SALT LAKE CITY — Jesse Trentadue has spent nearly two decades searching for answers in the death of his brother on a path that has led him to question both the government's explanation for the death and whether they are hiding information related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Monday, that search culminated in a trial in U.S. District Court.
In 2008, Trentadue filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the FBI for videos and documents related to the bombing. The government said it identified 244 videos and 200 pages of documents relevant to Trentadue's request, after a search by an employee in Oklahoma City named Linda Vernon.
After Trentadue, a Salt Lake attorney, was asked to narrow the scope, 30 videos and the 200 pages were released to him.
"Every tape is known and accounted for," U.S. Department of Justice attorney Kathryn Wyer said in her opening statements Monday. "If the tape did in fact exist it would be found through the searches that (Vernon) did. The plaintiff (Trentadue) refused to accept that the 30 tapes he got are the only tapes."
Trentadue believes there are more videos and is challenging the claim in a bench trial before U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups. Trentadue is after surveillance tape of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and neighboring buildings the day of the bombing as well as dashboard camera video from the Oklahoma state trooper who stopped convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh 90 minutes after the blast.
He claims a "contemporaneous government record" referred to a security camera videotape that showed a Ryder truck pulling up to the federal building, pausing seven to 10 seconds before parking and then "the truck detonation three minutes and six seconds after the suspects exited the truck." The videos provided in response to his FOIA request do not show this, Trentadue argues. He said the FBI provided an edited dash cam video and no surveillance from the Murrah building nor video from surrounding buildings that were directed at the Murrah building.
Waddoups apparently ordered the government to conduct additional searches for the videotapes, but Trentadue said it never did.
The U.S. Department of Justice contends that it has given Trentadue all the information he requested, but he said they have failed to provide footage of McVeigh parking a truckload of explosives at the federal building on April 19, 1995.
Trentadue believes this video will reveal there was a second man with McVeigh who exited with him shortly before the truck exploded, killing 168 people. He claims the second bombing suspect resembled his brother, leading to him being wrongly targeted.
A convicted bank robber, Kenneth Trentadue had been picked up in California after violating his parole and was transported to Oklahoma City for further proceedings. During this time, the FBI was investigating the bombing.
Kenneth Trentadue was found hanging in his cell while in federal custody, and his death was ruled a suicide. Jesse Trentadue felt the explanation did not fit the battered, bruised condition of his brother's body and believes federal agents mistook Kenneth Trentadue for a bombing suspect and beat him to death during an interrogation.
Monday, Trentadue pointed to one video he is still seeking. He said he asked for information produced as part of another Oklahoma City bombing-related information request that landed in court — David Hoffman v. DOJ. But Monica Mitchell, who works in the FBI's records office that responds to FOIA requests, testified that Trentadue didn't ask for information about the Hoffman case.
She said he just referenced the case in his request simply because it was a case that sought similar information.
Trentadue said he was given a list of what was and was not provided to Hoffman and learned that one videotape and 300 documents totaling 1,500 pages were being housed at the FBI headquarters and were not provided to Hoffman or himself.
Mitchell said she did not review or inquire after that videotape and did not attempt to find it in response to Trentadue's request.
"After every inquiry you made, I reached out to the field (in Oklahoma City)," Mitchell said. "I went back to Ms. Vernon (Linda Vernon in Oklahoma City) on numerous occasions to confirm that everything that we did is everything we can do."
The judge questioned whether Mitchell reached out to Vernon after Trentadue sent the FOIA records office an article from the Houston Chronicle indicating that an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper's dash cam video showed McVeigh's arrest. Trentadue said there was no arrest shown on the video he was given.
"Did you go back to anyone in the field and say, 'Mr. Trentadue said this tape is incomplete. Can you verify we've given him everything we have?'" Waddoups asked.
"No," Mitchell replied.
"Is it correct that in response to this you did nothing?" the judge asked, referring to the article Trentadue sent.
"We did nothing because we were confident in our search and what we located," Mitchell said.
Linda Vernon testified that she spent 85 ½ hours responding to Trentadue's initial request, and then additional hours after he sent more inquiries. She said she was "completely confident" they sent everything that fit within Trentadue's request, but said some of the surveillance videos had been edited to slow them down and make them viewable during the investigation.
She said her investigation also revealed that the dash cam video Trentadue requested had been returned to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, prompting her to track down a copy of the video, which was provided on a DVD. Vernon said it was her understanding that the trooper had not known how to use the camera and believed he had turned it on prior to when he had.
But Trentadue had several documents he believes fit in with his request, but weren't provided. Vernon said that while she found the documents in her search, she didn't think they applied to his request.
"You made the decision on your own to exclude this document?" the judge said.
"Yes sir," Vernon confirmed.6 comments on this story
The FBI contends it searched using procedures other courts have upheld as reasonable and that Trentadue essentially wants to use his FOIA request as a search warrant, which goes beyond the scope of the law. But Waddoups has chastised the U.S. Department of Justice several times for not producing the tapes and questioned whether the FBI adequately looked for them.
Trentadue contends the reason the government has fought so hard to withhold the results of the death investigation is because it may contain a cover-up reaching to the top ranks of the Department of Justice.
The trial is scheduled to continue until Wednesday, but Wyers raised concerns that it was moving too slowly to be completed by then. The judge said he would make arrangements to hear all of the evidence before the end of the week.
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