Killer Instinct

Issue Date: 
June 1, 2015

When asked about his long career as a homicide detective, Joe Kenda often recounts an experience from his boyhood. Years ago, at the Pittsburgh Zoo, a young Kenda strolled with his family, fascinated by the assembly of animals, including those most feared in the wild—lions and tigers, and big, lumbering bears. During his stroll, the 9-year-old spied a sign, pointing visitors to “The World’s Most Dangerous Animal.” He slipped away from his family as his curiosity sent him careening to view this dangerous creature. He rounded a corner and arrived at the designated spot. There, he saw ... himself.  He was standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, which reflected not only his own image but also raised a captivating question: Are humans the most dangerous animals? This moment from childhood stayed with Kenda, and it was a question that would arise again, and often, in his adult years.

Joe Kenda (A&S ’68) is star of the Investigation Discovery show, Homicide Hunter.

Nearly a decade later, in the mid-’60s, Kenda enrolled at Pitt, where he studied political science, delving into the history of wars and political turmoil. It made him consider the nature of violence, especially given the deaths of kings and rulers in circumstances still cloaked in mystery. How many people through history, he wondered, had been killed anonymously, undocumented by historical record? How many murderers had escaped the demands of justice?

After a stint in graduate school in Ohio, Kenda (A&S ’68) moved from Pittsburgh to Colorado, the state he’d grown to love as a child while visiting his grandparents there. He joined the Colorado Springs police force in 1973, taking advantage of a rare opening in its homicide department. He rose from a street officer to become a much-heralded commander of the major crimes unit, with a focus on homicide investigations. 

Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Kenda solved an average of 92 percent of his homicide cases, far exceeding the national rate for closing murder cases. “Not because I was smarter, I was just more stubborn,” says Kenda, who often pieced together significant clues by questioning the minutia of a victim’s life and by never making assumptions.

In 1995, a year before his retirement, Kenda’s success drew the national spotlight: ABC’s Diane Sawyer interviewed him for a primetime special on homicide investigations—not so easy for a detective who never discussed the details of any of his cases, not even with his wife. But the broadcast made an impression. In 2008, a TV producer remembered Kenda’s interview and asked him to be part of a new show in development for the Investigation Discovery Channel.

Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda will return this August for its  fifth season. Kenda’s gruff, no-nonsense narration of real cases he solved is a hit. The show is broadcast in more than 100 countries. For Kenda, the chance to reexamine old cases has proved therapeutic. Each episode, he encounters that enduring question from his childhood as he describes some hard truths about human nature.    

(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Pitt Magazine. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.)