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In Search of John Doe No. 2: The Story the Feds Never Told About the Oklahoma City Bombing

by James Ridge­way

Fed­er­al offi­cials insist that the Okla­homa City bomb­ing case was solved a decade ago. But a Salt Lake City lawyer in search of his broth­er’s killers has dug up some remark­able clues—on cross-dress­ing bank rob­bers, the FBI, and the mys­te­ri­ous third man.

KENNEY TRENTADUE was dri­ving a 1986 Chevy pick­up when he was pulled over at the Mex­i­can bor­der on his way home to San Diego on June 10, 1995. He was dark-haired, 5 feet 8 inch­es, and well mus­cled, a for­mer ath­lete who had picked up con­struc­tion work after he quit rob­bing banks. His left fore­arm bore a drag­on tat­too. High­way patrol offi­cers ran his license and found that it had been sus­pend­ed, and that he was want­ed for parole vio­la­tions. After two months in jail in San Diego, Trentadue was shipped, on August 18, to a prison in Okla­homa City for a hear­ing on the parole vio­la­tions. The move placed Ken­ney in close prox­im­i­ty to the most famous fed­er­al pris­on­er in Amer­i­ca. In one way or anoth­er, it also sealed his fate.

Four months ear­li­er, anoth­er car had been stopped by a state troop­er, some 80 miles north of Okla­homa City. It was 10:20 a.m. on April 19, 1995, and much of the coun­try was still wak­ing up to the enor­mi­ty of what had hap­pened ear­li­er that morn­ing, when an explo­sives-laden Ryder truck gut­ted the Alfred P. Mur­rah Fed­er­al Build­ing in Okla­homa City, killing 168 peo­ple. The dri­ver of the 1977 Mer­cury Mar­quis was arrest­ed for car­ry­ing a con­cealed weapon and dri­ving with­out tags. He gave his name as Tim­o­thy McVeigh. Two days lat­er McVeigh was iden­ti­fied as the John Doe No. 1 want­ed in the bomb­ing, and fel­low antigov­ern­ment extrem­ist Ter­ry Nichols turned him­self in to police. They were indict­ed on August 10, and fed­er­al author­i­ties said they had their men. But there were many who did­n’t buy the tidy clo­sure.

A sprawl­ing Great Plains town known for its tor­na­does, Okla­homa City was already the cen­ter of a swirl of the­o­ries about the crime, all of them insist­ing that the two men could not have act­ed alone. Some refused to give up on the idea of Mid­dle East­ern ter­ror­ists, spec­u­lat­ing about a plot head­ed by Sad­dam Hus­sein; oth­ers sus­pect­ed an inside job by the feds. Some sim­ply stuck to the far more plau­si­ble con­vic­tion that there were cocon­spir­a­tors not yet appre­hend­ed. After all, imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the bomb­ing, law enforce­ment had been search­ing furi­ous­ly for a man whom numer­ous sources said they saw with McVeigh, and who by some accounts was seen walk­ing away from the Ryder truck—the char­ac­ter whose police com­pos­ite sketch became known around the world as John Doe No. 2. Accord­ing to the police descrip­tion, this man was about 5 feet 9, mus­cu­lar, and dark-haired. By some accounts, he drove an old­er mod­el pick­up truck and had a drag­on tat­tooed on his left fore­arm.

Ken­ney’s broth­er, Jesse Trentadue, knew noth­ing about the resem­blance between his broth­er and the nation’s most want­ed man. But he now believes it sparked the events that would launch him on a 12-year inves­ti­ga­tion of a prison mys­tery and a mas­sive gov­ern­ment stonewalling effort. In the process, he would dis­cov­er doc­u­ments show­ing that even as the Jus­tice Depart­ment was work­ing to con­vict what it insist­ed were only two con­spir­a­tors, its agents were active­ly inves­ti­gat­ing a wider plot—a plot whose pos­si­ble ram­i­fi­ca­tions they con­cealed from defense lawyers and from a pub­lic that, at a del­i­cate moment in an elec­tion year, they were anx­ious to reas­sure. The gov­ern­men­t’s refusal to dis­close what it knew—and what it did not know—may also have fore­stalled the nation’s best oppor­tu­ni­ty to address the prob­lems in fed­er­al law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence that would become trag­i­cal­ly appar­ent on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001.

Jesse Carl Trentadue is no lib­er­al cru­sad­er, nor is he an antigov­ern­ment con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist. He grew up poor in an Appalachi­an coal camp, called Num­ber 7, halfway between Cucum­ber, West Vir­ginia, and Horsepen, Vir­ginia. Ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of Trentadue men had all gone into the mines: One grand­fa­ther had first descend­ed at age six, anoth­er at age 12, and both had died of black lung, as would Jesse’s father. But coal prices fell dur­ing the Kore­an War, and in 1961 the Trentadues fol­lowed a neigh­bor­ing fam­i­ly to Orange Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia. They trav­eled, Jesse says, “like the Okies,” head­ing west on Route 66, sleep­ing beside the car at night.

Jesse’s tick­et to a dif­fer­ent life was a track and field schol­ar­ship to the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia where, like his team­mate O.J. Simp­son, he made all-Amer­i­can. After a stint in the Marines and law school at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ida­ho, he land­ed in Salt Lake City, where he built a rep­u­ta­tion as a tough, tena­cious lawyer work­ing every­thing from sports law to con­tract dis­putes. He met me on a warm Sat­ur­day, on a bench in front of the Judge Build­ing, the hand­some, cen­tu­ry-old struc­ture where he prac­tices law. Stocky, with a gray­ing mus­tache and a neat beard, a cig­ar between his lips, he looked like the 21st-cen­tu­ry ver­sion of an Old West sheriff—weather-beaten, self-con­tained, and shrewd. His office upstairs was dom­i­nat­ed by an enor­mous por­trait of his broth­er. It depict­ed Ken­ney in a dark shirt, look­ing calm and earnest, bathed in a glow that evoked the por­traits of saints.

