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'Homicide Hunter': Joe Kenda discusses the new season and the ones that got away

Lt. Joe Kenda returns for Season 4 of "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda" this Tuesday, August 19, on Investigation Discover..
Lt. Joe Kenda returns for Season 4 of "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda" this Tuesday, August 19, on Investigation Discover..
Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery

Lt. Joe Kenda made a name for himself as a detective by solving 92 percent of the murders that came across his desk during his tenure in the Colorado Springs homicide division. So when sitting down to interview him about the latest season of his Investigation Discovery hit "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda," one would have to be a little naive to think one will be in the driver's seat. Kenda took the wheel right off the bat, even before the first proper question, because what you see on TV is what you get in real life. He jumps right in with stories and anecdotes, and still controls an interview whether he's grilling a suspect, or whether he's supposed to be the one getting interrogated.

He can't help himself, with so many tales of murder and mayhem. Very few are such natural-born storytellers -- or raconteurs, as he refers to himself -- and even when Hollywood came calling, Kenda set them straight on who was running the show and how it was going to be done from the get-go. It was his way or the highway for this modern-day Joe Friday, although he denies any more than a passing familiarity with "Dragnet." But his old-school style harkens back to the classic days of film noir and the likes of fictional detectives like Philip Marlow or Sam Spade.

Diana Price: Well, first of all, thank you so much for doing this. I am a total Investigation Discovery junkie, but I just love your show.

Joe Kenda: Well, I'm glad you do. Kind of you to say that. It’s funny how it all started in the sense that I have no script, I just say what I want to say. So they have to film me first. Because for them to do the reenactments, I don’t know what I'm going to say until they turn that camera on, so they have to interview me and then they do the reenactments.

DP: I love that, because I had seen that they tried to give you a script in the beginning and you were like. "Oh no, I am not reading somebody else’s words."

JK: No.

DP: But I hadn’t thought about the fact that means you have to do your part first and then they follow what you say.

JK: Right, because they say, "What do you want to say?" and I say, "I don’t know. Turn the camera on and we will see."

DP: You brought Hollywood to its knees and you made them cater to you.

JK: Well, accidentally I did. I think it's because it’s successful, therefore they're willing to put up with me. Because it has really good ratings, people like it.

DP: Well, yeah, you're going on your fourth season, so are there different approaches you're trying this season or do you figure if it isn't broken, we don’t need to fix it?

JK: I think it's fine. I don’t think we need to fix it. I think that we've done some minor technical things. They've gotten some high definition cameras this time for reenactment, so it gives it more of a cinematic look. They've gotten the correct uniforms for the actors playing cops from Colorado Springs and the cars are marked correctly, but other than that it’s the same.

DP: And you certainly have plenty of cases to draw on because you’ve had almost 400 cases solved and a 92% solve rate, which is incredible. What do you think was the key to being so successful?

JK: I'm not smarter than anybody else, I'm just more determined, that’s all. I take it as an affront -- you can’t kill in my city, you can’t do that. You can do a lot of things, but don't do that. Because if you do that, I'll find you, and I'll put you under a prison where you belong. That’s why; I treated it as a mission, not as a job.

DP: Do you think that maybe the reason some other people don’t have a great of a success rate is that they aren’t…

JK: I can’t speak for others -- I have no idea. I know what I did and I was dedicated to it, absolutely dedicated, and I demanded that same level of dedication from all of my detectives. And I personally hand-selected everyone that was in the department and we all worked together quite well. We all had the same attitude: you aren't going to get away with this.

DP: It almost sounds like you did make it pretty personal.

JK: Oh, absolutely, you have to make it personal. Otherwise, when it’s five o’clock it’s time to go home. But it's never time to go home, not if we don’t know anything. I used to tell my guys that. I said "Hey, if I thought you needed a wife I would have issued you one. Where are you going?" That’s how it is.

DP: I know that you've said in other interviews that when you were out working in the field, you didn’t go home and talk about these cases with your wife. So has doing the show been a way for her to finally find out what you did all those years of late nights? What does she think about seeing the stories on TV now?

JK: I think it has and I think it has shocked her a little bit. There are a couple of occasions when she’s been watching the show on TV and she’ll just turn and look at me and then say, "I didn’t know..." I know you didn’t know that.

