A True-Crime Star Lost His Podcast Over Misconduct Allegations. Then, More Women Came Forward
“It’s the end of an era,” podcast network Exactly Right tweeted in May 2022. “Jensen & Holes: The Murder Squad is going off the air.” The tweet set off dismayed speculation among the true crime community, and rightly so: The podcast, which launched in 2019, was a popular powerhouse of the genre, featuring Paul Holes, the now-retired detective who helped crack the Golden State Killer case, and Billy Jensen, who helped finish the 2018 bestseller, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, that detailed the hunt for the serial killer, after author Michelle McNamara died in 2016. McNamara struck a match when she teamed up with armchair sleuths and real detectives to track down the killer, who turned out to be retired cop Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. The Murder Squad ignited that fire, and aimed to become the first truly collaborative true-crime show and unite citizen sleuths with experts to solve cold cases.
It worked, to an extent — the hosts claim to have helped crack at least one cold case — so it was a shock when the podcast was unceremoniously discontinued. The show ran for three seasons, after all, and both hosts had new books on the horizon and tens of thousands of fans on social media commenting on and liking every photo and tweet. Exactly Right, the podcasting company founded by hosts of the mega-popular My Favorite Murder, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, offered only the “end of an era” tweet as the public statement about the decision and did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment. The company limited replies to the tweet, but that didn’t stop the network’s fans from demanding answers. As one social media user put it: “Time to step up and be honest because the rumors going around are about to get ahead of this.” And they did.
In June, two podcasters released episodes going public with allegations of sexual misconduct against Jensen. One of those podcasters claimed that Jensen had slapped her during an otherwise consensual encounter – something Jensen has denied both publicly on his website and to Rolling Stone. The true crime podcasts Subreddit exploded with a so-called “mega thread” to discuss Jensen. Paul Haynes, who had also worked on McNamara’s book, posted lengthy diatribes about Jensen that landed him a cease-and-desist from Jensen’s lawyers. Soon true-crime social media was in convulsions over the allegations and people were choosing sides.
“Taken by themselves, some of these allegations show embarrassing behavior in my private life,” Jensen tells Rolling Stone. “However, when these moments are presented inaccurately, all together, and without context, the result is to not only mischaracterize each of the individual events, but also fundamentally misrepresent who I am and have been as a person.”
Jensen alleges that Jenn Tisdale, the podcaster who claimed he slapped her, has enlisted her friends — including Haynes, who Jensen claims harbors a professional grudge — as part of an “organized effort. …to collect negative stories and criticisms about me to share to the public wholesale.”
Both Haynes and Tisdale strongly dispute this characterization. “I was not acting in tandem or collaboration with anyone else,” Haynes tells Rolling Stone. “The number of stories of which I was aware increased significantly as women I didn’t know began reaching out to me to share their own experiences with [Jensen], and as other women posted their stories anonymously on Reddit and Facebook groups. This was no coordinated ‘smear campaign.’”
Jensen further claims that Tisdale made allegations against him because he rejected her advances; on his website, he has shared flirtatious texts she sent before and after their alleged encounter. Tisdale, however, denies this. “It’s my understanding that Billy sort of framed it as I’d been scorned,” she says. “Like I had a crush. No, I did not. I never had romantic feelings for Billy.” Tisdale says that she decided to speak about the alleged slap on her podcast after she heard about allegations following a 2021 party that ultimately led to Jensen’s removal from his podcast. In response to Jensen’s allegations of a smear campaign, Tisdale insists that she and others are “coming together to find solace and comfort which is not a coordinated effort to spread negative information about him.”
According to five sources who spoke with Rolling Stone, Jensen has a history of touching women inappropriately. Two podcasters tell Rolling Stone Jensen made inappropriate physical contact with them, including touching or grabbing them without consent. This alleged behavior seems to have come to light after an Exactly Right Halloween party in 2021, which led to a workplace investigation and the eventual end of the Murder Squad.
