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."