Does one man on death row hold the secret of Oklahoma?

One of the most notorious criminals in the US, David Hammer was imprisoned alongside Timothy McVeigh. As he faces execution, his memoirs will only fuel the whispers of conspiracy around the 1995 bombing. Andrew Gumbel reports
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If he had only his own tale to tell, the story of David Paul Hammer -career criminal, scourge of the US prison system and, now, the next federalprisoner in line to be executed - would already be extraordinary enough.In his native Oklahoma, where he first entered the prison system 26 yearsago at the age of 19, he so exasperated and terrified the state prisonauthorities with his spasms of extraordinary violence and his twosuccessful escapes that they constructed a special isolation cage for himwith shatterproof glass and reinforced steel doors. Since arriving onfederal death row, he has often been likened to Hannibal Lecter, thesavagely intelligent man-eating serial killer of pulp fiction andHollywood movies. And notwithout reason.

Like Lecter, the crimes he has admitted committing are little short offlabbergasting. At the age of 18, strung out on PCP and contemplatingsuicide, he held several hostages at gunpoint at the Oklahoma CityHospital. At 24, during the second of his two prison escapes, Hammer took aman at gunpoint, ordered him to undress on a lonely road and shot him threetimes in the head. The man, who somehow survived, later testified in courthe found Hammer to be "crazy, man ... completely insane".

Having been transferred to the federal prison system - Oklahoma could notcope - Hammer then brutally murdered the first man unlucky enough to beassigned as his cell mate, tying him to his bunk with knotted bedsheets,stuffing a sock in his mouth and slowly garrotting him with a braided cord.That was the crime that earned him the death sentence and a final transferto "Dog Unit", the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Like Lecter, Hammer is also a man of impish deviousness. In Oklahoma, heran scams using the credit card numbers of prison guards, set up a boguschurch with himself as minister and his fellow inmates as the board ofdirectors, conned a department store into sending him thousands of dollarsof merchandise, orchestrated death threats against elected officials and,on one notorious occasion, brought the Oklahoma legislature to a standstillwith a chillingly convincing bomb threat.

For a long time, the system simply did not know what to do with him. Thejudge who tried him after the kidnapping and shooting incident sentencedhim to 1200 years behind bars, prompting a shocked Hammer to blurt out:"But, your honour, I can"t do 1200 years!" The judge replied: "That's okay,son, just do as much as you can."

Hammer is more than just a criminal monster, however. He may be deeplytormented, for reasons stretching back to earliest childhood, but he isalso highly intelligent and almost limitlessly resourceful when it comes tounderstanding the prison environment and figuring out how to take his quietrevenge on the system.

Already before he arrived in Terre Haute, he made himself useful to lawyersand researchers working on cases that depended on an intimate knowledge ofthe US prison system. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to read of apossible miscarriage of justice and then volunteer his services as the mostinside of inside sources.

After he arrived in Terre Haute, he was granted access to one of the mostnotorious and, in many ways, least understood American criminals of moderntimes, the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. For 23 months, between theestablishment of the Terre Haute death row in 1999 and McVeigh's executionin 2001, the two men lived three cells down from each other. Although eachhad plentiful reason to be wary of the other " McVeigh, like everyone,appears to have been terrified of Hammer at first " they eventually formeda bond that deepened into genuine friendship.

And now Hammer has written a book about it. Or rather, he has written abook that promises to unlock a whole treasure chest of secrets about theOklahoma City bombing, based in part on his conversations with McVeigh. Thebook, entitled Secrets Worth Dying For and due to be issued by a smallIndiana publishing house next month, is likely to be Hammer's epitaph sincehe has just relinquished all further appeals and is awaiting an executiondate, expected to be set sometime this spring or early summer.

It turns out that Hammer has not one but three extraordinary stories totell " his own, McVeigh's and that of a certain Kenneth Michael Trentadue,who starts out as a bit player and ends up taking on a role of surprisingprominence. Even if one chooses not to believe everything (this is, afterall, the memoir of a violent criminal, not a work of investigativejournalism) what is inescapable by the end is an absolutely hair-raisingtrail of dead bodies, many of them found hanging in prison cells under lessthan transparent circumstances, and all of them traceable in some way backto the Oklahoma City bombing. Real-life mysteries don"t get much betterthan this.

The first time Tim McVeigh spoke to David Hammer, he immediately braggedabout the death toll at the Oklahoma City federal building in acharacteristic mixture of bravado and utter tastelessness. "All I have tosay is that the official score is 168 to 1. I"m up," said. To which Hammerreplied: "Well, I guess they can"t kill you more than once."

