1988 Explosion

Report surfaces in 1988 explosion that killed six firefighters

Updated: 2011-07-28T01:42:19Z

By MIKE McGRAW

© 2009 The Kansas City Star

Defense attorneys say they were never given key evidence that could have helped five defendants convicted in the 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters.

The attorneys say the evidence — a one-page police report — could have been used to implicate other suspects in the case and help prevent a guilty verdict in the 1997 trial that sent five defendants to prison for life.

The police report, obtained as part of an ongoing investigation by The Kansas City Star, raises additional questions about the whereabouts of two security guards on duty at the construction site where six firefighters died. The guards later testified for the prosecution at the federal trial.

“We did not receive that document, and it obviously would have been something we would have used to impeach the testimony of the security guards,” said Pat Peters, one of the defense attorneys.

Peters and others said the police report was not among the thousands of pages of investigative documents provided to them before the trial. They added that they’re not sure federal prosecutors ever had the report to give them.

“That document absolutely should have been turned over,” said John P. O’Connor, another of the defense attorneys. “I don’t see the government holding back that report on purpose, but that doesn’t matter under the rules governing discovery in criminal court.”

The police report, dated Aug. 2, 1990, contains an interview with a witness whose story appears to conflict with the testimony of the guards and their accounts of where they were moments before two fires were set.

The guards testified that they found their pickup truck on fire after leaving the site to search for prowlers.

Defense attorneys have long suspected the security guards’ actions that night. They argued in appeals court documents that one of the guards may have actually set the fires as part of an attempted insurance fraud that unintentionally led to the deaths of the firefighters.

“It (the report) arguably shows the security guards knew the truck was on fire” before they left the site, not after they returned, as they said in court, said Susan Hunt, who represented one of the defendants.

In the early hours of Nov. 29, 1988, two arson fires were set at a construction site in southeast Kansas City, one in a security guard’s truck and one in a trailer loaded with 25,000 pounds of explosives. The trailer blew up, instantly killing six firefighters — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.

The pre-dawn blasts shook the Kansas City area and touched off one of the most far-reaching criminal investigations in the city’s history.

After eight frustrating years, authorities finally charged five small-time hoods — Frank Sheppard, Earl “Skip” Sheppard, Bryan Sheppard, Darlene Edwards and Richard Brown — from the nearby Marlborough neighborhood. All five have maintained their innocence.

The Star’s ongoing investigation supports allegations that security guards may have played a role in the crime. Four people said that two female guards — one of whom wasn’t on duty — acknowledged involvement in the crime.

The Star has reported that a witness said he saw someone other than the defendants set the fires that sparked the explosions. And the newspaper reported that numerous witnesses said they were pressured by a federal investigator to lie in the case against the five defendants, which was based largely on informant testimony.

Those stories have sparked renewed investigations of the crime by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Kansas City-based Midwestern Innocence Project and local defense lawyers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, who prosecuted the case, did not reply to a request for an interview, and a spokesperson for the office said the ongoing investigation prevents them from commenting. However, Becker has said in the past that he is confident the investigators and prosecutors acted properly and that the right defendants were convicted.

The duty of prosecutors to disclose all relevant documents to defense attorneys has become a high-profile legal issue in recent weeks.

Prosecutors involved in the case against Ted Stevens, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, are under investigation for failing to turn over what’s known as “exculpatory evidence” favorable to the defendant.

The prosecutors in that case came under fire for not disclosing discrepancies in the testimony of a key witness. That failure resulted in a judge overturning Stevens’ conviction earlier this month for lying about gifts he received from wealthy friends.

Legal experts said Attorney General Eric Holder’s quick acknowledgment that Justice Department prosecutors made mistakes in the Stevens case signals a new culture at the department.

“If Attorney General Holder says there is a new day at the Justice Department and all prosecutions must be of a high integrity, then I think that gives hope to other cases where there are these kinds of problems,” said Virginia Sloan, president of a bipartisan legal rights group called the Constitution Project.

“Prosecutors are the wrong people to determine what is exculpatory,” Sloan added.

Holder, who was deputy attorney general under Janet Reno when the defendants in the firefighters case were convicted, declined comment, citing the ongoing investigations.

The police report

The Star recently obtained the 1990 police report containing the interview with the witness, conducted by the Kansas City Police Department during its investigation of the crime. Records from that earlier investigation later became part of a federal probe that ultimately led to the defendants’ convictions.

But it is not clear whether the police report was among the records turned over to federal authorities. Although the witness’s name is in the police report, The Star agreed not to identify her at her request because of concerns about her personal safety in an unrelated matter.

In the report, the witness told police that she was driving near the crime scene, a U.S. 71 construction site in south Kansas City, at a crucial moment prior to the explosions.

The witness said that as she neared the construction site, she saw a pickup truck engulfed in flames on the west side of the roadway. She said she also saw two white cars circling nearby, between the burning truck and Blue River Road, just to the north.

The cars were shining spotlights “as if they were looking for someone,” she told police, adding that the cars were unmarked and the spotlights were “higher up on the cars.”

