A Crime Reporter and Citizen Sleuth on the Cases and Innovations of His Career

Book review: Chase Darkness with Me, by Billy Jensen (Amazon / Book Depository)

Crime writer and citizen digital detective Billy Jensen is known for his collaborative efforts to finish Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark posthumously, but he has an impressive resume of his own in true crime journalism.

In this account of his progression from crime news reporter with the show Crime Watch Daily and the Long Island newspaper True Crime Report, which he founded, to social media geotargeting expert, Jensen also tells stories about his father and what drew him to crime reporting. Memoir interspersed with true crime can be hit or miss, but as he’s a thoughtful and careful writer and ties the memoir elements well to his interest and experiences, it ends up fairly well done and meaningful here.

Jensen’s shift from traditional investigative reporting to digital detective happened with the opportunities social media provided. He recognized that more news consumption is now via social media, noting that even if a person follows their local TV news station’s Facebook page, “Most stories that are posted by a media publisher reach only 7-10 percent of their fans or followers. Of those that are reached, it’s only another small fraction that actually clicks on the link and reads the story or watches the video. If you are a TV station airing a video showing a man getting murdered and asking people to identify his killer, most people are not going to see it. How is the public ever going to help with solving the crimes if they never even see the news?”

I was so interested in his explanations of the changes in media and how news consumption is affected — which we know about already — but I hadn’t considered how that had affected crime-solving, and he analyzes it brilliantly. Jensen felt uniquely positioned at this intersection of the death of print media and changing public awareness of crimes, having worked in print journalism for the Long Island Press and for websites driving traffic with clickbaity headlines and stories intended to grab viewers’ attention long enough to read and share.

He was spurred into action by the bystander video of “the man in the green hoodie,” as he calls him. In Chicago, this man had punched another man, Marques Gaines, knocking him out. Gaines was robbed and run over before the video was over. It’s such a viscerally upsetting incident that it’s easy to see why Jensen felt he had to do something to force the perpetrator to justice (and he does.)

The homicide of Marques Gaines isn’t the type of true crime story most people gravitate toward. It’s a street crime. There was a think piece to be written about the bystander effect on the crowd as they rubbernecked from the sidelines, a Kitty Genovese redux unfolding in 2016 America. But most true crime addicts don’t want to hear that. They want twists and turns. They want love gone bad. And most of all, they want solves.

People read and watch and listen to true crime because it restores order from chaos. That’s the answer to give when someone asks you why you like hearing about real-life murders. It’s the comfort of watching everything be put in its place after an episode of outright, sickening bedlam.

I’m not sure I agree with that entirely, but maybe it helps explain things for some. Jensen’s point is that in his time writing and reporting crime stories, it was the unsolved kind that nagged at him, furthered by letters and pleas from victims’ loved ones to help. He focused on the unsolved ones: “People don’t like stories without endings, but I wrote them anyway.”

He also began using his own money to buy Facebook ads in regions connected to unsolved crimes, including the El Monte Jack in the Box murder and the longest story told here, of the Bear Brook murders — four long-unidentified female bodies found in barrels in Allenstown, New Hampshire. He used videos and photos, knowing that someone nearby would recognize either perpetrator or victim, and strove to make the ads intriguing (like writing them in the killer’s voice) to get people to pause and pay attention while scrolling their feeds. Any credible tips were immediately handed over to police.

In terms of being impossible to put down, it’s a 10/10. Jensen has a warm storytelling voice, and he clearly cares so, so much. In all of the stories he recounts from his two-plus decades of working in crime reporting and sleuthing, that concern plus a strong sensitivity are overwhelmingly evident.

But after explaining his methodology, including meticulous rules for how to be a cold case citizen sleuth/digital detective, I felt slightly uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging others to do the same. Not to be overly cynical — Jensen has obviously done good in getting justice and answers for families, and learned from experience and mistakes. But this seems like it has the potential to go awry, mainly because, well, just people. An infamous example of internet detective work gone wrong is when police sought help identifying the Boston marathon bombers and it didn’t end well.

So despite Jensen’s specific guidance in how to do this and what not to do, I’m not sure it’s a great idea for most. His method of geotargeting social media, mainly Facebook, could be harmless enough. These are just ads with photos or video asking anyone who recognizes to reach out. But a problematic element is that the victim’s family must be notified and give permission before ads appear. Which makes sense, but I could imagine that being a potential area for concern with other “citizen detectives” involved with grieving families. It makes me uneasy.

