(Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007)
Editor’s noteThe Kansas City Star has spent a year re-examining the nearly 20-year-old firefighter explosion case, reviewing thousands of pages of court and investigative files, documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act and conducting hundreds of interviews.This is Mike McGraw’s first report as a result of that investigation.The newspaper also reviewed and verified additional information developed by Kansas Citian Pat O’Connor, who has worked to free the five defendants in the case, and the late J.J. Maloney, a former reporter for The Star. Maloney wrote a two-part series critical of the convictions that was published in 1997 in the New Times newspaper.The Star will continue to follow developments.
It was clear and cool that terrible Tuesday morning when the call came: A fire at a southeast Kansas City highway construction site. Firefighters found a 40-foot trailer ablaze. The trailer held 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil simmering toward a disaster that would shake the city. The trailer blew, six firefighters died, and police called it arson. That was Nov. 29, 1988. It took nearly nine years to find and convict suspects in the killings -- five small-time criminals. The courts rejected their appeals. End of story. Until now.
Federal prosecutors have notified defense attorneys of new allegations in a nearly 20-year-old criminal case involving the deaths of six Kansas City firefighters.
The allegations come from an ex-convict who told federal agents he saw someone set the fires that caused explosions heard 40 miles away. And he says those fires were not set by any of the five defendants now serving life sentences for the deaths of Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
The allegations -- which came to light during an ongoing, yearlong investigation by The Kansas City Star -- prompted federal prosecutors to take the unusual step of advising defense attorneys that new information has surfaced. One defense attorney told the newspaper that she will use it as part of a renewed effort to free the defendants.
What’s more, The Star’s investigation has found evidence that supports some of those new allegations and raises additional questions about the guilt of the five defendants, including:
Alleged admissions by Donna Costanza, a security guard at the site. Costanza told people on two separate occasions that she set a truck fire that night with roommate and fellow guard Debbie Riggs as part of an insurance scam. Costanza and Riggs have maintained their innocence to investigators.
False testimony by Becky Edwards, the daughter of one of the defendants convicted for the fire. The jury foreman said after the trial that Edwards’ testimony was important in the decision to return guilty verdicts. But today Edwards tells the newspaper that an investigator pressured her and that she lied at the trial about overhearing the defendants planning a theft at the construction site.
Recanted testimony by prosecution witnesses Shannon Reimers, Carrie Neighbors and Joe Denyer. Like Edwards, all three now say they lied at the trial because federal agents threatened them or offered assistance in return for their testimony.
In fact, much of the government’s evidence came from jailhouse informants. Of more than 50 witnesses, 24 were felons with a total of 76 convictions. At least 14 were serving jail time when they testified. Many placed the defendants in different places at the same time. One received a 25-year sentence reduction in return for his testimony.
In 1997, nine years after the explosions, a jury convicted Frank, Skip and Bryan Sheppard, Richard Brown and Darlene Edwards of burning an explosives trailer and a security guard’s pickup at the U.S. 71 construction site. Before the trial, they’d turned down opportunities to testify against one another for reduced sentences, and they still insist they didn’t do it.
A federal prosecutor notified defense attorneys of the new information after a three-hour interview federal agents conducted Jan. 17 with Howard Ed Massey II, an ex-convict and a former woodcutter at the construction site. Massey told agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that he saw a woman he believed to be Costanza running away from a burning truck. He said Debbie Riggs earlier had offered him money to set fire to her truck to collect insurance.
Massey approached the agents after talking extensively to The Star. Because of the significance of Massey’s claims, The Star conducted a polygraph examination which showed that he had credible information about the crime. A second lie detector test, by one of the foremost polygraph examiners in the United States, also found Massey had credible information that indicated he saw the fire being set and that the five people now imprisoned were not on the site.
Massey’s statements to the ATF prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul S. Becker, who prosecuted the five defendants, to write defense attorneys.
"In essence, Mr. Massey ... saw a security guard, Donna Costanza, moving around the site," Becker wrote in a Feb. 7 letter obtained by The Star. "Mr. Massey stated that he saw ‘flashes’ on pickup trucks on the hill and the side of the road when he saw Ms. Costanza. Mr. Massey also stated that security guard Debbie Riggs had earlier asked him to set fire to her truck for an insurance fraud."
