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Dec 23, 2017

Fire and justice

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In 1988, six firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri, were killed in a blast at a highway construction site. Nine years later, five people were convicted of setting the fires that led to their deaths.  

Now, almost 30 years later, Reveal investigates problems in the case. There was no physical evidence linking the five to the crime, and their convictions were based on witness testimony – a lot of it conflicting.  

We start with a look at the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988. The Kansas City Fire Department was responding to a 911 call about a fire at a construction site. Soon after firefighters arrived, a massive blast occurred. Forty minutes later, a second blast rang out. Fifty-thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil caused the blasts.

Federal agents and local police immediately suspected arson and began an investigation that would last for eight years.

From the beginning, the investigation was troubled. The first attempt to convict someone fell apart shortly after indictment. Investigators were relying on jailhouse informants and a tips hotline to collect evidence. This information resulted in the indictment and conviction of five people: Bryan Sheppard, Darlene Edwards, Frank Sheppard, Earl “Skip” Sheppard and Richard Brown. They were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

But now, the youngest has a shot at getting out of prison. Bryan Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosions, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to give a juvenile a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. We follow his bid for freedom.   

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Investigative journalism finds a new outlet: the stage
  • Read: I’m out of prison, but still fighting for my freedom after the 1988 firefighters explosion
  • Read: Could Bryan Sheppard’s lawsuit provide answers about six KC firefighter deaths?
  • Read: ‘I Can’t Let It Go’ | Part I
  • Listen: Trial by fire
  • Explore: Storyworks

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
It was one of the biggest highway projects that Kansas City, Missouri had seen in years. A ten-mile, six-lane corridor running south from the heart of the city. To widen the existing road, the construction company brought in huge earth movers and thousands of pounds of explosives to blast through the limestone hillsides.
Then, early in the morning on November 29th, 1988, a call comes into 911.
911 Operator: Fire Department.
Speaker 3: Yes, I want to report a fire.
911 Operator: Whereabout?
Al Letson: Two security guards working at the construction site are on the line.
Speaker 3: Yeah, there's a fire on both sides of the highway. It's at 87th Street.
911 Operator: 87th and 71? Okay. We'll have units there. Thank you.
Speaker 3: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Al Letson: The 911 operator quickly notifies the fire department and they rush a crew to the scene, Pumper Truck 41.
Speaker 4: 41, dispatcher.
Al Letson: The fire fighters spot a pickup truck in flames and a second fire.
Speaker 4: Appears to be two arson fires out here. Send the police.
Al Letson: Two arson fires.
Speaker 5: 41, please caution on your call. We have information there may be explosives. It's in a construction area the pickup truck ...
Al Letson: The explosives are packed into two construction trailers. Another fire truck arrives, Pumper Number 30. As both crews begin to battle the flames, the battalion chief reports a powerful blast.
Speaker 6: Whoa, [inaudible 00:01:32] it's a major explosion. We heard it here. Firefighters are involved out at that 71 Highway and 87th. Apparently a large explosion.
Pumper 41 or Pumper 30, answer. Pumper 41 or Pumper 30.
Al Letson: There's no answer from either crew.
Authorities cordon off the area. 40 minutes pass, then a second explosion rocks the site, breaking gas lines and shattering building foundations miles away.
Emergency crews, investigators and news reporters arrive as the morning sun reveals a charred landscape.
Speaker 7: The only thing left out of the two fire trucks on the scene is the front end of one pumper, everything else is gone.
Speaker 8: At about 12:30 this afternoon, a contingent of firefighters rolled in. Their job was the hardest one today, to bring out the remains of six of their friends.
Victor Zinn: Everything was pretty much leveled within probably a hundred-yard radius.
Al Letson: Victor Zinn is a retired Kansas City homicide detective. He was at the scene that day.
Victor Zinn: In addition to the bomb squad, they also had cadaver dogs looking for individuals that may have been blown apart.
Al Letson: Six firefighters died in the explosions. The youngest was 31. The oldest 57. It was the worst tragedy in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department.
Victor Zinn: This was a huge, huge crime that took place and there was going to be a lot of time and effort put into finding the right people that did it.

 

Al Letson: Nine years later, five people were convicted, not for murder but for aiding and abetting arson that led to the deaths of the firefighters. A federal judge sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

 

But from the beginning the case was troubled. First, there was no physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime scene and there was conflicting testimony, a lot of it from convicted felons and jailhouse informants. To this day, the four surviving defendants maintain their innocence, and they're not alone.

 

Victor Zinn: In my opinion, the wrong people are in jail for this particular crime.

 

Al Letson: The youngest defendant was Bryan Sheppard. Bryan was just 17 at the time of the explosions and, it turns out, his age was really important. A few years ago the Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional for a minor, and that's just the type of sentence Bryan received; so after nearly three decades behind bars, he suddenly had a shot at freedom.

 

Reveal's Jenna Welch spent a year digging into Bryan's case together with our partner Kansas City Public Television, and a lot's happened since we first reported this story. Jenna begins with a phone call.

