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Field Reports

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” Michelle McNamara’s Investigation Into the Golden State Killer, Is In Stores Now

Posted February 27th, 2018 in Field Reports by Billy Jensen

Michelle McNamara was a writer first. Then she became a citizen detective. Then she merged the two and we can now finally say she is the author of a true crime classic.

 

After months of going through all of her documents and chapters and notes and emails, pulling and pushing and putting it all together, and then trying our best in part 3 to follow some of the strings she left us to get out of the maze, seeing her beautiful prose and intense research in hardcover felt amazing.

 

 

Then I opened the book and saw Michelle’s photo on the inside jacket, and it was like a sledgehammer hit my chest all over again.

 

It’s the same feeling I get when I get a solve–elation, followed immediately by sadness, because no matter what, it will not bring the victim back. We should be going out for drinks and celebrating this week. This is by all accounts the true crime book event of the year. It’s already being called a “true crime classic.” But it’s still…grrrr, I’ll be drinking tonight.

 

The book jacket photo is from the same shoot as the photo to the right. The last time I felt that sledgehammer was when I walked into Michelle’s memorial at Largo and saw this pic blown up, giant-sized. Then they played David Bowie, and now I can’t hear the opening snare drum of “Five Years” without thinking of this badass woman.

 

That day Patton, Paul and I vowed to do everything we could to bring Michelle’s work into the light. Today is the day the world can see what she was working on.

 

So buy the book. It’s really good. I mean really good. Like you’ll be stopping yourself over and over saying “damn, that’s a great paragraph” good. If you don’t believe me, read this review here:

 

What we discover, beautifully, is McNamara’s interest in human beings. There’s a spooky, suspenseful magic to the way the author constructs bite-sized short stories — tales of jealous siblings, happy young couples, impulsive children and “stony” parents — and infuses them with that lurking inevitability of terrible, potentially deadly crimes.Entertainment Weekly (David Canfield)

 

And here:

 

“This book had to be finished,” [Patton Oswalt] said in a telephone interview. “Knowing how horrible this guy was, there was this feeling of, you’re not going to silence another victim. Michelle died, but her testimony is going to get out there.”

 

Shortly after her death, Mr. Oswalt recruited Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, and Paul Haynes, who worked closely with Ms. McNamara on the book as a researcher, to comb through her handwritten notes and the roughly 3,500 files on her computer and piece together the story she set out to tell.

 

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” due out Feb. 27, is both a vivid and meticulous investigation of a twisted predator who terrorized quiet, upper middle-class communities in California for nearly a decade, and a wrenching personal account from a writer who became consumed by her subject. It’s drawn accolades from some of the country’s top crime and horror writers, including Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn, who wrote an introduction to the book.New York Times (Alexandra Alter)

 

And here:

 

​McNamara fascinatingly evokes the development of post-war Californian suburbia, “a predator’s paradise” where single-storey houses in communities planned by visionaries such as Joseph Eichler became “eerie” filmic tableaus, with their occupants displayed “like rare museum objects”.– The Independent (Alaisdar Lees)

 

And here:

 

By the time of her sudden death in 2016, McNamara had inspired an online community of sleuths who continue to research the crimes. With its exemplary mix of memoir and reportage, this remarkable book is a modern true crime classic.Publishers Weekly

 

And here:

 

McNamara’s background in fiction demonstrated itself in a superb ability to tell a story in a nonfiction context. She had a well-developed knack for presenting a situation in a single, memorable image. These ranged from a recollection of her mother in her beige armchair in the living room of their home, circling her finger in the air to tell Michelle’s friends ringing the doorbell to go around to the unlocked back door, to her description of retired homicide investigator Larry Crompton as looking “like the kind of tall, lean, honest-faced rancher John Wayne would have trusted in one of his Westerns.” New York Journal of Books (Michael J. McCann)

 

And here:

 

We don’t review much true crime at Crime Fiction Lover – our passion is for fiction – but this book is exceptional in the way it captures a specific time and place, as well as some unforgettable, if brief, character portraits of victims and police investigators. McNamara obtained her MFA in fiction writing, and, although her accounts of the victims’ lives and stories are factual, they have all the vivid descriptive power and fluency that fiction can bring to the reader. Not only does it give voice to the victims and their families, it also does a brilliant job recreating that atmosphere of panic that gripped the state during that time.– Crime Fiction Lover (Marina Sofia)

 

And here are the Amazon reviews.

