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'It's The One Thing That I Can Do,' Helping Finish Michelle McNamara's Golden State Killer Book Helped Crime Writer Billy Jensen Grieve
After Michelle McNamara passed away, Billy Jensen did what he could to honor her.
When true crime writer and author Michelle McNamara died from a sudden accidental overdose in 2016, her friend and fellow true crime enthusiast Billy Jensen was devastated.
He was also annoyed.
“Everyone [in the news, following her death] kept referring to her as Patton Oswalt’s wife and I was like, no, she was her own person,” Jensen reflected to Oxygen.com in an interview.
Jensen and McNamara would meet every month for lunch, where she would update the true crime journalist on her hunt for the Golden State Killer, according to Jensen’s book “Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders.”
After reading article after article which referred to McNamara as simply a liaison to her successful husband, Jensen wrote up his own tribute to honor his friend's achievements and not just her marriage.
In his account — entitled “Michelle McNamara, True Crime Writer” — he wrote of McNamara’s dogged nature, her apt ability to get grizzled investigators to open up, and her dedication to tracking down the serial killer responsible for 13 murders and close to 50 rapes.
He even mentioned McNamara’s then-unfinished book on the case.
“I don't know what is going to happen to the book, but if asked, I would do my damnedest to help get it out there,” he promised.
Jensen kept true to that promise.
Following McNamara's death, Oswalt connected Jensen to citizen detective Paul Haynes, who McNamara had enlisted as a research collaborator on her investigation. Within a week of McNamara's passing, Oswalt gave Jensen and Haynes McNamara’s hard drives.
They contained about 3,500 files on the Golden State Killer. Together, Jensen and Haynes wrote part three of McNamara's book. In it, they included geo-profiling maps and DNA evidence that McNamara was researching as well as her notes. The pair didn't want to try to replicate McNamara's writing style; rather they wrote in their own voice for their section while incorporating as much of McNamara's work as possible.
Jensen also came across a powerful document amongst the files in the hard drives: McNamara's “A Letter to an Old Man" — in which McNamara directly addressed the killer. It was decided it had to be the ending of the book. That part of the book was shared widely following DeAngelo's arrest.
“There was no time to grieve because there was work to be done,” Jensen told Oxygen.com. “I can help by getting this book out; it’s the one thing that I can do.”
Jensen said that often people feel helpless after someone dies, grappling with what they can offer the family.
"Whenever someone passes away, everyone wants to know what they can do," he said. "Often it's nothing, but with this I could do something.”
Helping to complete the book allowed Jensen to help McNamara's family and her legacy. It also helped him cope with his own feelings as well, in his view.
"It gave me something to do," he said.
At the time, he was also struggling with inner turmoil over revelations about his late friend's drug use. As the new HBO docuseries “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” points out, McNamara was using pills on a regular basis to help her complete the book and sleep.
Jensen said he was unaware of her usage.
“Our relationship was entirely based on crime,” he told Oxygen.com. “I didn’t know that she was in this sort of cycle of taking stuff in the morning to pep herself up, taking stuff at night to calm herself down. You learn that later but ... there was a little bit of a feeling of, I guess a little bit of guilt in the sense of: Could I have seen something?"
"I don’t think I could have. I don’t know.”
Jensen — who has decades of writing and editing experience — was one of several who devoted themselves to finishing McNamara’s book following her tragic death in 2016. The end result, “I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” was published in 2018, just two months before the killer — now identified as former police officer Joseph DeAngelo — was arrested.
McNamara’s work on the case has been credited for helping to catch the killer, who pleaded guilty to the decade-spanning criminal campaign last month.
Jensen continues to work on trying to crack cases like the Golden State Killer mystery. He currently hosts a podcast alongside retired investigator Paul Holes — who also worked on the Golden State Killer case — called "The Murder Squad." Each episode they try to crack another cold case, even diving into cases their friend McNamara had previously written about on her true crime blog.
Jensen said that the success of the New York Times best-selling book along with the HBO docuseries pales in comparison to what would have mattered most to McNamara.
“The most important thing is that the guy was captured,” Jensen said.