Becker told the attorneys he was making Massey’s statements available "out of an abundance of caution rather than any belief by the investigators or prosecutors of the veracity of Mr. Massey’s current statements."
Becker told the newspaper that the U.S. attorney’s office "has no intention of opening a new investigation, because we don’t believe any of the information in the (ATF) report."
Asked why, Becker said his office had reviewed the evidence and determined Massey’s claims were not credible. In an earlier interview, Becker said that authorities had long ago determined there was no evidence implicating the security guards.
"If the defense attorneys want to do something with it (Massey’s allegations), then it is their job to do so," Becker added.
One of the attorneys said she would do that, and she plans to use Massey’s allegations as part of an effort to reopen the case.
"I think his statement raises troubling questions, and regardless of whether you believe Massey’s allegations, they certainly suggest the need for further investigating," said Kansas City attorney Cheryl Pilate.
"The notion that some person or persons other than the defendants caused the explosions is not only entirely plausible but is also quite believable. I believe it is critical to see Mr. Massey’s allegations tested in a courtroom which provides the appropriate forum for examining the charges and his credibility," Pilate added.
Becker’s speed in releasing the ATF’s investigative report is a marked departure from his actions shortly after the five defendants were convicted.
The newspaper has obtained a government memorandum showing that months after the convictions, the ATF was still receiving calls from people claiming to have additional information about the crime.
However, Becker ordered the agents not to accept information about the case over the phone. He instructed agents to tell callers to put their information in writing and mail it to the U.S. attorney’s office, according to the Oct. 28, 1997, memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
That way, the memorandum added, "the employee receiving the call should make no report, since you have received no information."
Becker said in an interview, "I wanted to have a record someone else could follow up on. I was trying to preserve random tips in some way."
A baffling case
The firefighter explosion case remained one of Kansas City’s biggest mysteries for nine years. Then, after the case was aired on the television show "Unsolved Mysteries," federal investigators caught a break.
Their investigation led to a 1996 federal grand jury indictment of brothers Frank and Skip Sheppard, their nephew Bryan Sheppard and his best friend Richard Brown, for setting the fires to cover a botched burglary.
Authorities alleged that the four men, along with Frank Sheppard’s girlfriend, Darlene Edwards, were on the construction site the morning of the explosion looking for tools, batteries, dynamite and anything else they could steal and sell for drug money.
"The defendants set that fire ... purely out of meanness, out of being ornery, that they were unsuccessful in their thieving attempts," Becker stated at the trial.
Becker argued that they set fire to a trailer containing ANFO, an explosive material consisting of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, to cover up evidence that they tried to break into it. He said they also set fire to security guard Debbie Riggs’ pickup as a diversion, even though the guards had already left the construction site in pursuit of prowlers by the time that fire was set. They ended up at a nearby convenience store.
Why would anyone set a diversionary fire when the guards were already gone?
"It’s a good question," Becker said in a recent interview.
It was a tough case. There was very little physical evidence -- it was destroyed in the explosions -- and no eyewitness could place any of the defendants at the scene.
Most of the government’s evidence came from witnesses who claimed that one or another of the defendants admitted involvement in the crime.
Defense attorneys, and even some police investigators, continue to believe that the five defendants were unfairly prosecuted in a trial that depended largely on the testimony of jailhouse informants.
Indeed, many of the witnesses had strong motives for testifying. Some acknowledged they were after a share of the $50,000 in reward money.
Defense attorneys repeatedly attacked their credibility.
Becker acknowledged that while many of the prosecution witnesses were not sterling citizens, they told consistent stories. As to their character, he said: "They are from the same neighborhood as the defendants, so they would logically know these people; it’s really that simple."
In an interview last year with The Star, he used a phrase common among prosecutors: "Conspiracies hatched in hell aren’t witnessed by angels."
Becker, a respected prosecutor with an impressive record of wins on difficult cases, remains steadfast in his belief that the right people went to prison.
