Exclusive Interview: Meet the Homicide Hunter
Investigation Discovery series star Lt. Joe Kenda solved more that 350 real life murder mysteries during his storied career
Lt. Joe Kenda from Homicide Hunter/Investigation Discovery
I’m a fan of classic hardboiled detective shows, particularly from the golden age of radio. Programs like Dragnet and Tales of the Texas Rangers based their episodes on real crimes, then let their fictional Joe Fridays track down the bad guys.
Today’s equivalent of those classic procedurals is Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda. The big difference, however, is that the title character on Homicide Hunter is a real guy. Kenda, a retired homicide investigator, solved a staggering 92% of the nearly 400 murder cases that came across his desk during his law enforcement career in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The show’s executive producer, Thomas Cutler, told me that Kenda is “the ultimate old school sleuth, the archetype of the gumshoe detective. Kenda is also the nicest guy in the world—but he is truly haunted by the stuff he has seen."
Cable channel Investigation Discovery launched Homicide Hunter in 2011; season two kicks off this Tuesday, October 2 at 9 p.m., with a potboiler about a sinister suburban murder scheme. Having followed the show since its early stages, I was thrilled to get Joe Kenda on the phone for an hour-long chat. Here's my interview with the real life Homicide Hunter.
PC: Tell me about your background. How did you become a homicide investigator?
KENDA: I always thought murder had to be the worst crime; the worst thing a person can do. It’s the crime that carries the most serious punishment. So I wanted to pursue people for committing the worst possible crime. For me, it was always all about being involved in homicide investigation.
PC: When you say always, how far back do you mean? When you were starting out in law enforcement?
KENDA: Here’s a story for you. When I was nine-years-old, we were living in this little coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh. And one day, my parents decided to take us to the Pittsburgh Zoo. This was a huge deal, for the family to go to the zoo.
We get to the zoo and we were approaching the primate house, and I see this sign. It says, “Around this corner, you will see the most dangerous animal on earth.” And I think, this I need to see. So I walked around the corner, and there was a mirror. A big mirror—floor to ceiling—reflecting the image all the people walking around the zoo. I stood and looked at that mirror for a long, long time. I stood there for so long, my mother started yelling that we needed to leave.
It was a moment of epiphany. I wondered if it were true, that humans could be so dangerous. And its true, they can. Animals kill for need. Humans kill for pleasure.
PC: That’s interesting, that a human kills for pleasure. First, let me ask, you solved how many murders?
KENDA: I was involved in 387 homicide investigations. I solved 92 % of them. So, you can say I’m the guy who did a good job on those 92%, or the idiot who couldn’t figure out the 8%.
PC: In all those murders, did you find that most of the killers found some kind of pleasure?
KENDA: There are three motives in most murder cases: sex, money, or revenge.
At the moment the kill occurs, that person enjoys it. It may be sexual, it may be the revenge factor, it may be them thinking about all the money they are going to get. But there’s a feeling of pleasure.
Now, there are many variations of these crimes, and if you talk to someone who committed these crimes, they usually can’t explain it. Or, they try to lie their way out of it. That’s human nature, but they will always give themselves away because lying skills don’t improve from the time you are a little kid.
PC: That’s something I wanted to ask about. You must have dealt with all kinds of sociopaths and deranged personalities. How do you know when these types are lying?
KENDA: Here is the ultimate key: You have to become a professional listener.
You have to listen very, very carefully to what people say. Listen to their story, and then take people back through it. Because there will be changes. There will be changes the second time, or the third time, and if you listen very carefully, you will hear the change. And, now, you know the guy is lying.
PC: What about visual clues during the interview, such as noticing that someone avoids eye contact or talks out of the side of their mouth?
KENDA: Yes, you pay attention to body language when you’re talking to him. Ask yourself, “Does he look nervous?” But the key is in the eyes. The eyes are the window of the soul.
Here’s what you do. Start by looking into someone’s eyes and making friends with them. “Tell me about yourself. Do you have a wife, do you have a dog?” I let him tell me about himself to make him comfortable. And, once he’s comfortable, then hit him with something that hurts and look right into his eyes and see how he reacts.
If you hit him with something that hurts, he will react—the pupils will become little pinpoints. As far as his reaction, it is not about what he says, it’s about what his eyes say. Ultimately it’s the eyes. This might take awhile, but the eyes will always tell the truth.
PC: Who is the most effective liar you have interviewed?
KENDA: The most effective liar is the psychopathic personality. He does not have a better side to refer to, there is no empathy, no compassion, no remorse. The only emotion you will see is rage. And the only way you get him to tell the truth is if he’s trapped, or if he knows that you already know.
I’ve only encountered one psychopathic murderer in my career. His name is Ronald Lee White. He is a monster. Handsome guy; he looked like a movie star. Women would drop their groceries to follow him down the street. He sold tanning beds for a living.
I found him guilty on three murders, he told the court he had committed fifteen more and he very well may have.
PC: Has his story been featured on Homicide Hunter?
KENDA: He was on episode five of season one. At the end of that episode, there is some footage of him inside the courtroom—there is no audio on the tape, but you can tell that he is sneering and yelling. He was telling the judge he was going to kill him and telling the jury he was going to kill them too.
PC: What was the first homicide case that you solved?