 

Speaker 10: Receiving a call from ...

 

Bryan Sheppard: Bryan Sheppard.

 

Speaker 10: An inmate at CCA Leavenworth Detention Center.

 

Jenna Welch: Whenever Bryan reaches out from Federal Prison, our calls are monitored and we're only able to talk for 15 minutes at a time; so if you want to get to the bottom of his story, it takes a lot of phone calls. This call was just over a year ago.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I realized today was the 29th of November ...

 

Jenna Welch: Bryan tells me on this day he thinks about the firefighters and their families.

 

Bryan Sheppard: It's hard to believe it's been 28 years today that that crime happened.

 

Jenna Welch: It's the day your life changed forever. It's got to be hard.

 

Bryan Sheppard: It's hard sitting in here for all these years. I've been in locked up for 20+ years now. Anybody who gets into this case and start reading about and investigating, they come to the same conclusion: Something's not right with this case. If we can maintain our innocence for all these years and stand up to fight and never waiver, something's got to be wrong.

 

Jenna Welch: Bryan has always told me, and anyone else who would listen, that he was home asleep on the night of the explosions. He was living with his parents in a place called Marlboro, a working-class neighborhood just a mile from the construction site.

 

The other defendants were also from Marlboro: His uncles, Frank and Skip; Skip's girlfriend, Darlene Edwards; and Bryan's friend, Richard Brown.

 

Bryan's teenage years were wild, lots of drugs, drinking, fights and brushes with the law. During the time the police were investigating the explosions, Bryan was locked up for stealing a bicycle and violating probation.

 

Speaker 13: Bryan Sheppard is in jail already serving time ...

 

Jenna Welch: That's when local media started reporting he was a suspect in the firefighters' case.

 

Speaker 13: He was scheduled to be released next week, but investigators and prosecutors will reportedly charge him with arson and murder before he walks.

 

Jenna Welch: The evidence against Bryan came from two men he'd met in jail. They told police he'd bragged about starting the fires. Based on their testimony, the state of Missouri indicted Bryan on six counts of murder. But within a couple of months, the case fell apart.

 

One of the informants, a man named John Driver, said on television he'd lied to the police.

 

John Driver: 98% was made up, was fictitious.

 

Jenna Welch: Driver said the police wanted a conviction badly and promised to reduce his jail sentence.

 

John Driver: The statement was made by the police officers was "Someone's going to have to burn for that." They were getting a lot of pressure now to convict someone on this charge.

 

Tom Jackman: Bryan Sheppard had not been in jail that long when the prosecutors had to drop the charges.

 

Jenna Welch: Tom Jackman covers crime and courts for the Washington Post, back then he was a young reporter with the Kansas City Times.

 

Tom Jackman: They dismissed six murder charges against the guy they had thought had killed the firefighters. This was a gigantic letdown for the entire city. Suddenly they had nothing. They had nobody. They were back to square zero.

 

Jenna Welch: In December of 1989, Bryan Sheppard was a free man, but he was still in the media spotlight.

 

Speaker 16: Sheppard in an exclusive television interview maintains he's not capable of the crime; but he says, since his name has been associated with the explosion, his life has been scarred.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I had a friend of mine, he looks kind of like me, he got jumped down along Westport by I think it was a couple of firefighters. Jumped him. Beat him up because they thought he was me.

 

Jenna Welch: Bryan talks a lot about this moment in his life, as if it was twilight, just before the light went out. On one hand, his attorney told him his troubles were over.

 

Bryan Sheppard: He told us, "Nothing's going to happen. They're not going to charge you with the thing anymore. We've proven their witnesses were lying, so just move forward with your life."

 

Jenna Welch: The police had dropped the charges, but Bryan was still under suspicion.

 

Bryan Sheppard: The people hadn't changed, but the way they looked at me had. I could see it in their eyes. I could see it in the way they'd act around me.

 

Jenna Welch: He remembers seeing investigators combing Marlboro for evidence.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I might as well have been walking around with a sign on my chest or a bullseye or something.

 

Jenna Welch: An array of law enforcement was trying to crack the firefighters' case: Local police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ATF. They were part of an arson task force, and Fire Captain Joe Galetti was the chair. The men who died were his friends, his brothers. Joe firmly believed Bryan Sheppard and the others set the fires that triggered the explosions.

 

Joe Galetti: All the time we knew what family of persons did the crime. All we needed was a little evidence.

 

Jenna Welch: Just a little evidence. But remember, any physical evidence was blown to smithereens and no eyewitnesses had turned up. But Joe figured someone out there must know something, so his team set up a hotline for tips and plastered reward posters across Kansas City.

 

Joe Galetti: We made signs, 30-foot long and 12-foot high, and we put them on all the bridges. I made it big enough that if you could drive by at 55 miles-an-hour, you could read it.

 

Jenna Welch: Joe worked with an ATF agent named David True. They brought the case to the attention of the TV show-

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Jenna Welch: They brought the case to the attention of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. This was six years after Bryan Sheppard's first case was dismissed.

