Book Review: Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders

Journalist Billy Jensen, the author of Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders (Sourcebooks, 2019), his first book, is a busy guy. Not only has he written a unique “how to” book, but in it, he proves his skill in catching killers by telling the stories of several murders he has solved or helped solve. He and his co-host, cold case investigator Paul Holes, also produce a weekly podcast about true crime, “The Murder Squad.” Finally, when he wasn’t writing his own book, investigating murders, and producing his podcast, he was helping Holes and Michelle McNamara’s husband Patten Oswalt and her research assistant Paul Haynes finish writing McNamara’s unfinished book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, after her untimely death.

Billy Jensen’s prose is crisp and factually accurate, expected characteristics of a journalist’s writing. What makes his book especially tantalizing is the way he weaves together autobiographical information, stories about true crimes both solved and unsolved, and instructions about how “citizen sleuths” can actually assist police in solving crimes without disrupting the latters’ own investigations.

Finally, he is a passionate advocate for citizen involvement in the criminal justice process. He points out, quite properly but a surprising realization for me, that we have been involving ordinary citizens in solving crimes for generations– as members of juries. Jensen does more than propose such involvement, he shows how social media can be used to generate suspect and victim leads, and he shows that the techniques work. To date he has solved or helped to solve 10 cold cases using his methods.

In Memory Of Sherry-Ann, Shelby, and Cassidy Brannon

L-R Darlene “Dolly” Meyer (grandmother), Sherry-Ann Brannon, Cassidy Brannon and Shelby Brannon

Twenty years ago today, on Thursday, September 16, 1999, Sherry, Shelby, and Cassidy Brannon were found in their east Bradenton, Florida home stabbed and with their throats slit. It was Sherry’s 35th birthday. Cassidy had celebrated her 4th birthday the Monday before, and Shelby was 7, about to turn 8 in a little more than a week.

These were horrific moments for Sherry and Shelby, and hours of terror and confusion for Cassidy who was left alone all night in the house where her mother and sister had been killed. Although Cassidy died in a helicopter on her way to the hospital, she was able to spend most of her last time on earth in the comforting arms of her father, Dewey Brannon.

Sherry, Shelby, and Cassidy’s lives were so much more, though, than their final moments. From what I have been told and read in newspaper accounts of the tragedy, the three Brannon “girls” filled the lives they had with laughter, joy, and goodness. I wish I had met them. I know I would have liked them.

Sherry was a registered nurse, a cardiac rehabilitation specialist who worked at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. She was loved by her patients who told news reporters stories of romances she had kindled between them and times she had rushed them from her ward to the emergency room, saving their lives. She was a valued partner among the staff at the hospital who spoke of her dedication and kindness. She was a devoted mother to her two daughters, a loving daughter to her parents Bob and Dolly Meyer, and a priceless sister to her twin, Mary Ann. She was lovely, a blonde, blue-eyed “Ivory Soap”kind of woman. After her husband left her in June, she often visited her next door neighbors, Van and Angie Balam, to share some of her sadness and worry. “How will I manage,” she asked them. Van later told detectives that he responded “How will you manage? Just answer me these questions. Who mows the property now? Who takes care of the kids? Who cleans the house, shops, fixes the meals? Who pays the bills?” She smiled.

Shelby had been an easy baby to deliver and she was an easy little girl to raise. Her friend next door, Ariel Balam, played with her nearly every day after school. Often they sifted through the Brannon’s shell driveway looking for shark’s teeth. When she found two, she always shared one with her friend. She loved animals and maintained a toy menagerie in her room. The shower floor was scattered with her toy horses, special favorites. Sherry coaxed her gently to participate in sports and games with her peers, and she did. She had a little tape player which her daddy turned on for her after he read her stories and kissed her goodnight on Wednesday, September 15th.

The day after her body was discovered would have been the first sleep-over birthday party she hosted–actually the first birthday party she had ever had with her friends instead of her family members–followed by a swim after breakfast and birthday cake before the moms came to pick up their daughters. When Angie Balam pulled into her church parking lot and told her daughter that Shelby was in heaven now, Ariel said “She was my best friend.” …And she told her mother she wanted to go into the church and talk to God.

