In the matter of Kenneth Michael Trentadue (Part 5/5)
J.D. Cash / McCurtain Dailey Gazette | April 7, 2004
Oklahoma's chief medical examiner, issued a final amendment to his autopsy report on Kenneth Michael Trentadue, an inmate whose bloody and heavily bruised body had been found in a cell at Oklahoma City's Federal Transfer Center in August of 1995.
The medical examiner's surprising report would dramatically affect several ongoing criminal investigations and a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit brought by the inmate's family against the government.
Suddenly, after nearly three years of publicly stating doubts that Trentadue had killed himself at the federal facility, Jordan reversed that position and found that the inmate had indeed committed suicide after all.
Many wonder today if someone was finally able to successfully pressure Jordan to ignore evidence of the inmate's torture and murder in order to arrive at the conclusion that Trentadue had killed himself.
Trentadue's mysterious death occurred shortly after his arrest on the Mexican border, south of San Diego, Ca. - only a few weeks following the Oklahoma City bombing.
According to the arrest report, a border guard thought Trentadue might have been drunk when he tried to enter the U.S. A check for warrants turned up one. It was for failure to report to a parole officer. Trentadue was a fugitive; albeit for a minor infraction.
While processing the arrest records, authorities noted Trentadue's general physical description, including a very unusual dragon tattoo on his left arm. The entire description was a good match for the elusive John Doe 2, a subject the government had been searching for in connection to the Oklahoma City bombing for several weeks.
Not long after turning in the arrest report, a team of U.S. marshals arrived to pick up the prisoner. Days later, Trentadue arrived at the Oklahoma City FTC for a parole hearing.
Within 24 hours of his arrival at the Federal Transfer Center, Trentadue became agitated, federal agents claimed. He also commented to guards that he was the subject of some kind of misidentification and might be in trouble for something he had not done.
A Bureau of Prison (BOP) report notes: "I must have got stepped into some real _ _ _ _ somewhere."
Records from the prison also indicate that Trentadue requested that he be taken out of the general population in the prison and placed in a unit reserved for inmates requiring special protection. His family doubts he made such a request, though.
Brother Jesse Trentadue commented: "We spoke to Kenny during this time frame, and he was very upbeat and said nothing about any danger he might be in or wanting to be taken to solitary. I believe he was surprised when he was taken to the Special Housing Unit (SHU)."
Hours after records indicate Trentadue was taken to the SHU, he was found hanging from strips of a bed sheet - bloody, severely bruised, his throat slashed and dead.
Despite the condition of his body suggesting that he had been severely beaten, Bureau of Prison transfer center workers and member of the Oklahoma City FBI ruled the death a suicide.
Federal workers at the transfer center told investigators that the inmate appeared to be asleep when his cell was checked at 2:38 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 21, 1995. When a guard made his next rounds at 3 a.m., the BOP worker reported Trentadue was hanging by a bed sheet and there was considerable blood visible on the body and in the cell.
When two employees from the state medical examiner's office arrived to conduct an investigation, they were told they could not examine the cell. Supervisors at the facility said they would do their own investigation.
Turning away the medical examiners from the scene was a clear violation of state law - one of many abuses of authority the remarkable case would experience. Subsequent investigations would uncover several cases of perjury and the destruction or loss of 41 critical pieces of evidence.
For the next three years, Oklahoma's medical examiner kept the investigation open - refusing to bow to pressure from the FBI and BOP to call the inmate's death on federal property a suicide.
Trentadue's severely cut and heavily bruised body had convinced Dr. Jordan and his staff that the individual had been severely beaten before death.
Since the BOP said Trentadue was in the SHU without access to other prisoners, naturally the guards at the institution were the primary suspects. And those guards immediately cleaned the cell and kept the medical examiner's office from doing its own investigation of the scene.
Many around the nation believed this was a classic government crime and cover-up. Embarrassing headlines sizzled with innuendos of government misdeeds in the inmate's death.
Intense lobbying by the victim's brother, Jesse Trentadue, resulted in a whole host of investigations being launched, including a federal grand jury review of the case; a FBI investigation, a number of inquiries from congressmen; an investigation by Oklahoma District Attorney Bob Macy; and an investigation by the Inspector General for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C.
At the center of the whirlwind was one man, the Oklahoma Medical Examiner, Dr. Fred Jordan.
For nearly two years, Jordan refused to declare Trentadue's death suicide. In fact, Jordan on more than one occasion publicly stated the inmate was probably killed by members of the federal government who destroyed the evidence, thus he was unable to prove that a murder had taken place.