As young­sters in West Vir­ginia, Jesse says, the broth­ers “shared a bed and an out­house.” Three years his junior, Ken­ney was a track star in high school, but dropped out after an injury and joined the Army, where he devel­oped a hero­in habit. Then he tried car­pen­try and fac­to­ry work before dis­cov­er­ing that he had a knack for rob­bing banks. “This isn’t just rob­bing a teller,” Jesse notes with a flush of pride. “It’s tak­ing the whole bank down.” On Ken­ney’s jobs, he adds, “the weapons were emp­ty or the fir­ing pins had been removed. He said, ‘Rob­bery is one thing. Mur­der­ing is some­thing else, and it’s not worth that.’ ” When Ken­ney got caught, “he did­n’t con­test it. He just went in, pled guilty, and served his time.”

Released on parole in 1988, Ken­ney cleaned up, start­ed work­ing in con­struc­tion again, and got mar­ried. His first child, a boy named Vito, was born nine days after Ken­ney was arrest­ed at the bor­der.

On August 19, 1995, Ken­ney called Jesse’s house to report that he had just arrived at the Okla­homa City Fed­er­al Trans­fer Cen­ter. Jesse’s wife, Rita, an attor­ney and law pro­fes­sor, was sur­prised he’d been shipped from San Diego all the way to Okla­homa for a pro­ba­tion hear­ing. Ken­ney told her—in a con­ver­sa­tion that was, like all inmates’ calls,“It’s that jet age stuff.”

Ken­ney called again that night, sound­ing chip­per, and the broth­ers strate­gized about the parole hear­ing; Ken­ney promised to call again the next day. But no call came until ear­ly the morn­ing of August 21, when the phone rang at Ken­ney and Jesse’s moth­er’s house. It was the prison war­den. Ken­ney, she said, had com­mit­ted sui­cide that night. She offered to have the body cre­mat­ed at gov­ern­ment expense—a move with­out prece­dent in fed­er­al prison policies—but Wilma Trentadue turned her down.

Five days lat­er, Ken­ney’s body arrived at a mor­tu­ary in Cal­i­for­nia. There were bruis­es all over it, clum­si­ly dis­guised with heavy make­up; slash­es on his throat; lig­a­ture marks; and rup­tures on his scalp. Pho­tos of the injuries were includ­ed in a let­ter that Jesse drew up on August 30 and hand-deliv­ered to the Bureau of Pris­ons (bop), which is part of the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice (doj)

“I have enclosed as Exhib­it ‘A’ a pho­to­graph of Ken­neth’s body at the funer­al,” it read. “This is how you returned my broth­er to us.... My broth­er had been so bad­ly beat­en that I per­son­al­ly saw sev­er­al mourn­ers leave the view­ing to vom­it in the park­ing lot! Any­one see­ing my broth­er’s bat­tered body with his bruised and lac­er­at­ed fore­head, th
roat cut, and blue-black knuck­les would not have con­clud­ed that his death was either easy or a ‘sui­cide’! ” After describ­ing Ken­ney’s injuries in detail, and spec­u­lat­ing how they might have come about (bruis­es to his arms from being gripped, oth­ers to his legs from being knocked to the ground with batons, slash­es to his throat from some­one “pos­si­bly left-hand­ed,” which Ken­ney was not), Jesse con­clud­ed: “Had my broth­er been less of a man, you[r] guards would have been able to kill him with­out inflict­ing so much injury to his body. Had that occurred, Ken­ney’s fam­i­ly would for­ev­er have been guilt-rid­den... with the pain of think­ing that Ken­neth took his own life and that we had some­how failed him. By mak­ing the fight he did for his life, Ken has saved us that pain and God bless him for hav­ing done so!”

Two days lat­er, on Sep­tem­ber 1, the Bureau of Pris­ons issued a press release stat­ing that Ken­ney’s death had been “ruled a sui­cide by asphyx­i­a­tion” and that the injuries on the body “would indi­cate per­sis­tent attempts...to cause him­self seri­ous injury or death.” (Offi­cials would lat­er put forth an elab­o­rate sce­nario in which Ken­ney tried to hang him­self but fell, bruis­ing his head and body, and then tried to slit his throat with a tooth­paste tube before suc­ceed­ing in his sec­ond hang­ing attempt.)

In fact, as the bop would have known, no offi­cial rul­ing as to the man­ner of death had been made; rather, every com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the state med­ical exam­in­er’s office indi­cat­ed it was being treat­ed as a sus­pi­cious death. On August 22, the day after the body was deliv­ered to the ME’s office, Chief Inves­ti­ga­tor Kevin Row­land called the local fbi office to file a com­plaint. On a form doc­u­ment­ing the call, the fbi agent wrote “mur­der” and not­ed that Row­land “believes that foul play is suspect[ed] in this mat­ter.” The state’s chief med­ical exam­in­er, Fred Jor­dan, refused to clas­si­fy the case a sui­cide, list­ing the man­ner of death as “unknown” pend­ing inves­ti­ga­tion.

