Billy Jensen on Michelle McNamara: "We Were Partners in Crime Solving"
Billy Jensen is nothing if not persistent.
His own website gives us a glimpse of this: I will keep going. Punch me. Spear me. Cut my face open. I will keep going.
He is equating his investigative philosophy with the way he plays hockey. And it rings true.
So when he and Michelle McNamara finished presenting their SXSW panel entitled “Solving Murders with Social Media” in 2014, he immediately began planning new projects to tackle with his friend. In the past, they’d also joined forces to host a TV show/podcast called Shadowpulp Radio Hour and various other projects.
“We were partners in crime solving,” he says of McNamara, a true crime enthusiast, author, and blogger. “After the SXSW panel, I kept hounding her to finish her book, because I had a list of new projects I wanted to start working on with her. Every month or so, we’d have lunch and I’d ask her how close she was to shipping it.”
“The book” was a re-investigation of the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker murderer who terrorized the West coast in the seventies and eighties. In order to give him a more recognizable identity, McNamara renamed him “The Golden State Killer. ”
The new moniker stuck.
Michelle never finished the book. Her sudden and unexpected death in 2016 shook the true crime community to its core and shattered her family and friends, including her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt and their daughter Alice. After her death, Jensen called Oswalt and vowed to help finish the book. Oswalt, Jensen, and Michelle’s researcher Paul Haynes, worked for a year and her book, I’ll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer debuted at number one on the bestseller list in February 2018.
“She had worked so hard on it. I couldn’t let it go undone,” Jensen says. “It’s a testament to what a terrific and thorough writer she was that we were able to pick up where she left off; the book was pretty damn perfect.”
Still, it wasn’t easy.
“Michelle didn’t write it in a linear fashion. She wrote chapter by chapter. We all got together, came up with a structure, then inserted some literary ligaments to pull the chapters together. Then we began covering some of the things she hadn’t covered, using her notes and emails to fill in the gaps.”
It evokes imagery of the classic investigative writer: walls covered in photos, maps, newspaper clippings. Connections represented by thin, red twine. It seems the reality wasn’t far off.
“Michelle had given us the strings she had been weaving to tie all this together,” Jensen continues. “All these strings that could lead us out of the maze of this case and potentially help solve these crimes.”
The crimes were horrific. The Golden State Killer raped fifty women in Northern California in the mid-late seventies and went on to murder twelve people across Southern California in a killing spree that lasted until 1986. Despite volumes of evidence, including DNA and compelling eyewitness testimony, the killer remains unidentified.
Jensen and Haynes will lead a discussion panel about Michelle’s investigation and the case at CrimeCon 2018. Joining him are GSK survivor Jane Carson-Sandler, Debbi Domingo, whose mother was murdered by the GSK in 1981, and Michelle Cruz, whose sister was murdered by the unknown assailant in 1986. The three survivors presented an emotional session about their experiences at CrimeCon 2017 in Indianapolis.
Will this year’s panel be just as gripping? It sounds like it.
“We’ll talk about Michelle and her process,” Jensen promises, “how she conducted her investigation and how we were able to put the pieces together. Then we’ll talk about the current investigation and you’ll see how close it is to being solved.”
And there’s even a chance that you, Citizen Detectives, can help bring the brutal killer to justice.
Jensen and Haynes will also host an intensive session taking a deep dive into the evidence and facts surrounding the case.
“We’ll look at what we feel are the strongest [leads], weeding out the probable red herrings,” Jensen explains with a palpable excitement in his voice. “We’ll talk DNA, geographic profiling, and stick to the facts. This session is for people who want to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and catch this guy.”
Certainly, the publication of McNamara’s book must feel like a milestone. It’s an impressive feat, to pick up another author’s work and carry it across the finish line. Does it mean his work on the case is finished?
“Definitely not,” Jensen affirms with a conviction his fans will recognize. “We’re not stopping. We’ll keep going until he’s identified.”
I believe him, because Billy Jensen is nothing if not persistent.