After three years of complaining about pressure he was receiving to declare Trentatue's injuries self-inflicted, in July of 1998, Jordan did just that and amended the manner of the inmate's mysterious death from "unknown" to "suicide." Persons close to the case were shocked.
Jordan said he was able to reach the conclusion on to the manner of death after receiving new evidence from the Oklahoma City Police Department. Jordan's new evidence consisted of what he called evidence of a suicide note the BOP and FBI said they found written on a wall in the prisoner's cell. The note, Jordan said, contained the words, "My minds no longer it's friend. Love Ya, Familia."
Also, the medical examiner concluded that inmate Trentadue "had experienced very stressful events (being in prison) and facing significant losses (a possible prison sentence if his parole was revoked) just before death."
Jordan concluded his press statement, saying he regretted that "previous investigative problems" prevented an earlier resolution of the Trentadue case.
Responding to Jordan's assertions that Trentadue had experienced very stressful events and faced a long stint in prison for violating his parole agreement, his brother Jesse told this newspaper, "We obtained actual copies of taped phone calls and transcripts of phone calls between the family and Kenney. At no time while Kenney was talking to us from the OKC/FTC did he exhibit anything to indicate he was worried about anything.
"We all knew he might be in jail a few weeks and that would be it. The government has absolutely no proof of a change in his feelings and they have those same tapes and transcripts.
"And that so-called suicide note is nowhere to be seen now. It was painted over by the feds. They say they took a picture of it before painting over it. It was supposed to have been signed by someone name Paul. After Kenney was killed, they came up with a photo they said was of some writing on the wall of Kenney's cell. Later when they found out my brother's name was Kenneth they decided the writing was signed Familia and not Paul.
"The feds never could find a handwriting analyst that would positively say the writing was my brother's. One expert said he couldn't rule it out and that apparently was all Jordan needed at that point."
Jordan also pointed to assistance he received from retired Oklahoma City police detective Tom Bevel in persuading him Trentadue had inflicted the approximately two-dozen cuts and bruises visible on the body, before the inmate cut his throat and hanged himself.
A homicide detective, Bevel was part of special investigation headed by Oklahoma District Attorney Bob Macy's office. Macy had been asked to conduct an independent investigation into the suspicious death after public confidence in the FBI and the BOP was diminished by so many charges that crucial evidence in the case had been mishandled, lost, and even destroyed by those agencies.
Eventually the Trentadue family learned that Bevel was not only working for the Macy investigation team, but had also received payments for his services in the case from Department of Justice and the DOJ's oversight agency, the Office of Inspector General.
Upon learning of this, the family also learned that a forensic document investigator from Macy's team, J. Michael Hull, had also agreed to serve as an expert to the DOJ, the very agency Jesse Trentadue and his family were suing for the wrongful death of their loved one.
Incensed, Trentadue wrote Macy a letter on Feb. 28, 2000, raising the issue of conflict of interest. Included in the scolding correspondence, Trentadue made the following charges and observations:
"I am writing to complain about the conduct of two of the officers who assisted your Task Force in the investigation into the circumstances of my brother's death. The individuals about whom I wish to complain are Tom Bevel and J. Michael Hull. My complaint concerns the fact that these individuals have agreed to serve as paid expert witnesses for the targets of that investigation, in violation of the common law, the Oklahoma Political Subdivisions Ethics Act and your trust.
"While employed by the Oklahoma City Police Department, Bevel was assigned to assist the FBI in its initial investigation into the circumstances of my brother's death. Hull while employed as a forensic documents examiner at the Oklahoma City police department, likewise was part of your Task Force. As you know, the targets of that investigation were the Department of Justice and their personnel.
"On Aug. 5, 1998, (when the ink on your Task Force's Final Report was still wet) we discovered that both Bevel and Hull have agreed to serve as highly paid expert witnesses for the Department of Justice and other defendants in my family's civil lawsuit who happen to the be the same targets of your investigation.
"As part of your Task Force, Bevel and Hull had access to confidential information including Grand Jury materials not available to me or my attorneys. They are now willing to sell this information to the highest bidder, which happens to be the targets of their investigation. ..... Bevel and Hull's conduct in this matter is analogous to that of a prosecutor or county attorney investigating organized crime who resigns his or her position with the government and goes to work for the mobsters who were the target of the investigation. This is not permissible because the former government employee takes with him or her confidential and other information acquired in his or her role as a public official. .... How, for example, can you contend that your investigation into the circumstances of my brother's death was thorough, fair and objective when two of the key investigators have sold out to the targets of that investigation?"
Macy responded to Trentadue's charges in a letter dated March 13, 2000.
