Joe Kenda opens up about crime, books, and how telling his stories saved him.
I was privileged to interview Homicide Hunter star, Lt. Joe Kenda this past week about being a detective and stardom and how Homicide Hunter and American Detective changed him, and brought him a peace he hadn’t known in a very long time.
Retired homicide detective Lieutenant Joe Kenda has a story to tell.
Actually, he has a lot of them. Many are dark, gritty, and make you want to get under the covers with a baseball bat. Just in case.
Being a former homicide detective, of course he would have these kinds of stories. He’s known for solving 356 of his 387 homicide cases. Later, a little TV show called Homicide Hunter, that ran for 9 seasons on Investigation Discovery with 1.9 million viewers worldwide, has made him into a star.
If you know Joe, you know.
And I knew Joe.
Even before I got to interview him.
So when the opportunity came to interview Joe, I was vibrating with excitement. Because why wouldn’t I? I mean, it’s Joe Kenda. The Homicide Hunter.
As part of my preparation, I got to read his new book, Killer Triggers, about the triggers that lead people to commit violence, and I was immediately sucked in.
On television, Joe has a way of speaking that draws you in. It’s calm. But it’s also intense.
He’s not an animated evangelist or a boisterous salesman who’s trying to hook you with a show or a performance.
Joe just speaks.
And it’s brutally raw.
His latest book is written with that same voice, that same honesty that you hear when you listen to him speak on television or if you hear him on a podcast.
And for those of you who love his actual voice, there will be an audiobook that he narrates of Killer Triggers.
Joe and I talked about a lot of things in our time. I don’t really feel like I interviewed him, as much as I had good conversation. Even Joe said as much when we finished, that it felt more like a conversation.
Which is what I was hoping for.
Part of that is probably from being a hairdresser for 20+ years. I’m used to talking to people. And Joe, as a detective, is very used to talking to people.
Or maybe that comes from his new, celebrity status.
His phone rings all the time, he told me, because someone always wants to talk to him. In fact, we chatted for so long in the interview, we almost ran over his next interview for the day.
Promotion and marketing is all part of the publishing game, you know. He had a docket for the day of interviews, I was just one of many.
I made a point of trying to think of things to ask that were not the normal. Joe told me how sometimes it can feel like all the questions are the same. I worried about that when I was planning mine.
So we talked about other things.
Writing things. Because, you know, I’m a writer.
Candice Gilmer: So how long did it take you to write this book and how was that compared to the first book you wrote?
Joe Kenda: It was a different compared to the first book in terms of the talent of this book and in terms of the subject, and it took about eight or nine months, I guess altogether, until I was finally happy with it.
You know, it’s writing. It takes place in the same way all the time. You write it five times and you throw it away and you write it the sixth time and you say you know it’s pretty good. I liked it.
And there then you have what you believe is a product.
Candice: Uh huh.
Joe: It’s very difficult. It’s not easy. But it’s easy for me in terms of pouring out the stories, and my emotion as they relate to those stories. Because I lived through all this. And dealt with these people.
This isn’t something I invented.
This isn’t something I read about. It’s something I did.
Candice: Yes, and I think that that shows not only in the show, but I think it shows in the writing as well. It’s very genuine. There’s a definite, genuine feel to it.
Joe: This is my second one.
Candice: You did great. I enjoyed it. You never know about [book sales] you know. It’s kind of funny how that goes.
Joe: No, you don’t know that. The same way with television. How do you know? If the show is going to be popular or not, you don’t.
Candice: No, you don’t know what makes it click.
Joe: So you don’t know, and if you’re a network you’re engaged daily in a sophisticated form of gambling.
But then it has to go to the jury, which is the public. And sometimes they don’t like it.
Now you flush this money down the toilet and you start over. Very difficult.
It makes any endeavor designed to entertain have a certain level of risk to it because you were going to ask people to have the same opinion of this, whatever it is, it’s a book, a television show, a movie as the creator does. And sometimes they do, and sometimes they absolutely don’t.
