In another life, Kenneth Trentadue had been a bank robber. After serving seven years of a 20-year sentence, he was paroled in 1988 and, as ex-cons are supposed to do, tried to put his criminal past behind him. He got a job with a construction firm, married, and in June, 1995, became the proud father of a son. By all appearances, Trentadue, 44, had successfully turned his life around and had everything to live for.
But he had one problem — a minor parole violation on his record from 1989. The law caught up with him a month after his son’s birth, and he was arrested. On Aug. 18 he was flown from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, a major facility of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, to await his hearing. According to family members, he wasn’t worried. At most his sentence would be six months, more likely, three. He’d probably be home for Christmas.
The Federal Transfer Center is a new, $80 million high-tech facility at the edge of Will Rogers World Airport. It’s not only the transfer point for prisoners being taken to penitentiaries in the federal prison system, it also houses the parole board and hearing rooms.
Like everyone who is admitted into the prison system, Kenneth underwent routine psychological tests to determine if he had suicidal tendencies. The results indicated he didn’t. Nevertheless, he was placed, for some unknown reason, in a specially designed, suicide-proof cell in a special unit on the seventh floor that’s segregated from the general prison population. A form bearing the signature Vance Brockway — an lais he used in his bank robbery days — indicates he asked to be placed in protective custody. Family members say it was a forgery.
On Aug. 21, 1995, Trentadue died in that isolation cell. Officials promptly declared the death a suicide. Trentadue, who was scheduled for a parole hearing, hanged himself from an air vent using a 23-inch length of braid he fashioned from a bedsheet, according to prison officials. The following day the Inspector General’s Office of the Justice Department ruled that no “prosecutable federal crime had occurred.”
Two years later, that’s still the official government line despite a staggering amount of evidence indicating Trentadue was murdered.
Kenneth’s mother, Wilma Trentadue of Westminster, Calif., was the first family member to learn of his death. The phone call from acting warden Marie Carter came at 6:40 a.m., informing her that her son had committed suicide a few hours earlier, sometime between 9 p.m. the night before and 3 a.m. that morning. Carter offered to have the body cremated at prison expense. Suspicious, Mrs. Trentadue said she’d consult Kenneth’s wife and his brother, Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City attorney.
Wife? Brother? Prison records didn’t show he was married. Nor was there any record of his having a trial lawyer — a former law professor — for a brother. The records listed his mother and sister as his only family.
Jesse Trentadue was as suspicious as his mother. No cremation, he said, and directed the body be sent to a funeral parlor near Kenneth’s home in Westminster. It was five days before the casket arrived. Kenneth’s face was covered with an unusually thick coating of pancake makeup. His broad, six-foot frame had been dressed in a suit.
“They (Kenneth’s mother, his wife Carmen, and sister Donna) scraped off the makeup and found he was bruised from the top of his head to the soles of his feet,” says George Hansen, former seven-term Republican congressman from Idaho and founder of the U.S. Citizens Commission on Human Rights — a newly-formed grass-roots organization which has been working closely with the Trentadue family. “An autopsy showed he had been garrotted — probably with the braided sheet. His throat was cut and torn out. His head was smashed in three places. He had been burned on the face, shoulders and tailbone with an electrical stun-gun. Under his arms were deep bruises showing how he had been held while others beat up on him. There was blood all over the place, according to the guy that had to clean it up afterwards. It was a fight for his life.”
The cover-up of this ghastly crime began before the victim was dead.
A call to 911 was made at approximately 3:20 a.m., but when the paramedics arrived they weren’t allowed in the cell to resuscitate Trentadue, though supposedly he was still alive. Minutes later — having been sent away, then called back to confirm his death — they were told the massive injuries they saw on the body (now removed to another room) were caused by Trentadue falling and hitting his head on the sink while trying to hang himself. They never saw the death cell itself.
Investigators for Dr. Fred Jordan, Oklahoma City’s chief medical examiner, were also denied access to the scene — a violation of state and federal law, according to Jesse Trentadue. This, despite the fact that Jordan’s job includes investigating the deaths of prisoners at the center. Jordan performed an autopsy that morning and ruled that Kenneth Trentadue had died of asphyxiation, in a manner “unknown.”
