The youngest defendant convicted in one of Kansas City’s most infamous crimes will soon be released after serving more than 20 years in prison.
Bryan Sheppard, one of five people convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1988 arson fire explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters, was resentenced Friday to 20 years in prison.
Sheppard, now 45, has already served almost 22 years. His release could come in just a few days, officials said.
When the judge announced his ruling, family and supporters of Sheppard began sobbing quietly. Sheppard, too, also appeared to be sobbing as the judge explained his sentencing. After the hearing adjourned, his family and friends were jubilant.
Sheppard’s mother, Virgie Sheppard, appeared overjoyed and said it was a day she never believed she would ever see.
“I was stunned,” she said.
Family members of the firefighters greeted the announcement somberly.
“We were mentally prepared for this, but it is an incredible disappointment,” said Cassie McKarnin, whose father was one of the men killed in the blast.
Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the crime, was granted a new sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional unless a judge first considered their individual situation.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. heard testimony in Sheppard’s case Feb. 15 and announced his decision Friday.
“There is no denying that the crime which the defendants were convicted of resulted in a tragic loss of six lives,” Gaitan explained in a written order filed after Friday’s hearing. “However, the court also cannot ignore the statements made by the trial judge, that he did not believe that the defendants intentionally with malice and forethought set out to kill the firefighters.”
Gaitan also cited testimony about Sheppard’s life before he went to prison and his “extraordinary rehabilitation efforts” since his incarceration.
“Bryan was raised in a dysfunctional home environment where alcohol, drugs, domestic violence and abuse were the norm. He was exposed to these elements at an early age and they continued throughout his teen years. He had attention deficit disorder and was placed in special education classes throughout his years in school, finally dropping out when he was in the tenth grade,” the judge wrote. “The court finds that these factors affected Bryan and contributed to his susceptibility to the influences of others. These factors also support a reduction in his sentence.”
After the judge adjourned the hearing, Sheppard and his attorney, Cynthia Short, embraced. Sheppard turned to his family and friends and gave them a thumbs-up sign.
His mother shouted, “We love you, Bryan.”
Outside the courthouse, jubilant friends and family of Sheppard raised their arms.
“He’s going home, baby,” one woman shouted.
Outside the courthouse, Sheppard’s daughter, Ashley Keeney, read a statement from her father in which he expressed thanks for being given a second chance.
“Right now, my main focus is to work hard every day to show you that I’m worthy of this chance,” he said in the statement.
Sheppard also addressed the families of the firefighters in his statement.
“I am so sorry for everything you have been through,” he wrote.
Keeney said that she was “overwhelmed with excitement,” but that her “heart aches” for the families of the firefighters.
“And I’m so pleased with the judge’s decision. I know we all are,” she said. “But I wish ... I felt nothing but relief, and while looking across the aisle (at the families of the firefighters) today, I could see my father’s release would not only bring happiness and joy to our family, but would also bring suffering for the families of the fallen firefighters.”
Virgie Sheppard said, “Now he can be the dad that he should have been a long time ago.”
She and other family members are convinced that Bryan Sheppard and his co-defendants were innocent of the crime, and they vowed to work to find the people who were responsible.
“I pray and hope every day we can look beyond our years of suffering long enough to work together and find the real people responsible for the 1988 tragedy,” Keeney said. “It is my hope that we can come together and seek justice as a team. I look forward to a new life with my father and our family, and I’m so very thankful to all the wonderful people who have helped us and stood by us through all of these years. We wouldn’t be here today without you. Here’s to our new life.”
Sheppard was one of five people prosecuted for the Nov. 29, 1988, arson fire that caused a truckload of ammonium nitrate to detonate in an early morning explosion that could be felt and heard throughout Kansas City.
Fire Capts. Gerald Halloran and James Kilventon Jr. and firefighters Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham died in the blast.
Cassie McKarnin said Friday that they were prepared for the possibility that being a juvenile at the time of his crime would work in Sheppard’s favor.
“I was nearly the same age at the time of the crime, and I knew right from wrong,” said Cassie McKarnin. “Someone has to answer for a crime.”
Jewell Hurd, the sister of Luther Hurd, said the family intends to stay strong.
“We will always have pain in our hearts with everything that has gone down.” she said. “We have to keep going.”
Sheppard was the only defendant who was a juvenile at the time.
He and the others have long maintained that they are innocent of the crime, but last month’s hearing only addressed his sentencing and not the question of guilt or innocence.
At the Feb. 15 hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker argued that Sheppard should be resentenced to life in prison.
“This crime was so severe and its impact so long-lasting that life in prison is appropriate and just,” Becker said.
Short told the judge that a constitutional sentence for Sheppard would be less than the nearly 22 years he has already served.
In testifying at the hearing last month, Sheppard said he prays every day for the families of the men who were killed.
“I know it is of little comfort to the families,” he said. “I am very sorry for the loss everyone in this room has suffered.”
On Friday, several firefighters declined to comment as they walked out of the courtroom.
Becker also declined to comment after the hearing.
Once the U.S. Marshals Service receives the judge’s official order, it will be forwarded to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to determine a release date.
Sheppard will be on supervised release, or parole, for five years, according to Gaitan’s order.
He will also be required to pay restitution of $536,000 to the Kansas City Fire Department.
Current officials with the Fire Department did not respond to requests for comment Friday.