Billy Jensen doesn’t have the kind of insomnia that gives him trouble falling asleep. His is the kind that wakes him up a few hours later, in the dead of night, with questions. Questions about an unidentified woman and three girls found dead in barrels in the New Hampshire woods; about a man caught on security footage entering a Brooklyn park with a woman who would later be found murdered, nonchalantly ashing his cigarette on the sidewalk as he leaves, alone; about a mother in Maine whose daughter moved to California and then disappeared. He’ll reach for his computer in the dark, search “unsolved” on YouTube, and tumble down internet rabbit holes of cold cases.
It was on one of these 4 a.m. searches in the spring of 2016 that the crime journalist and digital strategist discovered the death of Marques Gaines, a bartender in Chicago whose final minutes were captured on camera. Security footage early on February 7th, 2016, shows Gaines buying chips inside a 7-Eleven in the city’s River North neighborhood. As he leaves, a hulking man in a hooded sweatshirt steps into his way, confronting him, a security guard, and a few other people in the doorway. The video cuts to a camera across the street, showing Gaines running from the man, but he’s stopped at the curb by speeding traffic. He turns back at the edge of the sidewalk to face his pursuer, and the man punches him in the face. Gaines falls limply into the street. Two men run up to Gaines’ unconscious body and appear to rifle through his pockets before hurrying away. Nobody else approaches. He lies on the pavement for two solid minutes, traffic rushing around him, before a cab comes around the corner. People on the sidewalk cringe as the car’s right front tire runs over Gaines’ torso before the driver stops. It’s too late. Gaines would die a short time later at the hospital from his injuries.
The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, and Gaines’ family demanded that the man who punched Gaines be charged with murder. (The cab driver reportedly stayed on the scene as police arrived and was not ticketed or charged. Additionally, Gaines’ family recently settled a lawsuit against the 7-Eleven for wrongful death.) Jensen watched the video several times in a row, horrified. Then, he had a “eureka moment.”
“Being in bed that night and seeing that video, something clicked in my brain and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think I have the skills to do this,’ ” Jensen says. He decided he would solve this crime himself.
It was the start of a second calling as an after-hours digital detective and is the topic of Jensen’s new book, and Audible Original, Chase Darkness With Me, and a podcast, The Murder Squad. The tools are there for anyone to help solve crimes using social media, Jensen says. With the continuing surge of interest in true crime, the time is right for fans to take action. “I truly believe citizens . . . can help solve the backlog of unsolved murders, violent assaults, and missing persons,” he wrote in Chase Darkness. He can teach crime junkies to be responsible citizen sleuths, he says. All they need is the drive and determination to see the job through.
During his career-spanning work as a crime journalist, Jensen has written for alt weeklies and magazines including Rolling Stone, with a focus on unsolved cases. “I wanted to write stories that actually help change things,” he says. He has also worked in digital strategy, starting around 2010, developing methods to expand media companies’ online presence and learning through trial and error how to get clicks and shares on Facebook. He assisted in completing the bestselling book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark after the death of author Michelle McNamara, his friend and fellow crime writer. Through that project, he connected with Paul Holes, the veteran investigator with whom he hosts the podcast, which encourages listeners to help solve the next big cold case.
Citizen detectives have a rocky reputational history — like when the FBI released surveillance images of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, and the crowd-sourced fervor led to several public, false misidentifications. Another time, a journalist determined to solve the New Hampshire disappearance of Maura Murray suggested in a book he wrote that Murray’s father — who was never a suspect in her disappearance — was suspicious because of his refusal to talk with him.
Part memoir, part how-to guide, Chase Darkness With Me includes rules for responsible citizen-detective work. The first speaks to the Boston bombing incident: Don’t name names publicly; take tips directly to law enforcement. It also includes Jensen’s best practices, like contacting the victim’s family for permission before you start investigating, and reaching out to law enforcement to make sure they aren’t closing in on an arrest. “I don’t want my digging to spook a suspect into running,” Jensen says.
Before starting his own work on the Gaines case, Jensen contacted the victim’s cousin. He’d seen her in a video speaking at a press conference about the death, and he asked her for permission to “try some new techniques to attempt to identify the man in the video” who had shoved Gaines. She agreed. Then he called the Chicago police detective on the case. He heard nothing back, even after a follow-up call and emails, so he moved forward with his plan.
In July 2016, Jensen created a Facebook page called RiverNorth Puncher, named for the neighborhood where the crime happened. One Facebook page per crime is Jensen’s rule, because it lets you target a very specific population of users. He posted the video of Gaines’ death, plus the best screen grabs he could get of the perpetrator’s face. Then he typed a call to action:
“This is the video where I punch a stranger — a stranger who later dies,” he wrote, speaking from the point of view of the perpetrator. Jensen included the time and place of the crime and asked people to message him with information about the man in the green hoodie, and to share the post with friends in Chicago. A hundred dollars gave the post a visibility boost among users within a two-mile radius of the crime scene.