"The simple fact is that both Bevel and Hull during their tenure with the Oklahoma City Police Department assisted our office in an impartial and neutral way and rendered their opinions based on physical evidence gathered from the scene and during the investigation. Those results are reflected in our report concluding that your brother tragically committed suicide. ... After both men retired from the Oklahoma City Police Department and completed their work in this investigation they were available to either party. Not surprisingly, because their findings and the evidence on the case are fundamentally inconsistent with your lawsuit, the government chose to call them as witnesses. The only question remaining is this: now that neither are being paid for their time by the Oklahoma City Police Department and indeed are employed providing expert consulting service to the litigants whether they should volunteer their time and expertise to the government or charge their standard fees."
Documents provided this newspaper show that Tom Bevel collected $125 per hour for his work in the case. J. Michael Hull's fees came to $120 per hour, plus travel expenses.
During testimony in the Trentadue family's wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Justice, Tom Bevel took the stand and admitted his many roles and employers in the wide-ranging investigation.
After acknowledging he retired from the Oklahoma City Police Department in May 1996, Bevel said he was contacted by the Macy's Oklahoma County Task Force charged with investigating Trentadue's death. Once his final report was completed, Bevel said, "Sometime later (I) was asked to look at the case by the U.S. Office of Inspector General and then ultimately the U.S. Justice Department retained me."
Asked what he did for the DOJ and OIG, Bevel said, "To do an analysis of the cell primarily to identify the most probable sequence of events that would have taken place.... Whether or not there was any evidence of additional people involved in the activities, was there anything that would be consistent with homicide. I did not."
Family sickened by treatment
Jesse Trentadue is still very disturbed about his treatment by Macy's former investigators on the task force established to investigate his brother's death.
"We trusted Bob Macy and his people. We put all our faith and trust in them. The record shows they took information about our case against the DOJ, then they went to work for the other side," Trentadue said.
Before going over to work for the DOJ and OIG, Tom Bevel wrote a report for the Macy task force that would later serve as a framework the government could use to excuse employees of the DOJ from liability in Kenneth Trentadue's mysterious death.
Referred to as the "Wintory Report" after the assistant district attorney Macy assigned to form a task force to investigate the death, the heart of the report is Tom Bevel's crime scene reconstruction.
Bevel's conclusions about Trentadue's last moments of life are summarized in a filing by the Trentadue family in federal court: "The Government claim that after the guards last saw Trentadue alive and in bed at 2:38 a.m., Trentadue used a pencil to write a suicide note on the wall of his cell, but did not sign that note with his own name. Next, he patiently tore a sheet into dozens of strips. He then constructed a ligature from those strips of bed sheet. Once that ligature was manufactured, Trentadue re-made his bed, climbed the wall of his cell and wove the bed sheet rope into a metal vent above his sink. Trentadue then tried to hang himself and was momentarily successful, but the bed sheet rope broke. Trentadue fell, hitting his buttocks on the edge of the sink but doing no injury to his buttocks. The impact of his body on the sink caused Trentadue to ricochet across the cell headfirst into the corner of a metal desk at the end of his bunk, producing a major wound on his forehead.
The Government claim that the force of that impact caused Trentadue to rotate 180 degrees and careen across his cell to smash his head, leaving blood and hair on the wall of his cell and tearing extensive areas of skin off of his back. Despite striking the desk with such force, the impact does not disturb a cup of coffee or any of the papers on the desk.
"The Government claims that while unconscious from his two head wounds, Trentadue rolled over on his stomach and bled profusely, depositing large pools of blood on the floor of his cell. When Trentadue regained consciousness, he attempted to get up but struck the back of his head on the metal stool attached to the desk, causing a third major wound on the back of his head. This third blow to his head further dazed Trentadue, who then crawled on all fours, with his clothing smearing the blood on the floor.
"The Government claim that Trentadue finally got to his feet and staggered around, leaving blood deposits on the walls and floor of his cell. He then stumbled to his bed and lay down to regain his senses. After a while, Trentadue used two plastic toothpaste tubes or a plastic knife to cut his throat, leaving blood on his pillowcase, sheet and blanket. When that second suicide attempt failed, Trentadue reconstructed the bed sheet and successfully hanged himself."
With the release of the Wintory Report containing Bevel's crime scene reconstruction, a very important component of what some inside government were calling the "Trentadue Mission" was complete.
Unaware that individuals at the highest places in government were coordinating a roll-out plan designed to put an end to all of the investigations into his brother's death, Jesse Trentadue had been open and candid with certain federal investigators he trusted.
