All week long, Vulture is exploring the many ways true crime has become one of the most dominant genres in popular culture.
Most former police officers don’t enjoy a retirement that involves any kind of celebrity, much less one that has yielded a signature wine inspired by their catch phrase, a book deal, and an annual namesake cruise to the Caribbean. But such is now life for 71-year-old Lieutenant Joe Kenda, whose Investigation Discovery series Homicide Hunter has made him a bona fide true crime star.
Kenda’s perch atop the roster of programming on the decade-old true crime powerhouse ID is secure (if not completely natural) in a lineup that includes Wives with Knives, Deadly Women and Stepford Lives of Stepford Wives. Homicide Hunter, true stories from his 23-and-a-half years on the job in Colorado Springs, attracted nearly two million viewers per week last season, its seventh, and shows no signs of slowing.
The erstwhile detective’s style is as direct, dry and charmingly unpolished as one would expect out of one of the very best scripted TV cops, but Kenda is no actor. He refuses scripts for his parts in Homicide Hunter, choosing instead to recall his cases from memory. With 387 murders in his files, Kenda has no shortage of material — and as his series heads into its eighth season, the unlikely star is happy about both the thrills that ID viewers get from his dark stories, and the opportunity that discussing them affords him to exorcise some demons of his own.
387 cases total seems like a lot, even for two decades. Is Colorado Springs a sneakily dangerous place?
That number is not above average and it’s not below either. It’s average. We had low years where we were all looking at each other like, “what’s going on? Don’t anybody know they’re dead yet?” There are other years that it’s like, “good heavens, are we ever gonna get some sleep?” I’ve had as many as six in one week. There are other factors like division of labor. The NYPD has 7,000 sworn officers. There was only one me and one major crimes unit in Colorado Springs. In Chicago, they have eight of them.
But I did it because I loved it. I would have done it for free. Mrs. Kenda might not agree with that sentiment. I was home for Christmas once in 23 and a half years. But I saw it as a mission. I just loved it. I went through withdrawal when I retired.
Why did you finally retire?
At that moment, in August of 1996, we were overwhelmed. We just had a bad day at the office. I had literally run out of detectives. They had a guy under arrest, a 74-year-old man, for sexually assaulting his five-year-old grandson. The sex crimes unit had the guy and it was confirmed. Kid was being treated medically. But we needed to interrogate the grandfather. I had a couple of homicides, had a couple of shootings. I had people everywhere. I had no interrogation rooms, so I said, “Bring him into my office.” So they bring this 74-year-old guy into my office, and I advised him and he waives his rights, and we’re talking. I’ve got the door closed. I asked him, “Why did you do that to that little boy?” And he said, “He came onto me.”
I don’t remember anything after that. I wanted to just kill this guy. I put my hands on him. People opened the door and they were saying “Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” I said, “Get him away from me. Just get him away from me right now. Get him out of my sight.” I sat down at my typewriter, ‘cause I still had one in 1996. I always kept one. I thought it was the coolest thing to do. I got sick of computers and word processors so I had a IBM Selectric II. Worked like a champ. And I put my memorandum in there and said, “Effective September 1, 1996 I will be retired for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Very truly yours, Me.”
After all that, and going through changes and withdrawals, how and why did you decide to relive it all on a TV show?
I was driving a special needs school bus a couple years after I retired. I referred to my bus as The Waldorf Hysteria ‘cause everybody on it was nuts, including me. I was enjoying life and I was approached by a television producer who had a concept for a cop show starring me. This guy had experience with me — he remembered me from a show I’d been a guest on years earlier — and he thought I would be an excellent person to do this. Initially I did not respond then my wife said, “You know, you should really do this.” She has a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing but her specialty in nursing was psychiatry. She said, “You have never discussed any of your things with me or with anyone else that I’m aware of. And you have a major case of PTSD. You have moments where you are sullen, you are quiet, you won’t talk to me, you stare at the wall. This is not a good thing. You’ve never talked to anybody.” I used to come home from work and Kathy would say, “How was your day?” Well, there were only two answers: It sucked or it really sucked. And there was nothing more to say.
So I called the guy back and I filmed some episodes and the first thing I noticed was I felt better. I just felt better. Overall, emotionally, I felt better. And here we are seven years on and I feel way better. Mrs. Kenda, as usual, is absolutely correct.
But you say you would have done it for free. How do you reconcile loving something that was so terrible you couldn’t even talk to your wife about it?
It’s very, very simple. When someone does something unspeakable to someone else they are a shadow in the night. The moment you provide that shadow with a first middle and last name and date of birth, it is absolutely euphoric. There is no better feeling on the planet for me. It’s solving the mystery. I would say to people, “You thought I’d never find you didn’t you? Well here I am. And I represent the rest of your miserable life. You’re under arrest for first degree murder.” I used to love that.
That sentiment comes across in Homicide Hunter — the idea that you relish the gotcha moment, especially in interrogations. Did you ever have really, really good liars that duped you for a while?
The best liar is a psychopathic liar. They don’t have any emotion. They don’t feel guilt or love or compassion. They’ll sit there and fall asleep while you’re talking to them. They’ll pick lint off their blue jeans. I had a guy do that. He’s picking a piece of lint off his blue jeans. You don’t find a snake like that very often. But once in a while you do and when you do it’s in your interest and in the interest of society to bury him under a prison.
Do you worry about people like that learning from your show? Does it ever concern you that you could be grooming murderers by telling your secrets?
I don’t, because you know what they actually learned from that show? That they’d go to jail. The ultimate lesson is this is gonna end badly for you, Mr. Clever Criminal Guy. It’s gonna end badly because everybody goes to jail or gets killed in the process. That’s how it works.
