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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Seeing Murder in a Face

A family refuses to believe a battered prisoner hanged himself, as officials say. The U.S. government has reopened the case.

March 09, 2004|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — His family was horrified at the face staring up from the open casket. Kenneth Trentadue's forehead was blackened and bruised. His eyes were blood-marked, his left eye swollen shut. His cheeks were puffed and scraped and cut. His jaw was rubbed red.

The family ordered the Orange County undertaker to strip the body and wipe away the makeup. Then they saw the rest -- his battered head, his gouged throat, his arms and legs, hands and wrists, even the bottoms of his feet, all covered in deep, ugly wounds.

This, they asked, was a suicide?

Yet that was the official explanation by the federal government in the 1995 prison death of Trentadue, a drug addict and small-time criminal from Westminster, shortly after he was arrested on a parole violation.

Ever since, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the FBI and the Justice Department have officially maintained that the inmate hanged himself in a grisly middle-of-the-night suicide in his one-man cell in Oklahoma.

His family has never accepted that story. It believes a prison guard -- or perhaps a fellow inmate -- killed him, and has challenged the government at every turn to learn what happened.

Believing he was murdered, perhaps in a case of mistaken identity connected to the Oklahoma City bombing that year, the family sued the government in the hope of unearthing fresh evidence.

A federal judge in 2001 awarded the family $1.1 million for emotional suffering. But relatives still did not acquiesce. When the government appealed the award, they filed a cross-appeal offering to forgo the money if a new investigation was undertaken to pinpoint the cause of death.

"It is not about the money," said Trentadue's brother, Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City attorney. "We want to expose the people who killed Kenny and the people who covered it up -- the people who have caused us this hell."

Now, in an unusual development nine years after the death, the U.S. government has abruptly reopened the case. Noel L. Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, said his office was "conducting an ongoing review for the purpose of criminal law enforcement."

To say anything more might "compromise that investigation by tainting witnesses, telegraphing the identities of potential suspects and targets and interfering with the integrity of tangible evidence," he said.

Such actions are rare, especially at this high a level in the department and after so much time has passed. It was Aug. 21, 1995, when a prison guard passed the cell of the 44-year-old former bank robber and radioed for help, shouting, "I've got one hanging!"

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Turns to Drugs, Alcohol

Trentadue, the son of a West Virginia miner, moved west with his family in 1960 and settled in Westminster. He dropped out of high school and fell into a life of drugs and alcohol. He served briefly in the Army, then went AWOL. At one time, his heroin addiction cost him $150 a day. He took an alias and set out robbing banks in Southern California.

Raymond Essex, a U.S. Parole Commission administrator, reported that Trentadue admitted using $200 worth of heroin the day he committed the savings and loan robbery in San Diego that led to his federal conviction in 1982. Trentadue acknowledged being in a drug-induced stupor during the robbery.

He was paroled in 1987 but never shook his drug habit; according to the warrant for his rearrest, he had violated parole three times for not submitting monthly reports, for being under the influence of drugs and for drunk driving.

But Trentadue was also trying to start his life anew. He had found steady work in construction, his family said. He seemed stable and happy. He married, and he and his wife were expecting a son.

Then in June 1995, he was picked up for driving drunk across the U.S.-Mexico border into San Diego. For two months he was held in the federal lockup in San Diego, where he pleaded guilty to drunk driving. That made his parole revocable.

In August, he was flown to the prison transfer center in Oklahoma City, to await a hearing that would determine how much more time he would serve. Essex later estimated it would have been no more than 16 months.

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Taken to Oklahoma

Trentadue arrived at the Oklahoma prison on Aug. 18, a Friday. He was dead by Monday morning. The government's explanation, the family contends, defies common sense.

The government maintains Trentadue had been acting "crazy and paranoid" and asked to be placed in the prison's "SHU" -- its Special Housing Unit for inmates who need protection.

There, according to numerous government documents and interviews, a routine guard check early that Monday morning found him asleep in bed.

During the next 20 minutes, the government contends, he quietly rose, ripped his sheets and fashioned a noose, running one end of the makeshift rope through the ceiling vent grate and looping the other around his neck.

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