Meet the Facebook Detective, a Citizen Sleuth Who’s Helping Solve Murders With Social Media

facebook detective
At his home office in Los Angeles, Billy Jensen uses a foam board to track suspects and a laptop to check the latest tips coming in on Facebook. Photographs by John Francis Peters


When I first meet Billy Jensen last summer in Los Angeles, he’d just returned from covering one of the most gut-wrenching cases he’s ever worked on. The head of digital operations and an occasional on-air reporter for the (now canceled) syndicated true-crime show Crime Watch Daily, Jensen was in Columbus, Ohio, to shoot a segment on the unsolved 2016 homicides of two young women. As we settled in for dinner at a busy Irish pub not far from his apartment, he recounted the gory details—how the pair’s bodies were found, a month apart, in different fields in nearby Fairfield County. One was basically a skeleton.

“Nobody deserves to be thrown away like a piece of trash,” he says.

The killer or killers remain at large.

Jensen, 46, has spent the better part of his journalism career focusing on unsolved cases like this. Meaning, as he likes to put it, most of his stories have no endings.

“Whenever people ask me why I only work on unsolved murders, I tell them it’s because I hate the guy who got away with it,” Jensen says.

The idea that someone could kill another human, denying them life’s everyday pleasures—Jensen always returns to the idea of eating a hot fudge sundae or listening to a David Bowie record—enrages him.

When I met Jensen in L.A., he was focused on a new case: the death of a 31-year-old mentally disabled man at a liquor store in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. An unidentified man repeatedly shot Hassan Ibrahim Tanana following an argument, according to state police. Tanana lived in a nearby group home and was reportedly a fixture outside the store, where he would ask passersby for spare change.

Although Jensen leans toward investigations that have gone cold, Tanana’s case had only been open for a week and he jumped on it immediately.

“Who’s gonna put up wanted posters for a mentally handicapped guy who hangs out in front of a convenience store?” Jensen says. “No one’s gonna fight for this guy. It’s me and the cops.”

Jensen wasn’t doing this for Crime Watch or any other journalistic outlet either. It’s for his nighttime avocation. For two years, he’s busied himself using targeted Facebook ad campaigns to help catch killers. This isn’t the citizen sleuthing we’ve come to expect; and it’s nothing like that bungled Internet investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which Reddit users fingered a missing—and, it was later revealed, deceased—university student as one of the bombers. Rather, Jensen is pioneering a distinct new brand of detective work: a combination of algorithm-optimized marketing, crowdsourcing, and shoe-leather reporting.

Jensen looks for cases with good-quality, compelling video—typically surveillance footage—that will grab readers’ attention as they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed. He’ll start by setting up a Facebook page and creating a post featuring that video; then he pays to boost the post, targeting it to users in the vicinity of the crime scene—by either radius or zip code—who may recognize the suspect. He can control the reach based on gender, age, and even the interests of his intended audience.

Russian trolls and the political-data miners Cambridge Analytica used targeted ads in nefarious ways during the 2016 election season; Jensen uses them to find would-be informants.

After, Jensen will go back and forth privately with Facebook posters who might know something, scour the evidence, and, if possible, keep in touch with the victim’s family and law enforcement. He’s not trying to get in anyone’s way; he’s just trying to help the police do their job better. Most of all, he wants to see some of these stories get the endings they deserve.

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John Francis Peters

Like most of Jensen’s social media cases, the Inkster shooting came to his attention via Google Alert. In this instance, the police needed help identifying the murderer. So Jensen created a Facebook page called “Inkster Shooter at Fast Franks Party Shoppe.”

The post featured two decent-quality surveillance camera stills of the suspect (video wasn’t available) and it read:

Inkster: Do you recognize this man? On Thursday night he got into an argument in Fast Frank’s Party Store, pulled out a gun and shot a man dead. He then got into [a] gray Dodge Durango and fled. Does he look familiar? Please message with any information. And please share.

He targeted it to anyone within a one-mile radius of the crime scene, and paid $105 to guarantee it would reach 6,000 people.

