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, throat 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.