What finally pried the cell door open this month for Bryan Sheppard, one of the defendants in the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters, was a 2012 Supreme Court decision barring life sentences for juveniles.
But the run-up to Sheppard’s release, and an issue that may have influenced an extraordinary order by U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. releasing Sheppard with time served, was a sustained, years-long questioning of the case by local attorneys, journalists, activists and even the local theater community.
Tom Jackman, a reporter for The Washington Post, covered the trial when he was with The Kansas City Star in 1997, and it has haunted him ever since. Under questioning from Jackman during a post-trial interview on Kansas City Public Television years ago, the U.S. attorney at the time acknowledged that the five-week trial failed to explain exactly what happened the night of the deadly construction site blast.
Shortly after the trial another former Star reporter, the late J.J. Maloney, an ex-convict himself, wrote a two-part series for the New Times newspaper here that simply declared the defendants innocent.
Maloney had a point of view — he had been an investigator for one of the defense attorneys — and he minced no words in his articles, which were titled “Frame Up” and “Railroaded.” After Maloney’s death, his former publisher, Pat O’Connor, came to see me at The Star in 2005, when I was an investigative reporter there. He shoved a handful of affidavits at me signed by witnesses who had recanted their testimony against Sheppard and the others. And he dared me to take another look.
I was dubious. But former Kansas City Star Editor Mark Zieman approved of my working on the story, knowing that it would not make the newspaper many friends — especially among firefighters.
His decision would launch a nearly decade-long investigation by the newspaper that eventually prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct what it called an independent review of The Star’s assertions — based on numerous recorded interviews — that a number of witnesses were pressured by federal investigators to adopt the government’s theory of the case.
The Justice Department found in 2011, unsurprisingly, that none of its investigators applied undue pressure to anyone, an assertion that the late U.S. District Judge Scott Wright had found to be dubious. But the report also acknowledged that additional unnamed defendants were likely also guilty of the crime but never prosecuted.
After I retired from The Star, my new employer, KCPT, allowed me to keep digging and publishing stories on Flatlandkc.org, the station’s digital magazine. That’s when a KCPT editor suggested we join forces with the Center for Investigative Reporting in California, which had launched an effort called StoryWorks that turned investigative reporting into one-act plays.
KCPT supported and co-produced the play, “Justice in the Embers,” written by Michelle T. Johnson and directed by StoryWorks’ Jenna Welch. The play, which deftly offered both sides of the guilty/innocent debate, drew sold-out audiences and re-engaged the community in the case. An hourlong investigative radio show followed last month, produced by CIR’s Reveal division. Segments of the show were submitted as exhibits in Sheppard’s resentencing case.
All of that understandably infuriated some of the families of the firefighters who died nearly 30 years ago.
But it also kept alive the nagging questions that have dogged this case from the outset. And it may have had an effect on Judge Gaitan’s order releasing Sheppard. An order that may well signal that Gaitan has his own doubts about the case.
Soon after his release, Sheppard’s daughter published a piece on these pages asking the families of the firefighters to join her in pressing the government to release the names of those additional suspects — people the government contends committed the crime along with Sheppard and the others.
It’s hard enough to believe that five people committed this crime, turned down five-year plea deals to testify against one another, and never during their 20 years in prison rolled over on these two new mysterious suspects. Now we are to believe that the conspiracy involved seven people, not five, and that none of them ever spilled the beans.
Could it be that the government is keeping those names secret because releasing them would damage the case against Sheppard and the others? We’ll never know unless the government comes clean and releases the names, hopefully along with the entire report on the matter, most of which was redacted.
The last piece of mail Sheppard received in prison — literally as he was walking out the door — was a good luck card with a kind note from a family member of one of the firefighters who died that day. It was an extraordinary and generous gesture from a family that deserves to have all the facts.
Sheppard’s release pushes the case ever closer to a tipping point that may eventually require that.
As a reporter for The Star, Mike McGraw examined the federal prosecution of the 1988 explosion that killed six firefighters in numerous articles. He retired from The Star in 2014 and is now a special projects reporter for Flatland, KCPT’s digital magazine. Reach Mike McGraw at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his stories online at flatlandkc.org and @FlatlandKC.