Yet he also writes about the families of victims who contacted him in droves, asking for help when they felt police weren’t answering or doing enough. So maybe the good of more eyeballs on these cases outweighs any bad? I really don’t know, but his career is fascinating, his stories engrossing, and his heart’s in the right place.

Chase Darkness with Me:
How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders 

by Billy Jensen
published August 13, 2019 by Sourcebooks

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

Aside: In a conversation recounted from a missing-person investigation, he comments on someone saying “She went to the market” with “Who the hell uses the word market?” Um, ME?! What’s off about the word ‘market’? I’ve always used it meaning a food store, not only an open-air or farmer’s or countryside setup. What would be normal, ‘supermarket’? ‘Grocery store’? Some form of ‘go grocery shopping’? The name of the specific store? I’m assuming this is a regional quirk, because my family members from a specific region always use ‘the store’ for the supermarket. Please share thoughts as that’s been driving me crazy since reading. I need to know why market is a suspicious word.


31 thoughts on “A Crime Reporter and Citizen Sleuth on the Cases and Innovations of His Career

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    1. What word do you use for it? I hope I’m not signaling my advancing age by always saying market! 🤣

      Yeah it’s a tricky subject, there are major pros but major cons here. I just don’t know how to feel about it. He’s done fine but who knows how other people will handle it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The book sounds right up my alley.

    We say the grocery store. If I heard someone say “the market,” I would assume they meant the farmer’s market. I have a friend from the midwest who just calls it “the grocery.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. FWIW, going to the market sounds like something my grandmothers said, but I can’t think of anyone under 70 using that phrase. Good on you, though, ofr bucking the trend 🙂

    This book isn’t really my usual type of read, but I gotta say, I’m curious now.


  3. I’d definitely like to pick this up, having loved I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I’m a little more nervous about it being good though, because Jensen and Holes discussions of victims on their shared podcast haven’t always felt the most respectful to me. Hopefully this does better, since you don’t mention any particular problems!

    It has also occurred to me listening to their podcast, where they ask people to help them identify victims or otherwise get involved, that this approach could backfire. I get the impression that a lot of true crime listeners would like to be armchair detectives and as an amateur, I could see doing a lot more harm than good.

    Haha, I have a friend who says he’s going to the market, so it’s not just you. But it does strike me as strange! It makes me picture a medieval marketplace. I usually say that I’m going grocery shopping or that I’m going to a specific store. Probably a regional thing, I’d guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about their podcast. I gave up on it, it wasn’t working for me. I don’t think they mean to come off as they do but there’s a weird tone to it, I guess. I didn’t get that with the book, he’s maybe a little more focused on justice being served in terms of bad people being caught than about victims, but I thought he was pretty sensitive about that too. I think there are issues with the crowdsourcing nature of the podcast too, and I’m just torn on the whole idea of it all. More people aware of incidents and people and looking at pictures or details, etc. is of course good, and police often ask the public to do the same, but I could just imagine a lot of ways that it could go off the rails. I think there could also be legal implications down the line in some cases, too.

      I’m glad you know someone else who says market, finally there are two of us! haha. I do think it just must be regional though 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. To me, market is definitely an outdoor thing. I usually say the name of my local store – Sainsbury’s, but if I’m saying it to someone who might not know what Sainsbury’s is, I’d say supermarket or grocery store. But I don’t think saying market necessarily makes you sounds ancient… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Must be a regional thing. If someone says market to me, I think an outdoor space where people set up stalls.

    Anyway, I would also be wary of citizen detectives because you know some of them are going to go about it the wrong way because as you say ‘people.’

    Sounds like a compelling read though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I hate to be cynical, but really, people can be idiots. I don’t really know what the solution is when news consumption is changing and it’s harder for people to see the crime stories where public input is needed, but I’m not sure his method is the best one either. It was compelling though, and he’s kind of honed his methodology over years, so that was interesting to learn about too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s quite the paradox. The Internet floods us with information and shrinks the globe, yet in a way, we become more isolated and unaware of what is going on around our own neighborhoods.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Another one hits the wish list. Citizen involvement in crime detection might be good in terms of keeping a case alive in the public’s mind and bringing in tip offs, in same way as a TV appeal does (or would have done before social media and streaming). But lots of risks, I would think, in particular of obstructing or messing up a police case e.g defence lawyers could cry “entrapment” or lack of due process, could be a defence lawyer’s field day. Loved the clip about “just people” – expected sociology professor droning on, clip much more pithy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, exactly!! That’s what I was thinking, there just seems a lot of legal risk potentially involved, or imagine if everyone thinks one person looks like a photo and comments it all over the post and it eventually goes to trial but with some ambiguity. Now it’s already played out in public on a social media post and opinion is swayed. You know? There’s just a million ways for it to go wrong. But it’s super interesting to read nonetheless.

