Homicide Hunter Produced by Knoxville-based Jupiter Entertainment airs on Investigation Discovery


Joe Kenda’s life turned into a tale of true crime, televised 100 times over and filmed in Knoxville. Kenda was a homicide detective for 19 of 23 years with the Colorado Springs Police Department. He was very good at his job. He investigated 387 homicides. He closed 356 — a 92 percent solve rate.

“I wasn’t smarter than anybody else,” he said. “I was just stubborner. I just didn’t know when to quit, and I didn’t like to give up.” Telling mothers their children were dead and chasing bad guys also earned Kenda memories two decades of retirement can’t erase. So, at 71, he’s the “Homicide Hunter.” But his crime fighting’s on television, in weekly installments as he retells his investigations.

Produced by Knoxville-based Jupiter Entertainment, “Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda” airs on Investigation Discovery. The show is in its seventh season; its milestone 100th episode airs in January.

True crime is a Jupiter stalwart. It films 10 of the dramas in Knoxville. Along with “Homicide Hunter,” those series are “Murder Chose Me,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Enquiring Minds,” “ATL Homicide,” “Dying To Belong,” “Snapped,” “Murder Calls,” “Grave Evidence” and “Notorious.” East Tennessee houses, businesses, churches and streets stand in for locations around the country, and area actors often are cast in productions.

‘You try to bury that stuff’

Each “Homicide Hunter” episode recounts a solved Kenda case using interviews and dramatic re-enactments. In each, Kenda retells the homicide, his investigation and his insights. He speaks in his distinctive, somewhat gruff, voice and characteristically understated tone directly to the camera. Actor Carl Marino plays Kenda as a young detective in the scripted re-enactments.

For viewers, episodes can be thrilling stories. For Kenda, they’re therapy.

He retired from the force at 50. “Everything around me started to be white noise. I had reached my emotional limit. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t tell another mother her child is not coming home. ... You try to bury that stuff and you can’t. I have reccurring nightmares, and I don’t sleep.”

He never talked about his job, even to his wife, Kathy Kenda. Now when he sits in front of the camera, “I feel better talking about it.”

Kenda, who now lives in Virginia’s Tidewater region, flies to Colorado Springs to film. He glances through case files a few minutes, mostly to recall people’s complete names. Then he talks without a script, remembering details from decades-old deaths.

“You tell somebody that somebody’s mother is not coming home anymore, you don’t forget that, and they don’t either.”

Each interview is transcribed, then used to write a re-enactment script to film in Knoxville. “They have to film me first because I don’t know what I’m going to say until they turn a camera on me. And they don’t have a plot line until I give them one,” he says.

From homicide detective to bus driver

The first “Homicide Hunter” aired in 2011; another production company filmed that first season. Jupiter’s filmed the rest. But Kenda didn’t want to do the show and never thought it’d get on television.

His TV fame began in the mid-1990s when journalist Diane Sawyer interviewed him. A TV producer later saw the interview and wrote then-retired Kenda asking to make a series about his career. He tossed the first — and the second — letter.

Post-retirement, he suffered withdrawal a couple of years. “After that, you reflect on what you have seen you cannot un-see. And I decided it was just as well.” He got a job driving a school bus for special-needs students.

“It was the only job I ever had where people were actually glad to see me. In my former employment, no one was happy to see me. They either hated me, or they were afraid of me, or both.”

When the persistent producer’s third letter came, Kathy Kenda persuaded her husband to make the series. But when he went to Hollywood to film the first episode, “Homicide Hunter” was almost dead on arrival.

Kenda was handed “50 pounds of paper” — a script he refused. “I said, ‘Maybe no one told you. I’m not an actor, I’m a policeman.’ “ He suggested he be filmed talking, in his own words, for 15 minutes. When he was done, the script was tossed. He’s never been handed another.

100 shows and counting

Rarely does Kenda see “Homicide Hunter” filmed. But in October he and Kathy drove to Knoxville to watch Jupiter film the 100th episode.

From its bland exterior, Jupiter’s studio and warehouse looks like another office suite in a West Knoxville strip mall. Inside, a twin mattress, stained with TV blood, leans against a wall near a chunky fax machine. Down a hall is the pretend version of Kenda’s Colorado Springs office. Its desk is piled with case files and an overflowing ashtray.

Kenda won’t give Marino advice other than “just keep doing what you’re doing.” He doesn’t think Marino — a former New York sheriff’s deputy — looks like his younger self. Kathy Kenda disagrees. She pulls out her phone to show a photo of Kenda when his now-white hair was dark and he wore a police uniform.

Sometimes, Marino says, people think he is Kenda. “Someone will say, ‘Hey, it’s Joe Kenda.’ And I’ll say, ‘Actually, it’s Carl. I play Joe Kenda.’ They never know my name,” he says.

Watching — just once

His own TV fame makes Kenda’s face — and voice — recognizable. Fans point, whisper, ask for autographs and photos.

Once, in the Dallas airport, he recalls, a woman “just stared at me. And she said, ‘Say something.’ “I said, ‘What would you like me to say?’ And she said, ‘Oh my God, it’s you!’ And I said, ‘Yes, it’s me.’ “ His detective brain hasn’t totally reconciled he’s an internationally recognized TV star. “Not really,” he says. “I think it’s all rather silly. But it pays well.”

The policeman who caught criminals for decades isn’t a fan of crime shows, true or not. But Kenda watches each “Homicide Hunter” episode once — and only once. “To make sure it’s correct, and there’s no added nonsense. There never has been. But I still check.”

Source:  Knoxville News Sentinel, by Amy McRary

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org


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