This interview was originally done in 2019. Its content, however, is timeless for the study of true crime.
Billy Jensen is undoubtedly one of America's most prolific true crime journalists.
For over 15 years he has fearlessly dove into the darkness of unsolved murders all over America and tirelessly defended the rights of victims. You may recognize him from Crime Watch Daily, 48 Hours, and D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?. Jensen also recently had a fantastic viral Twitter thread (read it below) on the implications of Netflix's The Ted Bundy Tapes and how we never should forget his victims and what the monster took from them.
But after the sudden death of a friend – crime writer, wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, and writer of "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" Michelle McNamara – Jensen became fed up. Following a dark night, he came up with a plan. A plan to investigate past the point when the cops have given up. A plan to solve the murders himself.
In "Chase Darkness with Me", you'll ride shotgun as Jensen identifies the Halloween Mask Murderer, finds a missing girl in the California Redwoods, and investigates the only other murder in New York City on 9/11. You'll hear intimate details of the hunts for two of the most terrifying serial killers in history: his friend Michelle's pursuit of the Golden State Killer which is chronicled in "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" which Jensen helped finish after Michelle's passing (and has subsequently been made into an HBO docuseries), and his own quest to find the murderer of the Allenstown 4 family.
In the book, Jensen gives you the tools—and the rules—to help solve murders yourself.
Gripping, complex, unforgettable, "Chase Darkness with Me" is an examination of the evil forces that walk among us, illustrating a novel way to catch those killers, and a true-crime narrative unlike any you've listened to before. I know fans of true crime in film will really be transfixed by it and learn a lot – much as I did. Jensen’s mind is incredibly agile, his zeal for justice unmatched, and his processes through it all brilliant and unparalleled.
Find Billy's book on Audible and enjoy my extensive interview with Jensen below.
I. Reasons People Flock to True Crime / Billy’s Process.
As a fellow journalist in this space, I find people's subconscious motivations for absorbing true crime-related media fascinating. To start off with the questions I had, you talked a bit in the book about how people are subconsciously motivated to seek order in looking at these things. I was curious, why do you think that is? Why do you think people do that when they could just look at true crime and say, it's irredeemably evil, let's just distance ourselves from it?
I think we try to seek order in everything, except for the people that are the bad guys, or people that are just willing to let everything just go to hell. We like order. We like the entire reason for building a society, building a house, putting everything in its right. That's just all what that is. That's all order, everything. Our street grid. The internet. It's all creating order out of chaos.
So, I think that's a natural ... Society is sort of based on that premise that you have all of this chaos around you, and all right, we've got to figure out how we're going to feed ourselves, and then there's a bit of order there, for what's the plan going to be for that.
Then, we've got to figure out how to shelter ourselves, what's the plan for that, and creating everything, putting everything in buckets and creating order as opposed to just everything being chaos, which is what it was like in the very beginning, I imagine, like in the very beginning, when we were just a couple cells floating around, not knowing what we were doing.
Agreed. Really the eternal question of a Lockean versus Hobbesian state of nature.
So, I think that's sort of inherent, and what we have ... Then once we started getting order as a society, we were told monster stories, like we heard about in mythology: “Don't go in that area of the woods because there's a monster in there.”
Those stories have all gone away now, and they've only gone away fairly recently, within 200 ... Not even so much, because there's still stories about don't go in those woods, Bigfoot's in there. But for the most part, a lot of those stories have gone away because you can go on Snopes and figure out, “Hey! there's no such thing as this or that,” you know what I mean?
This is a hoax or this. But the idea of that monster, we still crave those stories, and I think that's one of the reasons why people like to hear about true crime on top of the order from chaos, is the idea that these are real-life monsters that are around. They're also scarier than the monsters that we heard about in mythology because we don't know exactly what they look like.
Oh, exactly, and they blend in so well with society. You can look at any of them for that, really. Kind of jumping around here a bit. I'm just wondering if we can get an overview of your mental processes when you first encounter a case that strikes your interest.