 

Speaker 2: Today the case remains Kansas City's most notorious unsolved crime.

 

Jenna Welch: The show aired in February 1995.

 

Speaker 2: There is currently a $50,000 reward being offered in this case. If you have any information please contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, or call our toll free number. Remember you need not give your name.

 

Jenna Welch: Joe Galetti says, "As soon as the program ended-"

 

Joe Galetti: The telephone started ringing. We had over 300 leads that night, and things started happening.

 

Jenna Welch: Leads were coming in from ordinary citizens. They were also coming in from jails and prisons.

 

Alan Bethard: I don't think you could get on the phone for three days there were so many criminals calling.

 

Jenna Welch: Alan Bethard is from Marlborough, and he grew up with Bryan Sheppard.

 

Speaker 5: I need a officer quickly.

 

Jenna Welch: I spoke with him at a Missouri State Prison, where he's serving time on drug charges. Alan's been in and out of prison over the years for dealing drugs, and robbery. In fact, he was here in 1995 and remembers prison staff putting up reward posters and encouraging inmates to call into the tip hotline.

 

Alan Bethard: Never once have seen any kind of help being requested from inside the Department of Corrections. They've never done anything like that.

 

Jenna Welch: Alan says "He didn't call in. Investigators came to him with an offer."

 

Alan Bethard: Testify at the grand jury hearing, we'll let you out of prison. Testify at the trial and help get a conviction and we'll assure you the $50,000 reward, we'll put you in the witness protection program, we'll send you anywhere in the United States you want to go.

 

Jenna Welch: Alan says, "Investigators wanted him to confirm a story." One of Alan's friends had told the police that he and Alan together had seen Bryan Sheppard and others speeding away from the construction site just after the explosions, but Alan says "He was at home that night and told investigators the story wasn't true." He says, "That's when they came after him."

 

Alan Bethard: They personally came at me, threatened to put me in jail for withholding evidence, threatened to take my girlfriend's daughter for being an unfit mother, and set my bond at $1 million, set my trial date back for three years. Even though they know they didn't have anything on me. These guys are threatening to take your life away from you.

 

Jenna Welch: Alan still refused to cooperate. At the time he was facing charges for stealing a car. A car that he had driven across the state line. The federal prosecutor in the firefighters case had the charges upgraded. Suddenly Alan was facing a long sentence in federal prison unless he cooperated.

 

Alan Bethard: I would've been a good witness against Bryan, with me being so close to him, me being such good friends with him.

 

Jenna Welch: But just at that point the judge in the case intervened. He scolded the government for pressuring Alan to testify. Reporter Mike McGraw spent years investigating the firefighters case for Kansas City Public Television, and the Kansas City Star. He's interviewed Alan many times.

 

Mike McGraw: During the hearing, in which Alan Bethard's stolen car case was taken from state court to federal court, the judge turned to Bethard and he said, "Look I'm sure the Federal Sentencing Commission would never, never in their wildest dreams anticipate that the government would pull something like this."

 

Jenna Welch: Then the judge turned to the federal prosecutor and said.

 

Mike McGraw: "You're just prosecuting this guy because he won't tell you the story that you want him to tell." He even called the prosecutor out again and said, "Do you think maybe that Alan is telling the truth and your witness could be the one that's lying?"

 

Jenna Welch: Instead of prison time the judge gave Alan probation.

 

Al Letson: Prosecutors aren't giving up. They're still on the hunt for people who will testify against Bryan Sheppard.

 

Speaker 8: They're coming out of jails, out of Missouri, Kansas and we'd look at our attorneys and be like this persons up there testifying against me. I don't even know who this person is.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Byard Duncan: Byard Duncan here from Reveal's Engagement team. Say what you will about 2017, but it was a great year for investigative reporting, and our show covered a lot of ground. We investigated the rise of Germany's far right, we took a close look at President Trump's promise to build a border wall, we dissected that viral pizzagate hoax, and we reported from some of the most divided places in the country. We can't choose our favorite episodes. That'd be like picking a favorite child. So we want to hear from you. What episodes or moments jumped out at you this year? Let us know, and we'll create a playlist based on your selections. Submitting is easy. Just text "Best" to 63735 and follow the prompts.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Speaker 10: [inaudible 00:15:24] major explosion. We heard here. Firefighters are involved out at that 71 highway and 87.

 

Al Letson: The explosions that killed six Kansas City firefighters in 1988 happened at the site of a major road expansion project. Investigators suspected Bryan Sheppard and four others snuck onto the site, and started fires that triggered the blasts, but there was no physical evidence and investigators couldn't nail their case. The investigation stretched for years, and in the middle of it was a highly decorated ATF special agent named David True. Witnesses interviewed by True said, "He could be persistent and polite, but also threatening and manipulative." Here's Reveal's Jenna Welch.

 

David R. True: Testing, testing one, two, three. Testing one, two.

 

Jenna Welch: The scene is a small interview room at a Kansas City jail.