As was cus­tom­ary with sus­pi­cious deaths, with­in days the Bureau of Pris­ons formed a board of inquiry. In an unusu­al move, the staff attor­ney head­ing the probe was told to treat his team’s find­ings as “attor­ney work prod­uct,” which would pro­tect it from dis­cov­ery in any future law­suit as well as from Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests. In Octo­ber the bop’s gen­er­al coun­sel issued a memo not­ing that “there is a great like­li­hood of a law­suit by the fam­i­ly of the inmate.” To this day, the bop, fbi, and Depart­ment of Jus­tice refuse to dis­cuss the case; spokes­peo­ple for each agency referred ques­tions for this sto­ry to an fbi offi­cial in Okla­homa City, who declined to com­ment cit­ing ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

Not long after Ken­ney died, Jesse got an anony­mous phone call. “Look,” the caller said, “your broth­er was mur­dered by the fbi. There was an inter­ro­ga­tion that went wrong.... He fit a pro­file.” The caller men­tioned bank rob­bers but did­n’t give many details. Jesse did­n’t know what to make of the tip; he put the call out of his mind.

Exact­ly what hap­pened the night Ken­ney died is impos­si­ble to recon­struct, in large part because a great deal of evi­dence went miss­ing or was destroyed by prison offi­cials. Accord­ing to bop doc­u­ments, a guard dis­cov­ered Ken­ney hang­ing from a bed­sheet noose in his cell at 3:02 on the morn­ing of August 21, 1995. Stu­art A. Lee, the offi­cial in charge at the prison that night, refused to unlock the cell while he wait­ed for a video cam­era to film the body. Accord­ing to a bop memo, he would lat­er tell inves­ti­ga­tors that he knew Ken­ney was dead and he thus “was not con­cerned with tak­ing any imme­di­ate emer­gency action.” The prison medic on sev­er­al occa­sions said he per­formed cpr on Ken­ney, but lat­er admit­ted he made no effort at resus­ci­ta­tion. The video of the body was nev­er made, or it was erased, depend­ing on whose account you believe.

Prison offi­cials did take pho­tos of Ken­ney’s body, though when the fam­i­ly asked for copies, they said they could­n’t find them; the pho­tos reap­peared in the fbi’s files years lat­er. Ken­ney’s clothes van­ished between the time he was found hang­ing in his cell and the time his body was turned over to the med­ical exam­in­er. Oth­er evi­dence, includ­ing his bed­sheets, box­ers, and fin­ger­nail clip­pings, dis­ap­peared for sev­er­al weeks; inves­ti­ga­tor Row­land would lat­er sug­gest they had been in the trunk of an agen­t’s car. Ken­ney’s cell was cleaned by 2 p.m. the day of his death, before legal­ly required exam­i­na­tions of the site had been made. And even though the med­ical exam­in­er’s office had giv­en orders to pre­serve the cell, the walls—including a pen­cil scrawl that prison offi­cials called Ken­ney’s “sui­cide note”—were paint­ed over, leav­ing only pho­tos whose “lack of detail,” accord­ing to the fbi crime lab, ren­dered it “doubt­ful if this hand print­ing will ever be iden­ti­fied with hand print­ing of a known indi­vid­ual.”

Oth­er key evi­dence was sim­ply omit­ted from or buried in the offi­cial reports: fbi and state Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tions offi­cials lat­er tes­ti­fied, in a law­suit brought by the Trentadue fam­i­ly, that a sec­ond per­son­’s blood had been found in Ken­ney’s cell, and that there were no cut marks on the noose from which he was, accord­ing to prison offi­cials, “cut down.” Accord­ing to an inter­nal fbi memo, a prison guard told his neigh­bor that Ken­ney had been killed, and then hung in his cell as a cov­er-up; an inmate who report­ed hear­ing sim­i­lar state­ments from a sec­ond guard said he was warned to keep silent and then sent to iso­la­tion. Anoth­er inmate, Alden Gillis Bak­er, would lat­er give Jesse’s lawyer a note describ­ing an inci­dent dur­ing which, he said, Ken­ney got into an alter­ca­tion with a guard. Even­tu­al­ly, he wrote, addi­tion­al offi­cers entered the cell, there was “a lot of phys­i­cal vio­lence going on,” he heard “faint moan­ing,” and lat­er the sound of bed­sheets being torn. (He would repeat this account in a depo­si­tion in con­nec­tion with a law­suit brought by Jesse, but a judge ruled that Bak­er, a con­vict­ed rob­ber and sex offend­er, was not a reli­able wit­ness. In 2000, Bak­er was found hang­ing in his cell in a Cal­i­for­nia fed­er­al prison.)

Gov­ern­ment accounts of the inci­dent relied heav­i­ly on reports from a dif­fer­ent set of inmates. One claimed that dur­ing his two days at the prison, Ken­ney had seemed angry and agi­tat­ed. Anoth­er claimed he was act­ing “upset, para­noid, and weird in gen­er­al,” and thought every­one was talk­ing about him hav­ing aids. (The Bureau of Pris­ons tran­script of Ken­ney’s con­ver­sa­tion with Jesse’s wife reads, “It’s that aids stuff,” not, as Rita insists he said, “that jet age stuff.” Accord­ing to med­ical records, Ken­ney was hiv neg­a­tive.) And then there were the words scrawled in pen­cil on the wall—“My Minds No Longer It’s Friend” and “Love Ya Famil­ia!” Odd­ly, the bop inves­ti­ga­tor who took the pic­tures short­ly after Ken­ney’s death wrote in a cap­tion that the scrawl read, “Love Paul.”

The fbi agent who inves­ti­gat­ed the case imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Ken­ney’s death did not even look at the cell. He did vis­it the prison, but spoke only with offi­cials, inter­view­ing no inmates and col­lect­ing no evi­dence except for the pho­tos of the cell. The case lan­guished for months, until com­plaints from the med­ical exam­in­er’s office reached the Depart­ment of Jus­tice in Wash­ing­ton. In ear­ly 1996, the depart­men­t’s Civ­il Rights Divi­sion took over super­vis­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion and decid­ed that the case should be pre­sent­ed to a fed­er­al grand jury, which would deter­mine whether to issue an indict­ment.

