How To Budget Your Own True Crime Investigation
A true crime gold rush is upon us. Here’s how to manage expenses while cracking open those old case files.
True crime pays.
America’s love affair with all things felonious shows no signs of abating, nor does the chase for justice — and dollars — associated with tackling cold, complex, and controversial cases.
From “Mindhunter” and “Evil Genius” to Michelle McNamara’s bestselling “I’ll be Gone in the Dark,” nonfiction crime stories have never more abundant, or marketable, in our popular culture. With so much money being thrown around by book publishers and streaming services to fund true crime projects, it’s no mystery more citizen sleuths are trying their hand at independent investigations. For those hoping to capitalize on this genre gold rush, the time to crack open those old case files is now. But you’ll need to keep a close eye on your expenses while digging. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way while writing two true crime books about drug gangs and investigating the Boca Raton mall murders and abductions of 2007 — ritualistic crimes that may have been the work of a serial killer.
These projects cost me thousands in expenses for things like public records, people-finding software, and in-car dining (aka “stakeout takeout”). But with a little planning, and the hard-won knowledge included below, your money will go a lot farther. Here’s what you can expect to spend when embarking on your own true crime journey.
-Smartphone with data plan: $75 a month.
The iPhone may be history’s greatest investigative tool, its introduction in 2007 placing a massive chunk of human knowledge at our fingertips. That includes nearly all publicly available information about modern day, high-profile, unsolved homicides in America. No other item in your investigative toolkit can do what a smartphone does: grant you easy access to news stories about your case; allow you to instantly perform Google background checks on key players; and seamlessly get you from crime scene to interview spot with the help of Google Maps. A new smartphone, coupled with a middle of the road data package, ought to run you about $75 a month when financing both through a retailer like Best Buy (remember: Wi-Fi is an investigator’s ally when trying to manage what might otherwise become a massive phone bill).
-Printer, paper, and ink: $80.
An economy-model printer made by Hewlett-Packard, two sheaves of printer paper from Office Depot, plus membership in a monthly ink refill program like HP’s Instant Ink can be had for $80 or less in startup costs. Local copy shops are also an option, but with all the news articles, documents, maps, and photos you’ll be printing for your casework, creating your own, in-home copy center is the smarter bet.
- Phone recording app: $10 annual fee.
Taking notes during phone calls with interviewees and sources is a must, but nothing beats a recording. With the amount of talking you’ll be doing in pursuit of justice, you’ll want an audio file you can return to repeatedly for transcribing and comparing accounts of witnesses, victims, and police. My personal favorite is the TapeACall App, which gives you unlimited call recordings and storage for about $10 a year. Just make sure you check your state’s laws regarding phone recordings before you start dialing. Some states are “one-party consent” jurisdictions, requiring that only one party to a conversation — that party being you — know a call is being recorded. “Two-party consent” states require you to obtain permission to record from the person you’re speaking with.
-Transportation: $50 a month.
You’ll probably need a car for traveling to locations crucial to your case: Crime scenes, police stations, courthouses, homes of victim’s families, and more. I try and keep my work-related mileage equivalent to about $50 a month in gas money (my Toyota Yaris is a godsend when it comes to fuel efficiency). Traveling by train or bus? You should be able to keep costs lower than you would with a car. But if neither driving nor public transportation are practical options for you, phone calls and emails can be just as effective in reaching people vital to your investigation.
-Online research: $8 a month.
Google is a gold mine for crime research, but you’ll need to dig deeper when investigating cases older than ten or so years. Digitized newspaper pages and clippings are invaluable resources for any sleuth. If your local library doesn’t have what you’re looking for, Newspapers.com offers access to millions of newspaper pages with their $7.95 monthly subscription. They also offer a seven-day free trial during which you can view and print unlimited pages.
-Social Media ads: $1 a month.
Citizen sleuths are increasingly turning to sites like Facebook to reach users who may have information about unsolved crimes. For as little as one dollar per promotion, you can get your post in front of hundreds of Facebook users. The site lets you micro-target your audience according to location, interests, and other demographics, allowing you to reach precisely the audience you desire. I recently spent about $25 on a weeks-long Facebook promotion that got my Boca Mall Murders Investigation page in front of roughly 20,000 users, some of whom submitted valuable tips through Facebook’s messaging feature.
-Food and drink expenses: $40 a month.
If you want to cozy up to cops, in-the-know barflies, and others who move in the milieu you’re trying to penetrate as part of your investigation, you’ll need the equivalent of a reporter’s expense account. That means shelling out for beers and the occasional meal for folks who can give you the leads you desire. A few cocktails can’t hurt, either. Remember: Loose lips solve cases.
Kevin Deutsch is a true crime journalist, host of the crime podcast A Dark Turn, and author of two nonfiction books: The Triangle and Pill City. He is at work on a new book about the Boca Raton mall murders and abductions of 2007.