So, who is McKenna? He’s probably the most famous gumshoe in Palm Beach County. If there’s a big name trial, be it national or local, from O.J. Simpson to William Kennedy Smith to John Goodman, McKenna’s been involved. In 1995, former Post staff writer Mary Jane Fine wrote an in-depth profile of McKenna when he was catapulted into the national spotlight during the O.J. Simpson trial. Here is her story:
MEET THE WEST PALM PRIVATE EYE WHO HELPED SPRING O.J.
The phone rings. It’s Patrick McKenna, calling from L.A. on his cellular phone. But, wait a minute, his accountant is on the other line so he’ll have to call back. Which he does, as promised, only to be interrupted again by a woman with a psychiatric history who is mightily upset that he won’t return her frequent calls. So what else is new?
For McKenna - known to most of the TV-watching world as the private eye who unearthed the Fuhrman tapes during the O.J. Simpson trial - the job isn’t over even when the job is over.
“My life keeps changin’ every minute,” he says, sounding almost pleased. “Packing. Logistic crap. A snafu with UPS.”
McKenna was supposed to fly home to West Palm Beach last Tuesday, see, but after 19 months out West, chatting up hundreds of people and chasing down thousands of leads, it takes some doing. For starters, he’s got 500 bankers’ boxes full of files - on O.J.’s white Bronco, on O.J.’s trip to Chicago, on O.J.’s shoes, you name it - and they’ve all got to be readied for shipping. It’s a good bet, after all, that Simpson’s lawyers will need this stuff again, given that their client still faces three wrongful-death civil trials in the brutal murder of his wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
McKenna finally got home, courtesy of the red-eye from L.A., Saturday morning. And now, “in my own little disorganized way,” he can lay his mitts on any tidbit of evidence he’s collected during this past year-and-a-half of craziness.
What matters now is getting home, getting back to normal.
“I missed a whole year of my kids’ lives,” he says, referring to Patrick Jr., 11, and Meghan, 17, who live with their mother, Tammy, McKenna’s ex-wife. “It was tough for me.”
Which is not to say, however, that if the opportunity arose again, he’d turn it down. McKenna is, always has been, probably always will be, a workaholic.
The call that catapulted him into the middle of media history came from another detective on the case on June 15, 1994, just two days after the infamous double slaying was discovered. One of McKenna’s best buddies, Dan LaPointe, drove him to the airport - destination, Chicago.
“I bear-hugged him,” recalls LaPointe, an investigator with the Palm Beach County public defender’s office, of the airport farewell. “I said, ‘I can only surmise it’s gonna be quite a ride ahead of you.’ ”
Indeed. It was in Chicago that McKenna followed O.J. Simpson’s trail and came to believe in his innocence. The former football great, he concluded, simply hadn’t behaved like a guilty man. The passing of time - during which McKenna averaged 12-hour days, seven days a week - failed to change his mind. “If (Simpson) told me now that he did it, I’d wanna know how,” he says, insisting that the oft-mentioned time line could not have encompassed the double murder.
Captain of the ship
At the time McKenna was recruited to work for the defense team, he was struggling financially. (He declines to discuss his Simpson-related earnings, except to say that he was paid by the week, not by the hour.) Although a typical year means 50 to 100 cases and a $100,000 gross income, he describes his work as “cost-intensive” with expenses that range from buying computer information to copying court records to parking fees.
“At the end of the year I say to myself, ‘How is it that I work this hard and I don’t have money for Christmas?’ ” McKenna laments. “It seems like I’m always peeling off a $20 bill.”
Not even the occasional high-profile case - William Kennedy Smith’s, for example, during which McKenna retraced Patty Bowman’s footsteps on the night she alleged she was raped - can keep a guy solvent forever. The former Marine had been limping along for 16 years or so, having evolved into a private eye after stints as a probation officer and an investigator with the public defender’s office. The latter, which involved looking into defendants’ backgrounds to write sentencing recommendations, convinced him to make detective work his future.