Even on federal death row, McVeigh's crimes were on a scale that disgustedhis fellow inmates. He was frequently tarred as a "baby killer" (the bombexploded directly beneath a children's day care centre) and taunted foreverything from his conviction that the world would tumble into chaos asthe year 2000 rolled around, to his apparent dearth of sexual experiences."Virgin McVeigh", they called him.

Hammer describes McVeigh as being obsessed with posterity and hisreputation as the lone-wolf mastermind of what was then the worst peacetimeatrocity committed on US soil. He refused to keep any compromising items inhis cell, for fear that they would be found in the event of his suddendeath. He didn"t even want a dictionary, in case people accused him ofbeing a bad speller. When he needed medicine, he would ask another inmateto describe his symptoms to a doctor and get the prescription on hisbehalf. Illness, he thought, might be interpreted as a form of weakness.

Slowly, though, Hammer, McVeigh and a third inmate, Jeffrey Paul, startedto spend time together, if only because they were the sole white prisonerson death row. They nicknamed their regular meetings "Klan rallies", eventhough McVeigh was the only white supremacist among them. Hammer explainedthe relationship this way: "Our associations were not always amiable, therewere intense disputes and allegations of broken promises and eventreachery, but in the end the necessity for cooperation won out." Hammerand Paul helped McVeigh project the image of himself that he wanted, andMcVeigh, in turn, started talking to them about some of the details of theOklahoma City bombing that he was not willing to share with anybody else.

Much of what Hammer writes about the bombing goes over terrain alreadyexplored in a number of books and articles challenging the lone-wolf theoryput forward publicly by both McVeigh and his government prosecutors.Notably, he runs through the compelling evidence, laid out in TheIndependent in May 2001, that McVeigh was part of a neo-Nazi bank robberygang which financed the bombing and actively participated in bringing it tofruition " a version the government has been at great pains to pooh-pooh,because it would make a mockery of the scenario its prosecutors impressedupon the courts and the public at large. It is not clear how much ofHammer's material came directly from McVeigh, and how much from outsidesources " the manuscript suggests a bit of each.

Sifting through Hammer's information and deciding how much to believe is adelicate process. The McVeigh in the book is not immune to paranoidself-aggrandisement, to put it mildly, and some of his claims say much moreabout him than they do about the bombing itself. In an extended riff, forexample, he suggests he was approached towards the end of his time in thearmed forces by a shady US government operative calling himself only TheMajor. The Major supposedly recruited McVeigh to infiltrate the militantfar right, and later encouraged him to go ahead with the Oklahoma Citybombing because its sheer brutality would shock the right-wing militiamovement into breaking apart. In other words, the whole thing was aconvoluted government plot, with McVeigh as the feds" fall guy. It's anintriguing story, except there isn"t a shred of credible evidence to backit up.

Other avenues of conversation proved much more fruitful from a factualpoint of view. None seems to have drawn Hammer and McVeigh together moreclosely than the story of Kenny Trentadue, a man neither of them had evermet but who came to fascinate them both and serve their mutual interest inembarrassing the federal government.

Trentadue was a convicted bank robber who had served his time and thenskipped out on his parole officer, apparently because he was outraged atbeing barred from drinking beer. On August 18, 1995 " four months after theOklahoma City bombing " he was picked up crossing the border from Mexico tosouthern California and then, for reasons the government has yet toexplain, was transported to the Department of Justice's brand-new FederalTransfer Center in Oklahoma City. Three days later, his bloody, batteredcorpse was released to the state medical examiner's office. Prisonofficials claimed he had committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.

There the story might have ended, but for Trentadue's family which refusedto accede to official requests to have the body cremated and insisted on anautopsy. In the contorted events that followed, it turned out thatTrentadue's body was covered in blood from head to toe. He had sufferedthree massive blows to the head, rupturing his scalp and skull, and histhroat was slit. The government continued to insist that his injuries wereself-inflicted, even as a growing chorus of journalists, congressmen andlegal experts voiced their suspicions of foul play.

David Hammer read about the case in the papers and wrote to Trentadue'sbrother Jesse, a lawyer in Salt Lake City, to offer his help in negotiatinga path around the federal prison bureaucracy in the hunt for the truth. Atthat time it occurred to nobody that Kenny Trentadue's death might have hadanything to do with the Oklahoma City bombing.

That changed, however, when Hammer arrived in Terre Haute and showedMcVeigh a picture of Trentadue. McVeigh responded immediately: "Now I knowTrentadue was killed, because they thought he was Richard Guthrie."