Almost immediately, Jensen began getting tips—one person posted what he said was the shooter’s street name and where he liked to hang out—and some great numbers. By the time Jensen showed me the post, it had been shared more than 650 times, with an organic (that is, unpaid) reach of 25,000 people. That’s a number equivalent to the population of the entire city.

The day I meet him, Jensen had finally connected with police on the phone about the Inkster case. A detective told him the cops had identified a suspect, but understandably refused to divulge any more details to a civilian. Still, Jensen wanted to continue running the ad through the weekend. Maybe the cops identified the wrong guy.

Besides, the police don’t have the manpower to reach nearly as many people as his ad did. And even if they could knock on every door, how many people are going to talk to the cops?

“That’s confrontational,” Jensen explains. “But when you’re on Facebook, you’re looking at pictures of your sister’s kids, you’re in a relaxed atmosphere.”

With defenses down, people are more likely to volunteer what they know.

According to documentation provided by Jensen, he’s correctly identified, or had a hand in identifying, suspects in at least a half dozen homicide cases. Since police departments tend to be less than transparent about their investigations, it can be difficult to discern which information Jensen brought them was fresh and which of it the cops had already found on their own.

He scrolls through the public comments on the Inkster ad.

“He shot him over $7,” one person says.

Jensen is pleased.

“That’s pretty specific,” he says. “I’m in the neighborhood now. I’m in the conversation. Somebody knows something over there.”

Jensen himself would be easy to pick out of a lineup: He’s 6’4″ and lean, with dark chestnut-brown hair and pale-blue eyes, and his left forearm bears a woodcut-style tattoo of an old-timey magnifying glass. He grew up on Long Island, where his father, who ran a house-painting business, instilled in Billy a deep hatred of bullies and the value of persistence.

“That was the biggest thing that he drilled into me,” Jensen says. “Just keep going.”

In seventh grade, Jensen watched The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a documentary about Nostradamus, which delves into the conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination. The idea of a man in the grassy knoll freaked Jensen out, but he wanted to learn more, so the next day he went to the library and got a bunch of books on the JFK case.

“That gave me the bug,” he says.

Still, crime remained merely a side interest of Jensen’s for years. His plan was a life in academia. He earned a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Kansas, where he focused on contemporary Christian apocalyptic groups. But in 1996, while Jensen was living in Lawrence, Kansas, his father underwent heart surgery. Jensen, along with his wife, Kendall Van Keuren-Jensen, moved back to Long Island to help save his dad’s business. While painting homes, Billy found his way into freelance journalism, writing about crime and other topics for a new alt-weekly called The Long Island Voice.

Jensen’s father recuperated, only to succumb to liver failure in 1998 at the age of 50. Four years later, Jensen cofounded a new alt-weekly, The Long Island Press, where his interest in crime reporting deepened. From 2005 to 2006, he served as editor-in-chief of alternative newspaper The Boston Phoenix, after which he honed his digital-publishing skills in management positions at Village Voice Media and Buzzmedia (now SpinMedia). He subsequently wrote long, true crime features for the likes of Los Angeles magazine and Rolling Stone online.

When he joined Crime Watch in 2015, Jensen was content being the “unsolved guy.” But that changed on April 22, 2016.

Jensen was hanging out at a bar near Boston’s Fenway Park during downtime on a Crime Watch reporting trip with some former colleagues from the now-defunct Phoenix. He had been the recipient of some terrific news recently: A basic cable network had greenlit his own true crime series, which he wanted to call Crowdsolve. On the show, Jensen would help out promising citizen detectives by hooking them up with relevant experts in, say, DNA analysis or video cleanup.

Between rounds, Jensen checked his phone and saw a brief Facebook message from an acquaintance.

“So very sorry,” it said, before linking to a story at TheWrap:

MICHELLE MCNAMARA, WRITER AND WIFE OF PATTON OSWALT, DIES AT 46.

Above those words was a photo of McNamara and her comedian husband together at a film premiere; the sub-headline read “McNamara died in her sleep in her Los Angeles home.”