Cassidy was a more difficult baby to deliver, and that was a harbinger of things to come. Her daddy called her “my tough little girl.” She was a spitfire, people said. At the ballgame she belted out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” twice on her own after the audience had sung it, and once in church the following Sunday, her own unique hymn. At her grandparents’ house where she played after school until her mother picked her up, she yelled so loudly that her great-grandfather’s hearing aides would ring. “What’s that noise,” he’d ask. “Oh that’s just Cassidy,” Bob Meyer would tell his father. Dewey Brannon tucked his little girl into bed, read her several short books, and sang two songs to her before she fell asleep on September 15th. One was Jesus Loves Me.

Rest in Peace, beautiful girls. You are missed and loved.

Profiling

The photo above is John Douglas, retired FBI profiler who was the pattern for Jack Crawford, the fictitious profiler in “The Silence of the Lambs.” This article contains sexually explicit material and is not suitable for all readers.

Criminal Minds the television series, the film The Silence of the Lambs, and other series and movies have profited mightily by portraying crime profilers. The latter are expert investigators–usually with psychology backgrounds–who examine crime scene details in order to define the type of person who is likely to have committed the crime. In 2007 author Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker (November 12, 2007 issue) questioning the validity of profiling as a legitimate investigatory tool.

In “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy,” Gladwell discussed the FBI’s method of analysis, the basis for profiling techniques used in local police organizations and worldwide. According to Gladwell, profilers often do not record their predictions, but leave it to the requesting police organization to take notes. This, in fact, was the case in the Brannon murders, and certainly makes it possible for profilers to modify their opinions when the case is finally solved.

In addition, in 1972 when the FBI first created its Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, profilers classified murderers as either “organized” or “disorganized.” For example a murderer who brought a weapon to the crime scene as opposed to using an object found there, or a perpetrator who planned the crime or committed it spontaneously, were factors considered evidence of organization or lack of it. Later the classification was broadened to include mixed characteristics.

In the case of the Brannon homicides, the murder weapon was never found, but a neighbor’s missing knife was consistent with the wounds and may have been the weapon. That would have classified the killer as disorganized, which was consistent with the cloth and yellow twine left at the scene, but inconsistent with the planning that would have been required if the killer chose that night because he knew the neighbors would not be at home.

Gladwell further concluded that when profile reports are written, their findings are often ambiguous, as in “the rapist of the elderly woman was likely to be a young man who is insecure about his sexuality or an older man with a deep hatred of older women.” Gladwell also referred to Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who is highly critical of the FBI methodology. Turvey believes that murders are almost always a mixture of organized and disorganized traits, and he concludes that it is not possible to look at one behavior in isolation. He gives a terrific example: A rapist in a park pulls the victim’s shirt over her face. Was he trying to prevent her from identifying him? Was he fantasizing she was someone else? Was he trying to incapacitate her so she couldn’t defend herself? Was he trying to look at her breasts? One behavior, pulling the shirt over her face, was only one small piece of the puzzle.

Not only did investigators need to consider multiple behaviors and factors, but they needed to take into account that different investigators would see things from different perspectives. In the case of the Brannon investigation, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office initially called in their regular forensic consultant, Dr. John T. Super, a young psychologist who had earned his PhD at Hofstra University on Long Island and was board-certified in Forensic Psychology. Super reviewed the crime scene and Sheriff Wells asked him to prepare a profile of the killer.

“That was especially difficult,” Dr. Super remembers. “because these were not serial murders but a single event, so I had only that one set of circumstances to consider.” From the violence of the crime, he concluded that Dewey Brannon, the husband and father of the victims, was not the perpetrator. Because he was able to overpower Sherry Brannon, he believed it was a male, and because murderers are generally the same race as their victims, he thought it was a white man, acting on his own. Dr. Super concluded the latter because he believed that more than one perpetrator would have had a moderating influence on the more confrontational and violent killer. He began preparing his written report within days of the murders, and recommended that detectives begin immediately canvassing area hotel dumpsters to see whether bloody clothes or a murder weapon might have been discarded there by a drifter.

