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Billy Jensen · Edgars Flashback: 1980
"The end of an era"; "The Falcon and the Snowman"
We wondered when a more mainstream publication would get organized on the Billy Jensen sexual-misconduct contretemps — and it finally happened last Friday, when Rolling Stone’s Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Marks dropped “A True-Crime Star Lost His Podcast Over Misconduct Allegations. Then, More Women Came Forward.” The online true-crime-verse had had various parts of the story for weeks; your B.E. correspondents first spotted something hinky when an Ohio book event for Billy Jensen got turfed, more or less without comment, followed by the quiet “indefinite” postponement of Jensen’s upcoming book. Here’s Eve with a more detailed account of our time with the story. — SDB
After that unassuming item noting the cancellation of a Jensen book event in June, we had a hunch that there might be more at play than scheduling. We quickly found a trove of online speculation and friend-of-a-friend allegations, but the only confirmed information we could find was a newspaper report that his book’s publication had been delayed…and we realized his podcast with Paul Holes had been summarily canceled.
But nothing appeared to be corroborated, nor were reasons for those delays/cancellations given. So we contacted the communications person for his publisher, Harper Collins, but never got a response. We contacted Exactly Right, the podcast production company that canceled Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad. We only got silence in return. We’d even seen a rumor that Jensen had retained Clare Locke, one of the nation’s best defamation defense legal firms, so we contacted them to confirm that he was a client. Nothing. Then we reached out to Jensen, himself. The contact form on his website automatically ccd a Clare Locke attorney. Shortly thereafter, Jensen released his first statement denying some of the allegations against him.
Sarah and I struggled with how to follow this up. I cannot overstate the (likely intentional!) chilling effect Clare Locke’s prominent inclusion had in our efforts to report this case. Defense against even a frivolous lawsuit can still put a publication out of business, and since Gawker was strangled by Hulk Hogan (bankrolled by a petulant Peter Thiel), the uptick in defamation claims regarding fully-reported and confirmed news items has shot up remarkably. This is especially true when it comes to allegations of sexual harm.
Take any politics, sports, food or entertainment reporter out for a drink (please take us out for a drink, we do not make a lot of money!) and the stories they’ll tell you about the articles they couldn’t ever publish will make you want to go cry under the bed. This isn’t because of shitty editors a la Bad City, this is because the folks who run publications know that every story they run like the one Rolling Stone did on Friday place a massive target on their backs, as anyone who believes themselves to have been wronged by that publication can offer to help the story subject pay for an attack on the outlet. As, ostensibly, a journalist, Jensen knows this, too. — EB
Hey, it’s SDB again. Everything Eve just said is part of why, when I reviewed D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?! recently, I went with an IYKYK approach to describing the way the property seemed to have edited around “the author” as best it could, given his distinctive height and mien:
Also surreal: the footage of the History special that introduces the team that’s assessing Colbert et al.’s evidence: former Bureau assistant director Tom Fuentes, who is named and chyronned; and “an author,” who is not. I can’t imagine director Marina Zenovich, who has also directed a Roman Polanski doc, wasn’t aware enough of “the author’s” “situation” to do a last-minute re-edit around him, and if you haven’t kept up with that story/don’t necessarily recognize the guy on sight, it’s relatively smooth.
Rolling Stone’s coverage is complete and clear, and I recommend it. (RS’s paywall is quite sturdy; do what you have to do. I finally threw up my hands and subscribed, but it ain’t cheap, so while I have you here…
…because we currently can’t afford the sort of legal department that gives legacy pubs like RS cover on reporting.)
But if you can’t get into the VIP room, “high”lights include Jensen seeing the common thread of alcohol in each alleged incident, and taking himself to treatment:
In response to a detailed list of questions from Rolling Stone, Jensen apologized for some of his alleged behavior, denied other parts of it, and told the magazine he has a drinking problem, coupled with mental health issues, and has entered rehab to address them both. “While I understand some might be cynical of my seeking treatment, I needed to not only address my alcohol use, but my mental health as well,” he says. “The only thing I can do now is keep working the program to be and stay accountable, make direct amends where appropriate, and treat my underlying issues so that I stay on the forward path.”
I wrote part of today’s edition while drinking a glass of rosé with watermelon chunks floating in it, so cynicism about my cynicism is likely warranted — but the last part of that Jensen quote is a lot of early-days program-speak about responsibility that suggests he’s not in the same Zip as “accountable” yet, much less ready to make the kind of amends that’s actually about those harmed by his drinking. That shit takes time, and I hope Jensen spends that time.
Another striking tidbit is the allegation that one of the aforementioned those harmed was Terra Newell. Yes, “the Dirty John Terra Newell.”
Perhaps the most striking of all, though, is that
Exactly Right, the podcasting company founded by hosts of the mega-popular My Favorite Murder, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, offered only the “end of an era” tweet as the public statement about the decision [to cancel Jensen’s and Paul Holes’s Murder Squad podcast] and did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.