 

David R. True: For the record it's February the 19th, 1995. It's approximately 9:35 PM. This is special agent David R. True, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

 

Jenna Welch: Sitting opposite David True and another federal agent is Darlene Edwards. She's the girlfriend of Bryan Sheppard's uncle Frank, and was living with him at the time of the explosions.

 

David R. True: Bout ready to conduct an interview with Darlene Edwards regarding her knowledge about the firefighters incident, which occurred in November 1988.

 

Jenna Welch: This is one of the most important interviews of the entire investigation.

 

David R. True: Can you state your full name-

 

Jenna Welch: It's a Sunday evening, the end of a tense weekend for Darlene.

 

David R. True: For the record once again Darlene, tell us what you know about what happened that night.

 

Darlene Edwards: After I had come home, Frank and I had come home, he was drunk and wanting to argue as usual. We went to bed. I pacified him, he passed out.

 

Jenna Welch: Darlene has waived her right to an attorney. She tells the agent a story. Hours before the explosion she was home with Frank. She says, "Bryan Sheppard and his friend Richard Brown walked to her house to ask for a ride to a convenient store. They told her they were four wheeling with their truck near the construction site and ran out of gas." Darlene says, "She drove Bryan and Richard to the store, and they filled a gas can."

 

Darlene Edwards: I took them down to [inaudible 00:17:41]. I usually kept-

 

Jenna Welch: Then she tells the agents "They went to the construction site, but when they got there there was no truck."

 

Darlene Edwards: I said, "What do you need gas for then?" Because, it's like "I don't see no cars around. What do you need gas for? What's going on?" They said, "Well we're going to start a fire at this end over here, we're going to start a fire over here. So while they're over there we can be over here." I said, "Man that's not cool, because you don't know where there's explosive, because they're excavating so naturally there's explosives and you don't know where they're at. I'm not hanging around and getting my ass blown up."

 

David R. True: So they were going to use the gasoline to set the fire for a, I guess it sounded like a diversion.

 

Darlene Edwards: A diversion. A diversion.

 

Jenna Welch: Darlene explains to the agents, "Bryan and Richard wanted to divert the attention of the security guards so they could steal some equipment." That was more than 22 years ago. I talked to Darlene recently and here's what she has to say now.

 

Darlene Edwards: I told them the stupidest story I could think of. I mean, come on.

 

Jenna Welch: Darlene says, "The story she told investigators was made up, and didn't even make sense." The construction site was only two blocks from the store, so why would Bryan and Richard walk more than a mile to Darlene's house only to have her take them back to the store to get gas?

 

Darlene Edwards: I'm not thinking anybody's going to believe that stupid story. Who's going to believe somebody's going to do something that dumb? But they were like, "Okay. That's good. You put them there. Now what went on?" I'm like, "Okay. They said they wanted to start a fire," blah, blah. So I just lied to them. I lied to the ATF.

 

Jenna Welch: Darlene says, "To understand why she lied to the ATF you need to go back a couple of days, before her interview at the jail." ATF agents had asked her to come to their office to answer questions about the case.

 

Darlene Edwards: They were asking me questions about the firefighters, originally "Do you know who did it?" I said, "No." "Well we think you know. We've had word that you know." I said, "But I don't know. I can't help you something I don't know."

 

Jenna Welch: Darlene says, "The agents told her that Bryan Sheppard and Richard Brown were responsible for the arson, and that she knew about it." Darlene insisted that she was home in bed that night, and didn't know anything. So then investigators put the squeeze on her. They revealed that undercover agents had secretly recorded her selling 11 grams of crack cocaine to a friend. Darlene was arrested and put in jail.

 

Darlene Edwards: They kept telling me, "This is your window of opportunity. You're facing 40 years in prison. All you need to do is put them there-"

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Darlene Edwards: ... Your window of opportunity. You're facing 40 years in prison. All you need to do is put him there at the site. That's your window of opportunity. Take it, go through there, walk through that door, go home to your kids.

 

Speaker 2: After a weekend behind bars, [Darlene 00:20:15] says she had another meeting with the ATF agents, the one captured in the recording. That's when she told the story about driving [Bryan 00:20:25] and Richard to the construction site.

 

Darlene Edwards: I didn't wanna be in jail. I'd never been locked up like that before. That was scary. They kept me in solitary, in a cell by myself, and they wouldn't even let me make a phone call until after I spoke to them, and I lied. I wanted to go home.

 

Speaker 2: Darlene eventually recanted her statement, but it was too late. Prosecutors used the recording to help indict Bryan [Sheppard 00:20:51], his friend Richard Brown, his uncles, Skip and Frank Sheppard, and Darlene herself.

 

Speaker 3: Five people have been indicted in the 1988 firefighters explosion. Their names-

 

Speaker 4: Each defendant could be subject to a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole and a $250,000 fine.

 

Speaker 2: The trial began in January 1997. Since there were no eyewitnesses, the prosecutors relied on statements from people who said they'd heard the suspects admitting their involvement in the crime. Bryan Sheppard remembers some of the witnesses were brought to the courtroom directly from jail.

