For twenty years Lt. Joe Kenda served as a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
During that time, he solved 356 of the 387 murder cases he investigated. This is a staggering accomplishment, one almost unheard of in modern American law enforcement.
Kenda’s experiences are the basis of the hit Investigation Discovery television series “Homicide Hunter,” where for eight seasons Kenda has shared some of his most fascinating, mysterious and troubling murder investigations. Now in its ninth and final season, “Homicide Hunter’ is more than a true-crime TV series about the worst things that human beings do to one another. It is an examination of how one man applies his powers of reason and observation to try to bring some justice and closure to the families and communities who have lost loved ones to violent crime.
In this wide-ranging conversation, Kenda shares his life principles and how he applied them to solving almost 400 murders. He also reflects on how being a homicide detective was a personal calling from childhood that he then turned into a life vocation. He also offers insights on the ways that police often go wrong in how they choose to communicate and relate to the public, and shares some of the lessons he learned about human nature, fear and evil in 20 years as a homicide detective.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. “Homicide Hunter” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on Investigation Discovery.
I would like to congratulate you for ending “Homicide Hunter” on your own terms. It is best to go out on top. Too many people in TV, sports and other parts of public life do not know how to make a graceful exit.
Remember when Joe Montana went to play for the Kansas City Chiefs? It ended horribly. I didn’t want that to be me. So I called the Investigation Discovery network and I said, "We're done after Season Nine, because I have an insufficient number of cases that are presentable to support a Season 10.” I had more cases, but they're either too simple or they're too disgusting. They involve children and babies. I won't do that. The network doesn’t want to do that either.
The simple ones are, “Hi, is this Homicide? I just killed my wife, you better come over here.” Where's the story there? I have 20 great episodes lined up for Season Nine. And then we're good and we're done. As a result, viewers will remember “Homicide Hunter” in a fond way.
Why do you think it is so hard for some people to just walk away?
Ego. They are desperate to be on television. It is some version of “Keep me in the movies, keep me on the stage, keep me in my private jet.” That's not me, it's never been me. I'm the same guy I've been all my life. This has been fun to do, but ultimately, it's been therapy for me. I've said more to that camera than I've ever said to my wife.
The freedom to walk away from “Homicide Hunter” also shows that you have peace of mind and are secure in what you have accomplished there and in other areas of life. How would you define success?
What is success? Success is the control of your time. Success is not money. It's not friends. It's not any of that. It's control of your time. Can you do something right now that you really want to do because you don't have to do anything else? That's success.
I know people that have a lot of money, and they are some of the most unhappy people I know. I have a simple policy about money. If I have it, I spend it. If I don't have it, I don't spend it. It's no big deal. So what? If money meant something to me, I wouldn't have been a policeman. You're not going to get rich being a cop, I can assure you of that.
When did you realize that being a police officer, specifically a homicide detective, was your vocation, perhaps even your destiny?
When I was a child I saw a mirror at the zoo which showed “the most dangerous animal on the planet” — which is us. Seeing myself in that reflection was an epiphany for me.
You must keep something in mind. Why do wild animals run from us? Because they know what we are. We're the most dangerous animal on this planet. We have eliminated entire species and we now have the ability to eliminate life on earth. That's why animals run from us. And I don't blame them for doing it.
I stood there, mesmerized, and my mother had to come find me. I have an uncle who was a Colorado highway patrolman who I admired greatly. And I thought, if I'm going to do this, if I'm going to be a policeman, I want to investigate the worst crimes. That must be murder, because if you commit that crime society will put you in prison forever or execute you. So that's what I want to do. It was not a job, it was a mission. I would have done it for free. Of course, Mrs. Kenda would not have agreed with that.
Contrary to the images of police officers in Hollywood, popular culture and the news media, you have never had to shoot someone. You talked to people instead. Where did that way of operating come from?
Pulling out your weapon sets the tone for the impending conversation. I never pulled the trigger because I never had to. I could convince people that I was serious and that they were in serious trouble. One of the ways I did it is that I would never raise my voice. I had a technique when I would arrest someone. People expect the police to yell at them, screaming, "Put your hands up!" and all that business. I would be very quiet, because that tone is very scary.
I'd walk up to you, I'd have a gun in one hand and a badge in the other, and I'd say this, it was the same every time: "My name is Kenda. I'm with the police department. You're under arrest for first-degree murder. If you don't do what I say, I'm going to kill you right here and right now." Everybody would raise their hands without me telling them to. On more than one occasion, they had a gun in their waistband. They wouldn't reach for their gun, because they knew that I was going to shoot them if they did.
Yes, I am. Only if I have to, but I'm going to go home tonight, and I don't care where you go. But I never had to do that. I'm very happy about that. Proud of it, actually. I never hurt anybody. They hurt people, but I didn't.
Why is it that too many police officers seem to have the exact opposite of your approach?