While the witness does not provide specific times, her statements appear to contradict the testimony of the two security guards on duty that night.

The guards testified at the trial that they shined their spotlights around the area before the fires were set, not after.

The guards, Robert Riggs and his sister Debbie, never accused the five defendants of the crime. They did not respond to requests for a comment for this story, but they have previously denied involvement in the crime.

The guards testified that prior to the fires, they left the site in Robert Riggs’ unmarked, cream-colored Nissan Maxima station wagon, leaving Debbie Riggs’ pickup truck behind. They said they left the site to search for trespassers they had seen, using a spotlight they stuck through the open sun roof of Robert Riggs’ car.

They never mentioned the second white car the witness said she observed.

The guards said they then drove to a convenience store about a mile north of the site to ask the manager whether he had seen the prowlers. He had not, so they purchased food and drinks and sat in the parking lot.

Within a minute or two, a passer-by pulled in and reported the fires, prompting the guards to return to the construction site.

That’s when the guards said they first saw the fires, adding that they returned to Debbie Riggs’ burning truck, parked close by and remained there until the Fire Department arrived a few minutes later.

Some Kansas City police investigators and defense lawyers have long questioned the guards’ version of events. And the attorneys said the witness’s statements support those doubts.

The police didn’t interview her until the summer of 1990, after she mentioned the matter to a detective.

John Osgood, a former federal prosecutor who represented another defendant, said his review of government-provided documents, which he searched electronically, shows that the police report never was produced.

“It would have been extremely useful in the cross-examination of Debbie Riggs,” Osgood said, adding that one defense attorney asserted on appeal that she may have set the fires herself.

He said that the judge in the case, who has since died, stifled the defense’s attempts to introduce evidence about Debbie Riggs.

“We knew she got rid of a previous vehicle and got insurance for it,” Osgood said, referring to testimony by Debbie Riggs acknowledging during the original trial that several years before the explosions she arranged to have another car stolen for the insurance money.

Case is under review

The Justice Department opened an investigation into the government’s handling of the firefighters case last July at the request of John Wood, then U.S. attorney for western Missouri.

Wood said at the time that The Star’s investigation “indicates that some individuals have called into question their own prior statements regarding an arson case that my office tried in the 1990s.” He added that “our paramount goal is to ensure that justice is served in every case.”

Wood, now in private practice, said recently that “as of the time I left, the review was still ongoing, so I wouldn’t comment on that until it is complete, other than to say that I have great confidence in the people doing the review and the individuals who handled the original investigation and prosecution.”

Several witnesses in the case have told The Star they have been contacted or interviewed by an inspector general investigator based in Chicago. The investigator, who has declined comment, is expected to return to Kansas City in the next few weeks for more interviews.

The firefighters case also is under review by Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City area criminal defense attorney.

Ultimately, whether allegations about the guards and claims of misconduct by investigators will provide the five defendants another opportunity to prove their innocence remains to be seen, defense attorneys said.

But they added that the ongoing investigations may provide them their last, best chance to do so.

“It is a different day at the Justice Department,” said Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school and board member of the Innocence Project. “They seem to be more interested in justice.”

Guard had insurance problems

Another potential legal issue that didn’t surface during the explosion trial was a security guard’s insurance problems.

Five months after the 1988 explosions that killed six firefighters, Kansas City police detectives contacted officials at the special investigations unit of American Family Insurance. That was the company providing security guard Debbie Riggs’ auto insurance.

According to a police report given to defense attorneys, insurance officials said that the only claim from Riggs they had paid at the time was for the pickup truck destroyed by the arson fire the day of the explosions.

But Riggs made another, much larger claim on a separate vehicle in July 1989, eight months after the explosions. Her brother, Robert Riggs, was driving her car when it was involved in a serious accident that injured a passenger.

According to her American Family auto insurance file, recently obtained by The Kansas City Star, that second accident prompted American Family to refuse to renew her policy.

A letter in the file, addressed to the Missouri Division of Insurance, said the policy was canceled because American Family was “concerned with the circumstances of both losses.”

Debbie Riggs’ insurance agent at the time, Dewey Osborn, said he could not comment on the file.

But a handwritten note on one of the files instructed others in Osborn’s office not to “even quote” Debbie Riggs any other insurance offers because “we want off.”

The insurance file was found among the papers of the late J.J. Maloney, who worked as an investigator for one of the defense attorneys in the case. Maloney, a former reporter for The Star, later wrote a two-part series critical of the convictions that was published in 1997 in the New Times newspaper.

The insurance file was never introduced at the trial of five defendants now serving life in prison in connection with the firefighters’ deaths. It was turned over to an archive at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Defense attorney Will Bunch, who had employed Maloney as an investigator, said last week that he had no memory of ever seeing the insurance file.

“My God, that is critical evidence that lays groundwork for substantial impeachment” of the security guards, Bunch said. “I do not recall it, and I can’t imagine we wouldn’t have done something with it at trial.”

Both Debbie and Robert Riggs declined to comment, but both have denied involvement in the arsons and explosions.

To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4342 or send e-mail to mcgraw@kcstar.com. | Mike McGraw, The Star

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