 

Brian Sheppard: I'd say probably half of them, we didn't even know who they were, and they're coming straight out of jail. Those were your chances. We'd look at our attorneys and we're like, "This person's up there testifying against me. I don't even know who this person is. You know? I've never met that person before."

 

Speaker 2: But the prosecutors most important witness was Darlene Edwards' own daughter, [Becky 00:21:46]. She was only 11 years old at the time of the explosions. Becky told the court that a week before the blasts, Bryan, Darlene, and the other defendants were together in the kitchen, getting high and making plans to steal equipment from the construction site. Reporter Tom Jackman was in the courtroom covering the trial for the Kansas City Times.

 

Tom Jackman: Becky Edwards was very tense, because she was obviously terrified. She's now a teenager, 19 years old. This is 8 years later, and she was just terrified that she was incriminating her mother, her mother's boyfriend, her mother's boyfriend's brother, and these other two fellas that she knew well. She was on the stand in federal court, testifying against her family. That was definitely a linchpin moment in the trial, in which here's a witness that puts all five people in one room.

 

Speaker 2: After two days, the jurors handed down a unanimous verdict ... Guilty. Later, the judge sentenced each of the defendants to life in prison with no possibility of parole, including Darlene. She's an inmate at a federal prison in Texas, where she'll likely be for the rest of her life.

 

The verdict was a relief for relatives of the firefighters killed in the explosions. [Debbie 00:23:12] McKarnin was married to Robert McKarnin. When he died, he'd been a Kansas City firefighter for 20 years.

 

Debbie McKarnin: I thought it was a long time coming. I really never thought it was going to happen.

 

Speaker 2: Debbie spoke at the sentencing hearing.

 

Debbie McKarnin: I looked at each one of the perpetrators in the eyes as I was on the stand, and spoke of all six men and the other families. They didn't lead good lives to begin with, like all of these men that were in their communities, and did good things, and helped people all the time. These people were not that type of people.

 

Speaker 2: As for the relatives of the defendants, all these years later there's still a powerful mix of anger, frustration, and fear. Becky Edwards, whose testimony helped convict her mother, wouldn't talk to us. In fact, she hasn't talked about the case with anyone in years, not reporters, not even her own mother's lawyer. So, we went to see Doris Clark. She's Becky's grandmother, Darlene's mother. Doris lives in Osceola, about two hours south of Kansas City. We meet outside a thrift store where she volunteers.

 

Doris Clark: That was my granddaughter who called me, and I was on the phone with her.

 

Speaker 9: Was it Becky?

 

Doris Clark: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Speaker 2: How's she doing?

 

Doris Clark: She's doing pretty good.

 

Speaker 2: Doris takes us inside to a back room.

 

Doris Clark: She shoulda never been on the witness stand. I mean, she should never have been called, as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, she had it rough.

 

Speaker 2: Doris says federal agents, including David [True 00:24:59] of the ATF, manipulated her family and then betrayed them.

 

Doris Clark: We felt that we had support from ATF. They kept telling us that Darlene was innocent.

 

Speaker 2: She says the agents treated her like a queen during the trial, even paying for rooms at a local hotel. She and her husband were also invited to the ATF office during breaks for donuts and coffee.

 

Doris Clark: It was just like [ya's 00:25:21] going to a friend's house and entertain, and then we would all go to court.

 

Speaker 2: According to Doris, federal agents were also paying for her phone calls to Darlene in jail, and they'd give her questions to ask her daughter.

 

Doris Clark: This was a setup from the get-go. It was somebody wanting to get a feather in their cap, and they should have had it in their butt.

 

Speaker 2: If you had a chance to sit across the table from Dave True, and let him know what you were thinking and feeling about all of this, what would you say?

 

Doris Clark: Tell him to kiss my ass. He had used us. That's the way I feel.

 

Speaker 2: In 2005, Becky Edwards recanted. She signed an affidavit saying the ATF pressured her to give false testimony. The ATF wouldn't talk to me about the case, but I was able to talk to Agent David True, who is now retired. I met him at the Firefighter's Union Hall in Kansas City. He wouldn't let me record him, but I can tell you what he said.

 

He said he never told Doris Clark that her daughter Darlene was innocent. Doris was cooperating in the investigation because she believed Darlene was involved. What's more, True told me Doris encouraged her own family members to provide evidence supporting Darlene's guilt. As for Darlene's daughter Becky, the prosecution's star witness, True said she gave multiple statements implicating her mother and the other defendants. He said he never pressured anyone to lie.

 

In addition to Becky Edwards, seven other witnesses who testified to the grand jury or at trial recanted. Of course, that leaves many other witnesses who haven't recanted, but when you go through their testimony, it's full of contradictions.

 

I went with reporter Mike [McGraw 00:27:21] to his news room at Kansas City Public Television. Mike has a spreadsheet 10 feet long, double-sided. It lists 58 witnesses who testified for the prosecution.

