During his 20–year career as a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department, Lieutenant Joe Kenda solved 356 out of 387 murders—five of them cold cases that had gone unsolved for decades—to end up with a staggering 92% success rate and a reputation as one of the most successful crime fighters in history.
And, as is obvious to anyone who’s ever watched Homicide Hunter—the No. 1 Investigation Discovery show on which Kenda narrates the details of his cases—he’s also one of the most quotable tough guys to ever put on a badge. With lines like “You want sympathy? Look it up in the dictionary. It’s right between shit and syphilis,” it’s not surprising that Kenda quotes have turned into a meme.
In our exclusive interview, we spoke with Kenda about his incredible career as one of America’s most dogged detectives. Here, in all their shocking detail, are his stories.
Joe Kenda Doesn’t Need No Damn TV Script
On our first day of shooting, they handed me something. I looked at it and said, “What’s that?” They said it was a script. I said, “I’m not an actor. I’m a policeman. You want an actor? Go hire one. I’ll get on a plane and go back to Colorado.” “Well, you have to.” “No, I don’t.” So I told them, “I’ll tell you what, turn the camera on. I’ll tell you about this case for 15 minutes. You don’t like it, I’ll read that.” “All right.” So they turned it on. 15 minutes later, I said, “Well?” “We don’t need that.” There hasn’t been a script since. I do it out of my head. I say what I want.
They just take the profanity out—well, not all of it.
“Any Policeman Who Says He’s Not Afraid Is Out of His Mind or Lying”
Fear is your body’s way of telling you you’re about to engage in something potentially fatal. Fear is a good thing. It alerts you, focuses the mind. Have you ever been really afraid? I’ve been so afraid I get a metal taste in my mouth. I can hear my heart beat. I can hear myself breathe. Everything around me suddenly goes into slow motion.
Those kinds of things happen all the time. You can be in situations where all of a sudden something is so dangerous you know that your life could end right here and right now, and you’d better do the right thing. Because if you don’t, you’ll never see anybody you know again because you’re going to be dead. But you swallow that fear and do your job, you proceed.
A Spring-Loaded Door Almost Got Him Killed
On one occasion, a bunch of us go to arrest someone for murder, a guy who’d strangled his ex-girlfriend. We beat on the door and he opens it, and I happen to be the guy in front, so I force my way in. But the door is spring-loaded—I’d never seen an apartment door that was spring-loaded, but this one was—so when I push in, the door slams shut, and all my guys are locked outside.
So I’m in there alone with this guy. He’s trying to pull something from behind his back—it turned out to be a knife—but I push him against the wall. I have him pinned against the wall, and I’m thinking it’s taking my guys a couple of weeks to break in this door. It takes like two seconds for them to do it, or less, but it seems like forever. While I have him pinned, he can’t get his hand out from behind his back because I have him crushed against the wall, and he’s yelling at me. Then I hear noise behind me, and I think, “Oh, shit,” because I can’t defend myself—If I let him go, he’s going to kill me.
I look over my shoulder, and it’s a dog. The dog just sits there. He knows whatever this is, it’s really bad. He doesn’t bark. He doesn’t do anything. He just sits there and looks at me and I think, “Thank God you’re a dog and not a guy with a gun.”
His “Mafia Connections” Scared the Crap Out of His New Father-in-Law
I worked my way through the University of Pittsburgh as a bartender, and wound up working in a really nice, high-dollar place. Every Wednesday night a mafia chieftain, Gabriel “Kelly” Mannarino, part of the Gambino family out of New York—they ran the rackets in Pittsburgh—would come in. He and his bodyguards would have a CC Manhattan straight up with a twist, and dinner. He’d tip me $100—slide the bill across the table and pat me on the cheek and say, “That’s for school, Joey. That’s for school.” He was a great guy to me, but he was what he was.
So, the next year my wife, Kathy, and I get married, and there’s this huge gift on the table. It says: “From Kelly Mannarino, with best wishes.” My father-in-law asks, “You know Kelly Mannarino?” “Well, yeah.”
