A look back at the explosion that killed six firefighters in 1988
It was a crime that thundered across Kansas City, took the lives of six firefighters, and 28 years later, still resonates as a shattering, life-changing moment for countless people.
And on Wednesday, many of those people packed a Kansas City courtroom — and an overflow room with a monitor — for a hearing to determine if Bryan Sheppard, one of those convicted of that crime, will one day walk out of prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted Sheppard that chance after ruling it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to a mandatory sentence of life in prison without first taking into account individual factors in their lives.
Sheppard was 17 on Nov. 29, 1988, when an arson fire triggered a truckload of ammonium nitrate to detonate in an early morning explosion felt and heard throughout the 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.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. heard testimony from Sheppard, firefighter family members, Sheppard’s family and supporters, and mental health experts.
Gaitan took the case under advisement after the hearing. The sentencing will be March 3. The judge has a wide range of options, from ordering Sheppard’s immediate release to re-imposing a life sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker argued that life in prison is exactly what Sheppard deserves.
“This crime was so severe and its impact so long-lasting that life in prison is appropriate and just,” Becker said.
Defense attorney Cynthia Short, however, told the judge that a constitutional sentence for Sheppard would be less than the nearly 22 years he has already served.
In making her case, Short presented evidence to contrast Sheppard’s wild, impulsive and reckless teen years with the mature, spiritual and sober man he has become.
Witnesses described the Marlborough neighborhood of Kansas City where Sheppard grew up as downtrodden and beset with drugs, alcohol and crime.
He grew up in a home plagued by alcohol abuse and domestic abuse, according to testimony.
Sheppard described himself in those years as an addict and a “product of my environment.”
But after his incarceration, he said he has committed himself to sobriety and doing everything he can to better himself.
“I am proud of where I am today,” he said.
He has adopted the spirituality of his Native American roots and said he prays every day for the families of the six victims.
“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.”
Sheppard, now 45 and a grandfather, has maintained close relationships with his family. Short argued that he has the kind of strong support to help him adjust to life outside prison.
His daughter, Ashley Keeney, testified that he is a positive influence in her life and the lives of her children.
“I am very proud of him and know the kind of man he is,” she said. “He’s a great example of how you can turn your life around.”
Becker argued that while Sheppard has enjoyed having a family, the families of his victims have had that chance taken away from them forever.
Debbie McKarnin, the widow of Robert McKarnin, was among three survivors who testified Wednesday.
She described how his death “decimated” their family and the families of the other men.
“They were all good men,” she said. “They were all willing to fight fires and save people.”
She asked the judge to keep Sheppard in prison for the rest of his life.
Cassie McKarnin also testified about her father’s death when she was 16.
“The impact was as deafening as the explosion that killed my father,” she said.
She said that she had “missed out on an entire lifetime of learning and loving.”
“The punishment should last a lifetime, as well,” she said.
Sheppard was one of five people convicted in the case, including two of his older uncles, who were sentenced in 1997 to life in prison.
He was the only one who was under 18 at the time of the explosion.
While they have always maintained their innocence, that was not part of Wednesday’s hearing.
Short noted that Sheppard and the others were convicted of aiding and abetting in arson — not premeditated murder.
Like the firefighters, they were unaware that the trailer set on fire at a south Kansas City construction site that morning contained something that could explode.
But Short said he was sentenced as if he had planned a murder or intended to murder someone.
Becker, however, cited the seriousness of the crime and its aftermath.
“Those who start fires should realize that really bad things can happen,” he said.