The Homicide Hunter visits Maricopa: Part 1

Lt. Joe Kenda and his wife, Kathy visited Maricopa to see a family friend, Alice Johnson McKinney. [Justin Griffin]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lt. Joe Kenda, a renowned homicide detective who originally hails from Colorado Springs, and his wife, Kathy spent some time in Maricopa visiting with a friend, Alice Johnson McKinney. Kenda retired with a 92 percent success rate and has a second television show, “American Detective,” streaming on discovery+, which is in its second season. Its second season debut is Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Kenda’s first show on the ID network, “Homicide Hunter,” ran for 9 seasons.

Kenda’s 92 percent success rate is impressive when you consider the national rate to be between 50 and 60 percent. But he’s not too full of himself, “So you can say, I’m a smart guy who knew who killed 92% of the people. Or I’m an idiot who didn’t know who killed 8% of the people,” he quipped.

Kenda’s Friendship with Johnson-McKinney goes back years. He said she’s always invited him and his wife to come to Maricopa, but the timing wasn’t right until January of this year. That, along with the desire to escape the lockdowns of COVID-19, inspired the Kendas to make the trip a few weeks back.

While in town, Joe Kenda sat with InMaricopa Editorial Director Justin Griffin for a wide-ranging interview. The following is part one and part two will publish tomorrow:

Q: What got you started in your field?

A: I had an uncle who was a Colorado Highway Patrolman and it always interested me. Law enforcement interested me, and I thought about that for some time when I was in college. I thought, you know, murder must be the worst crime because the worst will happen to you if you commit it, society will put you in prison forever or we will execute you and that fits the most serious crime.

Q: How were you successful?

A: The technique is simple: Make no prejudice. Do not establish a theory on the way to the crime scene. Let the evidence drive the investigation and after that, it’s one foot in front of the other, the old-fashioned method of learning a fact.

You know, the first question to ask is who benefits from this death, is it financial? Is it love? Lust? Revenge? What is it? And once you think you may know the ‘why’ of it, then that helps lead to who is motivated.

For the most part, people lose control of their emotions, resulting in incredible violence. There are very few, fortunately for a rest of us, who are cold people sociopaths who don’t need a motivation, they kill because they liked it and those are the most dangerous humans.

I’ve only encountered one in my career who killed because it was enjoyable to him to do that, and he didn’t care if it was a man or a woman or who was he just liked it.

Q: That has to be like staring into the darkest pit.

A: That is correct. Oh yeah. And if you talk to that guy, he has eyes like a shark. No emotion. Nothing. There’s nothing there. He doesn’t feel anything. The press is fascinated by the serial killer thing. That’s all they talk about.

But there’s very, very few of those and that’s why everybody knows their names. John, Wayne Gacy and all these other people. It’s because they’re so rare. This is a country of 330 million people, you’re going to have a few crazies in that number, but it’s only going to be a few who moved to that level of lives taken.

The everybody’s of the world who commit murder do so for the dumbest of reasons. They get so angry at someone. They act and then they’re immediately sorry for what they did, but society won’t accept their apology.

Q: Is there a perfect murder weapon?

A: There isn’t one. I mean I’ve seen death by every means except a nuclear weapon. I’ve never seen that. Pick any other method. I’ve seen many examples, fire, explosion, blunt instruments, guns, knives you name it. Anything humans are fragile. They’re pretty easily damaged.

One of the most effective is an aluminum baseball bat. You know, in college baseball, they eliminated wooden bats to produce less force when the ball is struck. So, they have these hollow core aluminum bats. I had a case where a guy beat somebody to death with one, hit this guy over a hundred times. His body looked like a like a duffel bag full of broken bones and his head was an inch high. There wasn’t even a dent in that aluminum baseball bat. Very sturdy. Humans aren’t sturdy but that aluminum bat was.

Q: Was there ever any kind of a cat-and-mouse dynamic between you and a murderer?

A: No, no. That’s Hollywood. That’s always the movies. The reality is in the real world, they’re fearful and they’re trying to escape and if they’re cornered, and you talk to them, they will lie and lie and deny and try everything they can think of. And if they finally feel really trapped, they’ll say some incriminating things, but they will rarely confess.

Q: Did you ever feel like you got so close to somebody that that had done something bad that your life was in danger?

A: All the time. Once you’ve already killed for the first time, it’s just numbers.

You’re going after a very dangerous prey. One time, I kicked a door open of a motel room. We’re going to arrest a bad guy; He was a convict. He’s an experienced criminal and we were going to arrest him for murder. I had a 12-gauge pump shotgun. I kicked that door in at two o’clock in the morning. He’s in bed asleep. He pops to, sits up straight. He’s got a gun on the nightstand; I didn’t scare him with that shotgun. He’s looking at me. He’s looking at the gun. He’s looking at me. He’s thinking, ‘can I get that gun before he shoots me?’

I could tell what he was doing, and I said, ‘you won’t hear this [shotgun] go off.’ That was one guy who wasn’t afraid. He’s prepared to shoot it up. You know, he wants to have court in the street. They don’t want to go to court. I’ve been shot at, and attacked, and there’s all that stuff over all those years but never really damaged seriously,

Q: Was it the danger that kind of kept you going?

A: Sure, it was an adrenaline rush. I liked it. I loved it. But my wife hated it, I suppose. But I just thought it was my mission in life: Don’t kill one of my taxpayers. That offends me.

Part two will publish tomorrow