Guest Commentary

Ashley Keeney: Firefighters, families should seek justice together in 1988 explosion

Defendant in deaths of six firefighters in 1988 resentenced, will soon be released

The youngest defendant convicted in the 1988 arson fire explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters was resentenced Friday to 20 years in prison. But because Bryan Sheppard, now 45, has served almost 22 years, he soon will be released.
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The youngest defendant convicted in the 1988 arson fire explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters was resentenced Friday to 20 years in prison. But because Bryan Sheppard, now 45, has served almost 22 years, he soon will be released.

A federal judge ruled Friday that my father, Bryan Sheppard, will soon be released from prison.

My father was one of five defendants convicted in 1997 of the explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters in 1988. He has been serving a life sentence with no chance of parole, but because he was a juvenile at the time of the explosion, he was granted a new hearing to reconsider the appropriate and constitutional sentence.

The judge resentenced my father to 20 years in prison. Because he has served almost 22 years, he soon should go free.

I wish I could say that I feel nothing but joy and relief. But looking across the aisle in the courtroom on Friday, I realized that my father’s release would not only bring happiness to me, but also would bring further suffering to the families of the fallen firefighters.

I don’t want my joy to cause someone else’s suffering. I think especially of Cassandra McKarnin, the daughter of one of the firefighters.

This is a file video from 2008 that gives an overview of the events that led to the deaths of six firefighters, and the convictions of five people in the case. The youngest defendant in the case, Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explo

During the resentencing hearing, both Cassandra and I took our turns on the witness stand. We both spoke of the pain and loss we’ve experienced by not having our fathers present for the past several decades. We both spoke of how much this case has brought difficult burdens upon our families.

But I know that Cassandra’s loss is greater than mine. I have been able to continue a relationship with my father over the phone and through glass walls, and I’ve been sustained by the hope that he might one day be released. But there is nothing Cassandra can do to bring her father back.

I have mourned the loss of my father’s time. She mourns the loss of her father’s life.

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That is a heartbreaking reality, and I can see that her pain is only made worse every time my family speaks up to once again claim that my father is innocent. I understand that her family’s wish to keep my father in prison is one way of having a sense of closure for the loss she has experienced.

Nothing I say or do can ease their suffering.

But I do believe there is another way forward.

My hope is that the families of the firefighters and the families of the defendants can come together and seek real justice in this case. I hope and pray that we can all look beyond our suffering long enough to notice one of the biggest problems that still exists in this case: The government has in its possession the names of two additional suspects that may have been involved in this horrible crime.

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All of our families, both the firefighters’ and the defendants’, have the right to demand that the government name the suspects, charge them and bring them to trial. For the firefighter community, that’s the only road now to real justice and closure in this case.

And for my family, we believe strongly that once the new suspects are tried, the case against my father will fall apart, and we can finally prove his innocence.

Pain often causes divisions. But sitting in that courtroom on Friday and looking across the aisle, I couldn’t help but see my own pain in the eyes of the firefighter families. My father has spent his time in prison praying for them, and I have learned from my father to have faith that the truth will set us all free.

Today my prayer is that Friday’s ruling can bring us together so that we can seek real justice for all, for the families of the victims, and for the families of the wrongfully convicted.

Ashley Keeney lives in Ozark, Mo.

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