 

And the Goodreads reviews.

 

I have started some social campaigns and geo-targeted buys (targeted to people who lived in the areas of the crimes but have since moved away across the world) to try and dig up any new information, like I promised I would do.

 

The book is finally be on the shelves, but that doesn’t mean Paul, Patton and myself are going to stop. We won’t stop until this guy is identified and brought to justice, even if he’s already shuffled off his mortal coil, little prick and all (you’ll have to read the book to get that reference).

 

And when we do catch the guy, I want to meet him. I want to show him that picture of Michelle and say to him “This is the woman that helped catch you.”

 

In the meantime, ride shotgun with Michelle on her journey to find him. She may have paused her investigation down here for a spell, but I’m sure she is up there interviewing people as we speak.

 

Order “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” here

 

Still need convincing? Here’s Stephen King’s review:

 

What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book. —Stephen King

 

 

Allenstown 4 Update: We have identified the killer, but still don’t know who he killed

Posted May 31st, 2017 in Uncategorized by Billy Jensen

I went back to New Hampshire to update my investigation on The Allenstown 4. We have answered the biggest question–Who is the killer? But with that answer came hundreds of more questions…and possibly more bodies.

Part 1

Part 2

Kimberly Long Murder Conviction Reversed: Credits Crime Watch Daily With Helping

Posted September 19th, 2016 in Field Reports by Billy Jensen
Kimberly Long's first interview since her murder conviction was overturned. The last time I spoke with her she was calling from a prison phone.

Kimberly Long’s first interview since her murder conviction was overturned. The last time I spoke with her she was calling from a prison phone.

 

As a journalist that focuses on unsolved cases, I get many of requests to attempt and prove someone’s innocence, but I have never taken one on. But when I found Kimberly Long’s case, there was just too much there to keep it in the dark.

 

In July 2015, I started my first television producing/investigating and on-camera gig by digging into the story of Kimberly Long, who was convicted of the 2003 murder of her live-in boyfriend Ozzy Conde.

 

The episode kicked off the second week of Crime Watch Daily’s first season. We laid out all the evidence–or rather lack thereof–for why Kimberly’s conviction should be overturned.

 

Nine months later, it happened. Kimberly walked out of prison.

 

Today, we kicked off the second week of Crime Watch Daily’s second season with Kimberly’s first interview since her conviction was overturned.

 

 

 

A Clearer Photo of the River North Puncher–Please Help ID

Posted July 25th, 2016 in Uncategorized by Billy Jensen

A Twitter user sent me this photo, which was apparently taken around the time of the incident. If you have any information on this man–his name or current whereabouts–please contact me. CoK5BvTWcAE3F8P 3

DB Cooper History Channel Special: FBI Interview Bonus Footage

Posted July 11th, 2016 in Field Reports by Billy Jensen

Last August I got a call from the History Channel asking me to investigate the DB Cooper mystery and vet a suspect that a team of citizen sleuths had uncovered.

 

I was paired with a former FBI man, assistant director Tom Fuentes, and together we traveled up to the Pacific Northwest to interview witnesses, former and current FBI agents, scientists, and a host of other people involved with the Cooper saga. We probably conducted around 25 interviews in total, and met some real interesting folks. The four-hound special: DB Cooper: Case Closed? airs tonight on History.

 

Here is a bonus video from our interview with retired FBI special agents John Detlor and Robert Furhiman, who were on the ground at SEATAC the night of the hijacking.

 

Waking Up At The Disney World Hotel I Have Tattooed On My Leg To Go Interview Survivors At The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

Posted June 19th, 2016 in Field Reports by Billy Jensen

When you have tattoos, people ask you what they mean. I have a Tonka truck bulldozer on my back, with my son’s name on it. It is driving up from my side and recreating the scar my son got from the heart surgery he had as a baby. On my right tricep is a quill pen, because no matter what job I am doing, I will always identify myself as a writer and storyteller first. On my left forearm is a magnifying glass, because I am an investigator and am forever attempting to uncover true crime mysteries. And on my lower left leg is the monorail coming out of The Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World.

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My monorail and Contemporary Hotel tattoo, by Brucius.

I can explain the first three pretty easily, but the fourth is the one that raises the most eyebrows. “Why would you get a tattoo of a Disney hotel?” That story takes a little more time to tell.