On July 6, 1996, more than 10 months after Ken­ney’s death, the grand jury was con­vened. Jus­tice offi­cials from Wash­ing­ton went to the trou­ble of com­mut­ing to Okla­homa City to over­see the pro­ceed­ings. It was an elec­tion year, and Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s attor­ney gen­er­al, Janet Reno—still under a cloud for her han­dling of the Waco siege three years earlier—was prepar­ing to try McVeigh and Nichols. The last thing the doj need­ed was a tri­al, in Okla­homa City, accus­ing its employ­ees of mur­der and obstruc­tion of jus­tice.

But to put the case to rest, fed­er­al offi­cial
s would have to find a way around Fred Jor­dan, the Okla­homa chief med­ical exam­in­er who had refused to clas­si­fy the death a sui­cide. With­in a few months, the local fbi office was call­ing Jordan—a man with a long and dis­tin­guished career, who had achieved near-hero­ic sta­tus in Okla­homa City for his effec­tive and sen­si­tive han­dling of the bomb­ing vic­tims’ remains—a “loose can­non.”

In Decem­ber 1995, Jor­dan told an fbi offi­cial that the bureau had urged him to hold off on releas­ing an autop­sy report until the fbi could com­plete its inves­ti­ga­tion. He also told the U.S. attor­ney’s office in Okla­homa City, accord­ing to cor­re­spon­dence from that office, that Ken­ney had been “abused and tor­tured”; lat­er he would tell them, accord­ing to a bop lawyer, that “the fed­er­al Grand Jury is part of a cov­er-up.” In a memo to his own files, Jor­dan wrote that it was “very like­ly this man was killed.”

In search of a sec­ond opin­ion, doj offi­cials asked Bill Gorm­ley, a foren­sic pathol­o­gist at the Armed Forces Insti­tute of Pathol­o­gy, to review the case. In May 1997, Gorm­ley called Kevin Row­land, the chief inves­ti­ga­tor in the Okla­homa med­ical exam­in­er’s office, who wrote a memo to his files not­ing that Gorm­ley “was trou­bled that [the doj] only seemed inter­est­ed in him say­ing it might be pos­si­ble these injuries were self inflict­ed.” In fact, Row­land wrote, Gorm­ley had grown con­vinced that “this man was mur­dered.”

As late as July 1997, Fred Jor­dan told a local TV sta­tion, “I think it’s very like­ly [Ken­ney] was mur­dered. I’m not able to prove it....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.... 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. Whether those actions were intentional—whether they were incom­pe­tence, I don’t know.... It was botched. Or, worse, it was planned.”

After more than a year of pro­ceed­ings, in August 1997, the grand jury (which, like all such pan­els, had heard only evi­dence select­ed by the gov­ern­ment) con­clud­ed its inves­ti­ga­tion with­out issu­ing any crim­i­nal indict­ments. The doj held back the news for two months while staff in Wash­ing­ton met to devise a roll-out plan that a doj aide com­pared to “coor­di­nat­ing the inva­sion of Nor­mandy.” The plan tar­get­ed the media as well as Sen­a­tors Orrin Hatch (R‑Utah) and Byron Dor­gan (D‑N.D.), who, thanks to Jesse Trentadue’s efforts, had tak­en an inter­est in the case. In a Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee hear­ing a few months ear­li­er, Hatch had quizzed then-Attor­ney Gen­er­al Janet Reno about Ken­ney and told her that “it looks like some­one in the Bureau of Pris­ons, or hav­ing rela­tions with the Bureau of Pris­ons, mur­dered the man.”

But Hatch nev­er fol­lowed through on his stat­ed intent to hold hear­ings on the case. Nei­ther did Okla­homa Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Don Nick­les, then the major­i­ty whip. In Decem­ber 1997, Nick­les held a press con­fer­ence lam­bast­ing the feds’ han­dling of the case; he said prison offi­cials in Okla­homa had told him they’d been ordered not to talk about it. The next day Nick­les got a vis­it from Thomas Kuk­er, head of the fbi’s Okla­homa City office. Accord­ing to an inter­nal fbi memo, Kuk­er assured the sen­a­tor that he, too, had once been con­cerned about the case, but had become con­vinced that there was no foul play. After a sec­ond meet­ing with the fbi two months lat­er, Nick­les backed off.

The doj also con­tin­ued to pres­sure Med­ical Exam­in­er Fred Jor­dan, to the point where Okla­homa Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­er­al Patrick Craw­ley wrote to a Jus­tice Depart­ment attor­ney that the bop and fbi had “pre­vent­ed the med­ical exam­in­er from con­duct­ing a thor­ough and com­plete inves­ti­ga­tion into the death, destroyed evi­dence, and oth­er­wise harassed and harangued Dr. Jor­dan and his staff. The absur­di­ty of this sit­u­a­tion is that your clients out­ward­ly rep­re­sent law enforce­ment or at least some arm of lic­it gov­ern­ment.... 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.”

Four months lat­er, in July 1998, Jor­dan sud­den­ly changed his con­clu­sion on Ken­ney’s man­ner of death from “unknown” to “sui­cide,” say­ing he had been con­vinced in large part by the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sup­posed sui­cide note by a hand­writ­ing expert—even though the expert had not been able to see the actu­al note, and had received what the doj itself con­sid­ered inad­e­quate sam­ples of Ken­ney’s hand­writ­ing. Although he nev­er ful­ly retreat­ed from this deter­mi­na­tion, Jor­dan would lat­er say, in a depo­si­tion, that he still believed Ken­ney was beat­en, and that he him­self had been “harassed by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice from the very begin­ning” of the case.