Without viewing the death scene, the medical examiner refused to declare the obviously battered body a suicide. Jordan asked the FBI to investigate the death, but that agency soon turned the investigation over to the Bureau of Prisons.
Wallace Cheney, assistant director of the Bureau of Prisons, tried to assuage concerns raised by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a letter to the senator dated April 4, 1996, Cheney wrote:
“On that same morning (August 21), a representative of the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office came to the institution, viewed Kenneth Michael Trentadue and examined the cell. The cell had not been disturbed except for the removal of the body.”
Jordan has publicly discounted that statement as “a lie.” No one from his office was granted access for five months. By then the cell had been cleaned many times. Yet when the medical examiner’s chief investigator Kevin Rowland applied Luminol, a chemical able to detect blood invisible to the eye, “the place lit up like a Christmas tree,” Jordan says.
This corroborates descriptions by a prisoner who cleaned the cell within hours of the death, and of Rasonda Chisholm, a licensed practical nurse, who supervised the work.
“It was a bloodbath,” said former inmate orderly Steven Cole. “There was blood on the floor and splattered all over the walls.” There were bloody fingerprints around the alarm button near the door inside the cell. “From those fingerprints, it seemed to me as though he had been trying to reach the alarm button when he was killed,” he said.
Chisholm recalled asking the attending officer about the blood. She was told Trentadue was so determined to commit suicide that he bashed his skull during a fall, then climbed on the sink to finish the job.
“I can’t imagine, you know, losing that much blood and apiece of your skulland you’re able to climb back up on the sink,” said Chisholm.
With dogged determination, Jesse Trentadue compiled a mass of compelling evidence that counters the official version of his brother’s death at every point — including depositions from key witnesses. Eventually, Attorney General Janet Reno was forced to order a federal grand jury investigation. One has been meeting off and on since last October. Trentadue calls the proceedings “a sham.” Witnesses Cole, Chisholm and others haven’t been called, though their names were given to the federal prosecutor.
Last April, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attempted to get some explanations from Reno during a committee hearing on the Justice Department’s budget.
“I fear the Department is not taking this investigation seriously,” he told her. Hatch said the department had denied his requests for information because, he was told, an investigation was “pending.”
Reno promised to check with the prosecutors “to make sure that everything is being done that we can do.”
Hatch tried again. “Two or three hours a month is not a very active grand jury,” he said. “It looks as though somebody in the Bureau of Prisons, or having relationships with the Bureau of Prisons, murdered the man.”
Reno said she couldn’t comment, but agreed to have the matter “vigorously pursued.”
Fortunately, the federal grand jury isn’t the only vehicle for getting at the truth. Jesse Trentadue has filed a civil suit against officials of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons for wrongful death and violation of civil rights. And an Oklahoma county grand jury, empaneled to probe further in the Oklahoma City bombing case, is also investigating the Trentadue death, prompted by the efforts of Dr. Jordan and former Rep. Hansen.
“We know a great deal about the case,” says Hansen. “We know it was done by a 12-man SORT (Special Operations Response Team) outfit in full riot gear. We know the names of the people who cleaned up the cell and of the guy in the laundry room when the guards brought in their bloody clothes. We have the names of the guys who were on the shift that probably did the killing. They’ve been turned over to the grand juries.”
What’s not known is why. Hansen speculates: “One scenario is, he was a bad apple and got in a fight with the guards. But that doesn’t fit from what we know about him — and it doesn’t explain why he was killed. Another scenario is the guards figured he had heard something and tried to beat it (the information) out of him. And things got out of control.”
“No matter who did it or why, there are eight killers walking around free,” says Hansen “We want them arrested and brough to justice even if they do work for the federal government.”
Jesse Trentadue also wonders. “I go round and round on that 24 hours a day,” he says. “I still have no answers.”
“They didn’t only kill him, he was extensively tortured first — then they killed him and tried to cover it up,” said Jesse Trentadue. “It’s not just the guards at the prison who are trying to cover this up. It’s coming from the highest levels of the Justice Department.”