The first thing I do is ... It depends. If it comes from a victim's family, they'll send it to me, and I'll ask them what ... I'm so sorry for your loss. Where are the police at? Usually, the police aren't calling them back, or they've got nothing, and I ask them, what are any identifiable characteristics of the person who did this to your son or daughter or whatever it may be, and is there any video, is there photographs, is there a sketch, is there anything?
Typically, I've taken on both. I've taken on ones where we've had nothing, and I've taken on ones where we have something that I can grab onto and use the social media factor. When you have nothing, when you have no visuals, it doesn't usually work on social, but yet if they do have a video, it's so blurry, I'm like okay, let me see what it looks like, and I'll go and I'll try to clean it up and see if I can grab a good screencap of a face or even of something that's identifiable, a pair of sneakers or something, and then ask as many questions as possible, like where they think this person might be from and do you think the guy was local? Just trying to get any idea, because I'm going into it completely cold.
Then I will reach out to the police department, and I will... They'll give me the name of the detective, and I'll say, listen, I have this system if they don't know me. I'll be like, “I have this system, here's what I do, it's not going to cost you anything, I'm not going to ask for a reward or anything. It's all out of my pocket. But I'd like to try it with this case.” If they say “no, we're close on this, we know who the guy is, we don't want to spook him.” Then I back off.
But usually, they say, “Yeah, we don't know, go ahead.” Sometimes they'll just say, “go ahead” and then that's it. Sometimes they'll say go ahead and then a good partnership develops. Those are really the best cases because we're kind of trading information back and forth with each other.
You saw that in the case with Owl Head Park, Brooklyn. I still trade information with him, and particularly with the Mexico case, the fugitive case. That was a real partnership between me and [San Jose, CA Sgt. and Homicide Detective] John Barg.
So, from there, once I have the go-ahead from the police department and from the family, then I put the and up or the campaign up, and then I take it from there…
What have been the most important mental habits to cultivate in what you do?
Persistence, that's the biggest one. You have to be able to not take no for an answer. You have to be able to keep on going… You're going to get knocked down a hundred times. You got to get up a hundred times, and that's the thing that has been drilled into me.
The other thing is patience. Now, patience is something that I've had to work on my entire life. I'm not a very patient person. You really need those two things in order to do this. You need persistence, and you need patience because justice is going to be incredibly slow.
It's not made for 21st century America, with our internet culture and seeing a show wrapped up within an hour. It's not like that. Ironically, my very first unsolved crime story - the woman in the barrel that I wrote for the New York Times - got wrapped up very, very quickly and it was almost as if I was cursed with that for the rest of my life because it was wrapped up so quickly.
II. What Can You Do? Social Media Habits.
Absolutely. Talking a bit about social media there, what habits can people who want to help solve these things, what habits should they avoid on social media?
Meaning habits they should avoid if they want to solve them themselves, like when I get into the rules and what the rules should be?
Yeah. Sorry, I had a little bit of trouble crafting that question. I think it can be a real dual-edged sword too, social media.
People may want to help, but then they do things wrong, things that are maybe counterproductive...
Right. I go over in the last part of the audiobook, I go over the rules before I even tell people step-by-step on how to do this.
The main rule, the biggest rule, is you don't name names to the public. You don't link to a Facebook page and say, what about this guy? That kind of thing, which you see a lot. You take that information. If somebody posted on your feed, you delete it. You reach out to the person who put it on their via DM, and you try to get the information that way, but you don't have it out there. Then you give it to the police. Just don't have it out there.
The second thing is, you don't put yourself, or you don't reach out to the family without information as well… things could go awry that way. You want to funnel all of the information to the police. And the third thing is, be safe, and don't put yourself in harm's way, don't try to be a vigilante, don't try to go undercover or anything. Don't be like that. That is not what you do.
Then also, one of the things that you might notice if it's two people, three people working on the same case, which are usually more high profile cases, is that you start seeing people be territorial with information, and people then start doxxing each other. So, you don't want ... Everybody's after the same thing, which is justice. You have to always remember that that's what we're all after, and just don't be... Don't yell at each other over the internet. Be nice to people.
