It’s very rare to find anyone regularly exposed to the worst of humanity, the kind of darkness that results in mental scars and waking nightmares, with the ability to speak openly and honestly about the horrors they’ve seen and that they continue to live with. But as he sat before my video camera last month following a speaking engagement in Reno, Nevada, Lt. Joe Kenda remained the direct and descriptive “Homicide Hunter” who millions of television viewers worldwide have come to love.
In fact, more than 27.1 million unique viewers watched during Season 5, alone. Many more will likely tune in to Season 6, which airs Aug. 24.
For those of you who’ve yet to jump on the “Homicide Hunter” train, the Investigation Discovery series is based on Kenda’s own case files from his more than two decades with the Colorado Springs Police Department. His personal journey, and demons, garnered the attention of not only Stephen Land and the rest of Jupiter Entertainment, the creators of the hit show, but more recently a top book publisher. Kenda is currently writing his memoirs, which he told me will include the truly gruesome cases that he is not allowed to recount on air, and will be out sometime next year.
Lt. Kenda is exactly as he is portrayed on television: What you see is what you get. My immediate impression was his remarkable, almost photographic memory when recalling decades-old events as if they had just happened that morning.
I asked why he decided to get into law enforcement in the first place.
“As I got older, I wanted to do something that I could control that I would rise or fall on my own ability, that what a better thing to do than to right some of the wrongs in the world, if I could. If someone does something unspeakable to someone, you have two options: You can remain seated or you can stand up. I decided to stand up.”
What most people don’t know is that Lt. Kenda knew he had enough of seeing so much death in every way imaginable, by his estimates an average of five dead bodies a day for 21 years. Not that Colorado Springs sees that many murders, but the simple fact that Kenda oversaw all investigations of all local death, not just murders.
That many dead bodies certainly takes a toll, and despite his iron-clad, dead-pan exterior, Kenda is no exception. He makes no bones about suffering from depression because of all he has witnessed, and to this day he still battles with PTSD. But when asked his thoughts on suicide, Kenda shows no sympathy or patience.
“I have never considered the act of suicide for a simple reason: Dying is easy, living is hard,” he explained with his trademark, matter-of-fact yet ironic delivery. “I have no sympathy for someone who kills themself. You want to kill yourself, don’t do it in here. We’ll have to replace the carpet. Do it in the front yard. It’s good for the grass.”
And in true Kenda form, he didn’t stop there. He emphatically drilled home his point that he has absolutely zero tolerance for anyone who commits suicide. “If you’re too weak to deal with this, then perhaps its time for you to go away.”
While this might sound overtly harsh, you have to truly understand all that Kenda has experienced. He is a man who has seen people murdered in every way imaginable and then had to personally answer to the victims’ families. He continued to tell me, almost as if it bored him, that his own life and those of his family members were threatened at least 100 times a week during his years on the force. Death threats became operation normal for Kenda, and yet he stood his ground and told me how many claimed they would “find him and hunt him down, etc.” Kenda’s unimpressed reply?
“You better be careful… because you might find me.”
In all his years in law enforcement having solved 387 homicide investigations, resulting in an unheard of 92-percent homicide solve rate, one of if not the highest closure rates in the country, never once did Kenda have to fire his weapon. He explained that if he ever had to shoot someone, then he would have been no better than the murderers he was hunting. He briefly went on to say that the narrative spun by the media of our men and women in blue is a story line that doesn’t fit the facts. “Obviously a vast conspiracy put together to destroy people,” Kenda began.
“There are 600,000 policemen in the United States and 330 million people or so… we’re not even sure who lives here. We’re not even good at counting those, but there are at least 330 million people and police officers contact those people millions of times. Less than one percent results in violence. Where are these statistics that these people claim?”
When asked, Kenda said he has arrested police officers whose behavior was questionable. However, Kenda rebuked the press stating that, “The press beats the drum of discord 24 hours a day because it’s their business. They’re not guardians of the public interest, they’re a business. The more you watch, the more they can charge for advertising,” explains Kenda someone who knows how the system works.
“They beat that drum and then they fain shock when the deeply disturbed and the weak-minded begin to march to the drum.” Here’s a detective that has seen the results of the deeply disturbed and weak-minded.
But in his very difficult profession, and that being a gross understatement, everyone has their limit. Kenda recalled there were many officers and detectives who worked under him, who would succumb to the pressure and the horror of all they had seen and admit to him, “Sir, I can’t do this anymore.” He never judged them; instead he reassigned them to divisions that didn’t involve so much carnage.
Kenda & His Unlikely Post-Retirement Job
Kenda himself finally reached his limit when he said all he started to hear was “white noise.” He eventually found himself not listening to others like he used to, that he couldn’t look another mother in the face and tell her that her child was not coming home. A father of two—he has a daughter and a son, both in the military—he finally retired and began spending his days in a most unlikely way.
For a brief period of time Lt. Joe Kenda was a school bus driver for special needs kids. He said he loved the smiles he received; for once his presence was welcomed, as the kids were always happy to see him.
The school bus proved to be a welcomed break from dead bodies, the worst of humanity and an endless pool of blood that always led to heartbreak. Despite nicknaming his route “The Waldorf Hysteria” (“because everyone on it was crazy, including me”), the experience was cathartic, and it finally got Kenda to a safer place that allowed him to tell his story. Kenda is adamant he never did the series for fame. After all, he’s “still suffering and will always suffer from post traumatic stress,” but now he finds talking about all the murders he’s solved to be “therapeutic.”