Jensen was good friends with McNamara, a citizen detective and founder of the True Crime Diary blog. Once a month, the two would meet up to talk shop over drinks or lunch. They were planning an L.A.-based twist on the Vidocq Society—a Philadelphia members-only crime-solving club—that would throw together the sharpest minds in law enforcement, journalism, and showbiz.

But first McNamara wanted to finish a book she was writing about her all-consuming search for the Golden State Killer, who’d committed at least a dozen murders and some 50 rapes in California between 1976 and 1986.

Jensen stared at his phone in disbelief, squinting to make sense of the words on the screen: “She is survived by Oswalt and their seven-year-old daughter, Alice.”

McNamara’s death maddened Jensen. She was smart and dogged. He was sure that had she lived she would’ve cracked the Golden State Killer case. (It was later revealed she died from a mixture of prescription medications, compounded by an undiagnosed heart condition.)

He felt as if McNamara had been cheated, as if the killer had won. The loss prompted him to reflect on his own career: Just how many times had he heard, ‘Great story! I hope they catch the guy.’?

“Fuck it,” he thought. “I’m going to try and solve some cases myself.”

But how? He certainly had the reporting bona fides. And he was experienced in digital media, where he says, “I would live and die by how many eyeballs I would get.” Then he hit upon it: Why not combine those skill sets?

Jensen already had his first case in mind: the death of Marques Gaines.

In February 2016, Gaines, 32, left a 7-Eleven in the wee hours and got into a confrontation with a mystery assailant that left him unconscious in the street. More than a dozen bystanders failed to come to Gaines’ aid—and two minutes later a taxi rounded the corner and accidentally ran him over. Gaines later died at the hospital; the death was ruled a homicide. The entire episode was caught on surveillance cameras.

Jensen looked up the crime scene on Google Street View, virtually walking the block, then created a page called “RiverNorth Puncher”—the title refers to the neighborhood where the fight happened—and launched two Facebook ads. He also bought geo-targeted ads on Twitter and Instagram. Jensen ditched Crowdsolve’s original premise, pivoting away from other sleuths and dedicating the show to his own social media-powered investigations.

Meanwhile, Jensen had volunteered to help finish McNamara’s Golden State Killer book, gratis, an offer Oswalt immediately took him up on.

“He has the same encyclopedic mind for all the details that Michelle had,” Oswalt says of Jensen. And the same stubborn persistence: “He just keeps hammering away.”

Jensen put the chapters McNamara had written in an order that made sense, adding connective tissue—drawn from some 3,500 digital files and her email correspondence—where necessary. He and McNamara’s researcher, Paul Haynes, wrote a section of the book in which they vow, “We will not stop until we get his name.”

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was published in late February and debuted as a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

New York Times best-seller 'I'll Be Gone in the Dark'
Courtesy Image

The morning after meeting Jensen at the pub, I visited him at Victory Studios in Glendale, where Crime Watch and its sister show, the celebrity-focused Extra, are based. (Jensen lives in Los Angeles during the week, but travels on weekends to Phoenix, where his wife Kendall, a neuroscientist at a genomics research institute, resides. They have a son and daughter away at college.)

Jensen takes me upstairs to his desk. A new Facebook direct message has come in regarding the Inkster case. It’s someone who thinks he knows where the shooter is staying.

“‘He pulled a gun on me before and was dressed exactly how that guy is dressed in the video,’” Jensen reads from his phone. “‘Tall—and same facial features from what I can see.’”

Jensen takes a screengrab of the message and emails it to one of the detectives on the case. Earlier, he’d sent that detective a late-night message from a man who says he’s “pretty sure” he’d been in jail with the shooter, providing both the name of the prison and the approximate dates he thinks the man got out. Nobody who’s sharing information on Facebook seems to know the name of the suspect—or they’re just not willing to say—but Jensen is happy.

“Fuckin’ Inkster’s blowing up,” he marvels.

The most effective ads, Jensen says, are based around a sense of place.

