He has to be one of the most understated personalities on television. But Lt. Joe Kenda (retired) made a solid impression on viewers with the premiere season of Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, and he’s returning to his nightmares and to Investigation Discovery tomorrow night, Oct. 2 at 9pm ET, for a second season of the series that describes murder from the perspective of the investigator. I had the good fortune of speaking with Kenda about the new season and how this series has altered his life. And in the process, I learned a good deal about what it’s really like to be Joe Kenda.
Channel Guide Magazine: We’re looking at a new season of Homicide Hunter. I imagine not a lot will change, other than the cases you’re covering. Or maybe I’m wrong — what can we expect that’s different in the new season?
Lt. Joe Kenda: I think you can expect a little higher level of production value. … It has a much better look to it — it’s better lit, it’s better filmed, and it’s all filmed here, not in California. It’s all in Colorado Springs. Aerial shots during the day, aerial shots at night — it’s very well done. The cases this time around are a little more complicated. A little newer — from the ’90s. But the first episode is one that generated national interest at the time. It was in People magazine, they wrote several paperback books. They wanted to do feature film deals about it because it has the classic combination of sex, money and that sort of thing — meets the Hollywood plotline. And it involved a bunch of people who were college graduates — people who ought to know better than to get involved in murder plots.
CGM: You have a full season of Homicide Hunter under your belt at this point. Do you feel different than you did?
JK: Absolutely. My wife as an example: I had been retired for two years before I lost the venom and before I lost the general behavior [of a homicide detective]. I was sitting at my kitchen table drinking coffee, and my wife — who’s been my wife forever; we met in high school. She says, “Hi.” I said, “Why are you saying hi? I’ve been here all morning.” “No — because now you’re the guy I married, again.” And I thought, well that was very nice. I’m back to being normal. Of course it affects you — if you’re human, you can’t avoid it.
CGM: Do you hear from other law enforcement officials who go through this?
JK: Oh, yeah. … but everybody that I know who are cops or people that did this kind of work — they all like it because of how real it is. It’s real for them, because they know that’s what really happens. And it’s not an invention of a writer or the opinion of some Hollywood type. It’s how the work is actually done. That’s what they like about it. Because it’s very real to them.
CGM: You’ve said that you had a 92-percent success rate. Do any of those outstanding eight percent cases still haunt you?
JK: Of course they do. You want to solve them all. I mean, if you look at that clearance rate of 92 percent and say, ‘Maybe this guy is a genius.’ Or, ‘He’s a dumb@#$% who doesn’t know who killed eight percent of the people.’
CGM: [Laughing] I hope that’s not how you’re taking my question!
JK: No, no! But that’s the reality. I didn’t ever want to miss anything. But you do. I mean, it just happens — you have circumstances beyond your control. You have evidence that isn’t there. You have a victim who leads a highly risky lifestyle. You have too many suspects instead of not enough. There are all kinds of things that come into play. But in those eight percent, I know who did them all — and I can’t prove it. Which is even more frustrating. Because in a modern court, it’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s proof beyond any doubt. That’s the reality. … Nothing about this is easy.
CGM: When you see cases that are being tried in the press, or are at any rate receiving a lot of publicity, do you find yourself playing your hunches, speculating on what really went down?
JK: True, but I also know something else that tempers that approach. The press is hopelessly inaccurate — no offense. You tell those guys the truth and they screw it up. They just do. I was asked, for example, on the famous case in Boulder — Jon Benet Ramsey. The chief of police in Boulder called me and said, ‘Can you help us with this case?’ I said, ‘I have one question for you.’ ‘Well, what’s that?’ ‘Are the press accounts of what you’ve done so far reasonably accurate?’ ‘Well, yeah, they’re pretty accurate.’ ‘I’m not interested.’ ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Because you’ve already destroyed the case. You’re not going to get in a courtroom with a confession. You’ve made too many mistakes, and you can’t get them back.’ He was very insulted. I didn’t care. You’re the one who screwed it up — deal with it. Nobody’s ever going to pay for killing that kid.
CGM: In the wake of this show, do you find yourself being asked to consult on current cases?