Candice: You are absolutely correct. I know with some of the books that I have written I’ve said you know this is a damn good book. I think this one is going to just take off and then, nada. But then the books that I’m like, meh, you know it’s OK. Those are the ones I get all the emails from everybody going This is the best book ever, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written and I’m like OK, I guess I don’t see it the way y’all do, but I’m not complaining.
Joe: No no no. You don’t complain, but yes. It’s always remarkable.
I told my wife when we started Homicide Hunter the first season, I said this will never be on television. She said What are you talking about? I told her it’s just murder. Well, it’s just murder to you but trust me, it’s gonna do well.
Well here we are. It did extremely well.
No one would have believed. And I still don’t believe it, that you could be this successful is something you did for a living.
The most remarkable thing today compared to my past life is for the final years of my days sharing this planet, people are actually happy to see me. Because for the first part no one was happy to see me because I was nothing but trouble.
We talked about how making nine seasons of Homicide Hunter and the writing has helped him move past the trauma of witnessing the horrific side of human nature for over twenty years.
He said that within filming the first few episodes in that very first season, he could feel some of the tension, that coiled up part of himself he’d held together so long, start to untangle.
As it released, he began to truly feel better, for the first time in years. Even his wife noticed.
She knew it was helping him.
So she always encouraged that he went on with the show. Even when Joe doubted that other people would even be interested in Homicide Hunter.
So on he went.
Telling more stories both on camera, and in interviews like mine.
PTSD, (post-traumatic stress disorder) never truly goes away. Ask any former police officer or military veteran. However, it can be eased. Sometimes with therapy. Sometimes, just from talking.
So that’s what Joe did.
No scripts. No plans.
He just, well, talked.
Joe: It’s been enormously helpful to me. I don’t feel nearly as bad as I used to. I still have nightmares. I still have all that, but not as badly as I did before, so ultimately it has been of some help to me.
I cannot forget. I would like to forget but it’s too intense.
It took me a couple of years. Finally I was sitting at the kitchen table one morning, having a cup of coffee. And my wife said hi. I said in case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ve been sitting here for two hours. She said you have, but now you’re the guy married again.
I thought it was really nice.
Candice: That’s wonderful.
Candice: Has how has this doing the television and the writing the books helped with you with because you’ve mentioned before in interviews about being as a detective affected you emotionally. How has doing all of this and having all of this? How has that helped you now?
Joe: It was interesting when I started filming the show. They offered me a script and I said what is that? It’s a script. Well, I’m not an actor I’m a policeman. But you have to read this.
No, I have to die and pay taxes. I don’t have to read that.
But I said, you know, I got over playing dress up when I was five. You should have too.
This guy got really angry. You know, I wanted him to. I meant to make him mad.
I said I’ll tell you what. You turn that camera on for 15 minutes. And I’ll tell you about this murder.
You don’t like what I say, we’ll talk about your script.
And he said, alright, because he’s prepared not to like it.
I did it for 15 minutes.
I stood up and said is that what you had in mind?
Oh yeah, yeah. We don’t need the script. We wanna know it all.
When he said to me that we want to know it all, the floodgates opened and he knew it all.
I got the privilege of listening to him for almost an hour. Like the show and the book he pulls you in, and you want to talk to him.
Or rather, listen to him.
If you haven’t watched Homicide Hunter, there’s an honesty there, a brutal charm to it. Joe is always articulate. He’s always concise. And he’s not bullshitting anyone.
Unless maybe you’re a criminal.
He’s the kind of person you’d want solving your case. Someone who will take control and go get the bad guys.
Joe: I felt that I wanted I wanted to be a policeman because I thought I could make a difference. In my little small part of the world, I thought I could do that. I would rise or fall on my own talents.
And I wanted to investigate the worst crime. And murder must be it because we will do the worst to you if you commit it. We will put you in prison for the rest of your days or we will kill you. And so I tailored my initial career to get into Homicide, I was successful getting in. I was successful and I stayed there for the rest of my career.