In response to a detailed list of questions from Rolling Stone, Jensen apologized for some of his alleged behavior, denied other parts of it, and told the magazine he has a drinking problem, coupled with mental health issues, and has entered rehab to address them both. “While I understand some might be cynical of my seeking treatment, I needed to not only address my alcohol use, but my mental health as well,” he says. “The only thing I can do now is keep working the program to be and stay accountable, make direct amends where appropriate, and treat my underlying issues so that I stay on the forward path.”
Podcaster Alvin Williams attended Exactly Right’s Halloween party in mid-October 2021 as the plus-one of his friend, an employee of the network, whom he declined to name. The woman in question did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for an interview and her attorney, reached for comment, declined to discuss the matter. Williams, the second podcaster to go public, first shared his account of that evening’s events on his show, Affirmative Murder. He recalls that Jensen appeared drunk and that, at one point during the party, his friend approached him and told him that Jensen had just grabbed her buttocks. In a sworn statement Williams gave to his friend’s lawyer in April 2022, which Rolling Stone reviewed, he said his friend reached out to him again a couple months after the party to talk about the alleged incident. “[She] told me Billy grabbed her after he came up behind her, and that she felt extremely violated by this,” Williams said in the sworn statement. “I felt [she] was hurt, and deeply affected by this incident.”
Jensen confirmed to Rolling Stone that he was indeed the subject of a workplace investigation regarding the party. According to Jensen, a lawyer from Exactly Right contacted him not long after the party and connected him with an investigator, who “said they received complaints from three people saying that my hugs and embraces had been over the line,” he says. “One person had said I hugged them for too long and talked too closely to them; one said I put my arm around them multiple times; and one said I touched their behind during an embrace.”
After the investigation was concluded, Jensen says he was told he had “acted inappropriately” and the podcast was then discontinued. “When I was informed of the complaints, I was shocked, embarrassed, and hated to hear that I had made others feel uncomfortable,” Jensen tells Rolling Stone. “The behavior described to me sounded obnoxious, with me making a spectacle of myself and being too familiar with people. To all of this, I want to make clear that I was unaware I had done anything untoward, and it certainly wasn’t intentional — I would never want to make others feel uncomfortable in any way, and I am deeply sorry.”
Jensen isn’t new to the true crime community; he got his start in the Nineties as a reporter on Long Island, and went on to cover crime for alt-weeklies and magazines, including Rolling Stone. In 2016, he joined a vast community of web detectives who have been increasingly lauded for contributing to the resolution of major cases. Since the popularity of true crime podcasts began to soar, families of victims have begun putting their trust in amateur investigators and podcasters who they believe can help reinvigorate cases that may have languished in obscurity. In 2019, CBC’s investigative podcast, Finding Cleo, uncovered what happened to a missing indigenous girl, Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, highlighting the plight of her community. Last year, the family of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old who was murdered by her fiancé on a cross-country van trip, thanked social-media sleuths for helping the case gain national attention.
Following the success of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Jensen – a lanky, self-described “goth” who towers over six feet tall in his signature black leather jacket – built a career as a media personality and a brooding crusader for justice. He’s appeared on Discovery ID shows, co-hosted the true crime podcast The First Degree, written books, started the Murder Squad with Holes, and has been greeted by screaming fans at increasingly popular true-crime conventions. He’s also been profiled by this publication. Now, it all seems to be crashing down.
Terra Newell claims to Rolling Stone that Jensen acted inappropriately toward her on more than one occasion after she was a guest on a June 5, 2019 episode of The First Degree. Newell is perhaps the most well-known survivor in modern true crime. In the story of Dirty John (the first crime saga to run the media gamut from newspaper series to podcast to documentary to scripted series), she was the unlikely hero who, in 2016, stabbed her mother’s scam-artist husband to death in self-defense when he attacked her in a California parking garage.
