Pittsburgh native re-tells cop tales in 'Homicide Hunter'

Monday, 01 October 2012 08:14 AM Written by 

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Pittsburgh native Joe Kenda, who grew up in Herminie near Irwin, returns to prime time tonight for season two of “Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda” (9 p.m. Tuesday, ID) a true-crime Investigation Discovery series that’s based on real-life cases.

Mr. Kenda, a no-nonsense investigator, narrates the cases he once worked with gruff candor. Actors play the victims and killers in re-enactments that are interspersed with interviews with the real-life witnesses and police officers involved. Actor Carl Marino plays Mr. Kenda in re-enacted flashback scenes.

In Tuesday’s season premiere, Mr. Kenda, 66, recalls the 1990 case of a woman who was murdered by an attacker who stole her purse when she was leaving a Lupus support group meeting.

“It got national attention at the time with People magazine and several paperback books,” Mr. Kenda said. “It was sensational stuff because it had sex and money and college graduates, people that ought to know better. That fired everybody up. It met the standard for a Hollywood plot but those cases are pretty rare.”

Mr. Kenda, a 1964 graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic and a 1968 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, moved to his mother’s hometown, Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1973 and joined the local police department. He retired after more than two decades as a detective in 1996.

Read more after the jump. ...

During his time on the police force, Mr. Kenda frequently appeared as an interview subject on Colorado newscasts and was once interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Patrick Bryant, a Denver-based independent producer, approached Mr. Kenda about a true crime show told through the eyes of a detective. Mr. Bryant wrote to Mr. Kenda, who tossed away the first two letters he received without responding. In his third letter, Mr. Bryant began by writing that he figured his previous letters had been thrown in the trash.

“The guy had a sense of humor, so I kept it,” Mr. Kenda said. He told his high school sweetheart wife, Mary Kathleen “Kathy” Mohler Kenda, about the idea and she pestered him to respond.

This season’s production process began with Mr. Kenda going to the Colorado Springs police department to get copies of case files, sending producers 30 cases. They chose 10 to use in this 10-episode second season. Then producers recorded Mr. Kenda’s re-telling of each case, two episodes a day for five days.

“I’m up first,” Mr. Kenda said. “I have an absolutely perfect memory. I still look over the cases before I talk but when you do this for a living it burns into your brain. It’s like it all happened this morning. It’s very intense work.”

After that, producers create scripts for the re-enactments. Mr. Kenda does not work from a script; he speaks in his own words. The show’s first-season producers wanted him to use a script.

“I’m not an actor, what I am is a policeman and if you want me to tell you about these murders, I will,” Mr. Kenda told producers. When they said he had to work from a script, he balked. “I don’t have to do anything except die and pay taxes. If you want to do this, turn your camera on for 30 minutes and I’ll talk about this case. And so I did.”

This season exteriors are filmed in Colorado Springs, where the events actually took place, with interiors filmed on sets in Knoxville, Tenn., where the show’s production company is headquartered.

Mr. Kenda acknowledged the usual pattern to such crimes: the victim and killer usually know one another.

“It’s almost always the case,” he said. “Stranger murders happen but they’re very rare. As far as the connection, it could be business, it could be narcotics, it doesn’t have to be family. But they’re usually members of a circle of acquaintances and for some reason [the killer] decided they want [the victim] dead, which usually results from money, sex or revenge or some combination of those motives. Humans are rather predictable even though they think they’re not.”

Mr. Kenda and his wife get back to Western Pennsylvania every few years to visit family, including Kathy’s brother, Bill Mohler, who is president of Sendell Motors on Route 30 in Greensburg.

“Pittsburgh is a pretty city now,” Mr. Kenda said, “compared to when I was a kid and it was a dump. Not now. They have cleaned up their act.”

He’s optimistic that “Homicide Hunter” will be cleaned up in its second season with a new production company on board. A glaring mistake from the first season still makes him bristle:  In a re-enactment of a murder scene, the victim has blood on his shirt before he got stabbed.

“I saw that and the phone started ringing off the wall,” Mr. Kenda said. “I got yelled at for three months by cops for that one.”

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