Definitely. It's sad how hard that can be for some people, but yeah, great advice.
II. “Chase Darkness With Me”: The Challenges / Billy’s Background.
What were the challenges like in writing the book? There's some incredibly personal and existential content throughout.
Thank you. Yeah. I always consider myself somewhat of an existential guy. I went to school for religious studies, and about focusing on mythology and focusing on trying to figure out how all religions boil down to one basic tenet.
You start writing about these stories, and these cases, and you start learning things about yourself that you didn't realize, especially as you start getting more personal. I think one of the things that I learned was when I started thinking about my relationship with my father in the very beginning, and how every day I would be in between him and the television while he was reading the newspaper, and he was often reading about crime stories.
So, you don't have to have a psychology degree to realize that maybe it's me, the reason why I do this on top of the other reasons that I often give, the reason that I do this is to get his attention. I never, ever thought of that before until I actually sat down and started writing. It kind of really made sense, because that's what he did when he got home from work. You're waiting for your best friend to come home from work, or however long, and when he gets home, he takes a shower, he comes downstairs, he pops open a Budweiser, and he is reading the newspaper while watching the news, and very often, it's crime stuff. That was what... I'm in between him and that news.
That's something that was a bit of an eye-opener that I had never, ever thought about before that came out of the book.
It was very interesting. That whole history. The whole book really.
Your background is fascinating. I actually had a question on it. What can we take from those fields, religion, cults, and myths, in looking at the rise of something like white supremacy today in America?
When I started studying Christian apocalyptic cults for my master’s degree, there was a big crossover between white supremacy and... I studied the Christian Identity Movement, which was the belief that one of the lost tribes of Israel migrated to Europe and North America.
So, they followed the Old Testament, but they felt that they were the race that they were talking about in the Old Testament. So, there was a big intersection between that and the white supremacist movement, and when you look at groups like The Order, who murdered the DJ [Alan] Berg in Denver and robbed all these Brink’s trucks and things in order to fund their revolution. So, yeah, they very much were related.
When you have an extreme ideology, often they're going to use religion as the thing that pushes you toward it… and to get people on your side.
I remember being in a class, and my teacher just said, "Listen, the Bible can really say anything you want it to say. You can pick and choose things in the bible that can fit any ideology you want. There's enough in there. It was written by a bunch of different authors, and you can pull quotes that will follow any ideology."
The one ideology that I believe we should all follow is The Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That's the one that I think works best for everybody.
Amen to that, Billy.
Can a based on a true story crime film or show ever be done responsibly?
Yeah. Oh, definitely. It can definitely be responsible. As long as they... There's always going to be liberties taken because you have to split something into two hours, and especially when it comes to justice, justice is an incredibly long and arduous process that if you did it in real-time or even close to real-time people would walk out of the theater pretty quickly.
So, with that being said, there's a way to do it respectfully, especially respectfully towards the victim. I know that this conversation is being had right now because we have two movies that are coming up that deal with two killings, the Ted Bundy movie, and Quentin Tarantino's movie, even though that is more like sort of a backdrop, I think, the Charlie story, or it's going to be one of three stories, and he's doing it in a Pulp Fiction type way, which he's alluded to that he's going to do.
Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see. Tarantino has alluded to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as having a Pulp Fiction vibe.
Debra Tate, who is Sharon Tate's sister, has said she doesn't like all of that stuff, but I think that as long as there's a reverential nature towards the victims, and we don't glamorize the killers, which I worry that that will happen with Zac Efron, a teen heartthrob playing Ted Bundy: are they going to show everything he did? ... Is that going to be in the movie? If you're going to do that, you're going to tell a story about this monster, you better tell the whole thing. I don't know if that would've tested well.
Man, I hope it wouldn’t Billy. But honestly I sometimes lose hope in humanity with things like that. I had read somewhere about Debra Tate actually getting early access to Tarantino's script and saying that she thought he did it well, anyway.
Oh, that's good.