Since the trial, however, four prosecution witnesses have signed affidavits recanting their testimony and alleging that federal agents intimidated or threatened them.
One of those is Becky Edwards, whose testimony was important in obtaining the convictions. She testified that she remembered all the defendants gathered around her mother’s kitchen table planning the construction site theft when she was only 11 years old.
However, Becky Edwards told The Star that her testimony at the trial nine years later was a lie. She said she felt manipulated and threatened by ATF agent Dave True, the lead federal investigator. She said True told her that if she did not testify about the meeting, he would prosecute her on drug charges.
Becky Edwards also signed an affidavit for Pat O’Connor, a former local publisher who has financed legal efforts to overturn the convictions. In her statement, she said: "No matter what I told agent True, it was never enough to satisfy him. He always wanted me to say more than I actually knew about this case."
True, who is now retired, said he never intimidated any witnesses and in the case of Becky Edwards, he went through family members before meeting with her. True also disputed the account Massey gave the ATF.
"I feel there are some inaccuracies in that. He says the wrong day of the incident. He’s a day off," True pointed out. "There’s no question in my mind the right people are in jail."
Prosecution witnesses Shannon Reimers, Carrie Neighbors and Joe Denyer also maintain that federal agents threatened them or offered assistance in return for false testimony.
Denyer, for example, said he gave false testimony at the trial against Darlene Edwards "at the behest of federal agents" because they offered him assistance if he testified the way they wanted him to.
Reimers told the newspaper that federal agents once stopped her on the way to the hospital while she was in labor. She said in an interview that True later "let me know what he wanted me to say and then finally, after at least two hours of preparations ... took my statement. I was completely intimidated by True."
In prison interviews with The Star, the five defendants continue to maintain their innocence. Even though some disliked one another, they refused to testify against one another at the trial -- even when authorities offered five-year prison sentences in return.
All five asked to take polygraph tests at the time. Authorities tested only three. All passed.
Regardless of what Massey did or did not see the night of the explosion, he spent a lot of time on the highway construction site where the blasts occurred. He cut firewood there nearly every day for two months and occasionally got into confrontations with security guards.
Last month, for the first time, Massey told ATF agents that he was on the site in the early morning hours on the day of the explosion. Massey said he went there because another woodcutter asked to meet him there to settle a dispute.
While on the site, Massey said, he saw a woman near a truck before it caught fire. He told the ATF she resembled Costanza. Massey also told ATF agents that Debbie Riggs earlier had offered him money to set fires on or near the site as part of an insurance scam. Massey said he refused the offer.
Debbie Riggs won’t discuss the case, but her brother Robert Riggs -- who operated the security company that guarded the site and was present the night of the explosions -- disputed those allegations. Robert Riggs said he didn’t see Massey on the site the night of the explosion.
Robert Riggs, who still operates Ameriguard Inc., issued a statement last week saying the company once again extended its sympathies to the families of the firefighters who died.
"Ameriguard staff cooperated with the official investigations by the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies, culminating in the successful convictions of several individuals. No employee of Ameriguard was ever charged with any participation or knowledge of the incident," the statement said. "We will have no part in this continued speculation."
Costanza has declined to be interviewed at length.
But allegations that Costanza and Debbie Riggs were involved are made in post-conviction motions filed by one of the defendants in 2000. The documents stated that Costanza told friends that she set a fire for Debbie Riggs that night. And The Star’s investigation found that at least two people at different times say they heard Costanza claiming that she and Debbie Riggs had something to do with one or both of the fires.
Costanza and another guard had been on duty earlier the evening before the explosion, but the Riggses relieved them about 10 p.m. Interviewed by police the next morning, Costanza said she went straight home to bed.
But Sandy DiGiovanni, a Kansas City real estate agent and former friend of Debbie Riggs and Costanza, told the newspaper that a few nights after the explosion, Costanza told her that she helped Debbie Riggs burn a pickup for the insurance money.
Ten years before, DiGiovanni said, Debbie Riggs had had a car stolen for the insurance money. Testimony from the criminal trial shows that Riggs admitted having a car stolen in an insurance scam.