And I loved every minute of it.
There’s a lot of police officers out there who do what he did. They work hard every day going to get the bad guy. They’re not as famous as Joe Kenda is, but they all do the same job. Joe’s new series, American Detective, highlights those hardworking detectives and officers whose cases you haven’t heard of, but their work brought down bad guys.
Lots of bad guys.
Joe Kenda selected many of the cases to highlight these brave men and women’s work in American Detective. Stories that will shock and awe you at the horrid nature of humanity, and the honor and bravery of the uniform that brought them down and brought justice to the victims and their families.
Candice: The last question I think I have for you is how do you feel about your new show, American Detective, where you’re more of a narrator, a guide for the viewers? How did you get involved with that?
Joe: It’s actually my own fault I called Discovery when we were halfway through filming season nine and I said I’m gonna end Homicide Hunter at the end of Season 9. Wait, what? I’m cutting down the money tree. They show that show all over the world in different languages. It’s insanely popular.
Candice: I will admit it’s the first show I ever watched on Discovery ID honestly. It’s what got me into the network myself.
Joe: It’s made them a bucketful of money.
Candice: Yes it has.
Joe: So what I said I was going to cancel it was I said, well, I said gentlemen, I’m out of bullets. What I have left is either too simple. We came, we saw we arrested. Or too disgusting. Children and babies and I won’t do them. And they won’t either really, and they said, well, OK.
So I hung up. About 30 minutes go by, the phone rings and Kathy answers it. It’s one of the top executives in Discovery.
Is Joe there? Yes he is, hang on, let me get him.
Hello, what are you doing?
So you need understand something, Joe. We’re like the Corleones. The only way out of this for you is death.
We’re gonna come up with a new show for you. We want you in it.
So that’s how it got started. And then I selected the cases and what the point of that show or that program is to highlight murder cases that are as awful as anything you’ve ever heard of, but you haven’t heard of these because the press had bigger fish to fry at the time and never gave it national attention.
Unless you lived in the area where these things occur, you would have no knowledge of it.
So it’s new information for members of the public. And also to showcase the skill of homicide detectives from all over this country who do the very same thing I did every day for little or no money and suffer the slings and arrows of the media and so on.
It’s interesting how that needle falls back and forth.
We actually love you. We hate you. We love you. We hate you, we love you.
Joe: There are things about society that society is unwilling to pay for. Like mental health. Like placement of homeless people, like adoption services, like child welfare. Like all the things, nobody wants to pay for. We’ll just have the police do that. They’re not trained to do it. They often do it badly because they don’t know what to do. And then we yell at them for having done it badly because we’re too cheap to do it correctly.
Well my my my.
Joe told me the one question everyone always asks, is “What is the worst thing you’ve seen?”
I was shocked. I said I thought that was terrible to ask. He said he had a couple of prepped responses for that one, just in case.
Did I ask Joe what the worst thing was he’d ever seen?
Would he have told me?
Probably. Answer 64-A, please.
But I didn’t have to.
It’s all there.
Lt. Joe Kenda, a twenty-three-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Police Department, spent twenty-one years chasing killers as a homicide detective and commander of the major crimes unit. Kenda and his team solved 356 of his 387 homicide cases, getting a 92 percent solve rate—one of the highest in the country. After retiring from law enforcement, he starred in Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, an American true-crime documentary series that ran for nine seasons on the Investigation Discovery network and was aired in sixty-nine countries and territories worldwide. At its peak, Homicide Hunter averaged 1.9 million viewers in the US. See Lt. Kenda on his new crime series, American Detective, available to stream now on discovery+.
Candice Gilmer leads a dangerous double life as a mommy and a writer. Her bestselling books range from vampires & werewolves to mermaids & fairies, even some modern romances–a huge variety, just like her broad, geek-girl heart. All in all, she stays very busy, but really, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her latest book, The Temptress’s Cyborg, releases March 17, 2021