CNN recently reported that "the Justice Department is re-examining its investigation into the 1995 death of a federal prisoner that the victim’s family alleges was murder at the hands of the government."
The victim was Kenneth Michael Trentadue.
At 7 AM on August 21, 1995, officials from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office arrived at the new Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center for the body of a man recently picked up for parole violation who allegedly was a suicide by hanging. The astonished state officials saw a body with scalp split to the skull in three places, throat slashed, and a body completely covered in blood, bruises and burns.
As law requires, the officials asked to see the cell in which the alleged suicide occurred. Federal officials pulled rank and refused on the grounds that a federal investigation was underway.
A federal investigation was not underway.
The state officials told the prison officials that the body’s condition required FBI notice and protection of the cell as an undisturbed crime scene. Associate Warden Max Flowers, however, ordered the cell to be cleaned before any investigation could be done. Flowers claimed that medical staff informed him that Trentadue was HIV-positive and that it was urgent to remove the infectious blood.
Trentadue was not HIV-positive.
Dr. Fred B. Jordan, the Chief Medical Examiner of the state of Oklahoma, was stunned at the destruction of evidence by federal authorities and at the way federal officials blocked his office from carrying out required duties. In a memo to the file dated December 20, 1995, Dr. Jordan described his frustration over being stonewalled by top Department of Justice officials in Washington. He recorded that he confided to the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma City that "I felt Mr. Trentadue had been abused and tortured."
Two years later Dr. Jordan said on a Fox News Interview (July 3, 1997):
"I think it’s very likely he [Kenneth Trentadue] was murdered. I’m not able to prove it. I have temporarily classified the death as undetermined. You see a body covered with blood, removed from the room as Mr. Trentadue was, soaked in blood, covered with bruises, and you try to gain access to the scene and the government of the United States says no, you can’t.
"They [the federal government] continued to prohibit us from having access to the scene of his death, which is unheard of, until about five months later. When we went in [the cell] and luminoled, it lit up like a candle because blood was still present on the walls of the room after four or five months. But at that point we have no crime scene, so there are still questions about the death of Kenneth Trentadue that will never be answered because of the actions of the U.S. government."
Dr. Jordan’s effort to do his job brought him under great pressure and harassment from federal authorities. Realizing his peril, on August 25, 1997, Dr. Jordan wrote to IRS Commissioner Margaret Richardson: "The requirements of my job as chief Medical Examiner for the State of Oklahoma are currently bringing me into an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the United States Department of Justice. In order to protect myself from retribution, I would like information as to how to request a protective audit from your agency. By this, I simply mean a standard audit in order to avoid having your agency used to harass me as I proceed with my inquiries into a death that directly relates to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City."
In a hand written memo to his file dated October 22, 1997, of a telephone conversation with U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D, ND), Dr. Jordan recorded: "confirmed my feelings that the investigation was crippled, the decedent was at the least beaten, we haven’t found the truth and probably won’t, reiterated my lack of trust in the Fed. gov’t and the Dept of Justice in particular."
Unable to secure from Dr. Jordan a ruling that Trentadue’s injuries were self-inflicted, the DOJ sought the cooperation of Dr. Bill Gormley, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Dr. Gormley came to the same conclusion as Dr. Jordan and came under the same pressures. In a memo to file dated May 30, 1997, Kevin Rowland, Chief Investigator in the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office records a telephone call he had from Dr. Gormley: "The basic purposes for his call was to 1-find out what they [DOJ] are up to because he was very suspicious, and 2-ask if I might be able to explain why they only wanted certain testimony from him, since he told them that we had already given them the truth. He was troubled that they only seemed interested in him saying it might be possible these injuries are self-inflicted."
Senator Orrin Hatch (R, UT) threatened the DOJ with Senate Judiciary Hearings on the case. However, FBI documents (Dec. 5, 1997 and Jan. 28, 1998) indicate that FBI agents succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of Senator Don Nickles (R, OK) and using him to prevent Hatch’s investigation.
Federal harassment of, and accusations against, Dr. Jordan built to the point that on March 12, 1998, the Assistant Attorney General of Oklahoma, Patrick T. Crawley, wrote to the US Department of Justice:
"The real tragedy in this case appears to be the perversion of law through chicanery and the misuse of public trust under the guise of some aberrant form of federalism. In a succession of either illegal, negligent, or just plain stupid acts, your clients [FBI, DOJ, Bureau of Prisons] succeeded in derailing the medical examiner’s investigation and, thereby, may have obstructed justice in this case. As more and more information is revealed in this case, primarily through the efforts of Jesse Trentadue [lawyer brother of victim], it appears that your clients, and perhaps others within the Department of Justice, have been abusing the powers of their respective offices. If this is true, all Americans should be very frightened of your clients and the DOJ."
Despite the protection of the Oklahoma Attorney General, sufficient pressure was brought against Dr. Jordan to cause him to abandon his position. On November 28, 2000, at the civil trial brought by Jesse Trentadue against the United States, Dr. Jordan was asked: "You didn’t find any evidence of beating or torture, did you?" He answered: "No, there is no evidence to substantiate beating or torture."
Despite Dr. Jordan’s changed testimony, the presiding federal judge in the Trentadue civil suit saw enough evidence that much was amiss to award the Trentadue family $1.1 million for suffering harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress by the federal government. But as all evidence of homicide in the case was destroyed, whether intentionally or negligently, or withheld by the DOJ, the charge of murder could not be proven.
Whatever the deal with the DOJ, apparently it only covered Dr. Jordan’s testimony in the Trentadue civil trial. Two years later on December 11, 2002, under oath in a subsequent deposition in a libel case brought by a FBI agent against a magazine that covered the story, Dr. Jordan said: "Because of the extensive bruising of the body, the cut throat, and the general appearance of the body, we felt that the death should be investigated as a homicide." In answer to a question whether he was harassed by the federal government, Dr. Jordan answered: "I don’t think there’s any question I was harassed by the Department of Justice from the very beginning of this, the 21st of August when we were denied access to do a job we’d been summoned to do."
A believer in the system, Jesse Trentadue has not given up. He has brought a Freedom of Information Act suit against the DOJ. Trentadue’s suit, rather than a rediscovery of integrity by the DOJ, probably explains the recent CNN report that the DOJ is reopening the case. By reopening a criminal investigation, the DOJ does not have to release the documents demanded by Trentadue’s civil suit.
It has always been a puzzle why a man picked up on a parole violation would be murdered in his cell by federal agents. Recently an explanation has turned up. Kenneth Trentadue might have been a victim of mistaken identity. Misidentified as the missing John Doe, Tim McVeigh’s alleged accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing, he might have been beaten and tortured in an effort to obtain a confession. The autopsy report shows Trentadue with a highly elevated caffeine level, amounts certainly not available to a person held in isolation.
High doses of caffeine are used to increase pain under torture.
In trying to find the truth, Jesse Trentadue is a brave man. In the last of a five-part series on the Trentadue case in the McCurtain Daily Gazette, J.D. Cash reports that FBI agents, desperate to silence the Trentadue family, have been conducting a criminal investigation into Jesse Trentadue for several years. Mr. Cash writes: "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: u2018by listing Jesse Trentadue as subject in another investigation, that would place him as a target of one of our investigations and this would also prohibit Jesse Trentadue from testifying before the Federal Grand Jury.’"
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.