Is the lack of a statement or elaboration from Exactly Right a consequence of ongoing litigation? Probably. Should someone over there, ideally someone whose name rhymes with “Dilmariff” or “Cardshark,” just…say as much, if they can’t express more detailed regret in investing their creator cred in a sex pest? Pr…obably. That goes to my more general sense the last couple of years that Team MFM is so over it, they’re under it, but that’s just my opinion. And to gauge what that’s worth, here’s what I said about Jensen back in March of this year:
Billy Jensen is a somewhat strange true-crime case (as it were) for me. I don’t really consume his output, because usually it’s not doing anything so interesting that I’d make time for it amid the firehose of true-crime content we’re all bathing in the last few years — but at the same time I feel kind of fondly towards him and think he’s basically sincere, and trying to do the right thing in the dead-center-of-the-fairway space he occupies, and has a sense of humor about himself. I could be wrong; maybe he’s a shithead! But I’ve always gotten the sense that, even if his content isn’t for me and even if he doesn’t always quite thread the needle of “justice” vs. commerce, Jensen does understand that that needle exists, and that as a name in the industry, he has certain responsibilities.
Thank heaven for disclaimers, I guess, since he (allegedly) is in fact a shithead! …Okay, seriously: I stand by these comments vis-a-vis Jensen’s work product, which I would characterize on the whole (and/or at least initially) as well-meaning. At the same time, I suspect that Jensen, who presents as the harmless-seeming goth-scarecrow sort you’d have seen in a Fuck The Patriarchy t-shirt near the Lilith Fair main stage but all grown up, may have taken advantage of that “kind of fond” feeling in a majority-female demo. May not have started out that way; still acted a creep. — SDB
Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be doing a look back at the 1980 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime. These titles, published in 1979, include a cold war espionage classic, an account of one of the 1970s’ most high profile criminal trials, a Texas murder saga, an investigative look at inmates on death row, and the story of one of the decades’ lesser-known serial murder cases. Are any of these titles worth a read 43 years on?
We’ll start with The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey, the 1980 Edgar Award Best Fact Crime winner, which chronicles the case of two Southern California friends turned spies for the Soviet Union. Christopher John Boyce was a young man raised in a strict Catholic household, disillusioned by the American government in the 1970s, and with an obsession with falconry (hence the titular falcon); Andrew Daulton Lee was a son of privilege and wannabe drug kingpin (the snowman referring to his role selling blow). If the title or broad strokes of this tale sound familiar, this book was adapted into a 1985 film starring Timothy Hutton as Boyce and Sean Penn as Lee (Sarah gave it a 7/10 last fall).
After drifting in and out of various SoCal colleges, connections through his father landed Boyce a job at defense contractor TRW. The company was developing and manufacturing satellites used by the CIA to collect secret intelligence information from China and the USSR. Meanwhile, Lee’s drug business was escalating from selling marijuana to his peer group to trading in Mexican heroin. When TRW grants Boyce access to the “Black Vault,” a treasure trove of top-secret materials related to America’s efforts to spy on Communist governments, a plan is hatched. Lee will approach the Russian Embassy in Mexico and offer the materials for sale, the proceeds of which he will invest back in marijuana and heroin.
The Falcon and the Snowman unfurls Boyce’s seemingly accidental stumbling into espionage and Lee’s rollercoaster dealings with emissaries from the KGB in Mexico. It comes to a predictable end, with both young men on trial for espionage. The trials themselves are interesting, as all sorts of negotiating happens in order to keep certain spy secrets out of the public record. Throw in a foiled prison escape plan by Boyce, and the back third of this book really cooks. However, the book kind of shows its age in Lindsey’s outsized fascination with how these young men from good homes were ruined by drugs and their generations’ experiences with the corruption and abuses of the American government.
While Lee’s motivations are straightforward — he was lured by the cash and hooked by the sense of power he got from having something the Russians wanted — questions about Boyce loom large. My feeling is that he did have pro-Soviet sympathies, and a confluence of opportunity and bad judgment snowballed. The evidence that pushes me hardest in that direction is that he quit TRW and enrolled in college at the request of his Russian handlers, with the goal of getting a job at the State Department and working covertly for the USSR. I can see the ambiguity, though. How did a college dropout with few passions aside from drugs and falconry come to possess top-secret security clearance from the U. S. government? It’s hard to look at this objectively with 2022 eyes, though, after all the pop-culture spycraft indoctrination I’ve subjected myself to over the years. Overall, The Falcon and the Snowman is an interesting enough read, but shows its age. — Susan Howard
The Edgars Flashback: 1980 series is sponsored by Exhibit B. If you’d like to sponsor a series or week of content, let us know at editorial at bestevidence dot fyi.
Coming up on Best Evidence: Research fraud, antiquities theft, The Good Nurse, and stupid Abrams tricks.