Later, during the process of discovery in the family's wrongful death civil suit against the government, Trentadue was shocked to discover that many of the agencies he had placed so much faith inwere actually working with lawyers on the other side of their family's civil suit.
"On Aug. 13, 1997," Trentadue said, "the (federal) Grand Jury investigating Kenney's death finished with a no bill of indictment. The conclusion of the Grand Jury was kept secret by the Department of Justice in order to put in place the roll-out plan which it termed the Trentadue Mission. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder chaired meetings at which the roll-out plan was developed. The DOJ personnel in charge of implementing the roll-out plan likened it to the invasion of Normandy."
While some might discount Trentadue's statements as conspiracy mongering, evidence reviewed by this newspaper establishes the allegations are completely accurate.
Contained in an Oct. 1, 1997 e-mail by Juliette Kayyem of the DOJ, she writes on the subject she refers to as "The Trentadue Mission."
"This is like coordinating the invasion of Normandy. We are on for Monday; the declination memo is done. Is this OK with Eric's schedule (I can call whoever does that.) I talked to Faith and she is going to think about the best way to approach Hatch and possibly Dorgan, and I will get back to you. Also, we will be contacting the FBI and Jesse Trentadue at the same time (about 2 hours before the press release.)
Contained in an internal Justice Department memorandum, dated Oct. 6, 1997, an official writes that there will be a press release issued on the Trentadue investigation in days and that it will not provide any key details regarding perjury uncovered in the case.
The memo states: There is a potential perjury issue regarding a BOP paramedic who indicated he administered CPR to the deceased Trentadue, and the evidence of a video- tape does not indicate CPR was administered.
The BOP and FBI later said the video-tape referred to in the memo was really blank, claiming the operator apparently did not know how to use the equipment.
Jesse Trentadue commented later, "Obviously some people reviewed that video-tape after Kenney's death and saw evidence on it that was damaging to their case. So they erased it. If the tape showed blood splatter on the walls, as some witnesses later testified, that would establish someone beat Kenney. If there were strange footprints in the blood, that could lead to who was involved killing him."
One test the FBI performed later did indeed confirm that the tape had been erased. When the FBI found out the independent expert found evidence of erasure, they fired that man and got an FBI lab tech to do another test. He said the tape had not been erased.
"We couldn't call the original expert at our civil trial because he suddenly died. So what video-tape is this memo discussing? This is just one of many - many of lies they told and got caught," Trentadue said.
On Oct. 9, 1997, the DOJ issued the much anticipated press release from Washington D.C.
"After an extensive investigation into the death of Kenneth Michael Trentadue at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division today ended its probe, determining that the evidence does not establish a violation of federal criminal law."
Hoping to next derail a threatened investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI agents contacted Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Don Nickles for his help halting what could be a very embarrassing inquiry.
According to the Dec. 5, 1997, memo, FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. approved the head of the Oklahoma office, SAC Thomas Kuker, leading a delegation of FBI agents to Nickles' Tulsa office.
Kuker recorded the highlights.
"At the conclusion of the meeting, which lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, Senator Nickles advised that it would be his decision whether a Senate inquiry into this matter would be conducted. He indicated that, at this present point in time, he was not inclined to initiate such a review."
After this meeting, word of some newly discovered evidence in the case, including a videotape, came to the attention of Sen. Nickles. Kuker returned to see the powerful Oklahoma lawmaker once again.
Referring to the Jan. 23, 1998 memoranda of the meeting, Kukor wrote: "He (Sen. Nickles) was further advised that BOP officials attempted to video-tape the cell the morning of his death, but that the camera malfunctioned. ... At the conclusion of the meeting, Sen. Nickles thanked the FBI representatives for the time and candidness regarding his questions. He also intimated that he had a significant role in determining whether this matter would require Congressional review, and that such action would most likely not be necessary."
End of the 'Trentadue Mission'
With the federal Grand Jury issuing a no bill; the DOJ's Civil Rights Division out of the investigation; any congressional action on hold as a result of Sen. Nickles' promised intervention; the Oklahoma medical examiner throttled; and Macy's office officially out of the picture with the issuance of the Wintory Report, the government only had to survive an OIG investigation and the Trentadue family's wrongful death lawsuit. Once again, Tom Bevel's bizarre theory of Trentadue's death would play a central role in the outcome of both matters.
Hoping to stop some of the negative publicity generated by the case, the DOJ sought and obtained an order from the federal judge in the civil suit barring the plaintiffs in their civil suit from sharing any information with the media, or any branch of law enforcement, evidence gained during discovery in their lawsuit that might implicate federal employees with perjury, obstruction of justice or any other criminal acts.