I mean, what are you going to do? Are you going to go home at night and tell your wife the horrible things you did all day? You aren't going to do that. You're going to go home, tell her a few funny anecdotes, maybe, or say nothing at all.

So it’s been a revelation in some ways for her. It’s been therapeutic for me because I’ve said more to that camera than I've ever said to anybody about what I did for a living. But it feels good. It releases some of the pressure.

DP: That is something else I had read, that you did feel some relief that you're finally able to tell your stories. And were there some of the unsolved cases where you felt some kind of closure being able to talk about it? Or actually, those cases probably haven’t been featured, correct?

JK: No, they can’t be. In Colorado, and like in most states, they are considered an active criminal investigation. The facts are only privileged to the police, the defense and the courts. So it is a felony to discuss those outside of a police environment. So no, we don’t talk about those, and they still drive me crazy. I still think about them all the time. Sometimes they just get lucky -- they're not really smart, they're not really clever, they aren't Professor Moriarity -- they're just lucky that the evidence they left behind is meaningless -- and that's what happens sometimes. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen, we can't get them all.

DP: I think a lot of your viewers would say the cases you did succeed at were probably a little more than luck, as you seem like you know what you are doing when you handle those suspects.

JK: I know what I'm doing, but there are still moments... You can look at that two ways, Diana. You could say I'm a smart guy who solved 92 percent of my cases, or I'm a dumb sh*t who doesn’t know who killed 8 percent of those people. It depends on your point of view.

DP: True. I guess when we're talking about murder here, you're looking at people who are saying, "Oh my gosh, you solved 92% of your cases. How great is that!" But I can see where you’d be thinking, "Yeah, but eight out of 100 are unsolved, and those are people that are dead and still crying for justice.

JK: That is correct, and it's never going to happen for them. Never going to happen for them. And that grates at me. You don’t want to miss one... you don’t want to miss one, but sometimes there is just nothing you can do. In the modern court room, it's not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it's proof beyond any doubt, and you better have a movie of the guy doing it. Juries in the modern day don’t want to decide. They want the facts to decide for them so that they can go to their friends and say, "Well, what else could I do? The evidence was so overwhelming I had to find him guilty."

People don’t want to make decisions in modern America, which is really unfortunate, but it's true. So when you go into a court room, you better have it -- you better have it all -- otherwise you aren't getting anywhere.

DP: Well, even if you had a movie these days you'd probably have to try to prove that it wasn’t CGI.

JK: That's correct. Of course, everyone believes that they're dialed in to the world because people tell them they are. Having a smart phone doesn’t mean you're smart, it means you have a smart phone. People get organized around these electronic wizardry things, and they begin to think or believe that they are somehow in contact with all the known facts of human activity and they couldn’t be further from the truth -- could not be further from the truth.

But they believe that, so they think "I will analyze this, I will utilize my high school diploma to look at this problem that I have never seen in my life before and I’ll come up with a correct answer." Probably not.

DP: And I think a lot of people use smart phones so that they can be dumb. But there is a real fascination which true crime which has certainly been beneficial to your channel. Why do you think that people are so fascinated with this real life horror? Why do we want to watch this?

JK: It's an interesting question. If I knew the answer I could write a book and retire to the south of France... I have no clue, people are fascinated by it. I know that in my experience, if we walked into some place wearing cheap suits and announced we were from homicide everybody would pass out. It frightens people. Perhaps that's part of it -- they're frightened by it, so they want to think that maybe they can understand it better and be less frightened of it if they watched these shows. I don’t know, but I know it's certainly true. I get recognized every place I go -- airports, restaurants, banks, airplanes, elevators, you name it -- somebody knows who I am because they watch that show.

And I'm always nice to people and go out of my way to be nice to people. I get my picture taken with their iPhones; here is an autograph, here you go. Why not be nice?

DP: They are probably nice to you because they’re probably a little scared they'll make you mad.

JK: That's why maybe, but everybody is pleasant so so am I.

DP: Because you kind of do your own scripting, have you ever thought of writing a book? You could just put on Dragonspeech and run with it and have…

JK: If it were to happen, I'm not a writer but I'm a talker, so get me some voice-activated software and get out of my way. It would be interesting, plus I could say some really evil things you can’t say on television.

DP: Exactly. Even though you may not consider yourself a writer, you are certainly a storyteller.