I think the thing with ... Sharon Tate being played by Margot Robbie. She's a character, not just a victim because it's showing her life. They're showing her dancing. They're showing her full of life. I think Debra hopefully will see that, and then it's not just about her being a victim, which is what so many have done before.
Before she was pretty, she was beautiful, she was a movie actress, she's a victim. That's it. Now they're going to... Tarantino's going to show her actually living her life, which hopefully will be... what will be different. So, that's good that Debra has said that, because Debra would always be pissed off that Manson, the little sh*t that he was, once said, "I made Sharon Tate."
First of all, screw you. You made yourself because you couldn't do anything else. You were a failed musician. We were talking about this yesterday. If everybody who didn't get a call back from a producer went and killed somebody, there'd be a lot of dead people in Hollywood right now.
Damn. Didn’t think my opinion of him could sink lower but it just did. I didn’t know he said that.
Yeah. You handle adversity by keeping going ... I've had so many meetings with producers where I pitched shows about unsolved crimes and they'd say, “no, we don't want shows about unsolved crimes, we want shows that are resolved”, or they took the idea and ran with it if it's something else, or whatever.
That's partly one of the reasons why I wrote the book, is that I went back to what I knew how to do without all of the Hollywood bullsh*t in front of me and all the roadblocks, which was writing. So, I didn't have to deal with, oh, this victim isn't white enough, or this victim is a sex worker so we don't want to cover that story. All of that stuff that you encounter with television in Hollywood.
III. The White Whale Case.
Which case would you consider your most bewildering white whale? Which one has left you with the most questions and the least answers?
The most questions and the least answers... Well, definitely it was, before we got answers, it was the Allenstown Four case, it was the bodies in the barrel.
That definitely was the case, because there were so many questions, who this woman and three children were, why nobody was looking for them, why were they found in 1985 and then in 2000, two of them in 1985, two of them in 2000, who took them there.
There were just so many questions, and now we're getting almost all of the answers, and there will be a close. So, that was probably the first one, and the one that drove me ... and was a major part of the audiobook.
As far as right now, the cases that I'm working on are less about... When my friend Michelle [McNamara] was writing her book about the Golden State Killer, there were so many questions and so many rabbit holes to jump down, which I inherited when we – when me and Paul Haynes – finished her book when she passed.
The cases that I work on are not ones that have that many bewildering questions. They're the majority of the murders out there, where it's usually somebody that is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the questions become more, what made this person do this, but I have this person on video, what was going on in there?
But there's not any weird clues in the sense of there was a glove left there, and where did the glove come from, and then go down a rabbit hole, try to figure out what the... I remember Michelle asking me if I know anything about motocross because a motocross glove was once left at one of the scenes.
There's less like that or less like things like the Black Dahlia, where you're dealing with a victim who has been... [murdered] in a way that gets you to think of what was going on in the killer's mind.
I'm thinking about what was going on in the killer's mind, but for me, where I've had the success is who is the killer, but more importantly, who might know the killer and how can I find those people and get a name out of them, or get any information out of them, and that's where the system has worked.
There are definitely going to be cases that I'm working on right now that are more serial in nature, but as far as... if you look at cases like the Zodiac or JonBenét Ramsey, there's a ton of questions with those, but there's also a ton of people looking into them, and they don't need me, per se. There's enough people looking into them. I want to look at the ones that people aren't looking into.
Very true. I just find the way your mind works fascinating after talking to you here, listening to the book. Whenever I think of a white whale case like that, for me, it's always the Villisca Axe Murders, which I'm from that area of the country anyway, but it's just so strange, that one.
No, that one definitely there's a lot of questions with that, and even the... Axeman of New Orleans. That's another one, is a strange one that could be somebody's white whale. But again, as people get older and different people die, a lot of those cases are just always going to be there, even if you have Jack the Ripper, which is probably the biggest white whale of them all, you still have people trying to say that they solved it with DNA from the shawls, I heard a couple months ago. You're always going to have these cases that are going to pop up, and it's the allure of it that keeps going.
IV. The Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara & “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”.
