By this point, you might think Joe Kenda would be tired of recounting the gory details of the murders he investigated for 23 years as a Colorado Springs Police officer.
That would mean you’ve never seen “Homicide Hunter,” the Investigation Discovery series that puts the retired, 72-year-old Kenda at the center of a different case each week.
Starting in 2011 and continuing for 124 episodes and eight seasons, the true-crime series has portrayed Kenda’s career through interviews and reenactments, all based on events that happened in or around Colorado Springs.
“I’ve never seen murder change,” Kenda said during a break from filming promotional spots in downtown Denver last month. “Motives and methods change, but the pillars of murder have always been money, sex and revenge — in that order.”
Kenda has found countless ways to show that over the years, from classic whodunnits (the fan-favorite “Chance Encounter”) to deeply personal episodes that put his family in the spotlight (“Married to the Job”). His critics — some of whom are former CSPD officers — say he stretches the truth, but Kenda stands by his memory and ethics, giving credit where it’s due while acknowledging this is entertainment, not documentary TV.
As he awaits the premiere of the show’s ninth and final season on Aug. 28, he’s already looking forward to his next, top-secret project with Investigation Discovery.
“It’s therapeutic for me. That’s the only reason I agreed to do this show,” Kenda said. “If I was concerned about money, I wouldn’t have been a policeman.”
Kenda said the catharsis and sagacity extends to some of his viewers, who hang on his every clue, quip and breakthrough. It’s bloody drama, sure. But it’s based on facts and delivered with the benefit of hindsight.
“You build armor around your heart to protect your emotions, but certain events drive through it like a stiletto and your emotions come pouring out,” he said. “Not just from that event, but every other event that you’ve held inside you.”
Kenda isn’t in the business of comforting the grieving, but it was a part of his job, and he retains a matter-of-fact wisdom that he readily shares on the show — every episode of which he narrates. That’s part of its appeal, as he flits between case-by-case details and the overarching patterns he witnessed as a homicide detective.
But there are only so many cases to cover, and Kenda feels the show has run its course. There are certain cases he vows never to talk about on TV due to their graphic or disturbing nature. He prefers to add insight where he can, and leave the rest for history.
On suicide: “There’s so much guilt associated with it, but I would always tell parents, ‘There is no reason in the unreasonable. The act of self-destruction is an act of insanity, because the strongest human instinct is to survive at all costs.’ ”
On closure: “You never really get over grief. It can make 30 years ago feel like this morning.”
On detective work: “You have to take the word ‘always’ out of your vocabulary. Let the facts drive the theory, not the other way around. Juries always want to know, ‘Why did this happen?’ That’s the last question I care about. I’m in the who, what, where, when and how business.”
On violence: “I’ve come to believe there’s a national biorhythm, because when murder’s up, it’s up everywhere, whether it’s Colorado Springs or Los Angeles. Trauma medicine has also gotten much better in recent years, so if you really want to know if crime’s going up or down, don’t look at murder, look at the assault rate.”
On human nature: “Why do animals run from us? Because they know what we are. We’re the most dangerous creature on this planet. During morning briefings I used to say, ‘Hey, boys and girl, the humans are out. Be careful, please.’ ”
On drugs: “This country has an insatiable appetite for narcotics. As long as that exists, there are going to be a lot of killings and a lot of accidental overdoses.”
On freedom: “Democracy is messy. There are certain things about a free society one must accept, because freedom has a price, and it’s not what the bumper sticker wants you to think.”
On safety: “Stay out of bars at closing time. Nothing good happens after midnight. Do not buy, sell or use narcotics or associate with those who do. And try to marry well. Don’t marry a psychotic. If you do all that, the odds of you being a victim of violent crime are tiny.”
Kenda was born in Herminie, Penn., and earned degrees in political science and international relations before moving to Colorado Springs with his wife (high-school girlfriend Mary Kathleen “Kathy” Mohler) and two children in 1973 to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Of course, “Homicide Hunter” isn’t all filmed in the Springs. The story reenactments are shot in Knoxville, Tenn., while Kenda’s talking-head moments are gathered in a nondescript office building in the Springs, according to producers. Shooting around Colorado gives them a chance to interview former local police officers, judges, prosecutors, and family of the people connected to the cases.
It’s also much easier to fly Kenda into the Springs for a couple of days to shoot his parts rather than gathering everyone in New York City or Los Angeles.
Related: Lt. Joe Kenda’s all-time favorite “Homicide Hunter” episodes
“The crew has to be here anyway, so I come back and see my friends and say hello to everybody,” Kenda said. “But I moved to Virginia five years ago, out in the woods about 20 miles southwest of Virginia Beach.”
Wherever he goes, “Homicide Hunter” fans claim Kenda as one of their own. Despite being a slow-burning crime series on an offshoot cable network, the series has transformed the quiet, intense Kenda into a kind of celebrity.