JK: Thank you.

DP: With this career, dealing with death, and with murders, and the worst of humanity, how do you keep from letting that drag you down to a feeling of cynicism or hopelessness?

JK: Well, it's an easy thing to do if consider this: I had a professional life and I had a personal life and I never let the two mix. So all of my friends were not cops. I never went to police functions. Nobody at the police department even knew if I was married. I had a professional life and I had a personal life and I didn’t mix the two. Look at it this way: if you put up a sign that says no parking, 98 percent of the world will not park there because there is a sign. Two percent of the world will. And I spent 100 percent of my time with the 2 percent. But I understood clearly that they represented two percent and everyone else is just fine. They go home and pet the dog and say hello to the wife and have dinner and go back to work like they are supposed to. Two percent of the public isn't like that, and that is who I spend my time with. My friends all did something else for a living. They all knew what I did, but nobody asked me about it. That's just how it was.

DP: Probably a very smart approach to handle it that way. Do you still have people approach you to help with cases even though you are retired?

JK: Yes, I belong to a cold case group that is the American Society of Cold Case Investigators, and it is run by a district attorney's investigator in Pennsylvania, and he has enlisted the help of a number of people who include myself. If you are an agency -- not an individual but an agency -- and you have an unsolved murder and you're willing to set your ego aside, which is not easy to do, you can submit that case to this group and we will look at it and give you some ideas on what you could do that maybe you have not done to some of those cases. And we have had some success with that, so I still keep my hand in as a result.

DP: Do you ever get involved with more famous cases -- I don’t want to name any specifically -- or just have those who try to get you involved?

JK: Of course, but I can’t get involved in those things, I'm not part of that investigation... The press accounts of a case are never correct. Even when you provide them with facts, they'll still figure out a way to screw it up. So I have no idea what happened in those cases nor am I responsible for their resolutions. I don’t get involved. I say "I'm sorry, but I don’t get involved in that," because I don’t. Which is unfortunate, but it's reality.

DP: Obviously you had formal training to become an officer, but you seem to have picked up a lot instinctively on the job. What was the biggest "a-ha" moment of your career as a detective -- something that really made you better at doing what you do?

JK: Having empathy for people. Understanding that even the bad guys are looking for some degree of forgiveness and if you treat people well, they will tell you what they did. I never raised my voice; I never threatened anybody; I never used profanity. I was their friend, and over time in that conversation and in the interrogation, all of a sudden we're not in a police station, we're in a bar. We're buddies and you're going to tell me what you did, and I learned that.

It's different for everybody -- it really is. Your personality is different than anyone else’s so what works for me would not necessarily work for you, but that works for me. I was nice to people.

DP: What do you think is your most satisfying case?

JK: Every single one of them, absolutely.

DP: Do you still do any work on the unsolved ones or occasionally open up the files and take a look to see if something pops into your head?

JK: Yes.

DP: And have you had any success with some of those unsolved cases that you had?

JK: No.

DP: They are pretty unsolvable, I take it.

JK: Yes ma’am, we need divine intervention.

DP: You seem to be pretty busy even though you're retired: you’ve got the show, you’ve got some cold cases that you are working with for that Pennsylvania group. Is there anything else that you’ve been kind of dabbling in, not related to police work?

JK: We recently moved to the east coast from Colorado to the Tidewater area of Virginia eight months ago. I’ve been remodeling a house and I've been a busy guy, but we're almost done. So we're getting there, but Mrs.Kenda began looking over her glasses at me a couple of weeks ago, with her narrow blue eyes. "Two more weeks, Hon."

DP: You may wear the pants when it comes to the interrogations, but I guess we know who keeps you in line.

JK: The lovely and radiant Mrs. Kenda does, and she has for many, many moons. We met in high school; we've been together all of our lives.

DP: I'm sure that was a hard life for her with all the long hours you put in.

JK: She's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Irishman with a temper like a chainsaw. I don’t understand her but I am working on that.

DP: You could understand all these criminals but you can’t understand your own wife?

JK: Nope, never have.

Kenda still hasn't conquered the mysteries of the female psyche -- or at least not Mrs. Kenda's -- but he sure has a knack for getting his man. Check him out in "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda." The Season 4 premiere airs August 19th on Investigation Discovery at 10 p.m. ET.