Yeah, I found myself kind of rolling my eyes when they tried to say it was H.H. Holmes who was Jack the Ripper.
Getting into Michelle's book and the associated HBO docuseries, what do you hope will come of that whole story in terms of the book's effect on popular culture and the popular mind?
Yeah. I think what I'm hoping for is that to tell Michelle's story and be able to show Michelle's process and also Michelle's dedication to this story while showing her as a person.
On top of that ... So, that's the one part of it, because that's the framework of it. Also, is to be the definitive story about this case, and also show how it wasn't even necessarily the book, it was her working on the book. By the time the book came out, they had DeAngelo in their sights. They had already narrowed it down to him, and they were just crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.
So, this is a matter of what I want to see is her article that she wrote, and how that named the Golden State Killer and that raised that profile. Then it was people would ask me, and I talk about this in the audiobook, about her ... Did the book have anything to do with it, and I realized during that week when I was doing a bunch of interviews that it wasn't the book, it was her death because when she died, everybody was introduced internationally to the Golden State Killer, who had never heard of this guy before.
So, you had a story that was an international story about a woman who was... a civilian who was trying to find the Golden State Killer, and I really think that pushed the powers that be into action. Then two months later, they put out a press release saying there was going to be a reward, they were going to work with the FBI more, they're going to devote a lot more resources to it. So, it definitely was a catalyst, absolutely, and that's what I hope the HBO show shows you.
I hope so. Yeah, it just made me think of what you quoted her as saying in the audiobook about it being a branding issue, with the Golden State Killer.
Yeah. It's sort of like the East Area Rapist, if you're not from Sacramento, east area of what? Then, the Original Night Stalker, which is there's an Original Night Stalker? No, wait a minute, there's another Night Stalker, and it's not Richard Ramirez who is the other Night Stalker. It was very, very poor branding, as thick as that sounds, but she was able to give him a name. When she was telling me about it, I was like, really, you don't even know the name? You know? But it worked, and it works. [Criminologist] Paul Holes said the same thing, you really want to give him another name? But it worked.
V. “Chase Darkness With Me”: The Takeaway.
Yeah, it definitely did. What do you hope the main takeaway will be for people from “Chase Darkness With Me”?
I hope it gets people ... When you think about hopefully hundreds of thousands of people listening to it, you know that, A- it brings a level of – on the surface – it brings a level of empathy towards this genre. What I really hope, because I'm trying to always put the victim first, but on the sort of technical side of it, on the strategic side of it, it shows... be able to show people that we're entering true crime 2.0 now, where you cannot only know about this stuff, but you can actually get involved, and make a difference, and you can utilize your skills, whatever they may be, if the police are willing to work with you, to help solve these 220,000 unsolved murders since 1980 in America.
That's what I'm hoping for, and I'm hoping that people read or listen to the book, and then they eventually come up with their own ideas. I hope law enforcement listens to it as well, and embraces the idea, and starts doing it on their own. That would be the takeaway on top of obviously trying to write a story that is going to entertain people and be a narrative that they're going to want to go through from the beginning to the end.
Definitely the exception and not the rule, as you said, with these things. The last question I had for you, Billy, was what's next for you?
So, I've got the ... That's the first thing, even before the book comes out, they ask, all right, the book's doing well, and what do you want to do next? So, I've got a couple of ideas on stories that I've done in the past that... Everybody always wants you to write a book about one case. I think I finally found... not necessarily a case, but a systematic issue concerning serial killers in modern-day America that I'm going to tackle, and that is something that I'm going to start working on in between...
Obviously, we're still doing the podcast, which is sort of an extension of the book, and then obviously promoting the book, and then wrapping up the HBO documentary and trying to stick the landing on all those things.
Absolutely. We wish you the best of luck, and we'll definitely keep our eyes open for everything else there.
Well, thank you so much, and thank you so much for listening to it. I appreciate it. It's strange, you start to realize that people start knowing a lot about your life, and it's interesting. Particularly knowing about my dad's life too, which is fun. I think he would get a real kick out of it if he was around, that people knew that much about him.