13 Things We Learned at Investigation Discovery's IDCon
When tickets for Investigation Discovery’s first-ever IDCon were made available in late March, they were snapped up in under 24 hours; 7000 people signed up for the waiting list. The event, held this past weekend in New York City, was a rousing success: 300 IDCon attendees—or ID Addicts, as they call themselves. mental_floss was there; here are a few things we learned.
1. MICHELLE WARD AND CANDICE DELONG TAKE PRECAUTIONS WHEN INTERVIEWING CONVICTED KILLERS.
IDCon kicked off with a panel featuring Michelle Ward—criminologist and host of Stalked: Someone’s Watching and Mind of a Murderer—and Candice DeLong, former FBI agent and host of ID’s Deadly Women and Facing Evil. Both women interview convicted killers for their shows, which could potentially be risky business. DeLong told the assembled crowd that “I don’t think we’re really in danger too much,” but there are certain precautions they take: Neither will interview someone who is “crazy, flaming psychotic,” not just because it would be taking advantage of the mentally ill, but because it wouldn’t make for a very interesting interview.
DeLong also noted that all interviews are cleared by prison personnel ahead of time. “They know that person, of course, we don’t,” she said. “And they may say no, we’re not allowing that person to have an interview.” Still, she says, “I insist on a good sized table being between me and the offender, and there are prison guards in the room.”
2. DELONG ONCE GOT A COOKING LESSON FROM THE UNABOMBER.
During her long career as an FBI agent, DeLong worked two infamous cases: the Tylenol murders and the Unabomber killings—only the latter of which was solved. DeLong said that Ted Kaczynski, who evaded the FBI for 16 years, was the only mastermind she encountered in her career—and that the only reason he got caught was because he wanted the world to read his manifesto, which was riddled with unique turns of phrase and misspellings that were recognized by the people who knew him. “I spent the afternoon with him,” she said. “[It was] very dull ... he gave me cooking lessons.”
In an interview after the panel, DeLong told mental_floss how it all went down. “We lured him out of his cabin, and then we grabbed him, put him in handcuffs, and brought him down to another cabin about 150 feet away from his that we had prepared. I was going to be involved in the interrogation,” she said. “Well, he lawyered up right away. Once somebody says ‘I want a lawyer,’ you can’t talk to them about anything about the case at all. They may say something voluntarily, that’s fair game, but you can’t elicit anything.”
At one point, DeLong found herself alone with the handcuffed Kaczynski, and to pass the time, she decided to make some small talk. “I said, ‘So, what’s it like living off the land? How do you cook food?’ I already knew the answer, by the way. And he taught me how to cook turnips on an open stove. While I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy? A boiled turnip will never pass these lips, Mr. Kaczynski.’ But I was like, ‘Mmhmm, mmhmm,’” she said, nodding with a smile on her face. “And that was my afternoon with Teddy.”
3. WARD AND DELONG CAN BE CHARMED BY THE PEOPLE THEY INTERVIEW.
“You know you’re in a prison interviewing, but they don’t wear [a sign that says] ‘I cut bodies up into little pieces,’” Ward said. “You can forget about it in the moment. Even though we’re trained not to, you can, because they’re human beings. Unless they’re murdering, many of them seem normal at the time. Some of them are cute. Some of them are good looking guys. But we have to remember, [with] a psychopath, superficial, glib charm is how they get away with stuff.”
But being friendly to the killer also goes a long way toward getting a good interview: “There are tactics to disarm people to get them to open up to you,” Ward said. “If you’re not open, friendly, [and] engaged, then they’re not going to tell you things.” DeLong agreed: “We have to keep them talking,” she said. “Our goal is to get an interview that will be educational, exploratory for the viewer, interesting. And that’s not going to happen if we’re cold and detached.”
4. SOME MEN AREN’T FANS OF DEADLY WOMEN.
DeLong said she often hears that men aren’t thrilled their significant others watch her show; she noted, with amusement, the time the show—and her name—came up in a sport celebrity’s divorce case. “In his deposition, [he] said that he was very frightened that his wife was addicted to some stupid show called Deadly Women ... where an FBI agent named Candy something or other was teaching people how to get away with murder,” DeLong said.
