Cop’s third career: TV star

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Barbara Ruben

On “Homicide Hunter” — the #1 show on the Investigation Discovery channel — Lt. Joe Kenda recounts some of the more than 350 homicide cases he solved as a police detective in Colorado. Kenda, who now lives in Virginia, will discuss his evolving career at both of the Beacon’s 50+Expos in September.
Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery

“In my adult life, everybody either hated me or was afraid of me or both,” said Joe Kenda of his 19 years as a Colorado homicide detective. But that reaction has turned on its head.

Kenda is now the star of a true-crime drama series on the Investigation Discovery (ID) network. In the show, which runs in 163 countries and is translated into 100 languages, he narrates re-enactments of some of his most intriguing — and often gory — cases. The show, “Homicide Hunter,” is seen by 27 million viewers and is the network’s most popular show.

“I don’t think anyone on the planet would have guessed where this would go,” said Kenda, who turns 70 later this month and now lives with his wife in Hampton Roads, Va., near an adult son.

Kenda will be the keynote speaker at the Beacon’s 50+Expos, taking place on Sept. 11 in Silver Spring, Md., and Sept. 25 in Springfield, Va.

While Kenda knew from a young age he wanted to be a cop, he never dreamed there would be so much interest in his astounding 92 percent success rate in solving cases. (Nationally, about 64 percent of homicides are eventually solved.)

Meeting the enemy

The turning point for his career decision came when he was 9 and went to the Pittsburg Zoo.

“I went to the primate house, and there was a huge sign that said, ‘Around this corner is the most dangerous animal on Earth.’ Wow! I ran around the corner along with everybody else, and it was a mirror from ceiling to floor, and everyone was very disappointed — except for me.

“I stood there transfixed and thought about what the sign said, and all these people [reflected] in the mirror. It was kind of an epiphany for me, and I thought about it for a very long time.”

Kenda went to college, earning a degree in political science, before moving to Colorado Springs, where his mother had grown up.

He joined the police department there, starting as an officer on the street and working his way up to become a burglary detective. Eventually, he became the head of the police department’s major crimes unit.

He’s best known for the deadpan, slowly uttered line, “My, my, my,” which he says when a suspect is being particularly untruthful.

Which of the nearly 400 cases he investigated stand out most to Kenda?

All of them.

“They are all absolutely awful. It doesn’t matter about what they are, who the victim is, the method in which it is done. I’ve seen [murder] by every means except a nuclear weapon. I’ve seen every other way you can kill someone — children, babies and adults.…It was disgusting.”

Changing gears

But after 21 years on the police force, Kenda put the brakes on his career — at the insistence of his wife, Kathy. He and Kathy were high school sweethearts; they’ve been together nearly 55 years.

She was worried about his job as a detective, but busy with her job as a nurse and raising their two children. Then one night, Kenda was working a particularly dangerous case.

“We had a kid who used an automatic weapon in a homicide, 32 rounds, shot into a car of kids. Killed one, wounded three, hit everything in the neighborhood. It took me five days to figure out who he was,” Kenda said. “I called Kathy and said, ‘I’m going to go get this jerk with the machine gun, and I’ll be late.’”

That was the last Kathy heard from him until Kenda pulled the car into the driveway at 1 a.m. All the lights were on, and she was crying.

“She said, ‘Kenda — and she only calls me by my last name when she’s really upset — I can’t wait for you to come home anymore. You should have called me.’

“She was right. I’d reached my emotional limit. I loved the adrenalin rush of the job. Her, not so much. So I left. And when I did, I lost the venom. But it took a couple years. When I first left, I was not the friendliest person.”

But even though Kenda wasn’t chasing criminals anymore, they haunted his dreams and even his waking hours.

“I suffer from PTSD. Of course, I do. The best way I can describe PTSD: Imagine having a nightmare while you’re awake. Picture a face and you’re back in the moment. You’ve got a gun in your hand, and everything is going south, and it’s right back where you were years ago.”