Wells also invited three outside specialists to visit the crime scene and collaborate on producing a psychological profile of the killer: Dayle Hinman, Coordinator of the Statewide Crime Analysis Profiling Program of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Louis Eliopulous, Chief Forensic Investigator with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and FBI Agent Joe Navarro. Their conclusions were consistent with those of Dr. Super.

One team member, however, had met separately with the Manatee County detective who was in charge of the investigation to offer preliminary observations. The person said the scene was consistent with domestic violence, and crimes of interpersonal violence most often occurred between people who knew each other. The perpetrator’s degree of anger and aggression was demonstrated by multiple stab wounds. The investigator said the remote location spoke of a targeted victim. Sherry was blitzed from the front; The perp knew her and could physically dominate her.

When the bodies were discovered, the front door had been locked. A stranger would have had no proprietary interest in locking the door. According to the expert, it is expected that a liar will change his story and in this case there were multiple and varied accounts of what happened at the house. Finally, the specialist concluded, Albert “Dewey” Brannon provided irrelevant information to the dispatcher during the 911 call. His emotions during the call should have been consistent with the exigency of the situation, however that was not the case. Whatever the majority concluded, at least one outside specialist was pointing a finger at Dewey.

Profilers are all privy to the same facts; each of them processes them through a different lens. Was Dewey the grieving father or his daughters’ killer?

A Piece of Yellow Twine

WARNING: This article contains graphic sexual material. It is not suitable for all readers.

After the half-time break in our first Famous Murders class session, Major Connie Shingledecker continued her description of the Brannon investigation by telling about another crime, one that happened in a trailer ten miles from the Brannon home early the morning of Friday, October 22,1999. Lisa Bennett (not her real name) had awoken by the sound of tapping on the sliding glass door that led from the front porch to the living room where she dozed on the couch .

She recognized the visitor, a muscular man wearing shorts and a tee shirt and a ball cap. He was a casual acquaintance, not someone she considered a friend. Nonetheless she was relieved to see someone she knew rather than a housebreaker, yet annoyed at the same time. It was not yet 4:00 a.m. She had fallen asleep after putting her new puppy outside ; the dog had been “having accidents” on the floor the last two nights. Her boyfriend, Jim McEvoy, known as Mac, (not his real name) was asleep in the back bedroom. She knew he would not be pleased with the late-night company.

Her guest said his truck had broken down and she invited him in. He immediately produced a handgun from the waistband of his shorts and ordered her to sit down so he could tie her up. He had brought duct tape and a length of yellow surveyor’s twine. “This is all about about sex,” he had said. “Just do what I say and nobody’ll get hurt.” He sounded like a television outlaw. He fastened together her ankles and then her wrists.

“Why are you doing this?” Lisa asked him. “We’re friends, aren’t we?

He lit a glass pipe she assumed was filled with cocaine or crystal meth, inhaled, and began to pace. “I was gonna pop that asshole boyfriend of yours right in his sleep,” he said. “If he gives me any trouble, I’ll do just that. I’ll pop both of you and then burn down the trailer. You keep quiet now, and don’t wake him up yet.”

She could tell he was agitated from the drugs and not talking rationally: they barely knew each other and she also was aware that he was married. He went on to tell her that he’d done something “real bad,” and had to get out of town after he collected $3,000 he was owed, but couldn’t pick up until 6:30 that night. Until then, he said, he planned to spend the day carrying out some sex fantasies with her and Mac. He said he wasn’t sure whether he was gay or bisexual, he told her, but he wanted to watch them have sex together and then he wanted to do some stuff with Mac.

Lisa tried to calm him, but he ordered her into a nearby spare bedroom. “How do you expect me to get there with my ankles tied together?” she asked.

