1988 FIREFIGHTERS' DEATHS

Witnesses say federal investigator pressured them to lie

Updated: 2011-07-28T01:42:04Z

By MIKE MCGRAW

©2008 The Kansas City Star

Carie Neighbors said they threatened to take away her son. Jerry Rooks said they warned him he’d get a stiffer jail sentence. Alan Bethard said they charged him with a more serious crime.

Now, those witnesses and up to 12 others — many speaking publicly for the first time — have told The Kansas City Star that a federal investigator in the firefighters’ explosion case pressured them to lie.

Five who testified in the case admit they lied to the federal grand jury that indicted the defendants or later at their trial. The other witnesses said they refused to change their stories.

“You want me to fabricate some lies, and I don’t want any part of it,” Dave Dawson said he told federal investigators in the case. “That’s when they told me to have a good life in the penitentiary.”

Legal experts said that if investigators used improper pressure, that could mean the five defendants were wrongly prosecuted and convicted, and that a new American Bar Association rule should prompt the prosecutor to reinvestigate the two-decade-old case.

In response to The Star’s findings, a federal judge in Kansas City and a local congressman called for an investigation.

“I think this is something the Justice Department really ought to look into,” Senior U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright said recently. Wright did not preside over the 1997 trial of the five defendants. But he excoriated federal authorities when they used his courtroom to try to retaliate against an uncooperative witness.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said he would ask other area representatives to join him in an effort to begin a new inquiry.

“We need to go to the attorney general and request that the investigation surrounding that explosion be reopened, and that if it is necessary, that we go back to trial,” Cleaver said.

The federal prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, insisted that none of his investigators used improper tactics.

“We routinely threaten people with their loss of freedom” if they’re in trouble with the law and refuse to cooperate in solving crimes, Becker said.

Yet he added that if a federal agent knowingly pressured witnesses to lie at a trial, “it would be suborning perjury, and that would be a crime.” Legal experts, however, said the statute of limitations has run out on suborning perjury in the firefighter’s case.

Witnesses told The Star that excessive pressure often came from Dave True, now a retired agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which helped investigate the case.

Two witnesses said that True enticed them with reward money for their testimony at a time they were vulnerable or addicted to drugs. Some said True told them he would do whatever it took to solve the case before he retired.

In an interview last year, True maintained that he did not coerce or intimidate witnesses and said, “There’s no question in my mind the right people are in jail.” True declined to comment directly on The Star’s latest findings. ATF spokesman Mike Schmitz said he didn’t believe True would use such tactics.

Indeed, hundreds of people were interviewed by the ATF, and many said they never were pressured. One witness, Kathie Marburger, said that “anyone who said True coerced them is lying. Dave True was never like that.”

Pete Lobdell, a former ATF agent who worked with True on the case, said claims by witnesses that they were intimidated are “ridiculous.” As for witnesses at the trial, Lobdell said, “they were asked on the witness stand if they were coerced or intimidated in any way, and they denied it.”

Becker noted that defense attorneys at the trial were free to cross-examine witnesses about their motives for testifying. “Everything we knew about these people, if it was relevant to inducing their testimony or their motivation for testimony, it was turned over to the defense,” he said.

As for witnesses who are recanting now, Becker said he would respond if their claims ended up in court in new legal proceedings.

Becker acknowledged his case was built in part on questionable witnesses who often gave contradictory testimony, but argued that should be offset by the large number of witnesses who claimed the defendants admitted guilt.

Some of the witnesses interviewed by The Star have criminal records or other credibility issues.

But 24 of the 59 prosecution witnesses had a total of 76 felony convictions for assault, drug sales, prison escapes, embezzlement, counterfeiting, fraud, forgery, sexual assault, explosives violations or manslaughter, The Star’s investigation found. Many of the 59 witnesses who gave damaging testimony shared in the $50,000 reward.

One of the government’s witnesses had 17 felony convictions. Another once claimed she’d had selective amnesia, according to the trial transcript. One was legally blind, but later told a reporter that she is confident the defendants were guilty partly because she is a Pisces and therefore “psychic.”

A flawed theory?

