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On the Hunt

Retired Colorado Springs lieutenant enjoying smash hit television show

Joe Kenda does not play cards. In fact, card games bore him. That should come as no surprise to those who know the retired Colorado Springs lieutenant, who spent most of his 23 years with the Police Department’s Homicide Division as a detective.

enda had much more chilling and intense face-offs in that role than any high-stakes poker game could ever provide. In his two decades in homicide, Kenda dealt with some of Colorado Springs’ most vicious and malicious criminals on a daily basis, and he was good at bringing them to justice. Very good.

Kenda had a 92 percent solution rate for the 387 murder cases he worked during his tenure, putting a lot of bad people away for a long time. It was his passion and goal in life to make a difference, and he did for hundreds of victims and their families.

A Denver-based producer named Patrick Bryant had seen Kenda on television doing interviews with local media and thought of the idea for a show, but Kenda ignored his initial letters of inquiry. When his wife, Kathy, implored him to follow up with Bryant, the two struck a deal for the concept of a show that became “Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.”

Investigation Discovery optioned the show, and Kenda shot six episodes that aired in the fall of 2011. A new production company made improvements on the show the following year, and season two included 10 episodes.

Kenda just finished filming season four’s 13 episodes that will run on Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. CST through Nov. 18, with re-runs appearing as encores on a regular basis. The show, which can also be found on the ID website, has become an immense hit and now airs in more than 125 countries worldwide.

Its success and popularity has been surprising for the highly private Kenda.

“It’s been quite an experience,” says Kenda, who now lives close to family in Virginia, but visits Colorado Springs regularly to film the show. “I get recognized all over the country, in airplanes, airports, restaurants. I’ve been really caught by surprise that it’s as successful as it is. It’s just remarkable to me.”

Kenda is not accustomed to having fans who flock to him or enjoy meeting him. It is a far cry from what he experienced as a homicide detective.

“It’s funny because, when I was working, a lot of people knew who I was because I was on the local news all the time,” says Kenda, who has final approval on the show’s episodes and refuses to work from a script. “People were generally afraid of me and avoided me. They walked the other way if they saw me, and now they want to be my friend. It’s an interesting turn of events.”

Doing the show has created a significant and completely unplanned effect on the battle-tested detective.

“It is therapeutic for me,” says Kenda, who retired from the force in 1996. “I never discussed the details of these events with anyone. I’ve said more to that camera than I’ve said to my wife, and there have been occasions on the show when, if we’re watching it together, she’ll just turn away from the TV and look at me because she had no idea something happened or I did something.

“I think it’s a little bit startling for her sometimes. That’s why it’s healthy for me to let a little pressure out of the balloon.”

Kenda knows he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder similar to what military veterans experience, and the show is a way for him to release some of the pent-up stress that still eats away at him to this day.

“It doesn’t go away,” says Kenda, who worked his way up to commander of the Major Crimes Unit. “You can’t un-see those things, you can’t not think about them, and you can’t forget them, even though you want to. So, I’ve found it to be helpful to discuss them. That’s why I agreed to do the show. It’s the only reason I agreed to it.

“It still affects me dramatically, but it doesn’t affect me to the point where it’s paralyzing or prevents me from carrying on my life. There are certain events that will trigger a memory, and it’s startling. Imagine having a nightmare while you’re awake. That’s what it can be sometimes.”

Kenda answers quickly when asked if all the side effects outweigh the positives from his career.

“It was worth it to do that, because I threw a lot of people in a cage who needed to be in one,” says Kenda, who moved to his mother’s hometown of Colorado Springs in 1973. “So, I didn’t mind paying the price, and I still don’t mind.”

Kenda’s sense of duty was first triggered by a trip to the zoo with his family in Pittsburgh when he was just 9 years old. Near the primate habitat stood a sign that peaked his interest.

“It said, ‘Around this corner is the most dangerous animal on Earth,’” Kenda says. “I ran around that corner, and there was a mirror from floor to ceiling. All of the people, including me, were looking at the mirror and wondering what was happening. That was an epiphany for me, because I thought, ‘You know, that sign’s right. Humans are the most dangerous.’

“Animals kill because they need to. Humans kill because they want to, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.”

Kenda grew up in the Pittsburgh area knowing he didn’t want to go into the coal mining business like older generations of his family, so he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh and got his Master of Arts in International Politics in 1970 from Ohio State University. For a while, Kenda thought he might want to try working in the Foreign Service, until he attended a briefing at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, VA.

“I didn’t like those people, and they decided they didn’t like me either,” he says. “What the government is into is gray, and I’m into black and white. So, I decided to do this other thing, which is very much black and white.”

The city of Colorado Springs and its residents were the beneficiaries. Using a friendly approach to interrogations, a hawk-like knack for sniffing out when a suspect was lying and an unyielding passion for justice, Kenda found immense success in his chosen field.

“You are the last bastion of defense for the victim,” he says. “They cannot defend themselves anymore. You have to step into their shoes and act on their behalf.

“It wasn’t a job to me. It was a mission.”

Now, his mission is to spend time with his family, and he and Kathy – who was his high school sweetheart – now travel the globe and enjoy their retirement. They, no doubt, have earned the right.

“Mrs. Kenda has waited a long time for this moment, and now it’s her turn,” Kenda says. “My wife is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Irishwoman with a temper like a chainsaw. I don’t understand her, but I’m working on that.”