In a most unusual protective order from U.S. District Judge Tim Leonard, filed Aug. 18, 1998, the judge noted, "While mindful that information disclosed in this lawsuit may coincide with information relevant to other proceedings in other forums, the court chooses not to allow the discovery process to become a pipeline of information to non-parties over whom the court has no supervision."
"We were muzzled," Trentadue said later.
"We were discovering FBI and BOP misconduct, but this judge prohibited us from disclosing it to the media or the DOJ or the Inspector General who was still investigating all this. It was incredible! As a lawyer, I'm shocked that any judge would do anything like this."
In a 206-page report by the Office of Inspector General, the findings of perjury and mishandling of crucial evidence are also remarkable. On the subject of a critical original document establishing precisely what evidence an FBI agent actually received from the Trentadue death scene, the OIG report notes:
The most troubling example of the failure of the FBI/OKC to produce documents to the OIG in a timely fashion concerned the original handwritten green sheet, prepared by (FBI agent) Jenkins, regarding the FBI evidence received from the MEO.
After receiving repeated assurances from the Oklahoma City FBI office that they had the original green sheet prepared in the agent's handwriting, OIG investigators requested it be turned over for comparison with a copy supplied them earlier by the OKC FBI."
Incredibly, the SAC of the office, Thomas Kuker refused to turn it over, responding to the investigators that the FBI, "must respectfully decline" to provide the original handwritten green sheet to the OIG and that "the original would provide you with no more information than the copy provided earlier."
Then, pressed from Washington D.C. headquarters to supply the document, the OKC/FBI office suddenly discovered the green sheet had been destroyed.
When the OIG tried to get to the bottom of the matter, the office learned that the FBI/OKC Chief Division Counsel at the time, Henry Gibbons, was showed the document by an evidence clerk shortly before it disappeared.
The OIG report notes: "Our investigation was hampered by our inability to interview former FBI/OKC Chief Division Counsel Henry Gibbons about this matter. After he retired from the FBI on May 31, 1998, he refused our repeated requests to talk to the OIG.
And so the matter ended there.
Evidence that could have proven where some of the missing evidence in the case had gone was destroyed, and the top lawyer for the OKC/FBI office refused to discuss the matter with investigators.
Rather than seek indictments against those federal workers suspected of altering evidence, destroying it or just lying about it, memos and emails obtained by the Trentadue family reveal that department's Inspector General, Glenn Fine, seemed pleased to end the whole thing without criminal prosecutions.
Evidence turned over to this newspaper suggests Fine coordinated the release of his final report with a press release expected from Lee Radek, Chief of the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department. The Public Integrity Section of the DOJ is a special unit assigned to investigate sensitive cases where federal employees were found to have broken federal laws.
Indeed, several federal agents and federal employees were found by the OIG's investigation to have committed perjury in the Trentadue matter.
Rather than push for prosecutions against the wrongdoers -prosecutions that could have brought resulted in plea-bargains and possibly answers to what really happened to inmate Trentadue - evidence suggests the inspector general helped close down the investigation without seeking those indictments.
Dated Nov. 16, 1999, Fine sent an email to Lee Radek, head of the Public Integrity Section - a man appointed to the position by President Bill Clinton.
"Lee: Could you fax over the declination letter in the Trentadue case or the standard language that is used in such a letter. I want to get the wording right in our report. The number is (redacted) Thanks Glenn
Radek responded the same day: The key words will be declined for prosecutorial merit - our usual language. (emphasis added)
The Trentadue family is waiting a decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on the issue of over $1million awarded them after a judgment was awarded at the conclusion of their civil suit against the government.
Salt Lake City attorney Trentadue says: "The government spent at least $10 million defending themselves in this case. And even though they lost, they won't pay us. Even when the government finds that federal agents lied to us, no one is prosecuted or goes to jail. They would like to put us all in jail for daring to question them! What the hell is wrong with our system of justice? This case shows just how corrupt it is!"
Stung by this family's relentless pursuit of answers in the case and their vehement charges of cover-up, FBI agents in Oklahoma and elsewhere have been conducting a criminal investigation into Jesse Trentadue for several years.
Contained in an internal FBI investigation report obtained by this newspaper, a FBI agent discusses legal strategies to use against one of their most vocal and effective critics.
"By listing Jesse Trentadue as subject of another investigation (obstruction of justice), that would place him as a target on one of investigations and this would also prohibit Jesse Trentadue from testifying before the Federal Grand Jury."
The attorney is undeterred.
"We'll see who gets who," Trentadue laughs when discussing Justice Department efforts to discredit his personal crusade.
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