How a famous true-crime journalist and podcast host honed his calling at KU
photo by: Contributed/Billy Jensen
Billy Jensen had never visited the state before he accepted a scholarship at the University of Kansas to get his master’s degree in religious studies.
For the short time he lived in Lawrence, though, the now-famous true crime journalist and podcaster was able to hone his interest in crime through his study of new religious movements known as cults.
But beyond his studies, living in Lawrence taught Jensen about growing up, he told the Journal-World.
His time as a graduate student at KU is where he learned many of the skills and developed the interests that later resulted in starting a friendship with the woman who helped catch one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers, authoring his own New York Times bestselling book and launching an investigative podcast on the same network as the wildly popular “My Favorite Murder” series.
Time at KU
Jensen attended KU and lived in Lawrence for 20 months from 1996 to 1997. Over two decades later, he still marvels at all he accomplished.
His impact at the university is still felt today, as he helped create KU’s club ice hockey team. Jensen was a roller hockey player in his hometown of Long Island, N.Y., but the university had no place to play.
So Jensen put together a budget, pitched it to the KU clubs division, and the roller hockey club became a reality. In his second year at the university, he merged roller hockey with ice hockey, and the hockey team as it stands today was formed.
“It was really sort of an important part of my becoming an adult, starting that hockey team,” Jensen said.
Jensen also got engaged and married while living in Lawrence, served as a teaching assistant for a Greek and Roman mythology course, got his master’s degree and worked a full-time job in Lenexa, all while training for the FBI.
“With the FBI, what I was thinking is I could use my cult (education) background and all of that — that would be my entry point into it,” he said. “In trying to think of what I wanted to study, the crime element was always in the back of my mind even though I wasn’t doing it in college. That sort of merged together with what my degree was in, and the crime stuff, so they were kind of intersecting.”
Jensen was drawn to KU through Tim Miller, now a professor emeritus of religious studies at the university. When reached, Miller said he didn’t keep in touch with Jensen nowadays but has fond memories of him as a student.
“I’ve always liked to have students do field work — don’t just read books, but go out and interview people and publicize what you learn,” Miller told the Journal-World in an email. “So I would say he’s still doing the kinds of things he did while he was in Lawrence. He was really good at finding what he was looking for, and he still is.”
Jensen and his wife had to leave Lawrence rather abruptly after his dad became sick, and Jensen was ultimately forced to abandon his plan to join the FBI. Instead, he moved back to Long Island and began to cover crime stories on the weekend for the New York Times.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”
What truly catapulted Jensen’s current career as a true crime investigative journalist came through his friendship with the late author Michelle McNamara, he said.
McNamara, the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, was a renowned true crime writer most famous for her work in tracking the Golden State Killer — a notoriously elusive serial killer, burglar and rapist who was active in California from 1974 to 1986. Authorities struggled for decades to catch the man, and the case went cold until McNamara’s reporting reignited public interest.
McNamara coined the name Golden State Killer after years of painstaking work documenting every aspect of the case. When McNamara died unexpectedly in April 2016, she was still in the process of writing “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” about her quest to find the serial killer.
At her memorial service in Los Angeles, Jensen told Oswalt he wanted to help finish the book, which would later stay on the New York Times Bestseller list for 15 weeks.
“It was a very surreal scene,” Jensen said of McNamara’s memorial. “I’m not used to being around celebrities, but “Weird Al” Yankovic was there, and Conan O’Brien and John Mulaney were there because she was married to Patton Oswalt.”
But perhaps most important to Jensen was the relationship he formed with Paul Holes, a retired cold-case detective in Contra Costa County, Calif., who had been one of McNamara’s main sources while she was working on “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
At the memorial, Jensen said he and Holes began talking about what other cases Holes was working on. This led the two to discuss the Bear Brook murders, in which four young women were killed and left in barrels in the late 1970s, but not discovered until 1985 and 2000.
The familial DNA technology that ultimately solved the Bear Brook murders case, Jensen said, is the one Holes would later use as the lead detective in solving the Golden State Killer case.
Jensen, Holes, Oswalt and researcher Paul Haynes worked together to finish McNamara’s book, which was released in February 2018, two years after her death and two months before authorities arrested then-72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo for the decades-old crimes.
On the press tour following the book’s release, Jensen met Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, hosts of the popular “My Favorite Murder” podcast. Jensen later brought Holes on an episode of “My Favorite Murder” to surprise Kilgariff, and Kilgariff asked Jensen to get in touch if he ever wanted to host his own podcast.
Jensen did just that, as he and Holes now host a podcast called “The Murder Squad,” on Kilgariff and Hardstark’s “Exactly Right” network. The two use their various areas of expertise — Jensen’s ability to use crowdsourcing to investigate and write about crime and Holes’ technical detective skills — to profile and attempt to solve famous cold cases.
The podcast launched last December, four months after Jensen released his own New York Times bestseller, “Chase Darkness With Me,” and he said he wanted the podcast to be an extension of the book.
“We recorded a pilot and then it was off to the races,” he said.
‘I just hated the guy who got away with it’
Jensen admits that his relationship with his father is what first piqued his interest in the stories behind crime. His father was an ex-convict who later turned his life around, and the natural way for Jensen to get his attention was to talk about the crime stories on the evening news.
“Growing up, my dad was always telling me about cases. I didn’t need podcasts; I had my dad,” he said. “You don’t have to really be Freud to figure out this is why I’m doing this, to get my dad’s attention even though he’s gone.”
When he first started reporting on crimes, writing those weekend stories for the New York Times, Jensen said he realized he didn’t want to make a career out of cases that had already been solved. There was something that always drew him to the cases that didn’t have an answer.
“There was nothing there for me,” he said. “I wanted to push the story forward, so that’s what I started to do. I started writing stories about unsolved murders.”
photo by: Contributed/Billy Jensen
Now, true crime is what drives Jensen in his day-to-day life. After McNamara died, he simply got “fed up.”
“I just hated the guy who got away with it,” he told the Journal-World. “But the only problem with writing stories about unsolved murders or missing persons is you don’t have an ending. You can be the greatest writer in the world, but you don’t have an ending.”
Jensen once came across a case of a killing in Chicago, where there was clear video of the attack, but officials couldn’t catch the killer. There was no ending to this victim’s case, so Jensen decided to find it himself.
“I just said, ‘I’m going to catch this guy, I’m going to catch this killer.’ And it worked,” he said.
That case is one of the first Jensen details in his book, but the desire to solve the unsolvable cases is something that dates back even before his time at KU.
“It’s been something that has been 20 years coming,” he said. “I’ve been trying to solve them for a really long time; I just came up with a system in order to figure out how to do it.”