The last gov­ern­ment inves­ti­ga­tion into the death of Ken­ney Trentadue, con­duct­ed by the doj’s Office of the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al (oig), was con­clud­ed in Novem­ber 1999. The report was sealed, and only a brief sum­ma­ry made pub­lic. The full report, a copy of which was obtained by Moth­er Jones, ran to 372 pages and includ­ed names and many oth­er cru­cial details. It also con­tained mate­r­i­al tak­en from the secret grand jury pro­ceed­ing, accord­ing to its cov­er page.

The oig report sup­port­ed the gov­ern­men­t’s posi­tion that Ken­ney’s injuries had been self-inflict­ed. But it did find fault with the pris­on’s response and with the fbi’s inves­ti­ga­tions, con­clud­ing that bop and fbi employ­ees had lied about their actions to super­vi­sors, inves­ti­ga­tors, and the oig itself. (In 2003, Jesse filed a com­plaint about what he con­sid­ered shod­dy inves­tiga­tive work in the report with the Pres­i­den­t’s Coun­cil on Effi­cien­cy and Integri­ty, a White House agency; the coun­cil dis­missed the com­plaint, and when Jesse asked why, it sent him 55 pages of evi­dence the oig had sub­mit­ted. All but 350 words had been blacked out.)

In late 2000, the civ­il law­suit brought by the Trentadue fam­i­ly com­menced in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Okla­homa City. The jury found that Stu­art A. Lee, the prison offi­cial in charge the night Ken­ney died, had vio­lat­ed Ken­ney’s civ­il rights by being “delib­er­ate­ly indif­fer­ent to his med­ical needs.” Four months lat­er, the court award­ed the fam­i­ly $1.1 mil­lion for emo­tion­al dis­tress (based not on Ken­ney’s death itself, but on the bop’s con­duct after­ward). The court denounced prison employ­ees for try­ing to cov­er up their own mis­con­duct, declar­ing that, “From the time of Trentadue’s death up to and includ­ing the tri­al, these wit­ness­es seemed unable to com­pre­hend the impor­tance of a truth­ful answer.” The gov­ern­ment appealed, and the mat­ter remains bogged down in the courts to this day.

For Jesse, the rul­ing was bit­ter­sweet. For more than four years, he had been inves­ti­gat­ing the case—interviewing wit­ness­es, fil­ing Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests, lob­by­ing law­mak­ers. But he was no clos­er to under­stand­ing why Ken­ney might have been, as the med­ical exam­in­er had put it, “tor­tured,” or why the prison and the doj would have gone to such lengths to cov­er up what­ev­er occurred.

By the spring of 2003, Jesse Trentadue had all but giv­en up on solv­ing the mys­tery. Then he got a call from a small-town news­pa­per reporter in Okla­homa. His name was J.D. Cash, and he want­ed to talk about Ken­ney, whose sto­ry and pho­to had been wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed on the Inter­net. What kind of vehi­cle had he been dri­ving when he was stopped at the bor­der? Did he have tat­toos? Then Cash explained what had got­ten him inter­est­ed. Ken­ney’s par­tic­u­lars fit the police descrip­tion of John Doe No. 2, and some pho­tos of Ken­ney bore a clear resem­blance to the police sketch of the alleged bomber. And both Ken­ney and John Doe No. 2 looked quite a bit like anoth­er man, a bank rob­ber named Richard Lee Guthrie.

Guthrie’s name meant noth­ing to Jesse Trentadue, but in the far-right radi
cal scene, he had some noto­ri­ety. In 1994 and 1995, Guthrie and his gang, the Aryan Repub­li­can Army, car­ried out an impres­sive series of 22 bank rob­beries across the Mid­west, net­ting some $250,000 that they used to sup­port the white-suprema­cist move­ment.

The ara had a flair for the dra­mat­ic. They rent­ed get­away cars in the names of major fbi offi­cials. At some rob­beries they wore Clin­ton and Nixon masks; at oth­ers, they tried to look like Arabs. At a Decem­ber 1994 rob­bery they wore San­ta and elf suits; the fol­low­ing April, they left behind an East­er bas­ket hold­ing a bronzed pipe bomb. In a home movie, Guthrie’s part­ner Peter Lan­gan donned a black bal­a­cla­va and talked about the com­ing white rev­o­lu­tion. The ara’s phi­los­o­phy was old-fash­ioned nativism, but their style was a take­off on the ira, with Latin Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion and rock and roll thrown in. (Mem­bers of the Philadel­phia skin­head music scene were part of the group.) Lan­gan liked to call him­self “Com­man­der Pedro”; out­side the gang, he cross-dressed and lat­er, when sen­tenced to prison for the rob­beries, request­ed that a judge autho­rize a sex-change oper­a­tion.

Cash told Jesse that some people—including some in fed­er­al law enforcement—thought the ara might have been involved in the Okla­homa City bomb­ing, and that Guthrie could have been John Doe No. 2. (Guthrie, along with oth­er key ara mem­bers, was final­ly arrest­ed in Jan­u­ary 1996 and was report­ed to be coop­er­at­ing with fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors track­ing the far right. That July, short­ly before he was due to tes­ti­fy in court against Lan­gan, Guthrie was found hang­ing in his cell.)

J.D. Cash, who died in May, at age 55, was an unset­tling figure—a gen­uine cru­sad­er for truth as well as an instinc­tive self-pro­mot­er. A lanky man with a warm face that could turn hard in a hur­ry, he’d been a lawyer, mort­gage banker, and entre­pre­neur before tak­ing a job as the hunt­ing and fish­ing reporter for the McCur­tain Dai­ly Gazette in east­ern Okla­homa. Hav­ing lost friends and fam­i­ly in the attack, he had grown con­sumed with the bomb­ing and become a cen­tral fig­ure in the Okla­homa City “truth move­ment,” a loose col­lec­tion of indi­vid­u­als and groups ded­i­cat­ed to iden­ti­fy­ing holes in the offi­cial sto­ry, advanc­ing alter­nate the­o­ries, and gath­er­ing evi­dence to sup­port them.