He was like, “Oh, my God.” He didn’t talk to me for two years!
He Knows the Trick to Making the Perfect Manhattan
It’s pretty simple. You turn a bar spoon over to the back side, and use that like a skid, and pour the vermouth over the back of the bar spoon, and it tends to float on top of the drink. It’s not a huge thing, but they say it tastes better. I don’t know—I’ve never had a Manhattan.
The Entire Police Force of Malta Is in Love with Him
In the beginning [of my relationship with the Investigation Discovery channel], my wife said, “They’re going to put you on TV!” And I said, “Kathy, this will never be on television.” “No, it will.” “No, it won’t.” Now the show’s now in 183 countries, in 100 languages, and I get request for autographs from all over the world.
The funniest letter I ever got was from the Office of the Chief of Police for the Island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea. The last time anybody ever heard of Malta was when the Germans invaded it in World War II because it was a fuel stop for the British Navy. He writes, “Dear, Sir, my entire staff and I watch your program religiously. I would request a signed autograph for each of my officers, as well as myself.” I’m thinking, “God, this is going to take three months.” I read on. He says, “That means I would require a total of four pictures.”
And I’m thinking, “We should move to Malta. There’s no crime there. They’ve got four guys, including the boss.”
I sent him four pictures, and got a big thank you.
One Murderer He Collared Really Liked Football
A guy called the police one night and he said, “Is this homicide?” I said, “It is.” Very calm, he said, “Well, you better come over to my house.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “I killed my wife.” He’s dead serious. I said, “You did?” He said, “Yeah.” “Where do you live?” He told me.
We go over there. Here he is in his living room, has a deer rifle in the corner. His wife is in the kitchen and she’s been dead about three hours. He shot her in the chest with that deer rifle, which removed most of her chest and threw it all over the walls of the kitchen.
I said, “So, she’s been dead awhile.” “Yeah, she’s been dead awhile.” “How come?”
He says, “You know, we’ve been married 30 years, and we fight all the time about what to watch on television. I wanted to watch Monday Night Football, and she once again said, ‘You can’t watch the game. I have to watch my program.’ That was it, man. That was it. So I killed her, then I watched the game, then I called you.”
He Earned the Nickname “The Ice Man”
I’ve only talked to Carl [Marino, the actor who plays him in the show’s reenactments] three or four times, but when I watch the show, I see he’s a lot like I was—very calm.
When you arrive at a scene it’s always chaotic because the press is there, the medical people are there, everybody and their brother’s there. There are onlookers, and crying and screaming relatives. It’s kind of contagious. People get upset. But the local press called me The Ice Man because I never got upset.
He Stopped Smoking In Spite of a Pushy Reporter
I went to a murder one night, and I got out of the car and there was a reporter wearing too much makeup. She stuffed a microphone in my face, so I looked at her, and I lit a cigarette. She said very disapprovingly, “Oh, you smoke.” I said, “Honey, if you did what I do for a living, you’d be smoking cigars. Now get out of my way.” She was highly insulted, but these things happen.
But I figured it was going to kill me, so eventually I quit—one of the smartest things I ever did. My wife did it with me. We didn’t kill each other, although we considered it for about three weeks. No, but I’m done with it.
He Was So Badass, He Solved All His Murders Without Firing a Shot
I never pulled a trigger on a gun in all my years in the police department. I’m very proud of that. I’ve pointed a gun at people twenty thousand times, but I never hurt anybody. I never had to.
I used my brain, not my trigger finger. I arrested a lot of people for very serious crimes, and almost all of them went to prison.
Not that I wouldn’t have used that weapon if I’d felt I had to. Understand, if it comes down to me or you, it’s going to be you every time, all right?
But if you kill, you’re like them, and I am not like them.
Keeping His Voice Low Was His Most Powerful Weapon
It’s a trick I learned, and it frightened people. They’re accustomed to the police yelling at them—you know: “Get your hands up!” Everybody’s wild. They’re waving guns around.
