I don’t know which came first, the storytelling ability or the stories he had to tell but one thing’s for sure, Investigation Discovery’s Homicide Hunter Detective Joe Kenda is a hell of a storyteller. And a man involved in 387 homicide cases over the course of a 23 year career is bound to have some stories. But what makes someone want to see the real horrors of humanity. It’s one thing to talk or write about them, but to be involved in the creation of them is a whole other dark ballgame. Also, having a show on Investigation Discovery is a pretty radical post-retirement gig.
Joe Kenda will be at Death Becomes Us – A True Crime Festival Saturday, November 3.
Brightest Young Things: Why crime? What made you want to get into this line of work?
Joe Kenda: What really started this is when I was a kid, now I have a brother and he’s 4 years older than I…at the time I was 9 years-old and he was 13. My parents decided, we lived east of Pittsburgh in a small coal-mining town about 30 miles outside of the city, they decided they were going to take us to the zoo. That was a huge deal for me, my first trip to the zoo. I was out of my mind.
We’re there in the zoo and we’re approaching the primate house and there’s a big sign in front of the primate house that said, “Around this corner is the most dangerous animal on Earth,” and everybody including me, adults and children, ran around that corner. On the other side was a mirror from floor to ceiling. Everyone is staring at the mirror angrily but for me it was an epiphany. I thought, “What if these people are the most dangerous animal?” As I got older I thought about that all the time. I thought, “Ya know, animals kill for need. Humans kill for pleasure.” There is no more dangerous thing on this planet than a human being.
BYT: That is such a deep thought that the Pittsburgh Zoo made you have at the age of 9.
JK: Picture yourself on a Serengeti plain in Central Africa millions of years ago and before you, at the time, was the emerging Animal Kingdom. And you’re observing all these creatures and you notice this little creature who’s a four feet tall, bipod covered in hair, and he’s surrounded by other similar-looking creatures. They grunt at each other and they seem to understand each other and then you notice they’re making weapons and they are able to kill animals three or four times their size. You admire this clever little creature and you don’t realize it but you’re looking at early man. And you sit there and admire his abilities and how clever he seems to be and how much more clever he seems to be than the animals around him. It would not be in your interest to pet him and it still isn’t.
Nothing has changed since those days. Violence is in all of us. All it requires is to push the right button and you’re right back to those shrieking little creatures.
BYT: What was the first case that stuck with you, really dug in there.
JK: The first time I saw a dead body. It was a female who had been dead for several days in the 2nd floor of an apartment building in the summertime. I went up there as a young policeman in uniform and the other cops were laughing at me. I couldn’t breathe. That night I went home and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I thought, “Maybe Kenda, you made the wrong decision to be a policeman.”
The next morning I got in that police car and I started that radio. They were calling me on the air, my sector number because they wanted me to answer. They knew I was in the car. I thought, “If I pick up that radio I’ve made a decision.” And I stared at that radio and said, “If you fall off the horse you get back on.” I picked it up.
After 10 or 15 years on the job I was ordering pizzas at crime scenes because I was hungry. That’s the reality.
BYT: When did you realize you wanted to be a homicide detective?
JK: My plan was to always get into homicide because homicide must be the worst crime. We will do the worst to you if we arrest you for it. We will put you in prison forever or we will kill you so if I’m gonna investigate crime it’s going to be the worst crime. That’s what was my desire and I managed to get it done after three years. I had a skill for it and as a result I stayed there for most of my career. I loved it.
BYT: What skills are the most valuable when it comes to this line of work? What do I need to have?
JK: There’s only two things you need to know, dear, to be a great detective. Do you know what they are?
BYT: I don’t. I’m dying to know.
JK: First thing is you need a knowledge of the law. You have to know what you can do and more importantly you have to know what you may not do. You have to play within the rules. The bad guys have no rules. You have rules because you represent society.
The only other skill required is an undying sense of curiosity. Something made this happen. Somebody did this to somebody else, who might that be? Why?
