. How much do you already think is out there that just hasn't been discovered yet? How many more crimes will we see get solved in the coming years because of this technology?
Thousands! Thousands of crimes. And it’s not really 23 and Me and Ancestry.com though. Let me clarify: You cannot use those two databases. They’re private. But what we’re asking people to do is take the information 23 and Me and Ancestry.com send back to you and enter it into public databases like GEDmatch.com, which is how the Golden State Killer was caught. Since the Golden State Killer was caught using this technology, over 50 murders have been solved using this same technology. The more people that enter their information into these databases, the more crimes we’ll solve. Now it’s just a matter of getting the police departments to do it and follow that trail—as well as follow that trail for all cold cases. What I would love to do is create a team that just goes to every police department and collects the DNA they have and then enters that information into these public databases. That would enable them to put that information into the hands of amateur genealogists, who could create a list of suspects, which they could then hand over to police departments. The answers are all out there—not just murders but sexual assaults as well.
What is your favorite unsolved crime and why? Do you think it will ever be solved?
You never want a favorite crime, but living in Los Angeles, the Black Dahlia case is the biggest mystery here. When it comes to unsolved crimes in all of history, you’re looking at Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, JonBenét Ramsey, Jimmy Hoffa—but Black Dahlia fascinates me the most. Just the time period it happened (1947), when all of these servicemen had just come back from war, and there was a lot of crime in LA—it was the heyday of the noir period for films, and you have this very methodical murder that happens to a woman who recently relocated to Hollywood. The murder follows you around in LA because the victim visited a lot of very high-profile places around town before she died.
Once published, your book will be sitting on shelves alongside the classics of the true crime genre—books by Ann Rule, Truman Capote and Michelle McNamara. What do you hope it adds to those shelves? That is, what does your book offer readers that complements what’s already out there?
I think we need to add Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Those truly are the four true-crime classics.
What does Chase Darkness with Me add to those shelves? I think it’s a couple of things. The first thing is, it’s a story about how I got fed up with just writing stories about murders and said, “I’m going to solve them myself.” It’s a story about a guy who takes the next step—a guy who has gotten knocked down and hit so many brick walls in writing stories and conducting investigations for so many years that he finally came up with a system of how to solve them—and then went out and solved them.
Second, it’s a story about a kid who grew up around crime. It’s a story about how I grew up, where I grew up and how my relationship with my father painted how I would see crime in the future. My father was a voracious reader of the newspaper and was constantly telling me stories of crimes that were happening in that moment. That really molded me into a crime writer and, a step further, someone who actually went out and solved crimes.
It’s an honor to be alongside Michelle, Truman, and Ann . . . and Bugliosi. Thank you.
What’s next for you?
My podcast “Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad” is a natural extension of the book. Writing the book, I knew there were only so many cases I could cover, and being able to talk about a different crime each week is something that is important to me. And then having the listeners to help move the case forward and hopefully solve it is great. Continuing to do the podcast is big to me, and doing big cases, small cases, fugitive cases and missing person cases are all directions we’re headed in.
I’m also doing a podcast called “The First Degree,” which is a little bit more victim-centric in a sense, because it’s about being one degree away from a crime—either the victim or the perpetrator. It’s about being that person who knows someone who has been killed or knows someone who has killed someone, and it tells the story through their eyes.
I’m also working on the next book. It’s about serial killers—serial killers who you have no idea about who are active in America right now. That’s all I’ll say about that right now.
And we’re filming the HBO docuseries for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. We’re actively filming that now, and it should be out in spring or summer of 2020.
This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Sourcebooks. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.
Author photo by Robyn Von Swank.