Newell says the first alleged inappropriate incident followed a signing for Jensen’s book Chase Darkness With Me on Aug. 13, 2019, in Los Angeles. Jensen, his First Degree co-hosts, Newell, and Newell’s friend Rachael O’Brien went to a bar after the event. Newell says she was “intoxicated” so some of the details are hazy, but claims that, after his co-hosts left, Jensen began acting aggressively flirtatious with her and talking about his open marriage, an arrangement well known among his friends and acquaintances. (He has also posted publicly about it on his website in response to recent allegations.) “[He was] grabbing the back of my neck. He was grabbing my thigh. He was grabbing me all over the place,” Newell claims. O’Brien, watching the alleged touching, asked her friend if she was OK, then excused herself. O’Brien confirmed Newell’s account to Rolling Stone and says she left the gathering because she was uncomfortable with the way Jensen was acting toward Newell.
After the rest of the party left, Newell says Jensen tried to talk her into getting a hotel room. “He also said something about how he would go down on [his co-worker],” she says. “He was telling me about how good he was at going down on women.” She says they decided getting a room would be “trouble,” however. Newell claims Jensen kissed her right before she got into her Uber.
O’Brien says Newell told her about the conversation and the kiss when Newell came to her house later that night. “Terra is an incredibly smart girl and very sweet,” she says. “I think that’s what made me most disgusted by him, is that he knows she’s a victim of trauma to the scariest degree. So if you’re a dude that’s advocating for women, how about don’t go after the most vulnerable?” At the time, though, Newell stood up for Jensen, and encouraged O’Brien to move forward with a podcast episode she’d recorded with him. “I was just trying to make excuses for his behavior,” Newell says. “I thought this was all my fault.”
Newell next saw Jensen at a true-crime meetup event at the L.A. bar Idle Hour on Oct. 18, 2019. “I’m actually dating someone at this time so any flirty behavior with him is absolutely not OK,” Newell recalls. With the man she was dating on the way, she alleges Jensen once again began making advances on her. “He was grabbing my legs that night, grabbing my thighs, grabbing me by the back of the neck,” she recalls. “During this time a lot of people saw this and then it became a rumor that he may have had a relationship with me.”
At the time of these interactions, Newell says she dismissed Jensen’s behavior but reassessed it after the Exactly Right employee allegations came out. “To be honest, I was friends with Billy for a while until this stuff started coming out,” she says. “And then I realized I was just another girl that got groped by Billy Jensen.”
Jensen tells Rolling Stone that he understood it to be a “mutual flirtation” and mutual kiss between him and Newell, noting that the two maintained a friendship for three years after the alleged incidents. “I have incredible respect for [Newell] as a person,” Jensen says. “She is a survivor, but that was not the context of our relationship — I saw her as a peer in the true-crime space.” As for her account of his language at the bar that evening in L.A., Jensen said hearing it “makes me ashamed — and I have previously apologized to her for over-the-top comments. Terra actually suggested to me in May that I go to rehab, which I am doing currently.”
Celene Beth Calderon-Olsen, a podcast host and victim advocate who has spoken openly about surviving rape, also alleges that Jensen acted inappropriately toward her in 2019. After the two bonded online over their mutual disappointment in a Netflix Ted Bundy documentary, Jensen and Calderon-Olsen met up on Nov. 8, 2019, in Washington, D.C., at the Death Becomes Us true crime and pop culture festival.
According to Calderon-Olsen, a group of festival participants were socializing in the bar of the Watergate Hotel, where they were staying for the event. “I remember walking in and Billy immediately grabbed me and started hugging me to the point where it was a little too long,” she says. “It was just kind of jarring because I actually had [seen] him an hour or two prior to this, and he didn’t have that same interaction. It was almost a different person when I saw him at the bar.” Everyone was drinking that night, Calderon-Olsen says, including her, adding that Jensen seemed particularly intoxicated.
At one point in the evening, Calderon-Olsen says she was talking with another man while Jensen stood behind her, when she felt him touch her head. “I felt [Jensen’s] hand just grab and smack, basically, the back of my head,” Calderon-Olsen says. She says he then took hold of her head in his hand. “Then I could feel him running his fingers through my hair,” she says. “It was this weird moment, almost being sandwiched between the two [men].”