DiGiovanni later repeated Costanza’s statements to at least three other women, records show. And court filings show that Johnny Ray Neil told police that he overheard a conversation at Stack’s Drive-In restaurant in which Costanza told DiGiovanni that she and Debbie Riggs had set a truck on fire for the insurance money.
Neil said he gave this information to federal investigators in 1994 and later to Clay County Undersheriff Ron Nicoli. Nicoli told The Star that Neil was reliable but said investigators were unable to verify the information.
Costanza did not respond to questions about her alleged admissions to DiGiovanni, and to the newspaper’s knowledge authorities have never questioned her. Becker said ATF agents were unable to find Costanza at the time.
But The Star found her last year. In a brief interview, she said she never was involved in setting any fires.
"It has been 20 years, and I wasn’t responsible," she said. "I’m a Costanza, not a Soprano."
The security guards
Security guards Debbie and Robert Riggs have denied any part in the fires or explosions. But Debbie Riggs changed her story during a police interview about what happened that night.
Debbie Riggs first told police that she saw two prowlers as she and her brother sat in separate vehicles watching separate areas of the construction site, as their agreement with highway contractors required. She later acknowledged that was a cover story to protect her brother’s reputation and that of his security company.
Under further questioning by homicide Detective Victor Zinn, Debbie Riggs admitted she and her brother were in the same vehicle.
Zinn and another detective re-created the scene Debbie Riggs described and found that the lighting and the terrain would have prevented her from seeing anyone.
Confronted by Zinn, Debbie Riggs admitted she may not have seen the intruders precisely where she claimed, but she insisted she did see someone that night.
Police also interviewed another Ameriguard employee, Melvin Stanton. Stanton, who had been on duty earlier in the evening, told detectives that two days before the blasts, Robert Riggs told him that "if anything happens out here, you keep your mouth shut."
Stanton now is a patient in a mental health facility, and his caretakers said he is unable to be interviewed.
Families of the firefighters and nearby property owners later sued Ameriguard and others for damages caused by the explosions. As a result, the Riggses gave several lengthy depositions in 1990 and 1991, and Ameriguard contributed $132,000 toward multimillion-dollar civil settlements.
Then in 1995, two years before the guilty verdicts in the case, Kansas City police detectives told Debbie Riggs that she was a suspect and gave her a Miranda warning.
She denied burning her truck or having Costanza do it for her.
Debbie Riggs told police then that she was sure the explosion resulted from a labor dispute -- a theory federal agents investigated for years. She said "six union people" were behind the fires and explosions.
Debbie Riggs also agreed to answer more questions and to undergo another polygraph examination. A few days later, however, her attorney called police and said she had nothing further to say and would not be taking a polygraph test.
Now living in Texas, Debbie Riggs refused to talk with a reporter when he visited her home.
Robert Riggs said that as far as he knows, Costanza’s alleged claims about his sister’s involvement are false, and that he also had no involvement.
"If there is some allegation out there I had something to do with this, it would be false," he said.
Massey’s stories about what he knows about the explosions have changed over time. Indeed, The Star found records showing that a police informant claimed Massey had bragged to a relative that he was the one who set the fires.
Becker also pointed out that Massey passed a polygraph exam when he told Kansas City police that he was at home in bed at the time of the fires and explosions, which conflicts with his recent statement to ATF agents.
"Mr. Massey was also given a polygraph on December 1, 1988, in which he stated he was not present at the site when the fire was set, that he did not set the fire and that he did not know who set the fire," Becker said in his letter to defense attorneys.
Massey told The Star, however, that he did not admit what he knew at the time, because he was a felon and had a pending warrant. He also was afraid he could be charged as an accessory.
Last week, Massey said federal agents told him that he might be polygraphed again, this time by the ATF, to determine whether his latest allegations are true. He said agents also warned him that they could charge him with a crime if he’d lied to them.
Massey insists he told the ATF the truth on Jan. 17.
"Nobody was supposed to get killed in this," Massey said, "but it got out of hand, and six firefighters died, and I have carried around a lot of guilt for 17 years because I still wonder if I could have stopped it."