There’s no shortage of true crime podcasts these days, but a new one debuting Monday, The Murder Squad, is trying to stand out—by regularly inviting the listener to be part of its investigations into murders and disappearances. With fans of the genre already donning their amateur detective hats (just take a look at Reddit threads devoted to Serial and Making a Murderer), the idea is to both entertain the audience and use it to solve cases.
Lending credence to the podcast are its hosts, investigative journalist Billy Jensen, who’s helped solve multiple murders with the use of social media, and retired detective Paul Holes. The latter worked on the Zodiac case and was instrumental in the arrest of the Golden State Killer, a serial murderer and rapist in California finally caught in 2018 with the use of GEDMatch, an open-source DNA-testing service that allows users to search for family members or discover their genetic makeup. That case was the subject of late crime writer Michelle McNamara’s best-selling book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which Jensen helped finish after her death in 2016.
While it may seem exploitative to recruit outside help, Jensen insists that’s not the case. “I know that user-generated content game, where it’s the Tom Sawyer, ‘Hey go paint the fence for us and we’ll take all the money for it.’ It’s not like that,” he says. “You can just listen and learn a lot, but if you want to take it one step further, there’s a 360 to it: the podcast, the website, and social media.”
The podcast website and social feeds will offer evidence that Jensen and Holes get straight from law enforcement case files. The first episode, for example, revolves around Bill Bradford, a now-deceased man convicted of murdering two women after he pretended to be a professional photographer and offered to help them become models. When he was caught, police discovered photos of 54 women in his possession and released them in 2006, leading to the identification of a third victim. All these pictures will be posted on The Murder Squad’s website when it debuts April 1, with the hope that fans will help identify the remaining women, whether they’re living or dead.
“You’re [the listener] trying to identify who these pictures are, sharing that with everybody that was from southern California from that time period, sharing it on social media, bringing it up to family,” Jensen says. “Someone knows something. It’s just getting the information to the right person.”
The most likely pitfall will involve keeping the audience members in line with rules Jensen and Holes lay out at the end of every episode—don’t name suspects and don’t reach out to victims’ families. They absolutely don’t want anybody being doxxed, like when Redditors released personal information about Jay Wilds, the shady star witness in the Serial case who many suspect of lying when he incriminated Adnan Syed.
“I’ve had producers calling me up saying, ‘Hey, we’re told that this guy solved the Golden State Killer case and we’re going to run with the story,’” says Holes. “And I’m saying, ‘Don’t put that poor guy’s name out there. We’ve already eliminated them!’”
They also caution listeners against coming into this in the hopes of getting a reward—that could happen, but only if one is already set up and a person comes forward with the right information. Credit will be given to anyone instrumental in breaking a case, but the hope is that people will be altruistically motivated, not for any fame or financial gain.
Another big rule? Don’t play the hero, and don’t go sifting through someone’s garbage for DNA samples. “Don’t go undercover, don’t try to confront people. I’ve put myself in those situations, but it was stupid,” says Jensen.
At the moment, the pair are still unsure where The Murder Squad will take them. Holes had never listened to a podcast before and calls hosting one a “bizarro” gig, but he’s thrilled to have the chance to work cases again. It’s also helpful for them to be part of Exactly Right Media, the new podcasting network started by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark of the comedy/crime show My Favorite Murder, which has almost 20 million monthly listeners. And with their own podcast airing on a weekly basis, Jensen and Holes are prepared for the workload of new cases and tips.
“I have 30 cases right now that I’m doing on my own. Paul has juggled a ton of cases before. If you’re just doing one or two cases, you’re going to go crazy because you hit so many roadblocks,” says Jensen. “One door closes, another window opens. As these listeners feed us information, the good bits will be distributed to the proper investigating authority, so they will be the ones doing a lot of the legwork.”
Getting listeners’ help to move the needle in the justice system isn’t entirely new for podcasts. Bob Ruff, the host of Serial-inspired Truth & Justice, helped spread awareness of Ed Ates, a man wrongfully convicted of a 1993 murder, by marshaling his huge fan base to fund defense investigations and write letters in support of Ates’ 2018 parole.
However, law enforcement can frown on citizen sleuthing—in his upcoming Audible book, Chase Darkness With Me, Jensen recalls being either dismissed outright or having his role in helping solve a crime downplayed by detectives.
And police have specifically asked the public to quit using social media as “armchair sleuths” at times. A notable example is the investigation into the 2017 murders of two teen girls in Indiana, which led to numerous people falsely identifying suspects based on a composite drawing and a blurry cell phone video. “Those are of no value and take up investigative time,” Indiana State Police Captain Dave Bursten said of online detectives in the ensuing months. “A person that does that may open themselves up to some civil liability. They will have to suffer the consequences of their own stupidity.”
Still, Holes sees the benefits of bringing outsiders in, particularly after the Golden State case. “When you take a look at the reach that the law-enforcement social media has, it’s typically very limited. Their Facebook pages or their Twitter accounts usually have limited followers relative to the entertainment side of the media,” he says.
“I think we’re going to get a lot more active, interested eyeballs versus people who are just passively watching the text as the television.”
The downside, of course, is that this enthusiasm will also lead to a lot of people coming forward with questionable claims, no matter how well-intended. The duo wants to remind people that, while this is entertainment, the hope is to stay away from sensationalism and focus on cases that don’t get as much attention, like the random murder of a pedestrian on a Chicago street. After all, those victims also have families and loved ones who want answers.
“I don’t want people saying, ‘My dad was the Zodiac’ or ‘my dad was D.B. Cooper.’” says Jensen of wanting tips about lesser known cases. “If we get enough people listening, they’re going to have information that they may want to get off their chest. It’s not just people utilizing their skills to solve stuff—it’s an empathy for the entire mission of getting justice for victims.”