By the time an army of federal, state and local investigators descended upon the explosion site, it was a crater-pocked moonscape littered with the burned out hulks of fire trucks and construction equipment.

Kansas City homicide detectives combed nearby neighborhoods and checked hundreds of leads, including tips pointing to security guards who worked on the site. Federal agents, meanwhile, focused on a theory of union unrest at the site.

Kansas City police came up with the first arrest in the case. Less than a year after the explosions, a Jackson County grand jury returned a second-degree murder and arson indictment against Bryan Sheppard, 18, a small-time troublemaker from the Marlborough neighborhood near the explosion site.

But the break was short-lived. Authorities released Sheppard three months later after jailhouse informants admitted they had lied to the grand jury. After that, both the local and the federal investigations stalled for several years.

By late 1994, a reward fund had grown to $50,000, and soon a nationally televised story on the explosion appeared on the program “Unsolved Mysteries.” Reward posters went up inside jails and prisons throughout Kansas and Missouri, and suddenly new tips flowed in.

In January 1995, True, a veteran ATF agent, helped spearhead a joint federal/city task force to make a last-ditch effort to solve the case.

True embraced a theory that Kansas City homicide detectives had abandoned years earlier: that Bryan Sheppard had set the fires with others from the Marlborough neighborhood during a botched burglary. True’s investigation focused on Bryan, his uncles Skip and Frank Sheppard, Frank’s girlfriend, Darlene Edwards, and Bryan’s best friend Richard Brown as the prime suspects.

The federal government in 1996 charged them with conspiracy to commit arson and alleged that they had told witnesses they went to the construction site to steal tools, dynamite or two-way radios.

Investigators put together a loose-knit theory of the crime that had all five defendants converging on the site in as many as three cars. When they failed to break into a trailer-load of explosive material, they set it on fire, either out of frustration, or to cover up their crime.

The trailer exploded, killing six firefighters — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham — who were trying to put out the blaze and were unaware that the trailer contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

According to the government’s theory, the thieves thought one of the security guards had seen them, so they also torched a guard’s unoccupied pickup truck as a diversionary tactic.

But defense attorneys said it didn’t make sense, because the guards reported that they already had left the site. They had left their posts, they said, in search of prowlers they never found. The guards said they did not see who set the fires.

There was plenty of traffic on U.S. 71 in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 29, 1988, before the explosions, and witnesses saw numerous cars near the construction site. But not one witness at trial said he or she saw any of the five defendants or their cars at the crime scene.

By the time True showed up in 1995 looking for witnesses in Marlborough, many residents already were fed up with troublemakers Frank and Skip Sheppard, who had lengthy records for assault, robbery, resisting arrest and stolen firearms. Some had heard rumors for years that the Sheppards had a role in the explosions.

But as homicide Detectives Victor Zinn and Robert Guffey noted at the trial — when they testified for the defense — some of those same Marlborough residents originally told police they had no helpful information about who was behind the explosions.

Their memories had improved markedly by the time the ATF re-interviewed them years later.

Bringing the heat

Federal investigators’ efforts to solidify their theory and firm up witnesses’ testimony may have peaked with Ronnie Edwards, defendant Darlene Edwards’ stepson.

Ronnie Edwards was key to solving the crime, investigators said.

Yet, over the years, Ronnie Edwards’ stories changed so many times that even he couldn’t keep them straight. Police records show that Ronnie Edwards told homicide detectives just two weeks after the explosion that he didn’t know anything about it.

When True and other federal investigators re-interviewed him in 1995, Ronnie Edwards was on probation for credit card fraud. Court documents show agents agreed to help him with a probation problem. And that’s when he started cooperating and remembering things.

He remembered — nearly seven years after the crime — that he was at a QuikTrip convenience store near the blast when he saw his stepmother speeding from the explosion site with suspect Frank Sheppard and three other unidentified people.

True also arranged for Ronnie Edwards to wear a wire and purchase crack cocaine from Darlene Edwards, who had a history of drug abuse. Documents show that when True confronted Darlene Edwards with evidence of the drug buy, she agreed to change her statement and say she saw some of the other defendants buying gasoline near the explosion site.

