Special Reports

U.S. inquiry under way in investigation of firefighters' deaths

The office of inspector general is investigating the Justice Department’s actions during its probe into the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters.

U.S. Attorney John F. Wood requested the inquiry in July following stories in The Kansas City Star, which revealed that as many as 15 witnesses said a federal investigator pressured them to lie to a grand jury or later at the trial of five defendants charged in the arson case.

All five, who are serving life sentences, have long maintained their innocence.

At the time Wood requested the inquiry, he said the "article indicates that some individuals have called into question their own prior statements regarding an arson case that my office tried in the 1990s."

Wood, who was not the U.S. attorney during the 1997 trial, noted that the case was handled by experienced and professional agents and prosecutors and that he had "every confidence in their work, which was reviewed on appeal and in subsequent collateral litigation."

But Wood added that "our paramount goal is to ensure that justice is served in every case."

Since then, Wood and the Justice Department have declined to comment on the matter. However, a Justice Department spokeswoman said recently that anyone with new information about the case can report it by calling the inspector general’s field office in Chicago at 312-886-7050.

The office, which also has declined to comment, investigates alleged violations of fraud, abuse and integrity laws that govern Justice Department employees. Agents of the division develop cases that can lead to criminal prosecution and civil action.

Firefighters Gerald Halloran, Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham died in an explosion Nov. 29, 1988, that was ignited by arson fires at a site in south Kansas City.

The explosion touched off one of the most far-reaching criminal investigations in Kansas City history, coordinated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Five small-time hoodlums from the nearby Marlborough neighborhood were convicted of the crimes. All their appeals have been rejected.

The defendants — Frank Sheppard, Earl "Skip" Sheppard, Bryan Sheppard, Darlene Edwards and Richard Brown — all refused to testify against any of the others in return for shorter sentences.

But The Star’s investigation found up to 15 witnesses who said a federal investigator pressured them to lie. Five who testified in the case admitted 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.

Witnesses told The Star that excessive pressure often came from Dave True, now a retired ATF agent. True has denied that he coerced or intimidated witnesses and said that "there’s no question in my mind that the right people are in jail."

The federal prosecutor in the case, assistant U.S. attorney Paul Becker, also has insisted that none of his investigators used improper tactics.

Pat O’Connor, a former newspaper publisher who has worked to free the five defendants in the case, called the inspector general’s investigation an "extremely important breakthrough."

Last month, the Kansas City-based Midwestern Innocence Project announced that The Star’s stories also prompted it to look into the case.

"Our organization was set up to look for injustices in the criminal justice system, and when we see potential injustices as glaring as those in this case, how can we refuse to take it?" said Jay Swearingen, executive director of the project.

Project officials had no comment on the inspector general’s investigation.