(Sunday, June 29, 2008)
A new witness has come forward with information about the 1988 deaths of six Kansas City firefighters, raising questions about the guilt of five people serving life sentences for the crime.
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The witness, Antonia Garcia, brings to at least four the number of witnesses who now say security guard Debbie Riggs or her roommate and fellow guard, Donna Costanza, implicated themselves.
Garcia signed an affidavit in which she says Riggs acknowledged involvement in the crime 20 years ago. Garcia said she told her story at the time to a retired FBI agent, but that nothing ever came of it.
Garcia’s story corroborates those of three other witnesses who say Costanza acknowledged years ago that she and Riggs were involved in setting the fires -- one in a pickup truck and another near an explosives trailer -- connected with the deadly blast.
"She (Riggs) admitted to me and other people ... that she was involved in it," said Garcia, who said she was a friend of Riggs’ at the time of the explosion. "She came over and she was all wigged out, all disturbed that the firemen got killed..."
Garcia and the other witnesses said the arson fires 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 firefighter’s case, has admitted to insurance fraud in the past.
She did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. Riggs also did not answer several certified letters seeking comment. But over the years she has maintained her innocence to investigators.
Other witnesses also have told investigators and The Star that Costanza had long ago admitted involvement in the crime along with Riggs.
Sandy DiGiovanni, an acquaintance of Costanza’s, confirmed in an interview that Costanza said she and Riggs were involved.
Another acquaintance, Jessica Vernon, signed an affidavit in 2000 stating that she also heard Costanza acknowledge that she was "responsible for the fire that killed the six Kansas City firefighters."
Federal investigators interviewed Vernon but she said nothing ever came of it. "I still don’t think they (the people in prison) are the right ones."
Vernon’s brother, Johnnie Ray Neil, told a federal investigator a similar story in 1993. He said he overheard Costanza admit she and Riggs were attempting to set fire to Riggs’ truck when "things got out of hand."
Costanza, however, has denied she ever made those statements.
Garcia’s allegations are only the latest information to surface suggesting that Riggs was responsible for the fires.
At the trial of the five defendants, Riggs admitted under oath to an earlier insurance fraud. Defense attorneys also suggested that she was involved in the crime, and that the fires were an attempt by Riggs to commit another insurance fraud.
Defense attorneys later argued in appeal documents that Riggs "indeed burned her own truck for the insurance proceeds, and then very well may have set fire to the other side of the site to make it look like she was a victim of this huge arson..." All those appeals have been unsuccessful.
Garcia told The Star that while Riggs told her and others that Riggs was involved, she "did not mean for anyone to get killed."
Garcia, who acknowledges she has had drinking problems over the years for which she has sought treatment, said she would provide additional information if she is ever called to testify.
A woman who was Garcia’s roommate at the time of the explosion told The Star that Garcia made the same claim to her shortly after the blasts. The roommate, who asked not to be named because she feared for her safety, said she believed Garcia at the time and still does.
Police had questions about what the guards did that night.
Debbie Riggs and her brother Robert, who were on duty, initially told police different stories about exactly where they were stationed on the construction site. The police also questioned why the two guards left their posts about the time that the arson-fueled explosions were ignited, in violation of security firm rules.
No witnesses have come forward to accuse Robert Riggs of involvement in the case. He passed a polygraph examination shortly after the explosions.
Robert Riggs did not respond to recent requests for comment. But last year he 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 that I had something to do with this, it would be false," he said.
Paul Becker, the federal prosecutor in the case, said recently that agents had been unable to find Costanza at the time.
"We were satisfied ... the guards were not involved," Becker said.
However, he has declined to outline specifically what the government did to investigate the guards.
Still, The Star’s investigation found numerous witnesses who have pointed to the guards as possible suspects.
At the trial, however, defense attorneys didn’t call Neil or his sister Vernon, who now say they would have testified that they overheard Costanza’s admissions.
In fact, Neil went to the Clay County Sheriff’s Department in 1990, sparking a short-lived investigation. Neil and Vernon also told their stories to Dave True, the lead investigator in the case for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"I gave the (federal) investigators reliable information, and they blew me off," Neil said.
True has said in previous interviews that one reason he did not act on the tips from Neil and Vernon is that their account placed Riggs’ pickup truck near the explosives trailer. In fact, they were several hundred yards apart, True noted.
True said he never interviewed Costanza because he was unable to find her. Also, the guards were weary of being interviewed about the case and had "lawyered up," True said.
Investigators confronted Riggs with the allegations in 1995, when authorities pulled her off the assembly line at the Ford Claycomo plant, read her a Miranda warning and asked her whether she and Costanza burned her truck.
Debbie Riggs denied involvement and agreed to go downtown and answer more questions and take a polygraph examination. She had already taken an examination in early 1989 and passed.
A few days later, however, her attorney called police and said she had nothing further to say and would not be taking the lie detector test.