That uneasiness also hits close to home. DeLong said that her son told her that he won’t watch her show: “I said ‘Why’s that?’ And he said, ‘I’ll never get married!’”
5. STEVE MARTIN IS AN ID FAN.
The second panel, "Justice for All," featured some of ID’s heaviest hitters: Paula Zahn (On the Case), Chris Hansen (Killer Instinct), Tamron Hall (Deadline: Crime), and Tony Harris (Hate in America). During the panel, Zahn revealed that ID has one very famous fan. “I was actually interviewing Steve Martin about his banjo playing,” she said. “He didn’t really want to talk about music, he wanted to talk about ID, and On the Case … And he said to me, ‘When you look at broadcast television’—and as you all know, some of the top shows on broadcast TV are crime-oriented, but they’re scripted shows—he said, ‘there’s something so authentic about the kind of storytelling you’re doing.’ That he would defy any writer in Hollywood to come up with the script that would come even remotely close to the situations we find ourselves in as we cover these stories.”
Martin isn’t the only celebrity who loves ID: Tamron Hall noted that Lady Gaga is also “obsessed” with the network.
6. HUNDREDS OF HOURS GO INTO EVERY EPISODE OF ON THE CASE.
Zahn called the first pitch meeting for On the Case “singularly horrifying” and revealed that, on average, there were 40 stories pitched for each one they picked. These days, she said, “We look at a couple dozen stories and out of that cull just one. Once that is greenlighted, we have to budget it … from the time that it’s approved to the time it gets on the air, that could be nine or 10 months later.” There are producers working in the field for long periods of time while Zahn pores over court documents. “I would guess we spend hundreds and hundreds of hours per hour that ends up on TV,” she said.
You might think that after all that work, the crew would be hesitant to pull the plug on a show they’ve gone very far on—but you’d be wrong. “We have to be very judicious,” Zahn said. “Just last week we ended up canceling a story after going through this vetting process … because there was something that turned up that we had never seen before in the police record that completely changed the way the story was going to be reported that, editorially, we just weren’t comfortable with.”
7. TAMRON HALL HAS ONE RULE FOR THE RESEARCH BINDERS.
The hosts and reporters on ID’s shows get huge, thick research binders full of everything they’ll need to know in order to report on the case. Once she gets the binder, Hall said, “I go into a room … I meditate over that person, I pray for that person’s family ... I never want to forget for a second that it’s a real person, and a real family.”
Hall—who said she cries in every episode of the new season of her ID series Deadline: Crime—also has one rule for what cannot be in the binder: a photo of a dead body. When the show was just starting, they were shooting an episode about a young boy who was killed after leaving home for the first time to go to college; Hall was flipping through the binder, which contained a photo of the crime scene. “I can close my eyes right now and see it,” she said. “It haunts me, I cried, I actually wanted to not do the show anymore. I can’t see things like that because I can’t shake it.” Giving the families of victims of horrific crimes a voice is what keeps her motivated, she said.
The binder ritual isn’t the only one Hall has; there’s also a post-filming ritual that helps her cope: “After we shoot anywhere, I go home, with my friends, and I have a huge steak and potatoes, red velvet cake, cupcakes, any kind of comfort food—just line it up, because you need that kind of shoring up after what you’ve seen.”
8. JOE KENDA WAS INSPIRED TO BECOME A COP AFTER A TRIP TO THE ZOO.
Former homicide detective and host of Homicide Hunter Joe Kenda headlined the last panel, “Not Your Average Joe,” by declaring, in that deadpan way of his, “I’m not an actor, I’m a cop,” to wild applause.
Kenda grew up in a mining town in Pennsylvania with a “two-block main street that had 13 bars on it,” he said. When he was nine, his parents took him to the Pittsburgh Zoo—the first time he’d ever been to the zoo. In the primate house, he encountered a sign that read, “Around this corner is the most dangerous animal on earth.”
