The family of an Orange County man who died under mysterious circumstances in an Oklahoma federal prison more than a decade ago has just won its lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department. On March 31, the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ruled that the family of Kenneth Trentadue had suffered severe emotional distress as a result of his bizarre death, which prison officials claim was a suicide-by-hanging.
A big part of their stress: seeing the bruises, footprints and other obvious marks of a violent attack on his body that seemed, shall we say, just a little bit inconsistent with hanging himself from a ceiling vent.
You can read my previous stories about Trentadue here and here. But briefly: here's the gist of the family's suspicions: Trentadue had been arrested crossing back into the US from Mexico amid a massive manhunt in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing for a suspect known as “John Doe 2,” whose description–a bulky white guy with a mustache and a dragon tattoo–closely resembled Trentadue.
Trentadue is sent to federal lockup in Oklahoma City and while being processed, undergoes a medical examination that shows his only injury as a blistered foot. A few days later, on Aug. 21, 1995, his battered body is lying in the morgue. Richard Lee Guthrie, a member of a right-wing compound in Oklahoma named Elohim City that bomber Timothy McVeigh may have visited was arrested the following year. He looked a lot like Trentadue, whose family believes was mistaken for Guthrie and perished while being tortured for information about a bombing he knew nothing about.
This is where the story gets even weirder. A year after Trentadue died, Guthrie also was found dead hanging in a prison cell.
Jesse Trentadue, Kenneth's brother and a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the family in its lawsuit, suspects a massive cover-up in his brother's death that has something to do with Guthrie and Elohim City. Court motion he's filed have unearthed reams of documents showing that the FBI had informants at Elohim City who may have heard word of the impending terrorist attack.
Maybe the bureau tried to infiltrate the plan but failed to stop it? It's hard to say, seeing as how most of the documents the government has reluctantly provided Trentadue's family are heavily censored in the interest of U.S. national security.
One thing's now clear: Uncle Sam now officially owes the Trentadue family a total of $1 million in damages. The only catch: this is the third time the family has won its lawsuit and the Justice Dept. keeps appealing the case.
“Of course, the Department of Justice has told us that it will never pay that Judgment and there is no way for us to make them pay,” Jesse Trentadue says. “They have also said that they will continue to appeal. So this 13 year war will continue. Even so, it does feel good to kick the Yankee federal government's ass again.”