A new lawsuit could provide Kansas City with long-awaited answers to questions about a case that has haunted our city.
The six firefighters who answered a call early one morning in November 1988 unwittingly rushed toward their deaths. A massive explosion at the construction site off Highway 71 instantly took the men’s lives.
Their names have never been forgotten: Fire Capts. Gerald Halloran and James Kilventon Jr. and firefighters Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
But to this day, what, exactly, the government knows about what happened that morning — who was involved and how investigators settled on and pursued the five people who were later convicted of arson — has never been fully revealed. All were sentenced to life in prison.
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The explosion of the trailer containing 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was so devastating that no physical evidence ever tied any of those convicted to the arson or the firefighters’ deaths. A number of the informants used to gain the convictions later said they were pressured by federal investigators to go along with the government’s theory.
When the U.S Department of Justice finally agreed to review whether its investigators acted inappropriately, the complete findings were never made public. The federal review merely concluded that there was no wrongdoing by federal agents, a fact that a now-deceased U.S. District judge labeled dubious.
Most astonishingly, the 2011 memorandum cited new evidence that other unnamed defendants were also likely guilty of the crime. But the additional perpetrators were never prosecuted. The document redacted their names, and only a summary of the full report was initially released.
Bryan Sheppard, the only one of the convicted to be freed, is pressing for the information, seeking the truth.
Sheppard filed a lawsuit Friday requesting through the Freedom of Information Act that the U.S. Department of Justice release the full records related to its review of the case. After spending nearly 22 years in prison, Sheppard walked free in March. He had been granted a new sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles without considering their life history and the nature of their crimes.
As the lawsuit makes clear, this latest step is not an effort to determine whether those still serving time are innocent. Rather, the suit is in pursuit of transparency and full disclosure from the federal government.
“It is about whether a federal government agency reviewing the actions of its own investigators and prosecutors, should be allowed to conclude unilaterally, without any public review or accountability, that the agency and its personnel have done nothing wrong,” the lawsuit says. The answer to that question, of course, is that the government should not.
Nearly three decades ago, Kansas City ground to a halt, drowning in grief when six brave firefighters were killed.
Their loved ones continue to mourn. And it’s likely that for many family members, the unanswered questions and the continued attention to the case heighten their sorrow.
But the truth could help bring closure for all involved.
The Department of Justice should answer Sheppard’s request and release records in the case. Justice demands no less.