True crime lovers are often split on cold cases. Some love the mystery of “who done it?”, while others prefer a closed case with all the answers. But it’s probably safe to say that both camps would love to help solve a real case themselves. This is where The Murder Squad comes in. The newest podcast from Exactly Right (the podcasting network from the minds of Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark of My Favorite Murder) brings two popular and high-profile crime investigators, Paul Holes and Billy Jensen, together for a true crime fan’s dream project.
Billy Jensen worked on close friend Michelle McNamara’s Golden State Killer book, I’ll Be Gone in The Dark, and has his own audiobook, Chase Darkness with Me, coming out on Audible next month. Paul Holes is a now-retired detective who was instrumental in solving the Golden State Killer’s identity. Each week on their podcast, they’ll dive into two cases — one solved and one that’s still unsolved. After revealing the details of the unsolved case, they will direct the listeners on how they can help solve it. The first episode drops April 1st (and no, it is not a joke).
We spoke to the pair about the Golden State Killer case, pop culture’s crime boom, and how true-crime fans are starting to become citizen detectives.
You both have impressive crime backgrounds, especially surrounding the Golden State Killer case. How did your involvement in that case lead to this project?
Paul Holes: I started working on that case back in 1994 when it was just known as the East Area Rapist case. And then the East Area rapist was linked to the homicides by an offender who they knew as the original Night Stalker. Ultimately, it was Michelle McNamara, who was a true-crime writer [who worked with] Billy, that ended up writing an article renaming this offender the Golden State Killer. I remember arguing with Michelle saying, “We don’t need another moniker for this case,” but she had the foresight and the wisdom to understand that the previous monikers just weren’t captivating the public attention. It really was through Michelle that Billy and I got to know each other. After she passed away, I went down to Michelle’s memorial, and at the reception afterward, that’s when Billy and I first met.
Billy Jensen: Michelle and I had done a podcast together in 2013 called the Shadowpulp Radio Hour and we only did like four episodes, and then she got the book deal for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. We would meet every month and talk about the cases we were working on. It was a relationship really just built entirely on crime. We wanted to start a kind of Vidocq society for the West Coast. We were going to invite all of our law enforcement friends and friends of hers or her husband Patton [Oswalt]’s and get together to try to solve a cold case each month. So I was constantly like, “Come on, just finish the book.” Every time, there was always one more clue that she had to do. Then when she passed, I knew how hard she worked on it, it was a no-brainer, like I’m going to do anything I can to help finish the book. I started opening up all the Golden State Killer files and reached out to Paul. When we met at her memorial, obviously we talked about the Golden State Killer, but we also talked about familial DNA and how these cases potentially could be solved. I think that was pretty much the spark of the relationship and really of this podcast.
As you guys know, there is this huge issue with the backlog of missing-persons reports and unidentified remains. Why is that?
Paul: There are so many factors. Part of it is, these remains that have been recovered, they’re in such poor state. Right now we’re at that transition point from a technology standpoint to be able to cut into that sort of backlog of these cases.
Billy: There’s not one database that everything is sitting in. So the information’s actually sitting around in literally 19,000 different databases because there are 19,000 different law enforcement agencies. We’re not centralized and that’s a major problem. But there’s been a lot of success from citizen detectives. I don’t really call myself a citizen detective, since now I’m used as a consulting detective by police departments, but I was really the first kind of private citizen to solve multiple murders. These citizen detectives on Websleuths and on Reddit, they’re really getting together and figuring out who these people are. We’ve been in a true-crime kick now, where these shows and podcasts have been training people. Now they want to do something with all that expertise they all have from spending hundreds and hundreds of hours learning about this stuff. This podcast is their chance to get involved and actually start helping solve these cold cases.
Yeah, to that end, how exactly are you going to navigate your listeners to help solve these crimes in a sensible way? Is there concern about making sure they stay respectful to family members and people involved in the case?
Billy: We talk about the rules every week. There are rules that you have to follow as a citizen detective and the first one, bottom line, is you don’t name names in public. If you get a piece of information that can identify somebody, you don’t put it out in the public — you send it to us, if it’s a case that we’re working on, and then we’ll follow up with law enforcement, or you send it straight to law enforcement if you’re working on your own case. I can’t stress that enough. The rules are so important because if you break those rules, it could send the whole ship down. We give these rules each week to just keep them top of mind that this isn’t a game.
What makes for good true-crime reporting these days?
Paul: From my perspective, it’s making sure that what is being put out there is based in reality and in facts. You’re passing information to the public that is accurate. And it’s also being sensitive to the fact that these are real lives that have been impacted by these cases — there are cases where there are living victims; they’re going to be hearing their own stories.
Billy: I think a natural curiosity from the reporter on how to push the story forward. So, if you’re doing a case that has been done before, how are you going to push it forward? Say with Charles Manson, you get the Manson murders, but there were a lot of bodies that were being found in Los Angeles around the same time as Manson that some people think the family might have been involved with. Pushing the ball forward that way and taking a look at it differently and taking a look at something that not everybody is running to. That’s my biggest thing. So, it’s accuracy, trying to solve it, and then also trying to just do something that is different that hasn’t been done before. Don’t go back and reinterview the same people. Go and find that one person that nobody has been able to find.
Paul, you have stumbled into some fame after the Golden State Killer documentary. How do you feel about the #HotForHoles movement, and all the extra attention in general?
Paul: First, it’s flattering. It’s very nice that they look at me that way. But it’s also very surreal. I’m just a retired county employee. But everybody that I’ve met, Murderinos and other true-crime fans, they’ve all been super nice and very respectful. And that’s been very reassuring, because as an investigator, some people, like online sleuths, would get very upset with me if I didn’t follow their particular lead to their satisfaction. You start thinking that the public has a very negative perception of who you are and what you do, and the sacrifices you make trying to work a case. So, it’s been very pleasant, in terms of that attention, but it can also be a little uncomfortable at times. I’m still trying to figure that out.
What do you guys do when you need a break from murder?
Billy: We actually talk about this, at the end of the show, we do something similar to Karen and Georgia from My Favorite Murder, who do their “Fucking Hooray” segment. We do this thing called the Weekly Distraction, where we talk about what else we’re doing. Because our lives really are entirely crime investigation.
Paul: I have to get a workout in. That’s always been my outlet in terms of stress relief. I ended up buying a ten-year-old Jeep that I like to go out in the middle of nowhere and try and wrench on it a bit to kind of get it ready for some longer treks.
Billy: I play hockey. That’s one of the times when I can just turn off my brain and just make sure I’m not thinking about a case. That’s a good thing to do, because as soon as I get back on the bench, I’ll just be thinking about a case again.