 

When I was little, my Dad worked a lot. All day he painted houses (I know that since I am a true crime writer, I have to clarify that I don’t mean “painting houses” in the mob sense. I am talking about actually painting houses.) And as a painting contractor who owned his own business, he had to go out on nights and weekends to do estimates—look at rich people’s houses, and give them a price (in the thousands of dollars) for what it would cost for him to put “colored liquid on their houses,” as he once called it.

 

Because the estimates were often at the whim of the homeowners, I never knew what time they were happening. So when I would ask my Dad if we could do something—go to the toy store to get a new Star Wars figure I wanted, go to the rocket ship playground, go to the Islander game—he would always reply “maybe.” Now keep in mind, the “maybes” almost always turned to “yesses.” But there was always this uncertainty. I was always having to share my Dad with his work. Except at Disney World.

 

He first took me to Disney World when I was a two-year-old boy. When we there every February, my Dad was all mine. When I would ask “Can we go on the Pirate’s of The Caribbean,” the answer was always “Yes.” Can we go to the hotel arcade? “Yes.” The Mystery Fun House? “Yes.”

 

I was 12 the last time he took me to Disney, and for the first time we stayed at the Contemporary Hotel–the hotel that the monorail rides straight through. We rode every ride. We played every game in the arcade. And there were no maybes.

 

Dad and me at Disney Contemporary Hotel.

Dad and me at Disney Contemporary Hotel.

 

We never got to go back again.

 

My Dad died 2 months after my daughter was born. A rip-off. That’s the term that pops into my mind whenever I think about him dying: A rip-off. He didn’t get to see most of the things that I have done in my career. Mike Myers said it best when his dad died. It’s like winning chips at the craps table when you do great things in life. But cashing those chips in? That’s what happens when you tell your dad about it. That’s how I feel. But the biggest rip-off is him not being able to hang out with his grandchildren. He would have loved to take his grandkids to the arcade, the little amusement parks, the playgrounds, and most of all, Disney World.

 

When our kids were 3 and 5, I was making $27,500 at the Village Voice. But I HAD to take the kids to Disney. So I went on eBay and sold one of the few things my father left me when he died: His Lionel Mickey Mouse Train set (along with a mint, in-the-box Kenner Star Wars Death Star I had been saving for the kids). That gave us enough money to scrape together a trip. We couldn’t afford to stay at the Contemporary, but we had a great time, with his spirit by our side the whole time, and doing the thing he always liked to do: Going to the further reaches of the park at closing time and making them kick us out, being the last people in the park. I told that story in his eulogy.

 

Thirteen years later, my daughter was graduating high school and I asked her what she would want for her graduation present. She said she wanted to go back to Disney World.

 

I set about building the best trip possible, planning everything to the last minute. We would stay at different hotels close to the parks—The Boardwalk, The Animal Kingdom Lodge, and then we would end the trip at The Contemporary. It would be one last hurrah for a little kid before she goes to college.

 

So we arrived at Disney, and started riding the rides. We went to an obscenely expensive princess dinner at Epcot, and challenged each other at the Toy Story Mania ride at Hollywood Studios.

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Zoe, Snow White and me and the most expensive non-alcoholic meal I have ever had.

 

On Sunday morning, we woke up at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, looked out our window at the zebras and giraffes, and went to breakfast.

 

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The view outside our window at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.

 

On our way to the restaurant I checked my phone and learned what happened at the Pulse Nightclub seven hours earlier. Twenty people were reported dead at that time. My heart sunk. But at breakfast, at the happiest place on earth, you would never know anything bad had happened. Cast members were still smiling, loading carved ham onto our all-you-can-eat plates. Families were either unaware, or trying to forget what that 20 people had been slaughtered less than 20 miles away, so their kids could enjoy their vacation. Me? I felt anger.

 

But one of the redeeming things about being a journalist is that when something horrible happens, the one emotion you rarely feel is hopelessness. When something horrible happens, as a journalist, you have something to do–even if it seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

 

You can go tell a story.

 

Amidst all of the pain, there is always a story of hope or heroism than can–and should–be told. Flashing through my mind that morning was the quote from Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

 

The show I work on, Crime Watch Daily, had gone on hiatus just two days before. But I sent my producers a note saying that I was down here and could help in any way possible.

 

In the time it took to send the note and check the news again, the death count had climbed from 20 to 50.

 

We left breakfast, and checked out of the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The plan was to head to the monorail and ride it to the Contemporary, where we would check into the hotel that reminds me of my dad. The hotel that I have tattooed on my leg.