“Man, I ran around that corner—and it was a mirror from ceiling to floor,” Kenda recalled. “And all the people were disappointed. They were looking at it going, ‘What’s that?’ I’m standing there going, ‘Oh man. It’s humans, isn’t it?' Yes, it is, and you’re standing among them."
It was, he said, an epiphany: “It’s like, well, why is that true? Well, animals kill for need. They kill to survive. Humans kill for pleasure. There’s no more dangerous animal on this planet than a human being. Plus they’re intelligent. If they’re not intelligent, they’re cunning. So what an interesting occupation, [being a cop] ... It was a passion for me—still is.”
9. BUT KENDA ALMOST QUIT AFTER SEEING HIS FIRST DEAD BODY.
Kenda wanted to be a homicide detective, but it was a goal he had to think long and hard about after he saw his first dead body: a woman who had killed herself and whose body had languished in the apartment for four days in the July heat—what police call a decomp. “I hadn’t even been to a funeral,” Kenda said. “I walk into that place, and my heart was going like a trip hammer. My mouth is so dry, I can’t talk, I can’t even breathe.” The older cops on the scene mocked him, so Kenda went back to his car, where he sat, shaking. “I’m thinking, ‘You know, Kenda, maybe you need a new plan. Maybe this isn’t for you,’” he said. “I was up all night. I thought about it all night. And I went back to work the next day, and I looked at that microphone, calling me on the air, asking me if I’m in service … And it’s that moment, it’s like, OK, do you pick up the mic? Do you pick it up? Cause here we go again. Here we go. And you say, ‘Yeah. That’s my plan.’”
10. KENDA DOESN’T USE A SCRIPT.
Kenda doesn’t need a script to help him remember the homicides he’s worked on. “I can tell you this: Anybody in this room, if you did what I did for a living, you’d remember it, too,” Kenda said. “It burns into your head like a laser beam. It’s not because you don’t want to forget, you can’t forget. I remember things as if they happened this morning. Victims’ families remember it as well ... They don’t ever forget, and neither do I.”
11. ACCORDING TO GARRY MCFADDEN, COPS KNOW YOU’RE GUILTY WHEN YOU TALK TOO MUCH.
Garry McFadden, who stars in the forthcoming ID show I Am Homicide and spent more than two decades investigating homicides before retiring in 2011, says that he knows when someone is lying “when they start talking too much. We know the answers to the questions before we ask them. We’re going to see how far we have to go before we have to say ‘That’s a lie.’ So the movement, the looking up, or trying to make up a story, or say … [if we ask] ‘What were you wearing last Thursday?’ ‘Well, I was wearing a green shirt and blue sneakers.’ I don’t know what I was wearing last Thursday, but they know, so that means they’re going to make up a story so they can cover up their tracks. And usually when we walk out of the room we watch the cameras [to see how they react], and then we go back in the room and capitalize on their mistakes.”
12. KENDA IS HAUNTED BY THE CRIMES HE DIDN’T SOLVE.
By all accounts, Kenda’s record is incredible: Of the 387 homicides he handled during his time as a detective, he solved an astonishing 92 percent of them. In 217 trials for first-degree murder, he lost just two. “You never forget those cases,” he said. “I think about them all the time, I agonize about them ... The victims are in my dreams, oh boy.”
13. HE’LL ALWAYS BE NICE TO FANS.
Kenda said that the biggest change he’s dealt with since the debut of his ID show is being recognized everywhere. “The funniest one yet just happened,” he said. “I’m coming out of this restaurant, and this guy in a business suit—and he looks like an intelligent guy—comes up to me and he goes, ‘Do you know who you are?’ I looked at him and said, ‘As a matter of fact I do …’ He said, ‘That was really stupid,’ and I said, ‘Yes it was. My name is Joe Kenda, how are you?’” The former homicide detective told the crowd that “I’m unfailingly nice to everybody because I don’t like people that aren’t. I’ve been in Hollywood, I’ve been around those people, most of them are nice, some of them are absolute jerks, and I told myself I’d never be like that.”
All photos by the author.