 

Mike McGraw: My spreadsheet shows that 47 witnesses changed their stories in the nine years between the crime and the trial. In other words, in many cases they might have told the local police right after the explosion, "I know nothing about this case." And when the Feds take the case over eight or nine years later, they all of the sudden have these epiphanies about what they do remember. And of course, when the Feds took the case over from the local authorities, there was another incentive, and that was more than $50,000 in reward money advertised in most of the jails and prisons in both Kansas and Missouri.

 

Speaker 2: On a whiteboard, we list the names of the defendants in one column. Alongside, we write the locations where witnesses reported seeing them.

 

So, the information that we just pulled and put up here puts Bryan at four different places, clearly at four different places at the time.

 

Mike McGraw: At approximately the same time. It's almost as though no two witnesses told the same story.

 

Speaker 2: Okay. Let's look at Darlene.

 

Mike McGraw: We've got her at home after the first explosion. We've got her at the site. We've got her buying gas. We've got her at the Kwik Trip, and back at home.

 

Speaker 2: Right. That's starting to be even more confusing.

 

Mike McGraw: Right. The trial transcript itself is over 4,000 pages long. The trial lasted for weeks. And when you put it all together, it doesn't make any sense. Even the prosecutor and the U.S. attorney at the time have acknowledged that even after this lengthy trial, we still don't know what happened up there that night.

 

Speaker 2: I wanted to talk to the prosecutors, but they declined. But when Mike was working for the Kansas City Star back in 2006, he recorded this interview with Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker.

 

Paul Becker: [inaudible 00:29:39].

 

Speaker 2: Becker was the government's lead trial attorney in the firefighters' case.

 

Paul Becker: ... question I don't know how many ...

 

Speaker 2: Mike pointed out all the contradictions.

 

Paul Becker: When you study the testimony, Frank was eight different places at once. Skip was four, Darlene was four, Bryan was four, and Richie was seven. Now, I know the jury heard all that and-

 

Mike McGraw: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:29:57]-

 

Paul Becker: [crosstalk 00:29:58] came back with a guilty-

 

Mike McGraw: You're the first one to discover that? Is that the-

 

Paul Becker: No. No, by no means am I the first one. You ...

 

  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: No, by no means am I the first one [inaudible 00:30:03]. You probably knew that at the time.

 

Becker: Oh I knew that all these witness statements didn't match up, I mean absolutely.

 

Speaker 1: The defendants would have me ask you, "How could I be in two places at once? How could your witnesses be right?"

 

Becker: We're just relying upon their statements. Ultimately that's what it comes down to is the defendants admitted the crime.

 

Speaker 1: Right.

 

Becker: We didn't have any eyewitnesses, so what else do you have?

 

Jenna Welch: Becker said it didn't matter that some of the details from the witnesses didn't match up. What mattered, he said, was that the defendants had admitted to witnesses that they had taken part in the crime, and Becker defended the tactics the government used to get the testimony.

 

Becker: We make deals with people to let them out of jail, right? The inducement is your freedom and that's the norm in federal criminal cases, in state cases too I guess, I mean you cooperate and you're going to get less time. I mean what could be more of an inducement than that? The rule is, and it's hard and fast, is you disclose it so that the trier of fact, the jury can weigh that.

 

Mike McGraw: When you look at the number of witnesses who were either in trouble or already in jail or facing charges, state or federal, and the power that the federal government had to make all that go away, it's just stunning. Then I wondered, you know, what's the duty of prosecutor with that much power to make sure that the induced testimony is in fact the truth?

 

Jenna Welch: In response to Mike McGraw's reporting, the justice department reviewed the governments handling of the case. Their 2011 report concluded that there was no credible evidence that federal agents improperly coerced witnesses. There was another finding. The report identified new suspects in the case, their names though were redacted.

 

Mike McGraw: So actually, where we're standing now is some feet below where the construction site was going on at the time.

 

Jenna Welch: Mike wanted to show me a marker on the side of the highway, at the site of the explosions.

 

Mike McGraw: As you can see there's lines in the limestone here, and that's where they drilled through to place the explosives to blow the rock away.

 

Jenna Welch: There's an American flag flapping in the wind, and six limestone crosses covered with pennies, gifts to fallen heroes, and a plaque. In memory of our firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty at this site. November 29th, 1988.

 

Mike McGraw: Yeah I mean remember, this occurred in '88. The families of the firefighters, the whole city was mourning for eight years. There had been no explanation for this. No one had been held accountable for eight years. So when they gathered up these kids from Marlboro, some of them were kids, there was a march for retribution. There was a lot of pressure to give the family's closure, and they deserved to have it. Truth be told, I've been here by myself more than once, kind of communing with these fellows, wondering if there's any way they could somehow give me a sign as to what they think really happened that night. I'm not sure they really do. I'm pretty sure the government doesn't know.