 

One of the favorite things Dad and I liked to do at Disney was to rent the little boats and ride around the lakes. It is the one time you can go pretty much anywhere you want—there are no lines, no people telling you to go this way or that. You can explore, and my Dad loved to explore. He also loved to break the rules. We rented a boat once on Lake Buena Vista, and we drove under a bridge into a cove. At the front of the bridge was a sign, waving in the wind. We couldn’t read what it said, but we kept going. We wound up on a golf course, with golf balls flying over our head. As we returned, we past under the bridge and got a better look at the sign. “No Boats Past This Point” became a mantra in our family any time we started to do something against the rules.

 

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Zoe and I shared a boat, and explored the abandoned Discovery Island and River Country, then drove into Seven Seas Lagoon. And sure enough, as my daughter was trying to get as close as possible to the Magic Kingdom train station, harbor patrol sped up to us and told us to vacate the area, as we had disregarding the buoys. We hadn’t seen them. Honest.

 

When we were pulling up to the dock, I checked my phone and saw a note from one of my producers, asking if I could go to the scene at Pulse and work the story for our sister show, Extra.

 

I went upstairs to our room, took a shower, called a Lyft and headed off. The Magic Kingdom would have to wait. My kids understood.

 

When I got to the scene, the TV crews had been set up for hours. I met my crew and searched for anyone we could talk to. 

 

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The holes used by SWAT to break into the back of the Pulse Nightclub.

In an effort talk to anyone whose story hadn’t been already told, we went down a side street and walked to the closest spot to the club that we could.Our sound technician snapped a photo of the holes the SWAT team poked into the wall to breach the building and get people out. The police had put up temporary fencing to cover the parking lot of the club, but there were just two international photographers taking photos of the dead as they were being wheeled out in white sheets. For a split second, my first reaction was that this was exploitative. But that moved quickly to more anger, moved to wanting people to see what these guns can do. To thinking that instead of their”thoughts and prayers,” every law maker should be forced to tour the inside of the club to see first hand what these guns can do. 

A photographer a photograph of a crime scene investigator after he placed the body of one of the 49 dead into a white van.

A photographer takes a photograph of a crime scene investigator after he placed the body of one of the 49 dead into the white van.

Two white vans carrying the dead drove past us.

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Interviewing the homeowner closest to Pulse Nightclub, who watched the entire scene unfold from his balcony.

I found the gentleman who lives closest to the nightclub, who heard the first shots and spent the three hours of the siege watching from his balcony, closer than any news crew. He showed me the video he took on his phone of the final raid. It was nothing but light flashes and a cacophony of bullets.

 

I went back to the Contemporary, these words and images banging around my head, but still wanting to ride the Monorail and spend some time with my son at this ridiculously expensive hotel. I was trying to capture the same feelings I felt with my dad when I on the cusp of being a teenager, hoping my son would get the same feelings and recreate them with his kids. It felt forced, but there moments. We had as good a time as we could, and I went to sleep at midnight.

 

I have strange dreams about Disney–been having them my whole life. They usually contain a story line where I am really close to the Magic Kingdom, but can’t get inside for some reason, and I am scrambling to find a way in. Sometimes I actually enter the park, but it looks all different, with twisted rides and attractions.

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On Monday morning, I woke up at 5am at the Contemporary Hotel, took the elevator downstairs past the monorail station, and climbed into a Lyft to take me to the murder scene.

 

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Christopher Hansen was a hero at the Pulse shooting.

There, I was able to talk to Christopher Hansen. He was at Pulse that night, and dropped to the floor when the man next to him was shot. After he escaped, he helped a man who had been shot in the arm, taking off his bandana to apply pressure. Then he saw the bullet hole in his back. He then used the bandana to put pressure on the wound until help arrived. He has no idea if he survived, but would not forget him. He remembers he has a chest tattoo. When the names are released, he told me he is going to go through all of the photos to find him. I couldn’t help but hug him after we talked.

With Billy Manes.

With Watermark Media Editor-In-Chief Billy Manes.

I found Billy Manes, former Orlando Weekly columnist and one of the biggest voices in the LGBT community in Orlando. I had only talked to him on facebook before.

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I spoke to a woman outside the hospital visiting her cousin who had been shot. A man who was at the club alone and had managed to get out. Even a man who had grown up with the shooter.

 

Only one person I spoke with mentioned the words “ISIS” or “terrorism.” Every person I spoke with mentioned the words “hate” and “guns.” Easy access to guns. They were all resilient. They were all clear that at the end of the day, love would trample hate.

