People who love true crime aren't a rare breed, but we are unsettlingly enthusiastic. And to some of us, including myself and my father, who have made watching true crime shows into a family tradition, Lt. Joe Kenda is a name that carries the same gravitas as, say, the royal family of a small country. In the true crime community, he's regarded as one of the most fascinating and truly inimitable forces of the last decade. But you'd have difficulty pinpointing the exact moment Kenda, the star of Investigation Discovery's Homicide Hunter, was propelled from everyday man to future true crime television pioneer.
It might have been when his wife, Kathy, told him to get his life together and find a better job than working for his father's trucking company, which pushed him to follow his dream of becoming a policeman. It may have happened when he solved his first homicide, despite working in the burglary department of the Colorado Springs Police Department at the time. Or maybe his legacy began when he left the department with one of the nation's highest murder close rates (356 out of 387 cases closed). Regardless of Kenda's origin story, Homicide Hunter is a show that serves as a living history for him and a biography of a legend for his fans.
Of course, he views himself with a comical amount of normality. "It's not that I'm smarter than anybody else; I won't give up... It was not a job to me, it was a mission. And I wouldn't stop until I got a result. That's all," Kenda told TV Guide.
Homicide Hunter, which debuted in 2011, recounts the cases of Kenda's tremendous career — he retired in 1996 — and is going out this year after its ninth season. But while fans could do with another decade — or two! — Kenda has been adamant about going out on top: ending the game with the championship trophy rather than playing past his prime, if you will. And truthfully, there aren't many cases of Kenda's that haven't been featured on the show in some capacity — the only ones left are cases that are either too simple or too disgusting to air. When asked about one that has never and would never air on Homicide Hunter, Kenda set the scene just as he would for any episode: "I'm in my office one night, late. Phone rings. I answer. Guy says, 'Is this homicide?' Real calm. 'Yeah, it is, how can I help you?'
'Well, you better come over to my house. I killed my wife.'
'Terrific. Why'd you do that?'
And he says, 'Well, that bitch told me I couldn't watch Monday Night Football and I was just sick of it.' So we go over to his house. He shot his wife in the chest, in the kitchen, with a 30-06, which is a deer rifle. Put the contents of her chest on the opposing wall. She'd been dead about four hours. I said, 'This woman's been dead for a while, what have you been doing?'
'Well, I watched the game.' Now what's the story there? The fact that humans do horrible things? How long would that last on television? Two minutes? Three?"
Kenda tells the story with a matter-of-factness that reveals how commonplace experiences like this one are for him. But he's also right; compared to the complexity of the cases that have aired on Homicide Hunter, this one is a neatly wrapped gift. Of course, they weren't all that simple; Kenda left 31 cases unsolved when he retired. Three have since been concluded with the help of modern DNA technology. The 28 that remain, though, are un-exorcised demons that would likely break someone with lesser resolve. And even though he learned to cope with the horrific nature of working in homicide, there were times when he struggled.
"In the nature of work I was involved in, you have two options: You could cry all the time, which is not a very good option, or you could laugh," Kenda explained. "I developed a gallows sense of humor as a defense mechanism. And even though [I did] that, there were several occasions in my career where somebody went through my armor like a stiletto and ... I cried right along with them. I'm a human being."
Those very human emotions sometimes led Kenda to go above and beyond while he was a detective. One of the most memorable episodes of Homicide Hunter is about a young woman named Maggie Fetty, a Jane Doe. There was no family begging for case details, no relatives petitioning for her justice. She would have died anonymous if her case hadn't been solved by Kenda and his team. In the end, Kenda and the other lawmen pitched in to buy her headstone, refusing to let Maggie be eternally lost. Episodes like Maggie's allow viewers to feel the gravity of the situation while also getting to know more about Kenda. This is why Homicide Hunter stands out among similar programs: the heart. It's not just dramatic recreations and strategic narration. It hurts. The truth of it all can hit like a car crash, which only seems to make viewers crave it even more.
"I suspect that [people love the show because] people grow tired of fiction. Fiction becomes very old hat after a while. There's only so many ways you can tell a story that you've invented. These stories are what people do," Kenda said. " I think people are fascinated by that — wanting to know why this happened."
The care and authenticity that goes into every episode is why the show feels so effortless even after all of these years. "I'm actually proud of every single [episode]. I think we put our heart and soul into this," Kenda said. "We became sort of a family during the process of this, and we've been on television for a long time. Everyone involved in the production of it was determined to do the best possible job we could."
After Kenda retired from police work, he continued to help those who couldn't help themselves, becoming a school bus driver for special education kids. "I was drawn to people that nobody cares about. A lot of those kids are wards of the state, they're not with their families. They've been abandoned," Kenda said. "These children are the flotsam of society that nobody wants to hear about or know about. And I thought, if I could bring a smile to their day, why shouldn't I do that?"
"I loved those little kids and they loved me back," he continued, adorably exuberant. "We got along just great. It was the only job I ever had as an adult where people were happy to see me. No one was ever happy to see me when I was a policeman."
Even so, Kenda's work as a detective and on Homicide Hunter has enriched lives. More importantly, it has saved them. Two women actually sent Kenda letters saying they recognized they were in danger after watching the show. "The abusive male personality is right out of a textbook... and both women wrote to me separately and said they realized they were sitting next to that person," he said. "They left them because they watched that show. And [said] that I saved their life. Saved two lives from a television program. I'll take that all day."
It's safe to say Homicide Hunter and Lt. Joe Kenda leave behind quite a legacy. The series is the pinnacle of true crime programs that other shows have to live up to. It's the litmus test for murder buffs, and its end leaves a cold finality in the hearts of fans. Kenda offers viewers a comforting familiarity that will be sorely missed in the wake of the show closing the last case file for good. But nearly 10 years of storytelling leave a lasting, indelible legacy. And the years from 2011 to 2019 will not be the only ones to define Joe Kenda. He promised that fans haven't seen the last of him, as he is working on a new project with ID that he hopes will be released in 2020. Unfortunately, he also said he'd have to kill my entire family and everyone they've ever known if he spilled any details of the new project, and given how much he knows about murder, I didn't think asking for more information was a great risk to take.
The final season of Homicide Hunter airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery.
(Disclosure: TV Gude is owned by CBSInteractive, a division of ViacomCBS)
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)