Right now, you have something in your house, quite possibly even your hand, that ordinary people are using to help rid the streets of cold-blooded killers: your smartphone.
In Chase Darkness With Me, true-crime scribe Billy Jensen empowers readers to become citizen sleuths, capitalizing on social-media resources to suss out clues to the identity of uncaught criminals. Without running afoul of the police, of course.
During his early crime-writing career, he reported mainly on cold cases, or what Jensen calls tragic stories “with no endings.” But more recently, he helped complete the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the hunt for the Golden State Killer, which had been left unfinished after the sudden death of his friend and fellow crime writer Michelle McNamara. Some people credit the book as having helped catch suspect Joseph DeAngelo, who is currently awaiting trial.
Chase Darkness details his work using Facebook and other social-media sites to “micro-target” people in the vicinity of unsolved crimes, creating ad campaigns that are, at heart, digital “Wanted” or “Missing Person” posters: “The key to setting up a page,” he says, “is that you’re not looking for a suspect—you’re looking for people who might know a suspect.”
The idea of being a citizen detective is enticing, but also seems like a potential quagmire: Could you interfere with an investigation? Traumatize the family of a crime victim? Put yourself in danger?
The first thing I tell people is: Be safe. You’re not a vigilante. You don’t go out undercover talking to people. All you’re doing is finding a case that nobody is working on right now, and you’re ‘signal boosting’ it online. You’re reaching out to people the police couldn’t get to and asking: Do you recognize this person? And as soon as you get that information, you send it to the police. What you’re really doing is being a liaison between the entire world and the police department.
This is a manpower issue. There are 220,000 murders since 1980 that have gone unsolved. And they’re not going to be solved by current detectives—they’re just not. So I thought: ‘Let me embrace that.’
What are some of ‘the rules’?
When I start looking for somebody, I always check with the police to make sure that they haven’t ID’d a suspect, that they’re not close to somebody and I might spook them. A lot of [law enforcement officials] don’t get it, but a lot say: ‘Yeah, we need all the help we can get.’ You don’t name names. You don’t publish ‘side-by-sides,’ where you’ve got an image of a killer, and then…go on the Internet, find a photo and say: ‘Hey, that looks like this guy!’ That’s what happened with the [early investigation into the] Boston Marathon bombing, and I address that. If you follow the rules in the book, you’re going to be OK. If you don’t, you’re going to sink the ship.
In the book you write about paying $300 to ‘boost’ a Facebook page you created to what the website calculated was ‘121,000 users living in a 5-mile radius’ around the scene of an unsolved murder in Chesapeake, Virginia. Do people even know they can do that with Facebook?
No, [many of them] don’t know. If you think about what killed alt-weekly newspapers… They would do concert listings. But Facebook can go and say, ‘I’m going to find every fan of Echo and the Bunnymen living in Denver and target them with ads, and they can buy their concert tickets right through this link.’ That makes more sense for the concert hall or promoter than running a newspaper ad. It’s all there right in front of you. Most people don’t understand that’s how Facebook is making its money.
So you’ve put an unusual spin on that. Is it disheartening to consider there’s a migration of young people away from Facebook, and to think about how fickle the whole social-media landscape is?
Absolutely. I wish I’d come up with this system five years earlier, when Facebook was really humming, because we could have found more [suspects]. Younger people are definitely more active and post more on Instagram now, and Instagram is tough for me, because you can’t share [posts], so it really is about how big your following is.
But you still target people the same way on Instagram, because it uses the same algorithms. (Facebook owns Instagram.) The way younger people are using Facebook right now, it’s almost like they’ve gone back to the way message boards were in the late ’90s, where everybody has separated themselves into groups, and they’re communicating with each other inside these Facebook groups. You see that with ‘Murderino’ groups (which are populated by people with a consuming interest in true crime), where you can share videos. People are really using those, but they still have to open Facebook first—and if you do that, you’re going to look at your feed. So if I can just grab those people while they’re looking at their feed and hit them with an ad campaign, then I can still get to the right people.
Your interest in cold cases developed incrementally, from pieces you wrote early in your career to the podcasts you create now. One of the most fascinating stories you mention in the book is about the only murder in New York City to occur on September 11, 2001 that was not related to the terror attacks.
Henryk Siwiak was a Polish immigrant who went to go clean a supermarket in Bedford-Stuyvesant [in Brooklyn]. He was confused, he got off at the wrong subway stop, he started knocking on doors and walking up steps. And then somebody shot him. The police arrival time was very quick, but they didn’t solve the case—and it remains unsolved.
Do you think the killer escaped capture because resources were, obviously, allocated elsewhere?
The cops chastised me and said ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ by knocking on the doors [as part of my reporting]: ‘You probably talked to somebody who knows the shooter.’ I was talking to a lot of people who said the cops hadn’t talked to them that night. I don’t think they blanketed the area as much as they otherwise could have, in terms of shoe-leather detective work.
You helped finish ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ after Michelle McNamara died. Joseph DeAngelo, the suspected ‘Golden State Killer,’ was captured soon after its publication. To what degree do you think the book aided in DeAngelo’s arrest?
It wasn’t the book. It was Michelle’s death. And the reason is this: She had done the article, and the article [was popular] in L.A. and then she got the book deal. So she elevated him, and was going to elevate him even more with the book. And when she died, it became an international news story—the world was reintroduced to this guy, the ‘Golden State Killer’ / ‘East Area Rapist.’ You can’t tell me people [in law enforcement] weren’t raising an eyebrow and saying: ‘Wow, we still haven’t solved this thing, and there’s this housewife in Los Angeles who’s trying to solve it for us—so let’s put some more resources behind it.’
That case brought to the forefront just how complicated the DNA issue has become.
It was frustrating working on the ‘GSK’ book, because we knew the answer was in 23andme or Ancestry.com. They had millions of profiles in there. We could’ve found him in weeks. I thought maybe they’d open it up one day very secretly, if there was a killer going around. But those guys aren’t going to do it, and there are a lot of [valid] concerns—particularly what the healthcare and insurance industries might do with the information, turning people down or raising rates.
But that being said, the way people can help is to ‘spit in the tube.’ Do your 23andme thing, do your Ancestry thing, but then take that information and upload it into one of the open-source places, like [the public genealogy website] GEDMatch. Remember…that’s how DeAngelo was caught.