She later recanted that statement and has stuck by that recantation while serving more prison time than any of the other defendants.

Despite his eyewitness account, prosecutors never called Ronnie Edwards to testify at the trial. Becker said that “his prior statements were turned over to the defense, and he was certainly available for the defense to call if they chose to.”

Defense lawyers desperately wanted to question him, they said, so they could highlight the inconsistencies in his statements and show the jury how the case was put together, but never got the chance. They were unable to find him and serve him with a subpoena, so he didn’t testify at trial.

Ronnie Edwards never disavowed his 1995 federal grand jury testimony. But in a recent interview with The Star, he contradicted that testimony about seeing his stepmother and others fleeing the crime shortly after the explosion.

Ronnie Edwards now says he was “at home in bed” at the time of the explosion and is no longer sure any of the defendants are guilty. He declined to comment further to The Star.

Another key witness was Darlene Edwards’ daughter, Becky, who grew up in a home where drug abuse and violence were common.

At the time of her testimony, Becky Edwards was 19 years old and said she was suffering from a recent miscarriage. She testified that she remembered a kitchen table meeting nearly nine years earlier — when she was 11 years old — where her mother and the four other defendants planned to steal from the construction site.

The jury foreman would later describe Becky Edwards’ testimony at the trial as a turning point in helping to convince the jury the defendants were guilty.

But now, Becky Edwards tearfully says none of it was true. She says True told her what he wanted her to say.

In an interview with The Star, Becky Edwards said True pressured her for months. He followed her to work. He threatened to prosecute her for her drug use. And he offered to help her in a dispute with a former landlord.

She said he got her to lie by convincing her that her physically abused, drug-addicted mother would be better off in jail.

In a 2005 affidavit, Becky Edwards recanted and said she never heard any discussions in 1988 of a theft specifically at the U.S. 71 site. “He (True) always wanted me to say more than I actually knew about this case.”

Asked why she recanted, Becky Edwards said she had grown to realize that True had manipulated her.

“I grew up in a crack house,” she said, “but I’m not stupid.”

Ultimately, evidence at the trial showed nothing was stolen from the site. The locks on the explosives trailer were found still closed after the blasts.

Party admissions?

True later turned his attention to tracking down information from Ronnie Edwards about a party shortly after the explosions where two of the defendants had allegedly admitted the crimes. Ronnie Edwards told True that a partygoer had made a videotape of the admissions, but the tape never turned up.

Other partygoers wouldn’t back up Ronnie Edwards’ claims.

One partygoer, Debra Cearley, said she told True what she’d already told Kansas City police years before — that no one made any admissions. She said she also told True she never saw anyone with a video camera.

“True didn’t like anything I had to say,” Cearley recently told The Star.

Another partygoer, Alan Bethard, also wouldn’t corroborate Ronnie Edwards’ claims.

Bethard insisted that he never heard any admissions and offered to take a lie detector test. He also refused to back Ronnie Edwards’ grand jury claim that he was with Edwards at the QuikTrip when they saw Darlene Edwards and other defendants speeding from the site.

Bethard said True offered him the entire $50,000 reward if he would verify Ronnie Edwards’ story. When he refused, Bethard said, True followed through on his threat to help move a stolen-car case against Bethard from state to federal court, where penalties are harsher.

Bethard’s attorney in that case said in federal court that it was simply a tactic to force Bethard to corroborate Ronnie Edwards’ story. The attorney argued, “In another context, what has been attempted here would be called extortion.”

In the end, Bethard admitted stealing the car, but federal Judge Scott Wright chastised the government and threatened to dismiss the case as “vindictive prosecution.”

Wright told Bethard, “I’m sure the (federal) Sentencing Commission would never, never in their wildest dreams anticipate that the government would pull something like this, like they’ve pulled on you.” Wright then ordered Bethard to pay restitution and put him on probation for five years.

Then Wright asked Becker a question that he never allowed the prosecutor to answer.

“Did it ever occur to you that your witness (Ronnie Edwards) might be the one that’s lying?” Wright said.

In a recent interview Becker would not say whether he ever questioned Ronnie Edwards’ story, but he denied that the government retaliated against Bethard. Becker said authorities were only seeking Bethard’s cooperation.