Cash became an acknowl­edged clear­ing­house for infor­ma­tion on the bomb­ing and its end­less com­pli­ca­tions, uncov­er­ing a store of vital infor­ma­tion while putting forth some high­ly ques­tion­able the­o­ries. He despised the fbi and loved writ­ing sto­ries about the bureau’s stu­pid­i­ty and per­fidy. His belief in a cover-up—and even gov­ern­ment fore­knowl­edge of the bombing—had made him a favorite among some mili­tia types. Yet he also insist­ed that the bomb­ing was part of a con­spir­a­cy by the orga­nized far right, and want­ed to see all the per­pe­tra­tors brought to jus­tice. From Cash, Jesse Trentadue would get a crash course on the ques­tions that still lin­gered, years lat­er, around the bomb­ing.

For the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, a great deal was rid­ing on pub­lic per­cep­tions of the attack. Bill Clin­ton’s speech at a memo­r­i­al ser­vice for the vic­tims, and his emo­tion­al meet­ings with their fam­i­lies, drove up his pop­u­lar­i­ty rat­ings, which had bot­tomed out after the 1994 midterm elec­tions; the spot­light on vio­lent antigov­ern­ment extrem­ists was also cred­it­ed with erod­ing sym­pa­thy for the antigov­ern­ment rhetoric in Newt Gin­grich’s Con­tract With Amer­i­ca.

But the destruc­tion of the Mur­rah Building—just like, years lat­er, the fall of the Twin Towers—also point­ed to a series of deep short­com­ings in fed­er­al law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence. Agen­cies such as the fbi had plen­ty of agents doing first-rate crime-solv­ing work, but their record in “domes­tic intel­li­gence” was anoth­er mat­ter. Not unlike the patri­ot groups obsessed with black heli­copters, the fbi was con­sumed by con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that reflect­ed the fears and fan­tasies of its lead­er­ship. The same agency that harassed pinko screen­writ­ers in the 1950s, bugged civ­il rights lead­ers in the 1960s, and today mon­i­tors peace activists and librar­i­ans sought to infil­trate the far right through sim­i­lar means—with dubi­ous infor­mants and ques­tion­able sur­veil­lance. And when it did move against far-right groups, it often end­ed up boost­ing the move­ment it sought to thwart; the 1992 raid at Ruby Ridge, Ida­ho, and the botched 1993 attack on the Branch David­i­an com­pound at Waco fueled a grow­ing fury on the far right. (The Okla­homa City bomb­ing came on the sec­ond anniver­sary of the Waco dis­as­ter.)

Increas­ing­ly, that anger was tar­get­ed at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and its sym­bols. The Mur­rah Build­ing itself had been the tar­get of a white-suprema­cist plot as far back as 1983. Among those involved in that failed endeav­or was Richard Wayne Snell, who was lat­er con­vict­ed of mur­der­ing a black Arkansas state troop­er and a pawn-shop own­er who he thought was Jew­ish. Snell was exe­cut­ed on April 19, 1995—the very day of the Mur­rah bomb­ing. The final rest­ing place of Snel­l’s body would be a remote reli­gious com­pound called Elo­him City. For those seek­ing evi­dence of a wider con­spir­a­cy in the bombing—and the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to crack it—all roads led to Elo­him City.

the place was not much to look at—a clutch of small build­ings in the Ozark Moun­tains in east­ern Okla­homa. Elo­him City’s inhab­i­tants were fol­low­ers of the late Robert Mil­lar, who taught a doc­trine known as Chris­t­ian Iden­ti­ty, which holds that black and brown peo­ple and oth­er “non-whites” (includ­ing Jews) are “mud peo­ple.” The com­mu­ni­ty was patri­ar­chal and polyg­a­mous, with all res­i­dents, includ­ing chil­dren, trained in the use of weapons by a vis­i­tor they called “Andy the German”—Andreas Strass­meir, a for­mer Ger­man mil­i­tary offi­cer.

For many years, Elo­him City served as a sort of extrem­ist sanc­tu­ary. Mem­bers of the Aryan Nations came through, skin­head bands made vis­its, young recruits showed up at the gates. Den­nis Mahon, a for­mer Klans­man who had become a leader of the White Aryan Resis­tance, had a trail­er there and par­tic­i­pat­ed in Andy the Ger­man’s guer­ril­la war­fare train­ing. In the ear­ly 1990s, the bur­geon­ing mili­tia move­ment, which helped inspire McVeigh and Nichols, became part of the mix.

Also drift­ing in and out of Elo­him City were var­i­ous infor­mants. Inter­nal fbi mem­os sug­gest that the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, which tracks the far right, had a source there whose tips were passed to law enforce­ment. (Mark Potok, the direc­tor of splc’s intel­li­gence project, told me that his orga­ni­za­tion had not placed an infor­mant inside the com­pound, but received only sec­ond- or third­hand reports from the com­pound.) Mil­lar him­self shared some infor­ma­tion with the fbi, accord­ing to his for­mer attor­ney, Kirk Lyons, in hopes of avoid­ing a Waco-style raid. And the Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobac­co, and Firearms was get­ting infor­ma­tion from inside Elo­him City for near­ly a year before the Mur­rah bomb­ing, via an ex-debu­tante named Car­ol Howe. The daugh­ter of a wealthy Okla­homa busi­ness­man, Howe with her fiancé had formed a two-per­son neo-Nazi group that urged “white war­riors” to take up arms against the gov­ern­ment. In 1994 she called a racist hot line and got involved with the White Aryan Resis­tance and Mahon. Soon there­after the batf, pos­si­bly wield­ing the threat of a weapons charge, con­vinced Howe to inform on Mahon, and for most of the next two years it employed her as an infor­mant. In that capac­i­ty she made numer­ous trips to Elo­him City.

