ON THE HUNT WITH LT. JOE KENDA
By: Dragana Kovacevic
When Lt. Joe Kenda was nine years old, his parents took him to the local Pittsburgh Zoo. Little did he know the experience would be a transformative one. While exploring the primate exhibit, he earnestly followed a sign that promised the world's most dangerous animal. As he turned the corner, the answer stood before him reflected in a mirror: A human. The discovery shocked him. "I stood there for a long time and looked at that. Why are people dangerous?" says Kenda.
There are close to 400 case files under Kenda's belt that answer this very question - 92 per cent of those solved. One particularly stands out: "Ronald Lee White," says Kenda. "Ronald was movie-star handsome. A body builder. He sold tanning beds for a living. Women were attracted to him because he was so handsome. And he had eyes like a shark. He killed because he liked it. And that was the only reason he killed.... And it didn't matter if it was a man or a woman. It was whoever was available at the time. Scary guy."
Thanks to Kenda's investigative expertise, White - a serial killer - was tried and convicted of three separate murders. And that wasn't all. "He stood up in a court room and announced he was going to kill the judge and he turned to the jury and announced he was going to kill them and their families, and as they dragged him out of the courtroom he said 'I've killed fifteen people you don't even know about.' And I believe him."
According to Kenda, there are only two things you need to be a great homicide detective. The first is an intimate knowledge of the law. The second: "An undying sense of curiosity. What happened here, and who made it happen?"
It took years of trial and error for Kenda to master his craft and to develop a unique approach that worked for him (and ultimately for the law). "I was always very calm. I spoke softly. I never used any kind of profanity. I made friends with somebody. And that doesn't happen in fifteen minutes but over a period of four to six hours you can watch [the suspect] relax. And now they're no longer at a police station, they're at a bar talking to a friend. And that's what I wanted."
But a seasoned detective - ev
en one as successful as Kenda - has to retain a firm grip on what his instincts tell him. They haven't always steered him in the right direction. "Oh, it happens all the time. It's the nature of the frustration of the business. You discover a guy in this mix of people you're looking at and you think: He's my guy! And then you discover as more facts are learned that he's not....
"I've seen this mistake before where cops will make a decision on the way to the crime scene what the theory of the case is. And then they beat up the facts until they made the theory. I did the reverse.... I never had an opinion until I knew everything I could find out. That to me seemed like a more intelligent way to do it."
They never did find conclusive evidence of White's purported fifteen additional murders, but not being able to solve some cases right away also comes with the territory. It is something Kenda is still learning how to live with. "These memories never go away. They're burned into your brain with a laser knife. It's all as if it happened this morning.... I've seen death by any means except a nuclear weapon. Pick any other method and I have multiple examples."
In some way, Kenda still resembles the contemplative nine-year old boy back at the zoo, facing the world's most dangerous predator. "I have recurring nightmares, and I don't sleep much - all that stuff. But it was worth it to put people in a cage who need to be in one."