But when I went to arrest someone, I’d be very calm and very quiet. I’d have a gun in one hand, a badge in the other, and I’d say, “My name is Kenda. I’m with the police department. You’re under arrest for first-degree murder. If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to kill you right here and right now.” Everybody would go, “Oh crap, this guy means it.” Hands in the air, even with a gun in their waistband. They don’t want to try it. They think, “Now, he’ll shoot me.” Yes, I will. I never did, but I made it clear that I would.
That’s all you really have to do. At least, it worked that way for me.
“There’s Nothing More Dangerous on This Planet Than a Human Being”
A lot of things happened on the job. Some were hysterically funny. Some were horribly sad. Some were absolutely horrific. You see it all.
Animals kill for a need. They kill to survive. Humans kill for pleasure. They’re capable of anything, so don’t ever believe somebody won’t do something, because they will, and then they’ll plan to do it again because they liked it.
So every morning I’d have a meeting with my detectives, to give them their marching orders, and as they were leaving, I’d say, “Remember boys and girls, the humans are out. Be careful.”
Fleeing Criminals Always Climb—And Suck at Hiding
When criminals run from the police, they go up. It’s interesting. It’s like instinct: “I have to get up high.” “There’s no ‘Stairway to Heaven’—where are you going? Have you learned to fly? Is that your plan? You’re think you’re going to go up in the top of that building, and just fly away, and the police will never find you? Come down here.”
Or they run a little ways, then squat like a rabbit. Again, it’s like, “What is your plan? Do you think no one’s going to notice you behind that plant? You goof—come out of there before somebody shoots you or this police canine decides to lunch on your leg.”
It’s like a game of hide and seek, except we’re very good at seeking.
He Figured Out the Secret to Staying Married for 49 Years…
I made a mistake when I first started working as a cop. I wouldn’t tell my wife things. I thought I’d protect her, save her from the details and that just created more heat.
I came home one night, and she said, “What happened today?”
And I said, “Oh, nothing.” And she said, “Oh, okay,” and was quiet. Then I turned on the news and there I was in front of the cameras and the crime scene tape. She said, “What about that?” “Well, yeah, there was that.” And then the fight would be on.
I learned, don’t do that—just tell her.
…And Spotting a Liar
Look at how they’re sitting in a chair. Are they unconsciously facing the door? Are their feet under them because they’re ready to run and the door’s the way out? Are they not making eye contact with you? Are they tapping a foot, bouncing a knee, playing with their fingers, playing with their ring, darting around the room with their eyes, trying to think of something to say? Those are alarm bells.
With a criminal, it’s more noticeable because they’re maxed out emotionally. But everybody lies. You have to be prepared for that.
…And Solving a Problem With Just About Anybody
If you’re having some sort of confrontation or there’s some issue—at work, in a relationship, with your child—you need to look them in the eye and say, “I need your help with something.” That should be the first thing out of your mouth. Everybody responds to that. “You need my help?” “I do. We’ve got this thing going on, and we both have to work through this.” “Oh, okay.” “What are you feeling about it?”
It’s human interaction. It’s not dictation. It’s not you saying, “This is what we’re going to do because I said so.” No. “We have to come to this agreement, and how are we going to get there? I need your help.” Works very well.
He Can Tell You What to Do If You’re Charged With a Crime (The Other Cops Won’t Like It)…
The absolutely honest truth, you’ve been arrested and you’re charged with a criminal offense? Invoke your right to silence. The police are not your friend. You’re not going to talk your way out of this, all right? Remember one thing: “I want an attorney.” Because once you’ve been arrested, my dear, you’re going to need an attorney.
…And What It Really Takes to Be a Man
It’s pretty simple. Do the right thing—You know what that is, even though you don’t want to think that sometimes. Just do the right thing.
People try to tailor what they think they should do to fit their desires, so they can avoid doing what they know they really should do. People require some degree of guidance in their life, and it can be from any source. The best source is yourself. Guide yourself. Don’t look for somebody else to help you through life.
He Knows the Last Thing He’ll Say on His Deathbed
“Did I turn the stove off?”