KENDA: It was in 1973. There was this little old man, 80-year-old guy and his 78-year-old wife. They were Hispanic, here in the US illegally, essentially invisible to almost everyone. They were good people, who would take care of anybody who crossed their path.
So along comes this couple, a black and white couple, which was more unusual at that time. No one wants to talk to them, but the elderly couple takes them in. (The younger couple’s) response is to rob and murder this couple. The man was stabbed to death, his wife was stabbed but she survived.
Here are people that no one cares about and somebody kills them and steals their 32 dollars? No. You are not going to get away with this. I’ll never forget, their son putting his arms around me, and saying, “Please find who did this.” I told him I would. And I did.
(We locked up) Lawrence Eugene Todd and Vicki Lynn Locklin. They are both still in the can.
PC: Looking back on your remarkable track record, why were you the one who was able to solve all these cases? What are the skills that a successful homicide investigator needs to have, to be able to deal with these incredibly demanding cases?
KENDA: In general, you need to have a knowledge of the law—you need to know what you can do and, more important, what you can not do while conducting an investigation.
And, just as important—you need to be naturally curious. You need to have an undying curiosity about every case. Where guys make mistakes is forming an opinion on the way to the crime scene. I never did that.
Let's say you show up at the crime scene and there is a blonde woman lying face down with six bullets through the chest. You need to ask every possible question to figure out why this blonde is lying here dead. Is she dead because her husband got tired of the way she butters her toast every morning for 25 years? Or, is she dead because someone out there thinks all blondes are she-devils who need to pay. And you ask every question in between.
Then, you need to get to know the victim. Who is this person? Who is the victim? Tell me about the victim. Do they have a secret life?
So, you start to poke. You start to probe. And even when you’re in the dark, and you’re not sure where you're going, when you keep poking, and someone says ouch ... well now. Who might you be?
PC: I have always loved classic detective shows from TV and radio, such as Dragnet and Tales of the Texas Rangers. Are you a fan of detective shows?
KENDA: I’ve never watched any of them. Those shows just did not interest me, because I did that for a living.
PC: I ask about Dragnet because your personality is so no-nonsense, like Jack Webb’s Joe Friday character.
KENDA: I’ll tell you this, I am no different on the show than I am in person. At the beginning of the first season, I go out to Los Angeles to start filming. The producers tell me they want some writers to write me a script.
I told them, “I’m not reading a script that someone else wrote.”
They said, “Well you have to read a script.”
I said, “No, I have to die and pay taxes. Here is what I will do. You turn that camera on and I will tell you about the case.”
So that’s what happened and it works. I say whatever I want, and they build the show around what I tell them. My memory of these events is excellent—these events have been burned into my brain with a laser. I’d love it if they weren’t, but that’s not how it works. I can’t forget about what I’ve seen.
PC: You definitely have an online following, viewers love your hardboiled personality. Do you have fans coming up to you on the street?
KENDA: It’s kind of funny now, when I was working (as a homicide investigator), everyone knew who I was and they were afraid of me. If I was walking down the street, people would see me and walk the other way. Now that I have been on TV, everybody wants my autograph.
PC: I remember Dana Carvey saying that if there was a television channel that just showed a shot of a grapefruit 24 hours a day, people would still stop and point at it if they saw it on the street, and say, “Look, it’s that grapefruit from television.”
KENDA: (Laughs) That’s exactly right. It’s amazing the power that television has. Look, I have taken the approach to this show that if it works, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. If you want to watch me, be my guest; if you don’t, that’s why there’s a remote.
What is important to me is that each episode is completely accurate to the case report. I get final approval. The show has to be on the mark. So, everything that is in there is real.
PC: Obviously you aren't one of those people who was desperate to be on television. But do you enjoy filming Homicide Hunter?
KENDA: You know, my real motivation to do the show is that finally being able to talk about these cases is therapeutic for me. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone about any of this shit. Not my wife, not anyone. It’s just ugly business.
You don’t come home at night and say, “Honey, guess what I saw at work today!”
PC: What about the families of the victims? Have you gotten feedback from them about the show?
KENDA: Well, sure, because a lot of them have been on the show, telling their stories.
There was a victim named Vicky Ross. Beautiful young woman. She was murdered, and left in the backseat of the car for five days. It took five days for the car to be found.
I had not seen her father since 1987. Jack Ross. Now, I look the same as I did back then, just older. He came in for filming, and took one look at me and started crying. He just broke down. Because I’m the guy who told him his daughter is dead. And I’m the guy who sent her killer to prison.
Even after 25 years, it never goes away.
PC: What do you do for pleasure?
KENDA: My wife Kathy and I love to travel.
We just spent two weeks in Ireland, and it was wonderful. I drank about 30 gallons of Guinness and 10 gallons of Jameson.
We have been able to go all over the world. We just love to travel.
PC: You should do a travel show next—Globetrotting with the Homicide Hunter. Visit the sites of the most famous murders in various countries, like where Jack the Ripper killed those prostitutes.
KENDA: (Laughs) I like that idea—your Jack the Ripper tour begins at 10 p.m.
Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda begins its second season on Tuesday, October 2 at 9 p.m. on the Investigation Discovery channel. Check back next week for my interview with former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, who will be performing at Yoshi’s in Oakland from October 19-21.