“The funniest thing was the guy who ran across the street in Virginia Beach, almost getting hit by a cab, to ask me, ‘Do you know who you are?!’ ” said Kenda, who’s happy to sign autographs and leave personalized voicemails in his signature, low-register voice. “I said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact I do. I have a driver’s license in my pocket with my picture on it.’ ”
Getting chased down in airports and restaurants is just one sign of Kenda’s TV profile. The other is getting free rides in police cars and helicopters after public speaking engagements (for which he doesn’t charge) at police organizations. The outpouring of fan love he receives at IDCon, Investigation Discovery’s annual convention in New York City, includes the bodyguards and cops in attendance.
For its eighth and most recent season, “Homicide Hunter” clocked in as Investigation Discovery’s top show, averaging 1.7 million viewers each week in the third quarter of 2018, according to the network. As noted, Kenda has proven himself so valuable that the network is already planning another series for him after “Homicide Hunter” ends. But no one will talk about it yet.
“It is bittersweet as we begin to say farewell to this series,” said Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, Travel Channel, American Heroes Channel and Destination America. “But we are excited about what we have coming up with Joe’s next chapter on Investigation Discovery and look forward to sharing the announcement of that new project with his devoted fans soon.”
It’s a good bet that no matter what the show is, they’ll let Kenda do his thing unimpeded — unlike when he started on “Homicide Hunter.”
“This guy comes over and drops 50 pounds of paper in my lap, which was my script,” he said, recounting his first time on-set for the series. “I said, ‘Did anybody tell you I’m a policeman and not an actor? He said, ‘Well, you have to read that.’ And I said, ‘No, I have to die and pay taxes. I don’t have to read that. I got over playing dress-up when I was 5 and you should have, too.’ That really pissed him off.”
However, Kenda’s first on-camera taping went so well that producers decided he didn’t need a script. In fact, he claims he’s never used one since then, relying instead on his encyclopedic memory.
But this is TV, where reality often clashes with the need to tell a punchy, self-contained narrative that works in the visual medium. And that’s the problem some of his former colleagues have with the show.
Entertainment or history?
“Kenda claims that he personally investigated and solved 387 cases while assigned to the Colorado Springs Police Department Homicide Unit between 1977 and 1996,” wrote Guy Grace Sr., a retired Colorado Springs lieutenant, in an April 11, 2017, op-ed for the Gazette. “Employment records indicate that Kenda spent part of this time period in patrol and was not even in the homicide unit. With this in mind, his claim on homicide cases investigated and cleared should be questioned. … I believe ‘Homicide Hunter’ should be classified in the ‘entertainment’ file and not in the true or ‘documentary’ file.”
“I wish him well, but you should know that there are a slew of CSPD retirees who are not pleased with him,” said Ron Stallworth, a retired Colorado Springs detective who inspired the lead character in Spike Lee’s 2018, Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman,” (adapted from Stallworth’s memoir of the same name).
Stallworth and Kenda attended the CSPD Academy together in 1973 — which means Kenda remembers many of the real-life events from Stallworth’s own Hollywood adaptation, given that they worked out of the same building for years.
“The book is pretty correct. The movie, not so much,” Kenda said of “BlacKkKlansman.” “Ronnie had an advantage in the department in that he was a cadet, a paid employee of the department, so when he became an officer at 21 everyone already knew him. He never had to go through the rookie thing. But he’s a really good, really smart guy and an excellent policeman.”
Attempts to contact other retired CSPD staffers who worked with Kenda were unsuccessful as of press time. A spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department declined to comment for this article, referring questions to the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association. When contacted, that organization referred questions back to the CSPD.
Kenda readily cops to the way episodic TV oversimplifies life, and the network is careful to include the phrase “and his team” whenever mentioning Kenda’s impressive solve rate of 92%.
“It’s not court reporting,” Kenda said. “You have to tell the story in an hour, not six weeks, so you eliminate things. You also need a lead character, and that’s me, so there are certainly liberties taken. You can’t give everybody credit for everything they did, or else the show would never end and nobody would watch it.”
Using real names and locations in a show about murder has other risks, too. The “Homicide Hunter” episode “Primal Fear” prompted a 2012 lawsuit after Moses Cooley — depicted in the show as a high school bully — sued Kenda and Jupiter Entertainment claiming “defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress … and invasion of privacy.” District Court Judge Gregory R. Werner eventually ruled in favor of the show and its producers, saying the depiction was protected under the First Amendment.
The mind of a detective
Kenda’s backers have noted his ability to accurately recall dozens of tiny details about decades-old cases on command. He’s not just retelling these tales to entertain, but to also open a window on mortality and human motivation, he said.
“That’s all this is,” Kenda said. “It’s storytelling about a subject that people find fascinating.”
As it begins its final season, Kenda is quick to say that the best things to come out of the show were a pair of letters from two different women — received about a year apart — who saw their own partners in the abusive men depicted in various reenactments. They noticed the warning signs, and they acted upon them.
“The abusive male personality is very predictable and very similar among different people. It’s a progression of violence until it reaches death,” Kenda said. “These letters both said the same thing: ‘I was watching your show and I realized that same person was sitting right next to me, and I swallowed the fear and left him. You saved my life.’ So at least in two cases, that’s people’s lives saved from a TV show. I’m rather proud of that.”
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