Howe’s reports pro­vid­ed the batf—which, records show, shared some of the infor­ma­tion with the fbi—with details about the weapons being stock­piled at Elo­him City, Strass­meir’s com­bat train­ing, and Mil­lar’s ser­mons against the mud peo­ple and the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Howe report­ed that Strass­meir had talked about blow­ing up fed­er­al build­ings, and that he and Mahon had made sev­er­al trips to Okla­homa City. In Feb­ru­ary 1995, Howe joined a group of Elo­him City res­i­dents on such a trip; she told her batf han­dler that she’d stayed at the home of a for­mer mil­i­tary per­son who d
emon­strat­ed an explo­sive device.

Two years after the bomb­ing, in 1997, Howe and her fiancé were indict­ed on charges relat­ed to their two-per­son “Nation­al Social­ist Alliance” that includ­ed mak­ing bomb threats and pos­ses­sion of an ille­gal explo­sive device. She would be acquit­ted on all charges. There was a pre­tri­al hear­ing in the case, which involved tes­ti­mo­ny from Howe’s batf han­dler, on the same day that Tim­o­thy McVeigh’s tri­al opened in Den­ver. At one point, the judge had the fol­low­ing con­ver­sa­tion with Howe’s attor­ney, Clark Brew­ster:

The Court: Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Brew­ster. A lot of this makes for good con­ver­sa­tion, like the trip to Okla­homa City, you know, before the bomb­ing and so forth and it makes for sen­sa­tion­al­ism, and I don’t know that it real­ly has any­thing to do with the Okla­homa City bomb­ing, but I saw where you were com­ing from. With that McVeigh tri­al going on, I don’t want any­thing get­ting out of here that would com­pro­mise that tri­al in any way.

Brew­ster: What do you mean by com­pro­mise? Do you mean shared with the McVeigh lawyers?

The Court: Yes, or some­thing that would come up—you know, we have got evi­dence that the [batf] took a trip with some­body that said build­ings were going to be blown up in Okla­homa City before it was blown up or some­thing of that nature, and try to con­nect it to McVeigh in some way or some­thing.

Brew­ster did not return calls for this sto­ry; McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, says the pros­e­cu­tion nev­er gave him any infor­ma­tion about Howe or Elo­him City, but that Brew­ster filled him in and he attempt­ed to have Howe tes­ti­fy at tri­al. The judge rebuffed him on this and every oth­er attempt to show that McVeigh and Nichols had­n’t act­ed alone.

one day in 2004, Jesse had a kind of breakthrough—one that would put him at the cen­ter of the Okla­homa City truth move­ment, though it would ulti­mate­ly get him no clos­er to prov­ing who was to blame for Ken­ney’s death. A source at the fbi, who had at one point tak­en an inter­est in Ken­ney’s case, passed him two heav­i­ly redact­ed mem­os indi­cat­ing that, more than a year after Okla­homa City, the bureau had been inves­ti­gat­ing a link between the bombers and bank rob­ber Richard Guthrie’s ara—a con­nec­tion that ran through Elo­him City.

Jesse filed a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request, and then a law­suit, for doc­u­ments con­tain­ing infor­ma­tion on these con­nec­tions, and the bureau—after first claim­ing it had none—finally pro­duced 25 doc­u­ments com­pris­ing 150 pages, many of them heav­i­ly redact­ed.

The doc­u­ments con­nect two inves­ti­ga­tions under way at the bureau in 1995 and 1996, both of them linked to Elo­him City via infor­mants: OKBOMB, run out of Okla­homa City, and BOMBROB, an inves­ti­ga­tion of the bank-rob­bing Aryan Repub­li­can Army. One of the mem­os, dat­ed August 23, 1996—some 16 months after the bombing—was sent from fbi head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton to the BOMBROB inves­ti­ga­tion. It read, “Infor­ma­tion has been devel­oped that [names redact­ed] were at the home of [redact­ed] Elo­him City, Okla­homa on 4/5/95 when OKBOMB sub­ject, Tim­o­thy McVeigh, placed a tele­phone call to [redact­ed] res­i­dence. On 4/15/95, a tele­phone call was placed from [redact­ed] res­i­dence to [redact­ed] res­i­dence in Philadel­phia divi­sion. BOMBROB sub­jects [redact­ed] left [redact­ed] res­i­dence on 4/16/95 en route to Pitts­burgh [sic], Kansas where they joined [redact­ed] and Guthrie.” At that time, some ara sus­pects lived around Philadel­phia, and Pitts­burg, Kansas, was the site of an ara safe house. The doc­u­ment makes clear that the bureau was inter­est­ed in com­mu­ni­ca­tion between McVeigh and the ara imme­di­ate­ly before the bomb­ing, and that Guthrie him­self was in Pittsburg—some 200 miles from Okla­homa City—three days before the attack.

In addi­tion, the mem­os indi­cate that the fbi received reports of McVeigh call­ing and pos­si­bly vis­it­ing Elo­him City before the bomb­ing, at one point seek­ing “to recruit a sec­ond con­spir­a­tor.” The doc­u­ments also have one source report­ing that McVeigh had a “lengthy rela­tion­ship” with some­one at Elo­him City, and that he called that per­son just two days before the bomb­ing. (These doc­u­ments were nev­er shown to McVeigh’s lawyer.) The Jus­tice Depart­ment and the fbi would not com­ment on the doc­u­ments; an fbi spokesman in Okla­homa City told me that the bureau is con­fi­dent it has caught and con­vict­ed those respon­si­ble for the bomb­ing.