It was incredibly hot outside. I was wearing jeans. Jeans are what I wore at Disney the last time I went with my Dad, because as a kid I hated my skinny legs. That day, they were drenched with sweat. I took a break and walked into a bank that had set up waters and cookies for the media. Exhausted, I sat down and took a cold drink. After my third gulp, I looked out the window and saw a Benjamin Moore Paint sign on the store across the street. That was the brand my Dad used, the colored liquid my he bought thousands of gallons of, that put me through college and let me have those Disney trips with him.

 

He wore pants in the 100 degree every day as he painted houses for 30 years before he was taken too young. I heard my Dad’s booming voice: “Ok, you’re hydrated. Now go back out and get some more stories. Let’s go.”

 

I did.

 

We wrapped at 4pm. I took a car back to the hotel. I wanted to recreate the photo of me and my dad at the Contemporary, so I grabbed my son and we took this picture.

Top: Dad and me at the Contemporary Hotel. Bottom, my son and me at the Contemporary Hotel.

Top: Dad and me at the Contemporary Hotel. Bottom, my son and me at the Contemporary Hotel.

 

I just hope I am making him proud.

 

We spent the next day at the Magic Kingdom. We left before it even got dark, and took the monorail to the Polynesian Hotel on the Seven Seas Lagooon. We put our feet in the water and watched the storm roll in. Maybe it was the strong cocktails from Trader Sam’s, but for the first time it felt like a vacation.

 

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We learned later that night that 15 minutes and 300 yards from where I took this photo, a two-year-old boy playing in the sand was snatched by an alligator.

 

A fucking alligator.

 

 

 

Sending as much love as I can to the families and friends of the victims of the Pulse, the family of the little boy, and to everyone who has ever lost anyone to violence. Now we need to package that love with action. That is the only way to make change. 

The Bear Brook Murders

Posted May 25th, 2016 in Investigations by Billy Jensen

 

 

The Allenstown Four. The Bear Brook Murders. The Family in Barrels.

 

The crime goes by many names, but one thing that is certain–it is one of the most horrendous and baffling crimes in American history. Four bodies–one woman, and three little girls–found in two barrels years apart. It is later learned that three of the four victims are related. How does a family just disappear with no one looking for them?

 

I traveled to the crime scene and met with a citizen detective who has worked countless hours trying to crack the case, and also went to DC to meet with the forensic artist who is trying to give a face to the victims.

 

 

Behind the scenes

 

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Walking into the NCMEC building in Virginia.

 

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Walking the trail in Allenstown.

 

 

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Using the original crime scene photos to line up where the bodies were found.

 

 

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Twitter sleuths—and one real detective—join forces after an assault in Philadelphia to help police arrest three suspects

Posted May 1st, 2016 in Uncategorized by Billy Jensen

It was by all accounts a brutal beating.

 

On September 11, 2014, 28-year old Zachary Hesse and his 27-year old boyfriend Andrew Haught were going out for pizza on a Thursday night in Philadelphia’s trendy Center City neighborhood. They walked past a group of about a dozen well-dressed males and females. Clean cut, preppy types. The women in dresses. The men in oxfords and polos, one in a loud orange vest.

 

There was bumping. According to testimony in the criminal case that followed, words were exchanged. “Is that your fucking boyfriend?!” one of the people in the large group yelled. “Yeah he is my fucking boyfriend. Do you have a problem with that?” replied Hesse. “So you’re a dirty, fucking faggot?” said one of the men. “Maybe I am a dirty, fucking faggot,” said Hesse.
Then it went haywire. The assailants allegedly yelled, “You dirty faggot!” as punches and kicks rained down on the two men. At one point, Hesse claimed his hands were held while a woman in a white dress scratched his face, yelling, “Fuck you faggot!”
Haught eventually passed out in a pool of his own blood.

 

Hesse and Haught spent the night at Hahnemann Hospital, Haught in surgery with two broken cheekbones, getting his jaw wired shut and patching up the deep lacerations on his face.

 

Police analyzed a video surveillance tape of the individuals they believed were part of the attack, but could not identify them. So they released the tape to the public. The case then morphed into one of the best examples to date of crowdsourcing leading to an arrest. And it was the Twitter relationship between a snarky sports blogger and a police detective that was one of the main keys to the tale.