“The key is the location,” Jensen says. “When I can target your location and say this happened in [your neighborhood], your ears are going to prick up. You’re going to lean in closer if I name cross streets. You’ve got to be as specific as possible.” Not all of Jensen’s posts have gone viral. For Gaines’ case, he got only a few dozen shares and likes. But he’d narrowed the audience enough to make sure the people most likely to know about the crime saw his posts.
While Jensen is a digital strategy professional using social media tools to maximize his reach, law enforcement is not known for investing much in social media as a crime-solving tool. “Within some agencies, they don’t have the skill sets,” says Holes, who recently retired from the Contra Costa County, California district attorney’s Office. “I know my former agency didn’t have a real robust Facebook page and we weren’t Tweeting and taking advantage of social media, so it is a resource issue in some instances.”
When police precincts or even the FBI do share “Wanted” ads or pictures of missing persons on their social media pages, the posts tend not to be as attention-getting as one designed by a social media expert like Jensen. “They just put a lot of info up [like] height and weight and all that stuff, and when you see that, especially young people, sometimes your mind just goes blank,” Jensen says. “You’ve got to grab them with something that’s more marketing-esque — the way you edit the video, the way you screen-grab.”
Jensen’s sensational descriptions with catchy text are designed to make someone stop scrolling and look, but imitating a killer’s voice, for example, would be out of the question for law enforcement. Few agencies would spend the time to make unique pages for every crime, either — ideally, their officers are in the field using detective work to solve the crime, not crowd-sourcing ideas from residents. That has a reputation of backfiring for the police.
Holes had his share of being inundated with unhelpful tips from amateur crime solvers during his years of work on the GSK case. “With Golden State Killer, I was getting spammed continuously by people who had their own theories and developed suspects,” Holes says. “I had to follow my own theories and investigative process.” At the same time, he knows some citizens have valuable skills to offer. “That’s where Billy comes in,” he says. “He recognized how he could take to social media and utilize information provided by law enforcement, use it to crowd-source, and do it in such a way where it’s very focused and he’s not pestering the poor law enforcement agency at the same time.”
It’s also where The Murder Squad comes in. The podcast trains listeners to be good amateur investigators. Each week, the hosts share details of a cold case and then ask listeners for their help generating tips online — identifying unnamed victims from photographs or brainstorming about a missing body’s possible whereabouts. The way Holes sees it, if people will be digging into cases online anyway, he and Jensen may as well set ground rules and put them to work in ways that they could really be useful in finding the answers law enforcement is looking for.
“We’re trying to press this information out there and kind of focus these people,” Holes says. Jensen is eager, as always, to see cold cases solved, and to see the true-crime fan community work toward solving some cases. “Hopefully we’ll get some answers if enough people share it with their friends and family,” he says.
In Jensen’s first online case, he got a major breakthrough almost immediately. “Beginner’s luck,” he calls it now. On the same night that he first made the Facebook page to find Gaines’ killer, he posted a shorter plea for tips on Twitter, with a $35 geo-targeted boost in River North. Someone replied with a close-up photo of the attacker’s face. Jensen wrote back immediately, advice he offers all sleuths in his audiobook, “so they don’t change their mind or sober up.” It took him around 15 messages back-and-forth over the course of a week before he persuaded the Twitter user to share more with him. What he eventually got was worth the wait: a Snapchat video of the killer at the scene of the crime, yelling at an unconscious Gaines to get up. Jensen used the clearer image of the man to find a match among 3,000 public Illinois mug shots, and even traveled to the crime scene to ask people if they recognized the guy. Someone did. Once he was convinced he’d identified the man who punched Gaines, he became the “squeaky wheel” to the Chicago Police Department, updating them on the man’s whereabouts, which he was monitoring on the suspect’s own not-very-private Facebook page. He wasn’t always sure whether they were paying attention to his messages, but eventually they made the arrest. Marcus Moore pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison (he was released after two years, including time served before his conviction). It didn’t result in a murder conviction, but after nine months of searching, Jensen had his first solve.
He described being “over the moon” in his book, but only for about a minute. Then he just wanted more answers. “Killers were still out there, not only escaping justice, but free to kill again, believing they had the right to take someone else’s life,” he says. “What they took away, seemingly so easily, was a person — a person who could watch a sunset and feel the wind against their cheek, smell fresh-cut grass, or listen to a Bowie song, a person who could scrape up enough money to buy themselves a hot-fudge sundae. Those things that make us human. And one day, someone came along and took all of those things away.”
Jensen has poured nearly all of his free time and energy over the past three years into crowd-sourcing criminal investigations. Some have yielded answers and arrests, like when his social media blitz flushed out a fugitive in the Nashville shooting of Teddy Grasset. Others are still in progress, like the search for the murderer who beat Jennifer Cohen to death in a Brooklyn park in 2016. He’ll post and boost for months sometimes. Even when he accumulated $20,000 in debt from promoting his posts, he’s never given up on a case. While working his estimated 25 active investigations, Jensen still uses pretty much the same technique as he did with Gaines’ case, although he has started posting on Instagram, too. “I kick myself that I didn’t come up with the idea five years earlier,” he says, “when Facebook was really humming.”