Jesse believes that McVeigh’s con­tact was Strass­meir, a fix­ture in many Okla­homa City the­o­ries. There has been much spec­u­la­tion, aired most recent­ly on the bbc show Con­spir­a­cy Files this year, that Strass­meir had ties to U.S. and Ger­man intel­li­gence and might (along with his gov­ern­ment con­tacts) have had advance knowl­edge of the plot. In Feb­ru­ary 2007, Jesse filed a dec­la­ra­tion in court signed by Nichols stat­ing, “McVeigh said that Strass­meir would pro­vide a ‘safe house’ if nec­es­sary. McVeigh...said that Strass­meir was ‘head of secu­ri­ty at some back­woods place in Okla­homa.’ ” Strass­meir left the coun­try in ear­ly 1996; he was lat­er ques­tioned on the phone by the fbi.

Kirk Lyons, Strass­meir’s U.S. attor­ney, who has defend­ed a num­ber of far-right fig­ures over the years, says the real­i­ty is far sim­pler; Strass­meir came to the Unit­ed States to take part in Civ­il War reen­act­ments, liked it here, and, hop­ing to find a bride, end­ed up at Elo­him City. Lyons insists that Strass­meir was nev­er a spy, except in the minds of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists. (“These sil­ly right-wingers think I am Mossad,” he says. “I’ve giv­en up argu­ing with these nut­sy cuck­oos.”)

Reached at his home in Berlin, Strass­meir told me that he met McVeigh once, at a gun show in 1993, but that they nev­er spoke again. He said he had no intel­li­gence affil­i­a­tions and had no clues to the Okla­homa City attack before it hap­pened; but there were def­i­nite­ly infor­mants at Elo­him City, he added, and some­times sur­veil­lance planes flew overhead—probably, he thought, to check out the mar­i­jua­na fields that “some of the red­necks” had plant­ed. He con­firmed that two ara mem­bers were part-time res­i­dents of Elo­him City, but said that “nobody knew much about them.”

the okla­homa City bomb­ing pre­fig­ured 9/11 in many ways. There were the missed clues; the fed­er­al infor­mant who actu­al­ly had con­tact with the con­spir­a­tors; the turf-con­scious agen­cies fail­ing to share and act on vital infor­ma­tion; and in gen­er­al, a domes­tic-intel­li­gence pro­gram inca­pable of trans­lat­ing sur­veil­lance into action. Just as they would mis­un­der­stand the nature of Al Qae­da, the fbi and oth­er agen­cies nev­er viewed the far right as a polit­i­cal move­ment with the strate­gic and tac­ti­cal abil­i­ty to deliv­er a major attack. Intel­li­gence on these groups suf­fered from the broad­er inad­e­qua­cies of domes­tic intel­li­gence, espe­cial­ly in the use of untest­ed free­lance infor­mants recruit­ed under threat of pros­e­cu­tion. But with fed­er­al police forces and the Jus­tice Depart­ment respon­si­ble for polic­ing them­selves, and the details of their work often shroud­ed in secre­cy, the sys­tem remained unac­count­able. The bomb­ing “grew out of a defin­able social move­ment the author­i­ties did­n’t under­stand,” says Leonard Zeskind, a researcher who has tracked the far right for more than 30 years. “It went unsolved because of the char­ac­ter and gross mis­man­age­ment of the inves­ti­ga­tion. It was an out­ra­geous crime, and the size of the crime mag­ni­fies the lev­el of incom­pe­tence.”

In fact, after the bomb­ing law enforce­men­t’s fail­ures were not cor­rect­ed but reward­ed. Con­gress passed the Antiter­ror­ism and Effec­tive Death Penal­ty Act of 1996, which severe­ly restrict­ed fed­er­al courts’ abil­i­ty to grant habeas cor­pus relief, paving the way for speed­i­er exe­cu­tions (like that of Tim­o­thy McVeigh), and ulti­mate­ly for Guan­tanamo. It also restrict­ed the rights of immi­grants, extend­ed sur­veil­lance capa­bil­i­ties, and pro­vid­ed $1 bil­lion in autho­riza­tion for antiter­ror­ism work, half of it for the fbi. The act raised only mut­ed protest, per­haps in part because it was signed into law by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent. Yet there can be no doubt that the roots of t
he Patri­ot Act were plant­ed not in the chasm of Ground Zero but in the dusty soil of Okla­homa.

For Jesse Trentadue, the ara-Okla­homa City con­nec­tion has sug­gest­ed what he believes is the miss­ing motive in his broth­er’s killing: Just as J.D. Cash posit­ed in his first phone call, he now believes that who­ev­er inter­ro­gat­ed Ken­ney took him to be John Doe No. 2—and that Ken­ney died dur­ing an inter­ro­ga­tion gone bad. He has no proof for that the­o­ry, though he con­tin­ues to pur­sue all leads—interviewing McVeigh’s death-row neigh­bor, David Paul Ham­mer; prepar­ing to for­mal­ly depose Ter­ry Nichols; seek­ing to obtain a sur­veil­lance video he believes exists of the Mur­rah Build­ing area short­ly before the blast. But by now, Jesse is after more than his broth­er’s killers. He has become an Amer­i­can arche­type, the citizen-investigator—still pro­pelled by the sense of jus­tice that first drew him into the law, but no longer con­vinced of the gov­ern­men­t’s abil­i­ty to see that jus­tice is done.

Jen­nifer Wedekind, Car­o­line Dobuzin­skis, and Jes­si­ca Sav­age con­tributed research to this arti­cle. For more Okla­homa City (and John Doe No. 2) mys­ter­ies, see motherjones.com/oklahomacity [2].