JK: I have not. I expect to, but I’m a little difficult to locate on purpose — I had a lot of people try to kill me. And a lot of people who still want to. I’m not off the grid, but you’d have to do some work to find me. So as a result, no, I don’t get a lot of contact, although I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. As an example, last season we had the case involving Vicki Ross, a girl who was found in a car, dead for five days. Her father, Jack, hadn’t seen me since that happened in 1987. He showed up on the set to be interviewed, and as soon as he saw me, he started to cry. I said, ‘Hello, Jack.’ Because I looked the same as I always did. That pain never goes away.
CGM: How is your life significantly different than it was a year ago? I’m sure you get recognized a lot more than you used to.
JK: Yeah, they do — it’s kind of funny. When I was working, everybody knew who I was, because I was on the news all the time. But everybody was afraid of me. So they’d look at me and go, ‘Oh, @#$% — that’s that guy.’ And everybody would disappear. [Laughs.] You’d go to a movie theater, you’re alone in the lobby in about 30 seconds. And now that it’s been on TV, everybody wants to be my friend. They all want to shake my hand. I thought, ‘That’s different,’ you know? As far as it changing my life, not one bit. I told those TV people, too. I said, ‘I’m not a neurotic idiot. I don’t need white lilies. I just need you basically to leave me alone. You want to talk about murder cases, we will.’ I live in the same house, I drive the same car, I’m going to continue doing that. The habits of a lifetime don’t die.
CGM: On a lighter note, what do you like to do these days when you’re not hoofing it for Investigation Discovery?
JK: I like to travel. I just came back from Ireland. It was wonderful — it was two weeks, and I was at the Guinness brewery in St. James Gate and the Jameson Brothers’ distillery in the same city. And then I sampled their products around the country. I found them to be consistently good. [Laughs.] We had a great time. I’ve been there before, but we like to travel. And we go visit our kids, because our kids don’t live here. So we go visit them, and we’re actually friends with our kids, which is a good thing, you know? We’re buddies, so we hang out together. That sort of thing. That’s what I do. Stay busy, and I don’t carry guns anymore.
JK: It always amuses me when you see all of these idiots today that want to carry a gun. The human body is not designed to carry a gun. It hurts no matter where you put it — and trust me, I’ve tried them all. I had to carry a gun. But I certainly don’t have to now — and I don’t. I have a neighbor — a little old man who comes over, he listens to the press that says, ‘You’re all going to die any minute. Now the news, brought to you by Chicken Little,’ you know? So he buys a gun. The guy’s 78. And he shows me this handgun he bought. He says, ‘You know a lot about guns — anything I should do?’ I says, ‘Yeah — do you have a vice in your garage?’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Go put that in the vice and file off that front sight blade.’ ‘Well, why should I do that?’ I said, ‘So when somebody takes it away from you and sticks it up your @#$%, it won’t hurt so bad when they take it out.’ And he just looked at me … he took the gun back to the store. Good choice. You don’t need a gun.
I used to do a lot of public speaking for the police department. I’d say, ‘What’s the position of the department on gun control?’ They’d say, ‘The department doesn’t have a position — we enforce the law as it’s written.’ ‘Would you like to know my personal opinion?’ ‘Absolutely!’ — because it’s always a gun freak that’s asking you the question. So I said, ‘Picture yourself at Mile High [Stadium] in Denver during a Bronco game. You’re on the 50-yard line at halftime. You are surrounded by 74,000 emotional drunks. Behind you on a table are 74,000 guns. Would you give one to everybody there? Or would you try to be selective on who you gave one to?’ And the crowd would laugh, and the guy would sit down. Nobody needs a gun. They all need a brain — but they don’t need a gun. We shouldn’t even let people drive, let alone people have guns. But they have cars, and they drive. But not guns — this society doesn’t need guns. But it’s too late. There are 150 million guns in private hands. I can’t tell you how many times I have investigated a death in a private home caused by a gun that was purchased to protect that same person — who is now dead from that gun, by accident; by suicide or by murder. So how did that purchase work out? Not very well.
Photo: Investigation Discovery