 

@FanSince09 is the Twitter handle of a Philadelphia sports fan who wishes to remain anonymous. In the fall of 2014, he had around 6,000 followers—mostly Philly sports fans who would read his often sarcastic tweets about local sports. But when one of his followers tweeted the CCTV video of the alleged assailants, he felt compelled to act.
“I just felt that it was shocking cause it was young people. But that’s my demographic—I would say predominantly guys in their twenties who are white. And I said ‘ok, well these are guys in their twenties, who are white. I’m sure somebody knows them.’ It made me mad. I don’t like people being picked on.”

 

@FanSince09 has used his Twitter account for justice in the past. When Philadelphia Flyer Wayne Simmonds, who is black, scored a goal against the Boston Bruins, racist comments peppered Twitter. “If you surfed Wayne Simmonds and the N word, you would find people screaming it. So I would retweet it, (and say) “Oh, look through their pictures, their employer is there, their school is in there, they play for a jr. hockey league, here’s all their coaches’ contact information. And just kind of tweet it out there, and people would email their coaches—‘hey, you have a player saying this kind of stuff.’”

 

A month before the attack, he had retweeted the many offensive tweets directed against female Little League phenom Mo’ne Davis, in the hopes of exposing the people behind the racist, sexist and homophobic comments.

 

So while he was at work (his job is one of the reasons why he doesn’t want to be identified) on Sept. 16, @FanSince09 began tweeting out links to the video. He also reached out to friends with larger Twitter followings, direct messaging Philadelphia Eagles lineman Evan Mathis and asking for him to spread the word to his 100,000 followers.

 

Mathis did, and @FanSince09’s Twitter DMs began to fill up.

 

“I started getting: ‘Hey, here’s a possible name.’ I was trying to verify all names. I would say maybe 45 minutes after we started, this guy Greg Bennett posted the picture of the entire group in this restaurant.”

 

Bennett is a former cast member of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, and his run on the reality show earned him more than 166,000 Twitter followers. He declined to be interviewed, but answered questions publicly over Twitter, saying that he posted the link to the video and “A person (still don’t know who it was) was trying to get it to police and couldn’t, so it got passed on to me thru a few people.”

 

The photo sent to Bennett showed a group of about two dozen well-dressed white men and women in posing in front of a stone wall in what looks like a restaurant. It appears to be a party, as there are balloons in the frame—and right there, peeking out from behind balloons, is a guy in a bright orange vest. It looked very similar to the vest one of the persons of interest was wearing in the initial photos the police released.
@FanSince09 tweeted out the photo, and almost immediately his followers identified where it was taken.

 

“People started saying, ‘Oh, hey, it’s this restaurant La Viola,’ referring to a family-owned Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood.

 

Now in full detective mode, @FanSince09 switched over to Facebook, went toLa Viola’s Facebook page, and scanned it to see if anyone had checked into the restaurant on the night of Sept. 11. “I went through there and saw anybody who fit the bill, and saw who they were friends with.”

 

He compiled a list of names of people whose profile pictures looked like the individuals in the photo. But instead of tweeting them out to the general public, he sent them via direct message to his Twitter buddy, a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department named Joe Murray, with the caveat: “I’m not 100 percent sure, looks like it could be a match.”

 

At the same time, a follower messaged @FanSince09, writing “’Hey, I go to school with all those people and here are their names,’ and it matched to one of the names on Facebook.”

 

“So I went right to Joe after that and said, “This person doesn’t want to talk to the police directly, but here’s who the party is for.’”

 

The whole process—from when @Fansince09 sent his first tweet about the incident to when he sent names over to Murray—took about two hours.

 

“I was trying to keep everybody calm during this,” says @FanSince09. “I could have tweeted out every single profile people gave me and people would have been harassed for no reason.”
Once all the names had been delivered privately, he couldn’t help but tweet: “If you’re going to gay bash don’t fill your FB profile with gay slurs and also delete that restaurant check in from earlier.” He was still a snarky sports guy. But he didn’t name names in public.

 

“This was so delicate, but it had to be handled the right way…and it helps that I was already friends with Joe.”

 

And that was the reason why the justice hunt did not turn into a witch hunt like the one that occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Detective Murray, a Philly sports fan, was a follower of @FanSince09. The two had even met and tailgated at Phillies games.

 

Murray has used the Internet for more than a decade to reach out to the public, first through message boards and a personal email list he used to send out with crime information. In 2009, he moved to Twitter.

