Was This Inmates' Death a Suicide?

Does this sound like a suicide to you?

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.

Kent Trentadue died in 1995. He was a small-time offender, a drug user in jail on a parole violation for a burglary charge. Authorities claimed he hanged himself. He had been arrested in San Diego and pleaded guilty to a drunk driving offense. Because he was on federal parole for a burglary, he was transferred back to the federal receiving center in Oklahoma pending a parole revocation hearing. If he lost, he was only looking at 16 months. He got to Oklahoma on Friday, and was found dead on Monday.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, they obtained prison documents that showed that a videotape related to the incident was mysteriously erased, and that the cell had been cleaned by guards before FBI agents arrived. They also uncovered what they said were inconsistent statements from guards and, using the help of technical experts, found evidence of mud on Trentadue's blue prison shoes, an indication he might have been taken outside before he died.

More curious, they said, was that the prison wanted to cremate the body before sending it to Orange County, a decision normally left to the family. After photographing the body to document the extent of Trentadue's injuries, the family invited friends and relatives to see what they said the government had done to him. "He was so beat up that even after the funeral home cleaned him up, people who came to the wake went outside and puked," Jesse Trentadue said.

The family contends there was a coverup. Nine years after his death, the U.S. government has reopened the case and is conducting another review of the case.

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.

What would the motive be? Trentatue's family says Kent resembled the drawing of John Doe II and thinks a guard had it in for him. He had a square jaw and a tatoo on his arm. Another prisoner, Alden Gillis Baker, told Kent's family what he observed that night. Subsequently, Baker was found dead in his cell.

Then there's the medical examiner's testimony:

Dr. Fred Jordan, the Oklahoma medical examiner, performed the autopsy. "I felt Mr. Trentadue had been abused and tortured," he concluded. He later told an Oklahoma City television reporter that "it's very likely he was murdered."

Stay tuned.

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