      Glad you liked the clip 🙂 It’s from the show Veep, it was hysterically funny! Definitely worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Need to contribute re “market”. Here in Bucks, in the UK, no one I know says going to the market, as by market we mean an open air market and though we have a couple of markets in local towns each week, they are small and rather forlorn and not something you would make a special trip to. They sell veg and fruit and cheap clothes and that’s it. For supermarket we say “supermarket” or more likely name the particular supermarket – Tescos or, if you are posh, Waitrose. (There is somewhere a Twitter or Instagram account called “Overheard in Waitrose” which makes fun of its middle class customers, the classic overheard remark being, “Mummy, I’ve got pesto on my gilet!” Full disclosure: I go to both Tesco and Waitrose but don’t wear a gilet. But don’t understand why “market” would be suspicious…unless dodgy market for buying/selling counterfeit or stolen goods..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to google “gilet” but that cracked me up!!! It would definitely have been suspicious if it was the kind of market you mean, that’s a bit sketchy and clearly trading in stolen stuff but that wasn’t what they meant. It just seemed like an odd thing for him to call out, even if there are some regional variations in what word people use! I think I do tend to use the specific store name more often than not, but market is definitely my go-to if I’m generalizing or not sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. PS when I’ve visited a friend in the UK I loved Marks & Spencer most. They had so many different kinds of cookies and chocolates and junky things that I love. I don’t know where they fall in the class hierarchy but I loved that place!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Check out Only in Waitrose on Twitter.
    Overheard in Waitrose. Says darling a lot. Parody account. Customer Service requests will be met with sarcasm.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hmm I could see why this would be a bit uncomfortable-the ‘citizen detective’ (a term I’ve never heard before) sound alot like a vigilante, so there’s definitely potential for things to go wrong. Although, good to hear he is getting justice for the families, If something as horrific as that ever happened to me or mine, I’m sure I would do whatever I could, just like them. Interesting read for sure…


  10. Market is totally fine, if rarely used where I live. I mostly say “the store”. It’s annoying when people poke fun at someone’s word choice … especially when it’s a perfectly fine word! Market, store, shop, emporium— whatever works.

    However, this one sounds interesting! And seemingly another example of an author combining memoir and true crime and it actually working.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great that you’re a “the store” user too! That’s what my family members in Maryland say, it’s always the store for the supermarket and anything else gets the product group or specific store name. Thank you for your acceptance of “market” 🙂

      It bugs me too when people make fun of word choice, especially because I’ve seen how widely it varies from having taught ESL in the past as well as my current copy editing work, which often involves localization of texts for a company’s target market. So much of language is region-specific and not just because someone didn’t learn to talk right! And I forgot about emporium, I LOVE that one! There’s a supermarket chain in New York (not sure if it’s beyond NYC, I’ve only seen it there) called Food Emporium and anytime I shopped there I felt extremely fancy with that name.

      And yes, this was a good (and in my opinion, somewhat rare) example of memoir working well with true crime. He lays a good foundation for why he was interested and he’s actually working on cases so has a reason for his involvement. And even then he keeps a distance and even mentions it — he’s only trying to obtain and filter useful tips and pass them along, it’s not all about him. I liked it and it’s worth your time to read, I just felt iffy about some concepts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now I want to go to a Food Emporium … all the stores near me have such bland names. But Food Emporium? Now that’s style.

        And that’s so fascinating— I wasn’t even thinking about ESL and how that could influence word choices … and certainly when materials attempt to target regions. Fortunately, it seems like more people have a genuine curiosity about how different regions express something, rather than wanting to mock them. But for those who mock— just UGH.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Isn’t it stylish? Food Emporium isn’t even the most upscale grocery store (although kind of pricey) but it lends a little glamour to your day for sure!

        It was just a really weird choice for him to make, I think, in mocking it. I’m not sure what that was supposed to accomplish, and kind of undermined his message of trying to help when there’s so much judgement inserted over something silly!

        Liked by 1 person

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