 

Al Letson: After nearly two decades behind bars there's new hope for Bryan Sheppard, but there's a catch.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I'm not going to confess to a crime that I did not commit. I'll tell everybody, you know all the things that I've done wrong in my entire life, but I did not commit this crime.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Michael Montgom: Hey listeners, I'm Michael Montgomery, producer on this weeks show. Figuring out who was responsible for the tragedy that shook Kansas City almost 30 years ago has been a huge challenge for investigators and journalists. Mike McGraw spent years reporting on this case for Kansas City Public Television and the Kansas City Star. We've got Mike's account of all the twists and turns in his investigation and a lot more at our website, Reveal News dot org slash KC. You can also get a peak at our documentary theater project that explores Bryan Sheppard's bid for freedom. That's all at Reveal News dot org slash KC.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We've been talking this hour about a tragedy that happened almost 30 years ago in Kansas City. Six firefighters were killed in two massive explosions caused by arson. Five people were convicted and sent to prison for life. One of them, Bryan Sheppard, was 17 at the time of the explosions. Now, in 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that the type of sentence he received, life without the possibility of parole, was unconstitutional for a minor. That gave Bryan a shot at freedom. Reveal's Jenna Welch picks up the story.

 

Speaker 8: Hello, this is a collect call from ...

 

Bryan Sheppard: Bryan Sheppard.

 

Jenna Welch: I've been talking with Bryan about his case for more than a year. Hi Bryan, it's Jenna.

 

Bryan Sheppard: Hello, how are you doing? Good morning.

 

Jenna Welch: He's always said he's innocent, but he says that for a long time he stopped thinking about getting out of prison because his chances seemed so remote, but the Supreme Court decision changed that. All of a sudden Bryan was eligible for a re-sentencing hearing. A judge could shorten his life sentence or maybe set him free.

 

Bryan Sheppard: It's overwhelming for something like that to happen after all of these years, you know, it was a dream. I'm like, "This is not really happening".

 

Jenna Welch: There's a hitch. Re-sentencing looks at whether the original sentence was too harsh based on the defendant's role in the crime. Not whether they're innocent. This is tricky for Bryan because he insists he had no role in the explosions.

 

Bryan Sheppard: I'm not going to confess to a crime that I did not commit. I'll tell everybody, you know, all the things that I've done wrong in my entire life, but I did not commit this crime. If that makes the judge decide to send me back to prison for 40 more years, than that's what's going to happen.

 

Jenna Welch: He reads me part of a letter he's planning to give to the judge. It's about a plea deal that prosecutors offered him back in 1995.

 

Bryan Sheppard: Many years ago I was given a chance at freedom if I would have get on the witness stand and point to my uncle's and my best friend and tell the jury that they were guilty. If I had lied to myself I would have instead corrupted my soul.

 

Jenna Welch: Bryan says he feels like he's in the same predicament now. Tell a lie and go free, or tell the truth and stay in prison?

 

Bryan Sheppard: I could have been free many, many years ago if I had taken the deal. I hope the families of the honorable men that died that terrible night can understand why I must again assert my innocence.

 

Jenna Welch: What school is that? Is that ...

 

Mike McGraw: I think Virgie told me Bryan went to-

 

Jenna Welch: As Bryan's re-sentencing approaches, I take a drive with reporter Mike McGraw. Were going to see Virgie Sheppard, Bryan's mother. She still lives in Marlboro, that's the neighborhood close to the site of the explosions.

 

Mike McGraw: The homes, a lot of them need painting. Many of them have wrought iron grating on their outside, but as you can see by looking around there's nary a sidewalk anywhere. She'll yell.

 

Virgie Sheppard: It's open. Hi there.

 

Jenna Welch: We go inside Virgie's house. She's sitting inside a big armchair, chain smoking with an oxygen tank next to her. There are pictures of Bryan all over the walls.

 

Virgie Sheppard: I think if we'd had money he would have walked. If we'd come from high society instead of just being dirt poor, that he would have walked on the whole situation. I can't say that that's a fact, but in the world that I grew up in and what I've seen so far, I believe it's true.

 

Jenna Welch: Virgie's always said she was home with Bryan on the night of the explosions. At 45, he's spent almost half his life behind bars.

 

Virgie Sheppard: It's been 21 years. His daughter grew up without him. I mean it's just a shame.

 

Jenna Welch: Virgie's on the phone with Bryan almost every day, talking about what to expect when his re-sentencing comes up.

 

Virgie Sheppard: I'd love to think, you know, time served for something he didn't do, you know, I'd love to hear him say he's not guilty, but I don't have a clue as to what they're going to do. Truthfully, I'm shocked that they've let it go this far.

 

Jenna Welch: The Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for Bryan's re-sentencing found that juvenile's cannot be punished by the same standards as adults for crimes that carry life sentences. Certain factors must be considered. Like age, life at home, and the level of participation in the crime. Juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole, but only in rare cases where the crime reflects what the court calls irreparable-

 

  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:36]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 1: ... Cases, where the crime reflects what the court calls irreparable corruption. Brian's legal strategy focuses on his traumatic childhood, how he was raised by alcoholics and physically abused by his father, and how he's turned his life around in prison. Cindy Short is his attorney.

 

Cindy Short: The man that sits before me every day when I go to see him is a redeemed individual. He is a person who is rehabilitated.