Former police officer and criminal behaviorist Sarah Cailean, a friend of Calderon-Olsen’s who was also in attendance, recalls seeing Jensen touching Calderon-Olsen’s hair. “It was very awkward,” she says. “It wasn’t like he brushed past her. It was very obvious and pronounced, this sort of petting, stroking her hair. Her face was every bit as shocked and embarrassed as mine was.”
Calderon-Olsen says she had expected better from Jensen. “He’s well aware that I’m a survivor,” she says. “He’s very familiar that I’ve been outspoken about my rape. So again, to have somebody who is supposed to be well-versed in survivors and victim sensitivity, those boundaries were crossed.” Jensen, for his part, claims Calderon-Olsen is part of the “organized effort” to spread negative stories about him, a claim she denies and calls “irresponsible,” saying she only came out in support of his accuser at Exactly Right. Jensen says he has “no recollection of this moment as [Calderon-Olsen] describes it, other than that it was a friendly hug. I did not ‘smack’ or ‘grab’ the back of her head.” Saying that Calderon-Olsen never voiced any objection to him, Jensen says that he only found out about this allegation when he received a request for comment from Rolling Stone. As proof that he, Calderon-Olsen and Cailean continued to be “friends as normal” after the alleged incident, Jensen points to tweets Calderon-Olsen and Cailean tagged him and others in after the Death Becomes Us event. (“Thank you for a lovely time… looking forward to when we are all in one city again!,” reads Calderon-Olsen’s tweet. “What a fantastic night,” reads Cailean’s).
Two other sources allege that there had been whispers about Jensen in the true crime community well before Murder Squad was cancelled and allegations of Jensen’s inappropriate touching came to light. A former friend of Jensen’s, who says she had a falling out with him over reporting decisions he made in one of his podcasts, says that Jensen has long been known as a “missing stair” — as in, something you warn newcomers about so they don’t trip. “In various communities, there are people who are missing stairs. People who a whisper network will warn you about,” she says. “So, regarding Billy, there have been whispers for a long time, but he was just a drunk guy that hit on your friends.”
In the past two months, the community appears to be distancing itself from Jensen. The First Degree hosts told Rolling Stone he’s no longer part of the podcast. And the release of his upcoming book, Killers Amidst Killers: Hunting Serial Killers Operating Under the Cloak of America’s Opioid Epidemic, which had been scheduled for publication this summer, has been indefinitely delayed. And of course there’s the end of the Murder Squad.
Since the show’s ending, sources Rolling Stone spoke with say they have begun to re-examine their relationships with Jensen. Calderon-Olsen, the podcaster who bonded with Jensen over the Bundy documentary, hasn’t seen him since the alleged hair-touching incident in November 2019, but says they communicated a few times since then: once in December of that year, he let her know he’d mentioned a Bundy project she was working on in an interview he did. “I felt honored at the time he would do something like that for me, even though I was still stewing over what had just happened a few weeks prior,” she says. Another time he sent condolences after her close friend died. “Again, all these signs pointing to, he was a good guy.” She also says she reached out to him with a professional request on behalf of a production company she worked for, and acknowledges she tagged him in some social media posts. As the pandemic descended in 2020, they lost touch.
Newell says she cut ties with Jensen at the beginning of June when Jensen was in the process of helping her with a book she was working on. She had seen rumors circulating online about his behavior at the Halloween party, which made her rethink her interactions with him in the past, which she says she hadn’t quite yet processed. “That was really when it clicked for me that this behavior is not OK,” Newell says. Newell says she used to drink heavily in social situations and has since stopped, following her experience with Jensen. “This whole Billy thing coaxed me into one hundred percent not drinking anymore,” she says. “Because it has really been traumatic.”
This article has been updated to clarify an interaction between Newell and Jensen.
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