Kenda finally regained some equilibrium with a job that was the polar opposite of his police career: driving a school bus for children with special needs, which he did for the next decade.

“I became a special needs bus driver because I really was attracted to those kids who needed somebody in their lives who cared about them. For the first time in my life, people were happy to see me. And that felt very nice,” he said.

A new career in TV

But then a letter from a TV producer who had heard of Kenda’s reputation for solving murder cases arrived. Kenda ignored it. Kathy pestered him to respond. He finally did, and was flown out to California to do a test shoot for the show.

“A guy hands me 50 pounds of papers. I said, ‘What’s that?’ and they said, ‘That’s your script.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m a policeman, not an actor, and I’m not going to read a script.’ They said, ‘You have to do this.’ I said, ‘No, I have to die, and I have to pay taxes, but I don’t have to read a script. And if that’s what you want, then perhaps you should get someone else.’”

But they didn’t, because Kenda’s “just the facts, ma’am” Joe Friday delivery bowled over the producers, and they never mentioned a script again.

On “Homicide Hunter,” Kenda serves as a narrator outlining the cases, which he remembers in precise detail. He shoots his segments in Colorado Springs. Reenactments with a younger actor who resembles Kenda, Carl Marino, are shot in Knoxville, Tenn.

Kenda distills each case, compacting it greatly to fit into an hour-long TV show.

“A murder case is enormously complicated. If I made a show illustrating everything we did and heard, it would last for 16 weeks and nobody would watch it. It’s a rabbit warren of facts and mistakes and misinformation,” he said.

“I do it off the top of my head. I’m better on my feet than any other way,” he said of his narration of the show.

“Homicide Hunter” has now aired more than 60 episodes since 2011. Its sixth season starts on Aug. 24.

Kenda also contributed to ID’s “Detective” podcast, which delves into the files of particularly disturbing cases. Each season, a different detective is featured, and Kenda was chosen for the inaugural season last year.

A 21st century hero

Why the public’s appetite for Kenda’s dark and twisty tales?

“I have no earthly idea,” Kenda responded.

But Jim Seeley, a fan and organizer of an annual cruise featuring Kenda, has some thoughts. Seeley, 52, who lives in Falls Church, Va., said, “We live in world where there are so many travesties of justice out there in the news. And it’s such a relief to see justice being done, good winning over evil. In the real world, evil seems to be winning over good these days.

“Joe has an element of Clint Eastwood, kind of the ‘go ahead and make my day’ thing. People really respond to that, especially because he’s not acting. He’s telling the real story. People gravitate to these kinds of heroes.”

And doing the shows has been therapeutic for Kenda, much more so than the visit he once paid to a PTSD therapist.

“I’ve said more to that camera than I’ve said to anybody. It makes me feel better. So that’s my motivation” for doing the show, he said.

In a summer in which police shootings and race continue to make headlines, Kenda is careful not to assign blame — except maybe to the media.

In response to a question about the recent violence, he said, “Police contact people one million times a year. Police violence is less than one percent of all those contacts.

“But media is competitive. They strive for an audience. If it bleeds, it leads. It has become the cause célèbre. They’re tired of talking about Donald Trump, so now they’re talking about this.

“Any time there is emotion in a situation, people don’t consider what the facts are. They only consider their emotions. They’re angry, they’re distressed. There’s obviously guilt on both sides in those situations.”

And from his years of service, Kenda has some safety tips for people in addition to the usual “pay attention to your surroundings” —

“Stay out of bars at closing time because nothing good happens after midnight.

“Do not buy or sell narcotics or associate with those who do.

“And try to marry well. Don’t marry a psychotic.

“The odds of you being a victim of violent crime are an inch tall. If you do those other things, they are 10 feet tall.

“Most murders are not random. There is a reason. It may be an insane reason, but it’s a reason.”