Guthrie is a name that looms very large in all of the alternative theoriesof the Oklahoma bombing. He was one of the neo-Nazi bank robbers suspectedof involvement in the bombing, a former Navy SEAL with explosives trainingand a track record of anti-government violence. At the time of Trentadue'sarrest, he was at large, believed to be in either Mexico or Canada, andurgently sought by the FBI. He was the same height and the same weight asTrentadue, with similar complexion and a similar thick moustache. Both menused aliases. They even had the same dragon-motif tattoo on their left arms" something they had in common with the police sketch in circulation at thetime of McVeigh's presumed accomplice, referred to simply as "John Doe 2".

In other words, Trentadue's fate appears to have been the result of adisastrous case of mistaken identity. As the Trentadue family now sees it,Kenny was apprehended at the border, immediately flagged as a possible"John Doe 2", and shipped off to Oklahoma City for further questioning. Whyhe ended up dead in his cell is a matter of pure speculation, but he wasnot the only person connected to the Oklahoma bombing to end up that way.

The real Richard Guthrie was apprehended in January 1996 and charged onbank robbery charges only - the government having apparently lost interestin linking the robberies to the bombing by then. (The hunt for John Doe 2formally ended a year later, with the FBI publicly announcing they nowbelieved McVeigh acted alone.) Six months after his arrest, Guthrie wasfound hanging in his cell under circumstances that some friends and familyfound suspicious. He had been due to give a major television interview thevery next day.

As the Trentadue investigation deepened, an inmate who had been in theOklahoma Federal Transfer Center at the time of Trentadue's death cameforward claiming to have witnessed the whole thing. According to FBIdocumentation repeatedly disavowed by the Justice Department, Alden GillisBaker had actually been sharing Trentadue's cell on the fateful night. Andnow " this was sometime in 1999 - he was volunteering to testify thatTrentadue was murdered. But then something went wrong. In December 1999,Baker told a lawyer he feared for his life because of threats from theguards in his new prison in California. In August 2000, he was foundhanging by a sheet in his cell.

Is it outrageous to think these deaths might all be related? Is the federalgovernment that scared of having its lone-wolf theory of the Oklahoma Citybombing contradicted? Or is this string of 'suicides" explainable simply asa result of unstable prisoners coming into contact with less thanupstanding employees of the criminal justice system?

The nuances of the cases are too complex to go into in this space, but hereare a couple of considerations. First, in May 2001 the Trentadue family wasawarded $1.1 million in damages for "intentional infliction of emotionaldistress" by the Justice Department, lending considerable credence to theirsuspicion that Kenny was murdered. The federal judge who ruled in theirfavour lambasted three government witnesses for what he said were 'seriousquestions about their truthfulness". The court was unable, however, to ruleon the exact cause of Trentadue's death because too much evidence in thecase had been destroyed. Trentadue's family has lodged an appeal to try topush the case further their way.

Secondly, the crucial clue McVeigh gave Hammer about the resemblancebetween Trentadue and Guthrie looks more and more convincing on closerinspection. It is perhaps appropriate to approach the source of theinformation with some scepticism, but if McVeigh didn"t say it, then Hammermust have made it up, and there is absolutely no reason to presume Hammerknew who Richard Guthrie was, let alone have a detailed idea of what helooked like. Conversely, if McVeigh did say it, then he not only offered aplausible explanation for Trentadue's transfer from the Mexican border toOklahoma City, he also linked himself to Guthrie and the neo-Nazi bankrobbers " the most significant admission extant from him to that effect.We do know from a separate source that McVeigh was extremely interested inTrentadue's case: Trentadue took up a large chunk of space in McVeigh'scorrespondence with a writer from Esquire magazine, published shortly afterhis execution in 2001. McVeigh also told Hammer he had come up with a newverb participle, "trentadued", meaning murdered by the federal government.The Trentadue family has gladly adopted the term as its own.

What could Hammer's motivation be in revealing all this now, on the eve ofhis own death? Part of it, no doubt, is a continuing desire to stick it tothe system and shame the prison system with some unpalatable truths fromdeep within its bowels. He has gone on record many times to say howstrongly he opposes capital punishment and the way the US prisonbureaucracy works. Another part of his motivation, bizarrely, is an homageto his friend Timothy McVeigh. Hammer was so upset by McVeigh's executionthat he attempted suicide the night before by injecting himself with anoverdose of insulin (he is diabetic). After he recovered, he wrote thefollowing diary entry which is reproduced in his book:

"My friend, Tim, is a troubled and misguided man. We disagree on mostissues, but he is also a kind, loving and caring person with a quick smile,keen wit and a sense of humour. I will miss him and I continue to pray forhis soul." The psychotic monster and the headline-grabbing mass murderer:it must have been one hell of a relationship.