“With Inkster, someone will see their hometown, so now they’re invested.”

Indeed, the comments section had quickly become a forum on the quality of life in Inkster (“That city is a shit hole” versus “I have lived here all my life and love my town!”) and the merits (or lack thereof) of Fast Frank’s.

It didn’t matter that not everyone was talking about the crime itself. The more comments the post received, the more people would see that their friends were chiming in and check out the page themselves. In the meantime, Jensen had been private-messaging commentators, using his journalistic skills—building a rapport with his interviewees, assuring them their identities would remain confidential—to draw information out of them.

If anyone asks, Jensen identifies himself as an investigative reporter or a victims’ advocate. Jensen doesn’t consider himself a citizen detective and has disdain for the sloppy work of some armchair sleuths. He’s not interested in the sensational media-magnet cases, but rather the forgotten ones: the drive-by shootings, the convenience-store killings.

Take, for instance, the case of Timothy Croskey, a man shot to death in Chesapeake, Virginia, in August 2016. Jensen’s page for the case—which featured video and images of a suspect walking to, then running away from, the crime scene—elicited a couple of tips identifying the man in question as Darrius Copeland, whose sister Dequashia had dated and had a child with Croskey. In June 2017, Jensen got another tip: the address in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Copeland siblings were now staying. As with the earlier tips, Jensen passed on this info to a detective, who simply thanked him. Three months later, police arrested Darrius and Dequashia Copeland in Jacksonville, charging them with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm in commission of a felony. (Officially, the police say the suspect’s name and address came from a phone tip line.)

Jensen’s work did get singled out in one case—the October 2016 slaying of 25-year-old fast-food worker Juan Vidal, during an attempted robbery at an El Monte, California, Jack in the Box—though just how big a role he played is a matter of dispute. Speaking at a January 2017 press conference announcing the apprehension of the alleged shooter, L.A. County Sheriff ’s Department homicide detective Adan Torres cited Jensen and his El Monte Jack in the Box Killer page: “Tips started coming in, as more information was put on this Facebook page, and eventually we were able to solve the case…” Jensen says Torres told him that a call from a person who saw the Facebook page led cops to the killer, though the detective tells Men’s Journal that the tip came from someone who’d seen local news coverage of an earlier police press conference.

“I don’t know why he changed his tune,” Jensen says now.

Whatever the case may be, other detectives in Torres’s department have approached Jensen seeking out his social-media savvy. In late January, one of them emailed him about a 2017 murder in El Monte, providing Jensen with an image of a possible suspect thought to be a gang member. Jensen created a Facebook page for the slaying—targeted to an area provided by the investigator—and within a week had identified a person of interest based on a tipster’s info. In a letter of reference written at Jensen’s behest, the detective credited him: “The information provided through the help of the website yielded the identification of a suspect.”

All told, Jensen estimates that he’s shelled out about $16,000 of his money on targeted ads for more than three dozen cases, which he tracks on a pair of five-foot-tall foam-core boards in his home office. He can’t imagine sustaining this sort of spending for much longer. He’s considered crowd funding, and he’d be thrilled if the police would kick in some financial support. But he also fantasizes about an even bigger benefactor.

“Zuckerberg holds the key!” Jensen tells me at his apartment, spreading his arms wide. “If he gave me a credit for $100,000, I could solve 20 murders this weekend.”

Billy Jensen: a citizen sleuth who discovers unsolved murders with Google alerts and helps solve them with social media.
Billy Jensen: a citizen sleuth who discovers unsolved murders with Google alerts and helps solve them with social media. John Francis Peters

Not long after my visit, Jensen emails me a cautionary news story out of Southern California: ONLINE SLEUTHS POINT FINGER AT WRONG PERSON IN FATAL RIVERSIDE ATTACK, POLICE SAY.

The “wrong person,” whom amateur detectives on Facebook had identified by his full name, had predictably received death threats before being exonerated by the authorities.