BYT: That almost makes it sound, and I don’t want to say fun because terrible things are happening…
JK: It’s very very challenging because you aren’t pursuing a dumb animal. You’re pursuing a human being who’s already killed once. Once you kill after that it’s nothing.
BYT: People are fascinated by serial killers. Have you ever gone after one?
JK: Yes, once. I ran across him by accident in the investigation of what I thought was a normal everyday homicide. It turned out to be the person responsible was a person who killed because he liked it. He had killed a number of people in other jurisdictions and is now on death row in Colorado. The thing about him is quite simple, he operated like this: Don’t make me mad. If you make me mad I’m going to kill you and I’m not gonna remember that 5 minutes later because I’m sociopathic and I have no feelings.
The only feeling he was capable of was rage, nothing else…no guilt, no love, no compassion, no forgiveness, no empathy, no sympathy, no nothing. It’s just not there. Now why is it not there? I have no clue. The result is those people are extremely rare, thank God. That’s why people know their names.
John Wayne Gacy, the most famous photograph taken of him who was executed for murdering 33 children in his career as a serial killer, he was in a tuxedo in the White House shaking hands with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. At that moment he had already murdered 17 children. Now he’s dead, thank God. Those kinds of people are out there but they’re very, very, very rare.
BYT: Marcus Parks of Last Podcast on the Left said one of the things that draws him to true crime is learning about the human condition. What have you, in your experience, learned good or bad about the human condition?
JK: When you do what I did for a living you become a student of human nature. I would often say to myself, when I was interrogating somebody, tell me a story I’m going to believe. Tell me something that people would actually do, not what you say you did but what the average person would do in the same circumstance you find yourself in. I might believe you if you tell me that but if you tell me your story you’re lying to me.
People are quite predictable. No one likes to believe that. They think humans are devious and clever. Humans are not devious and they’re not clever. They don’t change from the time they’re little kids.
BYT: I think the art of interrogation is fascinating. What are the tools you use when interrogating someone?
JK: It’s all about your personality and what works for you. I never raised my voice at people. I never used profanity. I was always pleasant. I would talk to them. We would become friends, even in the worst of circumstances I would be disarming. And then I would hit them with something that would put them off balance. When you have the other person off balance it’s hard for them to stay focused on the lying. They’re confused and that helps in terms of getting to the truth. Are you going to get a confession every time? No. Did I get a confession every time? Absolutely not. I got a lot of them but I didn’t get every one. Some people will lie no matter what because lying has been successful for them since they were little.
BYT: What does it feel like to get the bad guy?
JK: It’s euphoric. It’s like the ultimate discovery, here’s why. When somebody kills they’re a shadow in the night. You have just gotten a first, middle and last name. They’re not a shadow anymore.
BYT: Conversely if you don’t find that person, does it stick with you?
JK: It haunts you for all of your days. That’s the one thing you didn’t get.
BYT: As a lady I have to ask, when you come across lady killers what is the difference between women who kill and men who kill?
JK: There is no difference. No one’s a Black Widow. They kill for the same reasons men do, emotional loss of judgment. They get so angry or distressed that they see the only way out of it is violence. Women are relatively rare, comparably so, but there is no difference.
BYT: Maybe women are just better at not getting caught!
JK: I think women are better at controlling their emotions. Men are more explosive than women. Women do the slow burn.
BYT: True crime has always been around in terms of the way people talk about it but nowadays people are rabid about it. Do you have any theories as to why this is?
JK: People have always been interested in it. They have an interest in the macabre and an interest in the manner in which people conduct themselves. I think some of it has to do with the fact that they’re tired of fiction. They’re tired of the same old invented stories and they’re looking for some truth in something and true crime provides it. These are real people who do horrible things not the mind’s eye view of Hollywood, the standard plot. That’s the thing that interests me about movies. A very common thing in these movies is the convoluted, dramatic plot involving huge amounts of money and/or torrid love affairs. The reality of murder is it’s over nothing. It’s the emotion of the moment. That’s all it is.