Twenty years after six firefighters died in a massive explosion — and more than a decade after five defendants were sentenced to life for the crime — the U.S. attorney has requested an independent review of the case.
The highly unusual move was prompted by a story in The Kansas City Star on Sunday, which revealed that as many as 15 witnesses said that a federal investigator in the case pressured them to lie.
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U.S. Attorney John F. Wood said Tuesday those "new assertions" led him to ask the Justice Department to name an outside attorney to investigate the claims "in a thorough and unbiased manner." Wood promised full cooperation.
"Sunday’s Kansas City Star 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 said in a statement.
Wood noted that the case was handled by experienced and highly 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."
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who was mayor pro tem at the time of the explosions, issued a statement Tuesday saying that the U.S. attorney’s action is appropriate, "given the years of concern over this tragic day in our city’s history."
Cleaver said his heart goes out to the families of the firefighters who died and "who I know would prefer this wound not be reopened. They know all too well that justice is difficult and rarely as satisfying as we would wish."
In a later interview, Cleaver added that he is not ready to declare that the five defendants convicted and serving life sentences for the crime are not guilty.
But he said he believes they may know something about the crime that they have never revealed.
"If we don’t reopen this case," Cleaver added, "I think this community will scream for justice. If we fail to investigate this now, it is one of the most blatant malfunctions of justice we have ever seen in this city."
Cleaver added that if it appears that the investigation does not go "as deeply or strongly as we want," he will call the U.S. attorney general to ensure that it does.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington would say Tuesday only that it was reviewing Woods’ request. She declined to comment further.
A federal judge and even some family members with ties to the case said that they welcomed the prospect of an independent federal review of the convictions.
Senior U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright, who has long been skeptical about the government’s prosecution of the five defendants in a 1997 trial, praised Wood’s action.
"What he’s doing is everything anybody could ask for. There have been enough questions raised, so it deserves this attention," Wright said.
One family member of the fallen firefighters said he agreed with the call for an independent review.
Mike Ryan, a first cousin of firefighter Gerald Halloran, said, "I do believe that the five people currently in jail probably did not commit this crime."
But Ryan added that, after 20 years, he does not believe that other family members have much interest "in resurrecting old hurts."
A spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department said it would have no comment on Woods’ announcement.
Witnesses are pleased by latest development
The six firefighters died in a massive explosion on Nov. 29, 1988, ignited by arson fires at a highway construction site in south Kansas City. Killed in the blast were Halloran, Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
The explosion touched off one of the most far-reaching criminal investigations in Kansas City history. Five small-time hoods 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 — have always maintained their innocence. 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 agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which helped investigate the case.
True has denied that he coerced or intimidated witnesses and has said, "There’s no question in my mind that the right people are in jail."
An ATF spokesman has said that he didn’t believe True would use such tactics. The spokesman Tuesday referred questions about the latest action in the case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City. True did not respond to a request for comment.
The federal prosecutor in the firefighters’ case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, also has insisted that none of his investigators used improper tactics.
Nonetheless, some of the people who said they were pressured in the case or were ignored by investigators said Tuesday that they also welcomed an independent review.
"This is a long time coming and I couldn’t be happier," said Shannon Reimers, the sister of defendant Richard Brown. She said she was pressured to lie at the trial against other defendants.
Dixie Cloughley, another witness who claimed she was pressured by federal investigators, said that "this is wonderful. Hopefully justice will prevail."
Ella Hutton, who said she offered information that was ignored because it contradicted prosecution witnesses, said she’d "be happy to tell my story" to another investigator. "I haven’t changed my story in 20 years and I have nothing to hide."
Attorneys involved in the firefighters’ case over the years called Woods’ request unusual.
"This is a stunning, welcome and long-awaited development," said Cheryl Pilate, who represents Darlene Edwards.
Pilate added that she is pleased many of the witnesses who said they were pressured came forward, adding, "We also know that there are dozens of other people out there who have information about the real perpetrators of this horrible crime. We urge these individuals to come forward and assist the cause of justice — not just for the five who have been sitting in prison these many years, but for the firefighters’ families, who deserve to know what really happened."
Defense attorneys from the 1997 trial said they also were surprised and pleased that Woods asked for a review of the case. "It’s a long-awaited opportunity to correct an injustice," said Will Bunch, who represented defendant Darlene Edwards.
John Osgood, a former assistant U.S. attorney who represented Richard Brown, said, "I’m quite pleased and I think it’s long overdue."
The security guards
The Star also reported Sunday that a new witness said that one of the security guards at the construction site the night of the explosions acknowledged her involvement in the crime 20 years ago.
That witness, Antonia Garcia, brings to at least four the number of people who now say Debbie Riggs or her roommate and fellow guard, Donna Costanza, implicated themselves. Garcia said Tuesday that she would cooperate in another review of the case.
Garcia and the other witnesses said the arson fires set that night were described by Costanza and Riggs as an attempt by Riggs to get rid of her pickup truck and collect on the insurance. Riggs, who was once a suspect in the firefighters’ case, has admitted to insurance fraud in the past.
Costanza has denied she ever made those statements. Riggs has maintained her innocence to investigators over the years, but has not responded to phone calls and letters seeking comment.
The Star's Mark Morris contributed to this story. To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4423 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
@Go to KansasCity.com for The Star’s investigation that led to the U.S. attorney’s decision. Watch video of Cleaver’s reaction and witness interviews, plus put yourself at the crime scene through our interactive graphics.
What they’re saying
"What he’s doing is everything anybody could ask for. There have been enough questions raised, so it deserves this attention."
"If we don’t reopen this case, I think this community will scream for justice. If we fail to investigate this now, it is one of the most blatant malfunctions of justice we have ever seen in this city."
"I will be happy to tell my story" to another investigator. "I haven’t changed my story in 20 years and I have nothing to hide."
"This is a stunning, welcome and long-awaited development."
"You’re kidding; I’m shocked."
"If the U.S. attorney has doubts, we all should have some serious doubts."
Statement from U.S. Attorney John F. Wood:
Sunday’s Kansas City Star article indicates that some individuals have called into question their own prior statements regarding an arson case that my office tried in the 1990s. This case was handled by experienced and highly professional agents and prosecutors. We have every confidence in their work, which was reviewed on appeal and in subsequent collateral litigation. But our paramount goal is to ensure that justice is served in every case. We should ensure that all evidence is carefully considered. In order to ensure that these new assertions are reviewed and considered in a thorough and unbiased manner, on Monday morning I requested that the Department of Justice designate an attorney outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review the assertions. We will fully cooperate with this review in order to assure that justice is served.