 

A special investigations detective working non-fatal shootings and commercial gunpoint robbery in West and Southwest Philly, Murray became a mini-celebrity in the neighborhoods he patrolled, becoming known as “The Twitter Cop.” His feed talks about him staying up late to watch Big Trouble in Little China, gives information on missing persons and offers thoughts from the job like “When you google your judge and all of the images are a bunch of sad people walking out of the courthouse you may want to flee to Honduras.”

 

“I’m in the unique position as a detective, where I can do more than a cop can, more than a boss can. I have the ability to get shit absolutely done,” Murray says.
Three years ago, the powers that be actually had Murray pull his Twitter account altogether. A citizen started a petition to urge the department to get Murray and the handle he was using at the time, @TheFuzz9143, back on the microblogging site. The department eventually relented—with Murray using a new handle, @PPDJOEMURRAY—and rolled out a social media program that allowed for detectives to have their own personal accounts.

 

Through the years, Murray says, tips from Twitter have helped him solve break-ins and shootings. The Center City beating did not happen on his beat—but that didn’t matter to him. “I work in the hood, I really don’t get that cooperation. But I encourage people, even if it is anywhere in the city, to reach out to me.”

 

Murray was in a criminal justice class (he is earning a degree) when he received a text message telling him to look at his twitter. He was aware of the beating, which took place near his home, and when he opened up the app on his phone he found many DMs from @FanSince09. “He is private messaging me. 9:30 at night. I am in my car, in a parking lot, just looking at all the stuff. And I forward to my buddies [involved in the investigation].”

 

Murray says that the detectives had a lead in the case, but the “social media stuff helped a ton…This is a big deal. People want to help.”

 

Two days later, Kathryn Knott, 24, daughter of Chalfont Borough Police Chief Karl Knott; Kevin Harrigan, 26, and Phillip Williams, 24 were brought in for questioning. And on Sept. 25, they were arrested and charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.

 

Even before the arrests, Murray tweeted, “This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops. I will take a couple thousand Twitter detectives over any one real detective any day.”

 

The three were not charged with a hate crime—because Pennsylvania hate crime law did not include lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender citizens.  But after the alleged attack, gay rights supporters pressed for a change in the law, and in early October, a bill, sponsored by state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia) was approved by the House Judiciary Committee to expand the law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and mental and physical disabilities.

 

There is a good chance the spotlight on the crime and the unique way it was solved will lead to legislative change. “My point of this whole thing is I put myself out there for this reason. I want to be a direct connection to people so they can reach out to me. This really sealed it for me. I felt great that it actually worked,” says Murray.

 

Most every large city police department has an official Twitter account, “but they also have that caveat—call 911 during an emergency, this is not monitored 24/7,” says Murray. “I wonder how much of it is public relations and trying to be cool and how much is actually trying to get a job done and build trust. It will actually hurt you. If you put up some bullshit social media account that’s not monitored, that you don’t really follow, that you’re not aggressive with it.”

 

People now send @FanSince09 unsolved crime information to retweet, and while he will always oblige, he knows that it’s a long shot.

 

“Every aspect lined up and it was like ‘Cool, I can do something about this.’ Where other people send me stuff, it’s more of a shot in the dark.”

 

The suspects are currently scheduled to go on trial in September. Their lawyers have reportedly been discussing plea deals with prosecutors.

 

A few months after his Twitter presence helped with the investigation, Murray was in the office of his superiors again—and again was getting harassed at for his account on the site.

 

“A kid (West Chester University Senior Shane Montgomery) walked out of a bar, fell into the canal and drowned, cause he was so fucking drunk he had no idea where he was.
“I don’t know what his mindset was at the time. Did he not have enough money for a cab? I don’t know. Maybe there was a small chance he didn’t have a ride home. I said, ‘You know what, if anyone ever feels like they are too fucking drunk to drive, or you just can’t get a ride home cause you’re hammered, give me a call; I’ll make sure you get a ride home. And I would. If I’m working I’d get you an Uber.’”

 

So he sent a tweet: “We’ve all been there. We’ve all made bad decisions.” Then he listed his personal phone number and continued, “That’s my cell. Call or text. Not bothering me at all.”

 

Afterwards, he said, “I got called into the bosses’ office. They said, ‘You can’t do this. We’re not a taxi service. You can be totally held liable.’ I said, ‘You know what, you totally miss the fucking point.’”

 

“I yessed them to death. And a week later I get called to the fucking city hall to get the biggest award you can get for a city employee.”

