If you’ve been watching Investigation Discovery, you’ve no doubt seen the commercial in which the young housewife drops a carton of eggs when she realizes Lt. Joe Kenda is standing in her kitchen. If he was young and strapping and gorgeous, it might be more plausible for those unfamiliar with the show Homicide Hunter to understand.
But he’s not. He’s in his mid-70s, a bit stoop-shouldered, a face weathered from countless Marlboros and even more sleepless nights. He is a real retired homicide detective that solved over 350 murders during his tenure with the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the series, which has gained increasing popularity since its inception in 2011, he recounts the murders and how he solved them as the man he is today. Flashback scenes depict him as a young man, played by handsome Carl Marino, an aspiring actor from New York. The real Joe Kenda narrates the series and gives his general outlook on life, death, love, and homicide.
Perhaps that’s why he is so popular: while he pulls no punches, he is refreshingly unjaded. At times Lt. Kenda is moved to tears as he recalls how ugly the realities of humanity can be. His clever comebacks, fearless courage, and calm demeanor, along with famous catch-phrases like “Well my my my…what do we have here?” have earned him a spot in the week of many dedicated viewers.
Joe Kenda, who grew up in Herminie, Pennsylvania, near Irwin, was a no-nonsense investigator who solved crimes with the same gruff candor he uses when he narrates the cases that he once worked. Actors, such as Marino, play not only Kenda, but the victims and killers in re-enactments that are interspersed with interviews with the real-life witnesses and police officers involved.
Lt. Kenda, a 1964 graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic and a 1968 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, moved to his mother’s hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1973 and joined the local police department. He retired after more than two decades as a detective in 1996.
During his time on the police force, Lt. Kenda frequently appeared as an interview subject on Colorado newscasts and was once interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Patrick Bryant, a Denver-based independent producer, approached Lt. Kenda about a true crime show told through the eyes of a detective. Mr. Bryant wrote to Lt. Kenda, who tossed away the first two letters he received without responding. In his third letter, Mr. Bryant began by writing that he figured his previous letters had been thrown in the trash. Because he liked Mr. Bryant’s sense of humor, he decided to give it a try.
The low-glitz and glam demeanor of the show adds to the appeal. It begins with the real Joe Kenda, telling a tale of true crime and horror that takes him back several decades.
“I’m up first. I have an absolutely perfect memory. I still look over the cases before I talk, but when you do this for a living it burns into your brain. It’s like it all happened this morning. It’s very intense work.”
Perhaps the reason the show is compelling and so real to its audience: Joe Kenda does not work from a script. When producers told him there needed to be a script, he refused.
“I’m not an actor. What I am is a policeman, and if you want me to tell you about these murders, I will. I don’t have to do anything except die and pay taxes. If you want to do this, turn your camera on for 30 minutes and I’ll talk about this case. And so I did.”
Now in its fourth season, The Homicide Hunter has no doubt found a recipe for success. He even has a store promoted by Investigation Discovery, in which T-shirts and mugs with his face and famous sayings are featured. Why the intense following? The show’s executive producer, Thomas Cutler, states what is evident by watching the show.
“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.”
[image credit to Investigation Discovery]