“We call it an inducement,” Becker said, adding that Bethard committed a crime and “it is our obligation and duty to go out and prosecute violations of federal criminal law.”

More pressure

By 1996, eight years after the explosions, the government’s case against the five defendants still faced several obstacles. There were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence conclusively linking any of the suspects to the crime.

In their search for witnesses, True and other investigators interviewed relatives, former girlfriends, neighborhood gossips and jailhouse informants. Many who provided damaging testimony insist that True never threatened or coerced them.

However, other witnesses said True pressured them to change their stories to match the ATF’s theory of the case.

Jerry Rooks, who testified at the trial, said he was 12 years old when he overheard admissions by some of the defendants. He recently told The Star, however, that investigators pressured him to say that defendant Richard Brown was involved in the crime.

“They told me not to say Richard didn’t have anything to do with it,” Rooks said, adding that he was told that if he did not cooperate, he would do more time on a probation violation.

Dave Dawson, who was on the government’s witness list for the trial, told The Star that he “fabricated some lies” about one defendant at the behest of federal investigators after they promised to help him with a pending criminal case.

When he refused to repeat those lies in court, Dawson said, he was charged in several armed robberies he said he did not commit. He’s now in prison after being convicted of two other armed robberies.

Carie Neighbors, a former classmate of defendant Bryan Sheppard, said True pressured her to testify that she overheard Bryan and Richard Brown admitting to the crime.

“He was awful,” she said of True. “He told me basically that if I didn’t testify, he would take my son away from me.”

She said True told her, “We know what you know and this is what you know and this is what you are going to say.”

Neighbors testified at the trial, but she has since signed an affidavit taking back that testimony. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” she said.

Shannon Reimers, the sister of defendant Richard Brown, said she also was pressured by True to make statements in court that she has since recanted. She said other witnesses testified for the reward money.

“It was all about money … and about threatening,” Reimers said.

Larry Summers, another witness, said True encouraged him to say that Bryan Sheppard admitted involvement.

“He told me that if I changed my statement to implicate Bryan that it would help the families of the dead firefighters,” Summers said. “He said he wanted me to tell him something incriminating about Bryan.”

Summers refused, he said, because he never heard anyone confess to the crime. Then, he said, True “reached in the glove box of his car and threw a subpoena right in my face and said he would see me in court.” However, he said he ignored the subpoena and never testified.

Valerie Rocha, a former girlfriend of one defendant, said True approached her in a drug rehab program and offered her a $400 reward “to lie.”

“He (True) knew I had a drug problem, and he enticed me with money,” Rocha said. “He gave me word for word what to say to the grand jury. I was to say that I walked in the room and heard Richard Brown and Bryan Sheppard saying, ‘What are we going to do if we get caught?’ ”

Rocha said that she never heard them say that. When the time came to testify to the grand jury, she said, she did not lie and that’s when federal authorities abruptly ended their questioning.

Becker said federal rules prevent him from confirming whether Rocha testified to the grand jury, but he said that if Rocha gave the grand jury information helping the defendants, it would have been turned over to defense attorneys, as required.

However, files provided to The Star by those attorneys do not include Rocha’s grand jury testimony.

Defense attorney John O’Connor complained loudly and often during the trial about prosecution witnesses being pressured and threatened or offered some sort of help in return for their testimony.

O’Connor said some prosecution witnesses told him before the trial that they feared reprisals if they admitted that federal investigators pressured them to adopt statements they never really made. He called it a “consistent pattern” of witnesses being “threatened … and told that they have to testify or things will happen to them.”

Witnesses ignored

Even witnesses who believe some but not all of the defendants could be guilty said investigators ignored information exonerating other defendants.

Patti Smith, a former girlfriend of defendant Skip Sheppard, testified that he and his mother admitted in her presence that Skip Sheppard was involved in the crime.

However, Smith said she tried to explain to True and others before the trial that their conversation also made it clear that Skip Sheppard’s nephew, Bryan, was innocent. But Smith said federal officials told her they were not interested in information clearing Bryan “because it was their job to prosecute.”