What about other true crime shows? Does the phenomenon and its growth ever give your cop brain pause?
I don’t watch any of it or listen to any of it, honestly. I only watch my own show once each episode, and that’s just to make sure they didn’t slip some Hollywood stuff in there. They never have.
Never? But they have to take some liberties, right? In some cases they’re putting years of work into a 45-minute package.
Well sure, the whole investigation is boring. No one would watch how many rabbit warrens we go down. And on the show they use my name on the radio. Nobody ever says a name on a police radio. It’s a call sign. My call sign was “one x-ray one.” It almost as if it’s an irritated mother on the radio. Like your mother can’t find you: “One x-ray one. One x-ray one.” “Okay. Okay honey. Just calm down. I’m here.”
And I use a lot of profanity. Profanity is the language of the street. But it can’t be used on the show because they consider that to be offensive. Somebody always considers everything can be offensive. We could carve an apple and somebody who loves apples would write a letter: They tortured that apple to death. So the show producers stay within the fence posts in terms of the acceptable morality of the viewing audience, which means I don’t use bad language, although I can produce a tapestry of profanity.
I’m also a lot more sarcastic in person than on television. I tone it back a bit because we’re talking to the general public, but I can get really shitty with people.
What do you think of yourself on television?
It was startling when it first happened. It still kind of is. My face fills the screen on the show. They do that intentionally. It’s a closeup that covers the whole screen. It literally knocked me back the first time: “God, look at … that’s … geeze. There you are. You weren’t supposed to be on television for God’s sake. You’re a police man.” But the really funny part is everyone talks about my voice and how much they love my voice. Your voice never sounds the same to you as it does to everybody else cause it’s in your own head. You don’t hear it the way other people do. So the first show, Kathy’s sitting there just with her mouth open ‘cause there’s her husband’s face from one end of this TV screen to the other. And I said, “Do I sound like that?” And she said, “Well, of course you do. That’s your voice.” And it doesn’t sound like it was my voice. Still doesn’t. It’s so bizarre.
Has the family of a victim you’ve featured on Homicide Hunter ever reached out to say they’re unhappy with you putting the details of their loved one’s death on TV?
No. I always ask them if it’s ok if we do the case. We don’t have to do that in Colorado; it’s open records. But I want to. And you know what’s interesting? They’ve all said, “Please do the case. I don’t want my loved one to be forgotten.” No one has ever said no.
How about law enforcement? How do your former colleagues or other officers respond? I imagine there’s been some good-natured ribbing.
It’s of no interest to me if they make fun of me. I always say, “by the way, how’s your show doing?” That usually stops that conversation.
I have a lot of policeman as fans. That’s the greatest compliment to me because they realize it’s totally legit.
I’ll tell you a funny story: I was on a fan cruise on Princess Cruise Lines. We do fan cruises for the fans and part of the deal is I get off the boat and I go to a club, usually a Margaritaville and the people that signed up for the cruise come to a private area and we sit and we talk. And on this particular one, another ship pulled up and like, a hundred guys start walking down the gangway and they’re wearing NYPD hats. They got their wives with them. Younger guys. They’re active duty. So this guy comes by and he stops, he looks at me and says, “You’re Joe Kenda.” I said, “I am.” He turns and yells at everybody, “Joe Kenda’s in this bar.” And somebody says “Who?” and he says, “Joe fucking Kenda is in this bar.” So they all came. We had a hell of a good time. But they love the show and that’s because it’s not invented. It’s not nonsense. It’s legitimate. We even use trained police officers in our reenactments.
You say you don’t watch any other true crime, but you have to know that incarcerated criminals are getting new trials and evidence is coming from amateur detectives via social media. Does any of that bother you? What if one of your cases were to be re-opened?
America loves the underdog. Everybody has an opinion and you’re certainly entitled to it. The only opinion that matters in this country, in my line of work, is that of the jury. I never paid much attention to anything else. I never had a problem with the press really because I never lied to them, but I never paid much attention to it. I got better things to do than that.
For better or worse, “my, my, my” is your catchphrase. Is there an origin story there?
I used it all the time in interrogations. I would let you lie to me, okay. I would let you tell me your story and it would be the ridiculous story or whatever thing you invented at the moment or as … you usually invent them as you go along. If you’re lying your ass off, you’re inventing it as you go along. And I’ll wait two hours. Have just general conversation. An hour or two. And I’ll say to you, “Well Sarah, you told me what happened that night. You actually did tell me you told me a lot of details of what you were doing, but you know, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t remember what you said. Could you again?”. Well, I remember everything you said, but you can’t tell me again because you were lying to a first time. What I want to hear from you is the first lie. Tell me a lie. ‘Cause if you’re gonna lie to me, I’m talking to the right Sarah ‘cause now you’re lying, alright.
So when they would do that, I would slam my notebook on the table. It’s to startle them. The flat side of notebook, make a loud noise. I’d look at them across the table and say, “Well, my, my, my. Not two hours ago you said you did this and now you’re saying you’re saying you did that.”
When your new season starts later this month, you’ll have aired 102 episodes. You’ve solved 356 cases of those 387 cases. Are you going to do them all?
In the television world, 100 is the magic syndication number, so I will be on television like Gilligan’s Island, my dear. I’ll be on TV when I’m dead. But there are cases I choose not to do and the network is totally on line with that. We won’t do babies; we don’t do children. They are simply too gruesome for a television audience. Unfortunately, I’ve had a number of those.
After this many episodes, do you feel like you’ve found some peace about what you saw during your career? Or do you still need the show?
My nightmares will never go away. The best way I can describe PTSD is having a nightmare while you’re still awake. But talking about it on show helps. Plus, it pays better than police work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.