true crime

When True Crime Gets Personal

Photo: Amazon

By design, writing a book is a solitary affair.

You can do your research in the city streets, conduct your interviews in crowded coffee shops, huddle with your editor in dimly lit bars. But at the end of the day, it’s you alone with your words. And maybe a bottle. And The Office streaming in the background as you try to articulate what it is you’re trying to tell the world.

After months and months, you finish it — well, it’s never really finished, but you ship it. Then about a year later, that snarling, insatiable beast that you have been feeding and attempting to tame is unleashed upon the world, with a whimper or a roar. The book tour, the best-seller list, the airport flu, the airport bars, the hotel bars, the bar bars. It cascades into a blur.

And then the letters arrive.

When you get a letter (now it’s an email) after writing a book about crimes that have actually occurred, tearing it open is a mixture of Christmas-morning hope and first-day-of-school dread.

Is it a tip to an unsolved case I covered? Is it a hater just wanting to watch the world burn? Is it a family member upset with the way I worded one sentence about their loved one? Or is it family member of a murder victim I have never heard of, asking for help? The majority are the latter, and there are 220,000 families looking for answers. That’s how many unsolved murders there are since 1980.

When I approach a family member of a victim for a case, I don’t introduce myself as a journalist, but as a victim’s advocate. My goal is not to tell a story, but to get them justice. I attempt to work with the detectives. The relationships between these roles are often close, too close to the “story” for it to be considered journalism. If a story does present itself out of the process, then so be it. But even though there is nothing more powerful in the world than a story, a story is not the end game.

Chase Darkness With Me is broken into two pieces — me trying for 15 years to solve crimes as a journalist, and failing. Then me actually solving a homicide and forging a new path beyond journalism. The narrative pivots at the case of Marques Gaines. Marques was a bartender in Chicago. He was a kind, generous, impeccably dressed man. One late night three years ago, he was wrapping up his evening with a purchase of a bag of chips at 7-Eleven. Walking out of the store, he was encountered by a bully, who followed him down the street, then threw a vicious hook at his head. Marques was knocked cold and laid out in the middle of a crosswalk. Bystanders gathered around his unconscious body, but the attacker then terrorized them — probably saying “they were next,” though you can’t tell because the traffic camera that was capturing the images but not the sound. This caused the onlookers to flee. A minute after they scattered, a cab driver — unaware of Marques lying in the street — rolled two tons of automobile onto his chest, killing him.

There was video of the man who attacked him. But after four months, there were no arrests. After 15 years of writing stories with no endings, I was fed up. I was going to solve this one. Using social media, I identified the attacker, tracked him, and sent all the information to the police, who eventually brought him in.

Because of this case, the letters I receive often end with two words: “Please help.” I try to answer every one of them. But I can’t help them all. And it keeps me up at night. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book in the first place — to get more people involved.

But I never expected to get a letter like this.

It started off innocently enough. “Hello Billy, as an avid consumer of true crime books, mainly audiobooks, it was only a matter of time before I got around to listening to your new book.”

Okay, sounds good so far. But scanning down, I can see it’s a long letter. Way longer than the small notes I usually receive.

“But I just so happened to be looking for a good book for my drive down to Georgia over the Easter weekend. Maybe it was by happenstance I purchased your Audiobook not having immediately recognized your name, knew your contribution to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, or your contribution to solving a crime referenced in your book (that I will get to in a moment).”

“That I will get to in a moment?” Fuck. That sounds ominous. Deep breath. Okay.

“But regardless, I’m so glad I did because I thoroughly enjoyed your book and it stirred something in me to want to ‘pay if forward.’”

Whew. This is a lovely letter! The kind you hope for! A letter saying you inspired someone into action. Paying it forward. Fantastic.

“It would be an understatement to say the book immediately grabbed my attention while listening to the prologue. But as I listened to the description of the crime, it started sounding way too familiar and then when I heard the victim’s name Marques Gaines, it all made sense and I realized that Billy Jensen the author is Billy the private investigator who I had heard so much about through Drexina and Phyllis. Marques Gaines was my brother and without your assistance, I’m not confident the police would have ever identified Marcus Moore and ultimately prosecuted him.”

Holy shit.

This letter was from Marques’s brother. Just looking for something to pass the time on a long Easter weekend drive, and he stumbles into a story that jarred loose emotions I can’t begin to imagine.

“While this certainly didn’t bring back Marques (querying different spellings of Marquis and Marques in the text), it at least provided some bit of closure in this aspect of his death. I know Drexina and Phyllis have expressed their gratitude, but I apologize for not expressing mine and thanking you. Before your involvement in the case, I wrongfully assumed that outside of Marques’ family and friends, that most people outside of Chicago not knowing the details of his death, probably assumed Marques was just another victim of the violence seen in Chicago that contributed to his own death. But thank you for showing an interest and thank you for your work in this case and others. And I hope to find exactly what my calling is to help ‘pay it forward.’” The letter was signed by HL Gaines.

I immediately wrote HL back and we talked. I thanked him and asked if I could share his letter.

The one thing, beyond all else, that we need to remember about the genre of true crime: There are real people at the end of these stories. The victims are real. And their families are listening and reading and watching. The stories will be told, but it is up to us to tell them not only with solid facts, but also with empathy. And if you can’t tell a crime story with empathy, you should be telling another kind of story.

So there is that kind of letter. Then there is this kind. The kind that puts you on pins and needles — when a family member that you did talk to has actually read the book and wrote you to share their thoughts.

Billie-Jo Dick is the mother of Danielle and Mariah Bertolini. Danielle went missing in Northern California in 2014. Her skull was found a year later. One year after that, Billie-Jo called. She told me her youngest daughter, Mariah gone missing. I helped find her and she got into a safe place.

The story was included in the book. Then Billie-Jo wrote me.

“Omgosh just finished chapter 10 my heart breaks for all of us that has/is going through this hell,” Billie-Jo wrote. “[I] did want to let you know that Danielle is considered a cold case now sad to think that you had to go through so much and jump through those hoops to solve the homicides. Thank You Billy and Michelle for all you do and have done for all of us survivors. You are a hero in my book!! Thank You”

“I just hope I was able to do your girls justice,” I respond.

“You already have many times over!! Like I said Billy you are my hero and can never thank You enough for all you’ve done for myself girls and family.”

I’m feeling good with these letters I’m getting. As good as you can for the genre I’m in.

Then I get a message from Scott Greene. Scott’s daughter’s body was found in the back of a field outside Columbus three years ago. I tried to solve it. So far, I have failed.

“Hey Billy … Can you give me a call as soon as you get this? I’m talking to the parents of Jamie Bowen, the girl whose parents we spoke to that day. [A girl who went missing from the same town his daughter went missing from.] Get this! She asked ME if I had ever heard of the name ‘White boy.’”

Jamie Bowen went missing from Columbus two years before Scott’s daughter disappeared. “White boy” is supposedly a sex trafficker that was mentioned within the context of his daughter’s case. The police have been slow in finding him, even though he looks to be active online.

If the parents of another missing woman are mentioning the same name, it means I have more ammunition to press harder.

“Thank you,” I tell Scott.

He responds: “Hey Billy …Are you serious … No need to thank me … Ever! Hell I’m the one who is thankful! The detectives working the case haven’t talked to me nearly as much as you do.”

The letter goes to the top of the pile of crimes to try and solve and keep solving. And that pile grows larger and larger every day.

Billy Jensen is an author whose recent works include Chase Darkness With Me and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. He also co-hosts the podcast Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad.

When True Crime Gets Personal