“This is why you don’t name names and [you] send everything to the detectives,” Jensen writes in the email. “They want to get credit for the solve, but don’t comprehend the consequences of their actions. They don’t have the patience. With Marcus Moore, I had to wait 5 months.”

Marcus Moore now stands accused of the homicide of Marques Gaines, the young man who was beaten, then run over by the cab in Chicago. And Jensen believes he played a pivotal role in Moore’s arrest. Back in July 2016, two days after posting his social media ads for the Gaines case, Jensen reached out on Twitter and Instagram to some influential online personalities in the Chicago area. And while Jensen didn’t reach out directly, Dan Katz, who runs the Barstool Sports Chicago blog, retweeted Jensen’s original targeted Twitter ad from a third source to his 210,000 followers.

Late that night, Jensen got a reply from one of Katz’s followers. It featured a clear, front-facing portrait of the alleged puncher. Jensen direct-messaged the sender, who claimed the image was from a Snapchat video taken by “a friend” at the scene. Jensen pressed him, and the tipster sent the full, chilling video, which opens with a shot of Gaines lying unconscious in the crosswalk, then pans up to the attacker yelling obscenities at his victim.

The new evidence revealed something that wasn’t obvious from the original surveillance images: An asymmetry in the suspect’s pronounced widow’s peak. Jensen, with the aid of a couple of production assistants for Crowdsolve, took to Mugshots.com, where they sorted through thousands of Chicago-area men. After hours of searching, Jensen found one with that distinctive hairline: Marcus Moore.

In August 2016, Jensen travelled to Chicago where, Crowdsolve TV crew in tow, he met up with Gaines’ family and presented them with the evidence he’d gathered. Jensen had also sent Moore’s identity and his other findings to the police by email, but they declined to appear on camera. Drexina Nelson, Gaines’s cousin, says it was difficult to get the police to respond to the family’s inquiries throughout the investigation. Jensen, by contrast, “was very straightforward,” she says.

Afterward, Jensen continued monitoring Moore’s Facebook page, passing additional information on to the cops. Though Moore’s Facebook page said he was living in Holbrook, NY, Jensen figured out he was more likely in Minneapolis–Saint Paul. Moore had posted a photo of himself with a Twin Cities vehicle in the background and declared himself in a relationship with someone from the area.

Finally, in late January 2017, Moore was arrested in Minneapolis in connection with Gaines’s death. Nelson gives Jensen a great deal of credit: “Billy was a big, big part of Marcus being in jail. Without his information, I don’t think we would be where we are now.”

As for the police? “They’re probably gonna say, ‘Oh, we had this all along. It just took us a while,’ or some bullshit,” Jensen figures.

(The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on specifics of the case.)

The victory, as it were, was bittersweet for Jensen though. The network had passed on Crowdsolve right before Christmas. And the person he most wanted to tell about getting to the bottom of the Gaines case—Michelle McNamara—was no longer around.

Billy Jensen and the late author Michelle McNamara, seen here at the South by Southwest conference, in 2014.
Billy Jensen and the late author Michelle McNamara, seen here at the South by Southwest conference, in 2014. Courtesy Image

 

Three weeks after the Inkster shooting, there’s a break in the investigation. Police have identified the suspect as 29-year-old John Wilson and the U.S. marshals, who are involved with the case, reportedly believe friends and family are helping him avoid capture.

“He’s got several run-ins with the law,” a deputy U.S. marshal tells a Detroit television station. “Lots of narcotics crimes. Westland. Romulus. Inkster area.”

Jensen creates an ad geo-targeted to Westland, Romulus, and Inkster. But it doesn’t yield much.

“You’re always gonna get more with ID’ing people than you’re going to get with fugitives: ‘Hey, I know that guy’ versus ‘Hey, I know where that guy is’ is a totally different thing,” Jensen says.

Meanwhile, he’s keeping tabs on Wilson’s brother’s Facebook page, passing on potentially pertinent info to the cops.

The police, at least, are appreciative of Jensen’s help. Jensen gets in touch with a very responsive investigator in the case, Detective Trooper Korey Rowe of the Michigan State Police, who provides him with a better photo of Wilson to run on the Facebook page.