 

“That’s my Twitter account,” says Murray. “Yelled at for one thing, and getting some fucking award the next week. But I don’t care. That shows me I’m doing the right thing.”

 

Michelle McNamara, True Crime Writer

Posted April 23rd, 2016 in Field Reports by Billy Jensen

Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara was dogged. Fiercely dogged. Don’t-take-no-for-an-answer, don’t-leave-any-stone-unturned dogged.

 

She was a mother and a wife, but after she took her daughter to school or put her to bed, she spent seemingly every waking moment working on her book about a series of unsolved rapes and murders that took place across California in the ’70s and ’80s. Her ultimate goal? To identify the villain, to give the real name to the unknown assailant who goes by the monikers “The Original Night Stalker” and “The East Area Rapist.” She had written about the case in Los Angeles Magazine–where she rechristened him “The Golden State Killer”–and on her site, True Crime Diary.

 

Every month or so we would meet for lunch or drinks, where she would tell me about the latest clue she had uncovered–some bit of information that had been missed all those years ago. Her eyes lit up like Christmas as she walked me down the path of how the new clue might fit into the ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle she was putting together.

 

Then we would meet the next month, where she would excitedly tell me how that piece fit into the picture… or how it sent her down one of many rabbit holes.

 

She was unearthing an intense amount of information–boxes and boxes full of documents and police reports, old phone books, news articles. The kind of stuff you just can’t google. She went digging– into dusty archives, newspaper morgues. She knocked on doors. Shoe-leather work.

 

But her most amazing skill–what set her apart from any writer I have ever seen–was getting grizzled detectives from different police departments and law enforcement agencies to talk to each other and share details about their individual cases–something they never did at the time of the crimes. If they did, they could have helped solve the case and brought this serial killer to justice. But they are doing it now, because of Michelle. It’s not always easy talking to detectives about a cold case they worked on. It’s their unfinished businesses. Imagine if someone called you up to get you to talk about a project you failed to complete 40 years ago. Now imagine telling that person no. Now imagine that person not going away until you talked to them about it. Now you have an idea of Michelle.

 

She knew more about this case than anyone, and I truly believe she would have solved it. Hell, I bet she already has solved it. I bet she has the name of the bastard in one of her thousands of pages of notes. She texted me earlier this month saying she had a real good lead on a suspect. “A lot of tiny details in his favor,” she wrote. “We’ll see. Have been here before. But God I would be so happy.”

 

I don’t know what is going to happen to the book, but If asked I would do my damndest to help get it out there. I know our mutual friend and fellow crime writer Steve Huff feels the same way.

 

After the book was finished, Michelle and I were going to start a cold case group, a sort of Los Angeles Vidocq Society, where we would invite the smartest people we knew from Hollywood, law enforcement and journalism to a dinner one night a month and review an unsolved murder case. We would then give each person a task, and at the next meeting would present their findings, which we would deliver to law enforcement before introducing the next case.

 

Michelle was really excited to do this, as was I. We were building a list of people to invite and a list of cases to work. The only thing we didn’t know was what to call this little group. The Vidocq Society was named after the French criminal-turned-detective who is credited with ushering in a new era of detective work. Michelle was ushering a new era of citizen sleuthing, and her investigation is going to illustrate what a dogged woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer could do for justice. If I can ever muster up the strength to start this group without her, I guess I now know what it will be called.

 

 

Update: 826LA–which teaches kids creative writing out of the back of the Time Travel Mart in Echo Park–has set up a page to make a donation in Michelle’s name. On top of being a great investigator, Michelle was a fantastic writer. She merged her creative writing skills with true crime facts to build a different type of crime storytelling.

 

In this age of bytes and screens, we need to get a pen and piece of paper into more kids’ hands–and some guidance from fun, talented teachers. That’s what 826LA does, so please think about donating in Michelle’s name–so we can foster the next generation of true crime writers.

 

Bill-Jensen-Michelle-Mcnamara

Michelle and I at SXSW in 2014 for our panel, Solving Murders With Social Media. 

The “Hardy Boys of Utah” Who Spent Christmas Vacation Searching For A Fugitive

Posted March 9th, 2016 in Field Reports, Investigations by Billy Jensen

My Crime Watch Daily story on the park ranger who was shot nine times and left for dead in the hills of Utah, the fugitive who escaped authorities for five years, and the Eagle Scout and his teenage brother who used their skills to track him down.