For as long as crime has been perpetrated, the business of fighting it has seemed to be ironclad.
The players were known, the tools they used were reliable, and the methods they employed to keep up with the times were tried and true. And most importantly, the deciding of who was qualified to solve a mystery was made with one important distinction: did they have a badge, or not?
But Billy Jensen threw a wrench into that formula.
The investigative journalist-citizen detective hybrid has turned on its head the theory of who could help solve crimes and the ways in which they could do it by successfully using skills he cultivated as a reporter to identify suspects in the cases he’d long been haunted by.
And Jensen’s ready to crack open the instructional manual, as his book, the Audible Original "Chase Darkness With Me", out Thursday, will teach those same skills to anyone yearning to solve a crime.
Jensen’s journey as a reporter was never the typical one.
“I decided very early on in my career, I didn’t want to do beat reporting,” Jensen told InsideEdition.com. “I didn’t want to do stories that were already solved. I went a different route.”
He reported for years on unsolved murders, choosing to step away from telling stories that were seemingly wrapped up in a tidy bow, in favor of highlighting the victims who still needed justice.
It was a route that saw Jensen focus on cases that oftentimes didn’t make newspaper covers, or even the ticker tape on the local evening news.
“I was dealing with a lot of street crime: black perpetrator, black victim, both male – you never see that [sort of] crime on ... as an hour special,” he said.
It’s a route that pulled Jensen to not just report on such cases but work to solve them.
“If you’re covering an event and you see a guy beating the hell out of a woman, you’re not just going to stand there and get that picture; you’re going to do something,” Jensen said matter-of-factly.
Jensen’s decision to push for answers wasn’t of the light bulb, epiphany sort, but rather an ever-present goal that took time to come into fruition.
“I would always try and solve the case, I just couldn’t,” Jensen said. “There was always something in my way.”
That is, until there wasn’t.
Jensen acted on a new plan he hatched, spurred on by the passing of Michelle McNamara, his friend and colleague and the author of "I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer." As he worked with McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt, and the book’s lead case researcher, Paul Haynes, to bring the book to publication, Jensen resolved to solve a murder.
In between helping put together McNamara’s extensive research and writing for her book and reporting on cases he covered for his day job, Jensen spent his time searching for justice in cases that seemed to have gone cold.
Jensen’s approach involved myriad steps, including utilizing social media, employing skills he learned as a journalist to make a post the most clickable it could be, and crowdsourcing for answers to clues borne out of surveillance footage captured as a killing occurred.
Any tips he culled were gathered through private messages or other forms of direct communication, as Jensen stresses early and often in his book that publicly naming suspects is a recipe for disaster.
"Rule number one: Never name names in public," Jensen says in his book, noting that not following that golden rule hampers police investigations and can ruin lives.
From there, Jensen passed along any tips he received to the police.
And it worked. Sometimes.
For every one case Jensen has helped crack, he’s seen dozens more remain cold. And of those his work has been arguably instrumental in helping solve, not all authorities working them have been eager to heap praise on him.
“It’s amazing that I do [sometimes] get credit,” Jensen said. “[Some] people are willing to say, yeah, you’re the one who did it, but a lot of times you won’t [get that]. A lot of times, I haven’t.”
But neither praise, nor the knowledge he’s helped bring closure to many families looking for answers, drive Jensen.
Because he knows that for every family that knows their loved one’s killer has been caught, and for every victim whose name has been returned to them, there are thousands more still waiting.
“I was solving these crimes and knowing that it was just a drop in the bucket,” said Jensen, who noted he views himself first as a victim's advocate when working on cases in this manner. “I was only one person.”
It’s why he’s decided to share the rules he follows and that have been proven to work in "Chase Darkness With Me." Jensen narrates his own writing, which takes listeners on his journey as a journalist, including reporting on the only other murder in New York City on 9/11, investigating and identifying the Halloween Mask Murderer, searching for a missing girl last seen in the California Redwoods and watching the alleged Golden State Killer be brought to justice.
Jensen makes the compelling argument for police departments across the country to consider creating their own pilot programs that tap volunteer citizens to help fill the resource gaps many report having.
“It’s not necessarily just doing social media,” he said, ticking off examples of work that may not be sexy, but is necessary.
Amateur genealogists could help create family trees borne out of familial DNA waiting to be worked with, while other volunteers could digitize old files and create digital data bases that won’t be subject to ruin should the local police department’s basement filled with boxes of records get flooded, he noted.
“You’ve got 40,000 … unidentified remains in storage lockers and pauper’s graves … and 19,000 different [missing persons] databases – those databases don’t talk,” Jensen said. “That’s so frustrating.”
But if one police department takes a leap of faith, it will get the ball rolling, Jensen said.
“I think it’s going to be a matter of a couple police departments doing it and showing success,” he said. “The idea of Crime Stoppers didn’t start with everyone doing it … everything has to start somewhere.
“It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of where,” he said.
By the end, Jensen lays out all the tools he says one needs to start working on their own cases, leaving listeners feeling as though they’ve been initiated into an exclusive club.
“True crime has become an audio medium … You can paint the picture in a much more intimate way,” he said of deciding to release his book exclusively through an audio format. “If I’m telling you secrets, I’d rather tell you them in a bar than write them out to you in an email.”
It’s a format of storytelling Jensen has long gravitated toward.
As co-host of The First Degree podcast, Jensen teamed up with Ladygang's Jac Vanek and true crime TV producer Alexis Linkletter to talk through cases with guests only one degree removed from the story itself.
He had also previously joined forces with McNamara on the Shadowpulp True Crime Radio Hour, which saw the pair dive into unsolved murders.
And on April 1, Jensen’s new podcast with Paul Holes, the retired Contra Costa cold case investigator instrumental in catching the man police say is the Golden State Killer, premiered at the top of the chart.
During episodes of "Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad," the pair review unsolved murder cases using a variety of investigative methods and direct listeners on how they can help find answers without devolving into vigilantism.
It serves almost as a continuation to Chase Darkness With Me, and it’s Jensen’s hope that taking this approach will usher in a new age for true crime.
“I would like everybody who reads this book to go out and take a different case,” he said. “Go deep with it. That would be the best joy.”
"Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders" is out Thursday. To pre-order the book, click here.