It's a combination of everything. The real weakness in law enforcement is that we have to recruit our members from the ranks of the human race. That's a big problem. You select people, and you make your best effort — the psychological examinations, the interviews, and you train them for weeks, sometimes for up to a year. And then, at some point, you put them with a training officer for another three to six months. But eventually, there comes a moment when you give that person a gun and a pocket full of bullets and a set of keys to a car, and you watch them drive around the corner. And you hope to God, when he's out of your sight, that he's going to do the right thing. That isn't always the case.
When those bad moments happen, then everyone is painted with a very broad brush. Law enforcement is evil. Law enforcement is homicidal. Law enforcement is all these things. No, it isn’t. We are talking about individuals. But their bad actions give all of law enforcement a bad reputation.
One of my favorite episodes of “Homicide Hunter” is when you mentor a potential detective in what it takes to be a successful career detective. You emphasize how to approach a crime scene, the best way to avoid jumping to conclusions, managing fear, gathering the information, formulating a hypothesis and putting it all together. Those are life lessons beyond how to solve a murder. How did you internalize those principles?
Fear keeps you alive. Fear tells you, "We're in trouble here, my friend. We've got problems. We've got trouble right here. That guy's got a gun, that guy you're looking at over there." Those kinds of things produce fear in you. The difference is, can you move through that fear and do your job? Can you take that fear and make it positive instead of negative? Advance forward and not go backwards?
If you encounter someone, either in the military or in law enforcement, that says they are never afraid, stay away from them, because they're either lying to you or they're absolutely out of their mind.
I've been so frightened I have a metal taste in my mouth. I can hear myself breathe. I swear I can hear my own heartbeat. That's how fearful it can be. But you still go through that door because that's your job.
I would tell my young policeman, understand this about people. I have no interest in you, whether you're black, white, yellow, red or you're green. If you are behaving well, we'll be two ships passing at sea. If you behave badly, I'm going to come about with all guns firing. It's how you behave, not what you are. What you seem to be or what religion you follow, what race you are, that's all meaningless. How you behave is meaningful. You behave well, we're going to get along just fine. And if you don't, then you're going to find me to be your worst possible nightmare. That's the way it is.
So as a policeman, you approach people the same way. If you encounter someone, and if somebody's yelling at you, generally that someone is afraid. They are covering up their fear by using the old principle of the best defense is a good offense. If I yell and scream and call this person names, they will get away from me, they will not hurt me, they will not punch me, they will not shoot me because I will make them fearful of me as much as I'm fearful of them. So if you approach that person, talk calmly to them.
Begin a conversation by saying, “Look, I need your help with this. I know you're upset. I understand you're upset. I know you don't like your neighbor and there's been a history of problems in the past.” As you continue to speak to him, he will address you in the same tone because it's embarrassing for him to keep yelling when you're not. If you approach him and yell at him, you as a police officer are not going to get anywhere.
But you can subtly calm him down by just lowering your voice. He will calm down. And he will realize that he doesn't have to be afraid of you. Even though you're a policeman with a gun and handcuffs and bullets and a stun gun and everything else wrapped around your leg, you seem reasonable and you seem rather pleasant. He realizes, maybe I don't have to be afraid and I don't have to yell at you, and you're just talking to me, so I think I'll just talk to you. That's how it works.
People are understandable and predictable. If you have enough sense to control your emotions, to not get angry, to not be offended because the person's a prostitute, a drug user, a bum, a convict or whatever. Realize he’s a human being. So are you. Approach him on a human level. You'd be amazed at the results.
Crime is an insight into the overall health of a society. In that way “Homicide Hunter” is a sociology textbook of sorts. There are questions of race, class, gender, sexuality, psychology, hopes and dreams and disappointment in "Homicide Hunter" and the human drama it portrays.
You see what people are forced to do because of their life circumstances. They're forced to do what they do because they don't have a choice. They have no money. They have no education. They've been put upon by everyone. And they continue to be a victim because no one has taken any time or any effort to help them. Plus, they often don't know how to ask for help because they've never been helped. Therefore, these people do not know what it means to be helped by someone – or to ask somebody to help them. They don't know what help is. They've never seen it.
When you approach those people in crisis and say to them, “What can I do for you? What would fix the problem? What do you think?” Most of them have never been spoken to that way, had a chance to consider their circumstances. They're just so accustomed to the pain and suffering that they had never thought about what they could do or what someone else could do for them to stop the behavior that put them in a bad situation from continuing.
Have you encountered many people where you concluded that they were just "bad seeds," irredeemable, where there was nothing you or anyone else could have done to stop them from becoming a criminal?
I have met a few. Not many, but I've met a few. And when you meet one, you think, there's a wire soldered somewhere that broke in you and no one seems to know where to make a repair. When you have someone who's truly sociopathic, they feel no emotion except rage. They have an internal dialogue which is telling them, “Don't make me mad, because if you make me mad, I'm going to kill you, and I'm not going to remember that five minutes later. I don't feel love. I don't feel sympathy. I don't feel empathy. I'm right out of the Statistical and Diagnostic Manual of Personality Disorders. I am here among you as we speak.”