“What Billy’s doing—keeping [the suspect’s] picture out there, keeping the pressure on him—that can only help us,” says Rowe’s colleague Detective Sergeant Todd Poppema.

There aren’t many people who would keep the pressure on, trying to get justice for a panhandler outside a liquor store in a city far away. But Jensen burns thinking about it. He boosts an ad around Thanksgiving time, then again around Christmas. On December 27, a Facebook tipster asks Jensen for the marshals’ number, writing, “I believe I know where [Wilson] lays his head.” Jensen puts the Facebooker in touch with the authorities, but as far as he can tell, nothing comes of it.

Then, on February 22, the cops arrest Wilson on the East Side of Detroit, about 30 miles from the scene of the crime.

“We found him through good old-fashioned police work,” Rowe says, adding that Wilson had been holed up for six months at the home of a difficult-to-find relative. Cops had been getting very little in the way of tips, he says, “because this guy literally wasn’t coming out of the house.”

The one time the police know Wilson did leave—to briefly visit his kids in Inkster for Christmas—resulted in the December 27 Facebook tip, according to Rowe.

“It was a good tip,” he says. “It was just too late.”

Even if Jensen didn’t solve the case, he’s happy that the suspect finally ended up in cuffs. Jensen recalls something McNamara used to say about the Golden State Killer: “I don’t care how he’s caught or who catches him, I just want him caught.”

Two months later, in a surprising turn of events, police catch the man they say is the Golden State Killer. The authorities, it was later revealed, had tracked down the now-72-year-old suspect—ex-cop Joseph James DeAngelo, who hadn’t been on McNamara’s radar—by comparing genetic profiles from genealogy websites with DNA taken from crime scenes. When news of DeAngelo’s arrest leaked, and Jensen became convinced the police had their man, “I gave myself maybe like 30 seconds to be happy about it,” he says. “And then it was like, ‘What else has this guy done?’”

Since then, Jensen has focused his energies on creating a detailed timeline of where DeAngelo was throughout his life, then cross-checking for any cold cases that may have taken place in those areas. And, of course, he’s using Facebook to help. In May, he started a page called Folsom High School: Do You Remember Joe DeAngelo?, which he targeted to the suspect’s former classmates.

In the meantime, Jensen is hard at work on a memoir entitled Chase Darkness With Me, which will be released next year as an Audible Original.

Jensen’s thirst for justice has only grown since DeAngelo’s arrest.

“Seeing that happen on this grand scale just makes me wanna solve more [of my own] stuff,” Jensen says.

He’ll always be chasing those 30 seconds of euphoria he felt when he knew for sure that DeAngelo was the guy.

“It’s never gonna be like, ‘Wow, it’s over. We’re good,’” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is great, and imagine if we could get this feeling every day.’”

Do You Recognize This Guy?

Billy Jensen designs his targeted Facebook posts to grab your attention while you’re scrolling through 
your friend’s baby pictures. 
Here’s how they work.

Targeted Facebook ad Billy Jensen posted to gain information on unsolved murders.
Courtesy Image
  1. High-quality video catches the eye and relays information that photos can’t—how the person of interest (POI) walks and ashes a cigarette. “A person might have changed his hair,” Jensen says, “but it’s very hard for a person to change physical mannerisms.”
  2. The page name creates a sense of place. If you know Brooklyn’s Owl’s Head Park, you’re more likely to stop and read the post.
  3. Police “wanted” posters tend to be stodgy. Jensen maintains people’s interest with conversational posts (“Be a hero. Be Batman. Message any info.”)
  4. Jensen sought the help of Redditors to identify the logo on the POI’s hat. Members of /r/BallcapCollectors figured it was an L.A. Lakers or an L.A. Kings cap.
  5. After a tipster said the POI might be Egyptian, Jensen created a post in Arabic to get assistance from that community.
  6. Jensen continually tweaks and boosts his posts. This one reached 466,300 people. (The killer remains at large.)