And, long hours and unpredictable income aside, it’s a switch he has never regretted. While his simplest jobs involve routine records checking, such as the driving history of a potential employee who will be using a company vehicle, the complexity of other cases is limitless. Once, for example, he flew to Panama “to find a lawyer named Pepe to sign a document” for clients seeking to dismantle a corporation. His credit cards expired while he was there, a situation compounded by laws prohibiting the wiring of money into the drug-plagued country.
But McKenna seems to thrive on such adventures.
“I’m captain of my own ship,” he says, then amends the statement. “Canoe, I mean. I can’t imagine going to a 9-to-5 job.”
Eventually, however, the hours and frequent out-of-town jobs caught up with the private eye’s private life.
“He was so caught up in his work, he didn’t realize there were problems at home,” says Tammy McKenna, who divorced him five years ago on their 17th wedding anniversary. But, she adds, “He’s a great person, and I wish him the best.”
Both are proud of the close friendship they have maintained. When McKenna needed someone to type up his voluminous notes from Chicago, he asked Tammy. “I was just very paranoid about things leaking,” he says, “and I needed someone I trust.”
Trust is a word that comes up often when McKenna’s friends and associates talk about him: “A great guy,” they say. And, “You gotta meet him.” And, “He’d do anything for a friend.”
He treats acquaintances and strangers pretty well, too, his friends say.
One tells how he once stripped down to his skivvies, lending his suit to a defendant who had only prison blues for a court appearance. Another recalls McKenna giving away two $35 Rolling Stones tickets so a couple of strangers he met in the Orange Bowl parking lot could groove on a Steel Wheels concert. And then there’s the time he chauffeured a bare-chested John F. Kennedy Jr. from beach to gym during the date-rape trial of his cousin, Willie Smith - including a detour so a couple of friends could meet the handsome heartthrob.
Gift of gab helps
Patrick James McKenna was born Sept. 16, 1948, the eldest of Joseph and Joan McKenna’s brood of 10. (The family dining room in Calumet City, Ill., a South Side suburb some 30 miles outside Chicago, was “the size of a bowling alley.”)
Apart from the detective books he devoured as a kid, his family hadn’t a clue about his future career.
“He’s like his father” when it comes to keeping secrets, says his mother, Joan, now widowed. “I’ve gone through this whole (Simpson) trial, and all I know is what I read in the paper.”
Careerwise, McKenna didn’t have much of a clue himself, it seems. After returning from Vietnam, he enrolled at Southern Illinois University, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice, a master’s in corrections.
His subsequent genius as a detective, say lawyers who have hired him, is twofold: his indefatigable persistence and his gift of gab.
“He keeps going until he gets what you need,” says defense attorney Richard Lubin, who has hired McKenna dozens of times. “He keeps going and going and going. Like the Energizer battery.”
Adds Palm Beach County defense attorney John Tierney, “One of his talents is his ability to talk to people, from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a poor man in the ghetto. He’s great at getting somebody in a bar to drink whiskey and tell us what we want to know.”
Tapes were biggest coup
McKenna was able to tell O.J. Simpson’s defense team what they wanted to know without ever raising a glass.
The tip came unbidden, in an anonymous phone call. The caller mentioned a client who knew a woman named Laura, and Laura had some tapes that the defense team should hear. The woman was Laura McKinny, an aspiring screenwriter in North Carolina who had taped hours of interviews with Mark Fuhrman - interviews in which Fuhrman spewed venomous, racially explosive invective. Obtaining the tapes took persuasion and time, but the outcome proved to be McKenna’s biggest coup: the revelation of Fuhrman’s alleged racism, which probably helped to acquit Simpson. Although McKenna now knows the identity of the anonymous caller, he predicts it will be years before he reveals it.
More immediately, McKenna anticipates settling back into his life - catching up with his kids, gabbing with his ex-wife and his girlfriend, Patty Hamilton (the two women are friends), hoisting a Bud or two with pals at Roxy’s.
It’s doubtful, however, that Pat McKenna will relax for long.
“In this business,” he says, “you’re only as good as your last inning pitch.”