“Just point your toes in that direction and get in there a little bit at a time,” he advised. She was slowly able to do as he said. When she reached the bed, he pushed her back onto the mattress and ordered her to spread her legs and arms. He fastened her, spread-eagle, to the four corners of the bed frame using more tape and twine. When she was immobilized, he took off his shorts and attempted to have sex with her. He wasn’t able to maintain an erection, though, but managed to have oral sex with her.

After what seemed like an eternity to Lisa, she heard the sound of Mac moving in the hallway toward the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen.

“Now you be quiet,” he said. “If Mac comes in here all riled up, I guarantee I’ll kill both of you. I’ve done it before and I’m not afraid to do it again.” He hesitated. “Not that I’d want to do it, but I will if I have to.” He told her to tell Mac he was there and convince him to do what their captor wanted.

Lisa followed Mac into the bathroom and whispered to him.

“What the hell. I can’t understand you. Talk louder.”

She moved a step closer to him, continuing to whisper. She tilted her head toward the bedroom. “He says he’s going to kill us,” she said. “He’s crazy and he’s got a gun.”

Mac faced his adversary who was just emerging from the bedroom across the hall. “Get the hell out of my house,” he said.

I’m calling the shots here tonight, Mac,” he replied. “Just shut the fuck up. I’ve got some plans for us. Now go into that bedroom and sit down on the bed. I’m going to tie you up. That way we won’t have any trouble. Maybe I won’t have to kill you.”

Mac moved into the adjacent kitchen and said before he went into the bedroom, he was going to have a cigarette and a beer. He moved toward the fridge, acting much calmer than he felt. While he could tell the other man was anxious and not likely to let him continue acting in control much longer, he remained in the kitchen. Then he saw his chance: the gun was hanging loosely in the crook of his enemy’s arm while the latter lit up his crack pipe again. Mac made his move and grabbed the gun.

The men stumbled into the living room and Mac was tackled. Lisa grabbed a fireplace poker and began hitting their assailant every place she could reach. Mac wasn’t familiar with guns and while he tried to pull the trigger, the gun seemed to jam, and within seconds it was in the other man’s hand.

“One of us isn’t going to get out of here alive,” he told Mac.

Mac grabbed the gun in a final lunge and threw it out the sliding glass doors toward a nearby pond. He picked up the fireplace tool holder and raised it over his head, hitting his opponent in the head repeatedly. The intruder crawled through the glass doorway and begged Lisa and Mac to stop hitting him. He promised he was leaving, but at the last minute threatened that he had a shotgun in his truck.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mac said. He and Lisa quickly pulled the screen from a large window in the rear master bedroom and crawled through it toward the ragged meadow behind their trailer. Hiding in a clump of palmetto trees, they could see either headlights or a huge flashlight searching the ground near their hiding place. They broke free and ran toward the nearby street where their friend, Alicia Ruiz (not her real name) lived.

Alicia had dated their assailant for a year, but the relationship ended when he became seriously involved in drug use. She believed Lisa and Mac’s account and urged them to get into her truck quickly. If he went anywhere for help, Alicia explained, it would be to her house. She called 911 and asked the sheriff’s office to send a car to meet them at a nearby intersection.

When Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives met Alicia, they had no doubt a serious assault had taken place. Lisa and Mac were bleeding, scratched, and partially dressed and shoeless. They accompanied them to Manatee Memorial Hospital emergency room where the two were separated and interviewed. Lisa was examined and photographed and a rape kit was administered. Mac was interviewed by other detectives.

Detectives collected evidence from the hospital, including Lisa and Mac’s clothing, plus duct tape and yellow twine that was still attached to Lisa’s ankles and wrists. Calling sheriff’s dispatcher, Detective William Vitaioli reported the evidence to dispatching Lieutenant Atkinson who immediately recognized the twine.

“What color was the twine?” he said

Vitaioli replied that it was yellow.

“Be sure you secure that,” Atkinson said. “It may be involved in a homicide we’re investigating.”