I've only encountered two of those people, and they're both in a cage. They will never get out. Thank God.
Most people are just stupid or emotional or both. They allow themselves to be caught up in the simple emotions of humankind. They also are not able to consider what their behavior means in terms of consequences. They live in the moment. Their minds work in such a way that they tell themselves, “I'm going to kill this guy because he needs it. I'm going to kill him because he deserves it. I'm going to kill him because he did something bad to me.”
How did you develop such a keen eye for detail?
That is a result of a never-ending sense of curiosity. The person who commits a violent crime is a shadow in the night. My job and that of other homicide detectives and police officers is to give him a first, middle and last name and a date of birth, and to drag him in front of a jury of his peers, and say, “Let me tell you what this guy did. Let me tell you how I know that. Now, what do you think we ought to do about that? Should we give him a silver star with oak leaf cluster? Or should we take him out in the alley and shoot him in the head? Now, while you're considering that, you stay here because I'm going to go get another one, and I'll be right back.”
I'm not in the punishment business. I'm in the presentation business. Society decides what to do with people, not me.
When you finally capture these killers and interrogate them, are they the monsters the public imagines them to be? Or are they ordinary and not very scary?
Whatever you mind conjures that this person is going to be, some beady-eyed monster with a low criminal forehead, is likely to not be true. They look like the guy that works at Walmart. They look like the guy that pumped your gas this morning. They look like everybody else. There is no difference in appearance. There is no difference in behavior. Very often, they are very docile after they've committed a violent act because all their emotion has left them, left them during the violence, and they're sitting there with their hands folded at the table, very calm. It's very interesting.
I've always been very nice to people in interrogation. It's always served me well. There is no particular skill involved in interrogation. There are methods you are taught of course. The FBI has an interrogation school. But ultimately, it depends on what your personality is and what works best for you. That determines what you should do. And you should learn from your mistakes — and I made a lot of them. The only value to a mistake is to not repeat it. Don't do it again. But you're going to make mistakes. And when you do, you recognize it. Then you move forward. After a period of time you become pretty good at the job.
When you get somebody in a position to want to talk to you, because you allow him to relax and believe that you're on his side, then he will likely talk to you. Now, did I get a confession all the time? Of course not. But I got a lot of them.
The way I did it was to be nice. You're having a conversation with somebody. Get him to talk about something that makes him comfortable. It makes him feel like we're now in a bar having a conversation and we're not in a police station. That approach can be very effective.
What made you such a successful homicide detective? What principles were you applying that others were and are not?
The basic principle is never give up. Don't get so frustrated that you just stop. Everything about the task is hard. When a murder happens, you're punching in the dark, total darkness. You can't see your hand in front of your face. You're punching in the dark, hoping someone will say, "Ouch." And if somebody says ouch, you shine a flashlight on that person and then say, “Well, who might you be and why are you so upset that I'm asking you about this murder?’
When you’ve caught these killers, are they ever relieved to finally be done with it all? Or is that just Hollywood “true crime” fiction where the killer is now at peace because they have been arrested?
That does happen, but it's pretty rare. It's most common in a parental homicide. If a parent kills a child — their own child — it's not because they intended to do so. Generally, a child murder perpetrated by a parent is an attempt to discipline that goes awry. You choke too much, you punch too hard, the kid dies. The parent is looking for forgiveness — even from a policeman.
But for the most part these suspects lie until the bitter end. That's the usual technique. Lie because you've always lied and it's always been successful, you think, and you're going to continue to do it in the face of whatever challenges come your way. That's generally what happens in an interrogation.
Are the lies planned out or are they spontaneous?
A lot of them have thought about it. But they did that in a very highly emotional state. As a result, the lies never make a lot of sense. It made sense at the time but not later.
Most murder plans are put together in less than 30 seconds in a fog of alcohol and drugs. They tell themselves, “How could this be an imperfect plan? After all, I came up with it, right?” And then they execute the plan and the kill somebody, and then they get caught and arrested. Now it becomes, “What am I going to say? I know what I'll say. I'll tell them this. OK.”
And when that doesn't work and you're looking over your glasses at them, then they really panic, and you can see it in their face. "Wait a minute, the plan I had is a failure” Then they realize that they do not have a Plan B. The conversation, the interrogation, goes back and forth.
Have you ever encountered a near-perfect crime where the person got that close to getting away with it and even you were impressed?
A perfect crime is possible. It is unlikely, but it is possible. Usually, it's not based upon planning, it's based upon pure luck. No one hears you, no one sees you, there's no trace evidence, there's nothing. It doesn't happen very often. But there are ways. I've never thought anybody was a genius. I've always felt they were lucky on a couple of occasions. But even then you eventually catch the person later on, even if it takes some time. Their perfect plot still tends to fall apart over time.