Another witness, Ella Hutton, said she came forward with new information, but said True didn’t want to hear it because it didn’t corroborate the testimony of another witness.

Hutton lived near the explosion site in 1988. She told The Star that, after the blast, she saw defendant Richard Brown as a passenger in a white pickup truck parked near her home. She said Brown asked whether she had seen anyone leave the explosion site. She said that Brown did not smell of gasoline and that he had clean clothes.

When True contacted her, she said, he informed her that other witnesses claimed Brown and Bryan Sheppard were together after the blast in a black pickup and that they were dirty and reeked of gasoline.

Hutton said that’s when True told her she would not be a witness at the trial, because her story didn’t agree with that of another witness, who later recanted.

Today, Hutton said, she does not know whether Brown is guilty. All she knows for sure, she said, is that True “tried to get me to say I saw stuff I didn’t see. He wanted me to back up his witness, but I wouldn’t do it.”

Again, True has declined to comment.

Defense attorneys remain convinced justice wasn’t done and that the five defendants are innocent. “There is nothing much in life that is a certainty, but in my mind it is a certainty that they are not guilty,” said Will Bunch.

Marion Germann, the Fire Department’s battalion chief on duty at the scene of the explosion, also has expressed reservations about the case.

Germann, who is now the only surviving witness to the disaster other than the security guards, said, “I’ve just always been uncomfortable with whether the right people went to trial.”

New inquiry?

The defendants, who’ve always maintained their innocence, have lost all of their appeals.

But the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted in Toronto, Canada, is assessing the merits of the case, said Sal Caramanna, a private attorney and a member of the organization’s international review committee.

Their review is based on a request from one of the defendants and some of the information revealed in earlier Star articles. If the association decides to adopt the case, it could provide expertise or attorneys to help work on it, association officials said.

An ethics rule adopted in February by the American Bar Association also might offer the defendants another chance. It requires prosecutors to investigate further when “new, credible and material evidence” of possible innocence emerges after a conviction.

Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who helped write the rule, said he believes The Star’s findings should prompt prosecutors to open a new investigation.

“If the prosecutor knows it (that witnesses claimed they were pressured), and if these people are credible, then it ought to trigger some investigating,” Green said.

Stephen A. Saltzburg, chairman of the ABA’s criminal justice committee, also said that “if I were the prosecutor … I would initiate an inquiry into the new evidence to try to determine whether or not the wrong people were convicted.”

The amended rule is so new, however, that it has yet to be adopted by any state. Lawyers in Missouri said such rules, or a form of them, are usually adopted here.

Saltzburg, a former top official in the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division, cautioned that reopening the firefighters’ case is not a “slam dunk” under the new rule.

But he added that “given the length of the sentences — life sentences — I think fair-minded prosecutors would say we have an obligation to look into this.”


Twenty years ago, in the early hours before dawn on Nov. 29, 1988, six firefighters died in a massive explosion ignited by arson fires at a construction site in south Kansas City.

As smoke still roiled over the horrific scene, one of the most far-reaching criminal investigations in Kansas City history began. After eight frustrating years, authorities finally charged five small-time hoods from a nearby neighborhood. A judge sent them away for life.

But last year, The Star found a witness who said he saw someone else set the fires. Today, The Star reveals that numerous witnesses now say they were pressured by a federal investigator to lie in the case against the five.

Of the 59 witnesses who testified against the defendants, many asked for assistance from the government with pending legal problems — and 18 were in jail when they came forward.

Also today, The Star will introduce a new witness who points to another suspect in the fires.

With this information, a recent American Bar Association rule offers an avenue — and an obligation, say some legal experts — for reopening the case.


A chronology of the case
Nov. 29, 1988: Explosions spark massive federal and local investigation

Sept. 1989: Jackson County grand jury indicts Bryan Sheppard

Dec. 1989: Charges dropped against Bryan Sheppard

Feb. 1995: “Unsolved Mysteries” television show is broadcast, sparking many tips; federal/local task force formed

June 1996: Federal grand jury indicts Bryan Sheppard and four other defendants

July 1997: Five defendants sentenced to life in prison

To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4423 or send e-mail to mcgraw@kcstar.com.

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