 

Speaker 1: Cindy told the judge handling Brian's case how he kicked his drug and alcohol addictions, got his high school diploma, and worked hard to stay close to his daughter and two grandkids, all while locked up in federal prison.

 

Cindy Short: There is no evidence that this was someone that you would throw away, that you would be afraid of, that could never live in society. That has no relationship to who Brian Shepherd was at 17. If we're able to prove that, then a mandatory sentence of life in prison is unconstitutional. It can not apply to him.

 

Speaker 1: Cindy also presented evidence questioning his original conviction, like all of the conflicting testimony. She included interviews we broadcast on Reveal in the run up to Brian's re-sentencing. But opposing Brian's team, the same federal prosecutor from his original trial. Paul Becker wouldn't talk to us, but in court he argued that Brian must remain in prison unless he accepted responsibility for his role in the crime. Becker said that was the only way Brian could prove he had been rehabilitated. In other words, do the one thing Brian has refused to do for the past three decades.

 

The judge wouldn't let Brian address questions about his guilt or innocence, but that's what everyone is thinking about, especially James Kilventon. He was in the Army when his father was killed in the explosions. His wife is Tracy Kilventon.

 

James Kilventon: I guess you kind of get instinct. I didn't think they had the right people.

 

Tracy Kilventon: I couldn't believe that they actually had a jury prosecute these people. None of the evidence added up at all.

 

Speaker 1: James says he was so troubled by Brian's conviction that he asked a friend, who was a private investigator, to look into the case. His friend concluded the government failed to put Brian or the others at the crime scene.

 

James Kilventon: I shared it with my mom, of course she was not of the opinion of me. She thought they had the right people, and that set a rift between us.

 

Speaker 1: A rift that lasted to the end of his mother's life. James and Tracy Kilventon are hoping the judge orders Brian's release.

 

The three other surviving defendants are also in prison for life, but unlike Brian, they have little hope of getting out. Darlene Edwards is in a federal medical facility in Texas. Her health is declining and she's petitioned for clemency without success.

 

Speaker 5: Would you state your full name and spell your last name please?

 

Darlene Edwards: Darlene Brie Edwards. E-D-W-A-R-D-S.

 

Speaker 1: The interview Darlene recorded with the feds in 1995 helped convict all of the defendants, including herself. The last time I spoke with her we talked about Brian and what she'd say to him now if she could.

 

Darlene Edwards: Brian, I love you. I am so, so sorry I did this. I know you didn't do it, and I pray that you get to go home with your mom. Granted, I want to go home too, but I'm the one that told the lie and now we're all sitting here.

 

Speaker 1: I wanted to know what Brian thought, so I played Darlene's tape for him.

 

Brian: I'm grateful that she actually said those words. To hear her now after all these years, it does mean something to me. I believe that even though she did what she did and said what she said, she still deserves to be sitting right here with me and going back for a re-sentencing hearing.

 

Speaker 1: On the day of Brian's re-sentencing, dozens of people pack into a courtroom at the federal building in downtown Kansas City. No recording is allowed, so let me set the scene. Brian shuffles into the courtroom in shackles. He smiles at his family and supporters who sit on one side of the room. On the other side, relatives of the fire fighters who want Brian's life sentence to stand. Judge Fernando Gaitan reads his decision. He describes moving testimony from the families of the fire fighters and the devastating impact the tragedy had on them, but he also points to the Supreme Court's decision on juvenile lifers, Brian's rehabilitation, and all of the conflicting testimony from the original case. When Judge Gaitan gets to his conclusion, the audience gasps. He throws out Brian's life sentence and changes it to 20 years, time served. He's not exonerating Brian, but he's setting him free.

 

Outside the courthouse reporters surround Brian's mom Fergie, and his daughter Ashley.

 

Ashley: I am so pleased with the judge's decision. I know we all are.

 

Speaker 9: Yes.

 

Ashley: But I can see that my father's release would not only bring happiness and joy to our family, but it would also bring further suffering to the families of the fallen fire fighters.

 

Speaker 9: Amen.

 

Ashley: For that I am truly sorry.

 

Speaker 1: I try to interview families of the fire fighters. Most are too upset to talk, but one of them, Cassie McCarnon, has something to say. Her father Robert died in the explosions.

 

Cassie M.: We are very, very disappointed in this judgment today. I think that this individual was 17, almost 18. I was nearly the same age at the time of this crime, and I knew right from wrong. I don't think he'll ever take responsibility for that because he's going to claim his innocence. My philosophy on that is this is not a conspiracy. He was convicted. There's evidence. If someone retracts a statement, they're either a liar then or they're a liar now.

 

Speaker 1: James Kilventon has mixed emotions. He's happy for Brian.

 

James Kilventon: I didn't think he should have spent 21 years in jail in the first place, so I was happy for him. It's not like I call him a friend or nothing though, but I was happy for him.

 

Speaker 1: But James is also sad. He's thinking the government never solved the case. It's possible the real culprits, the people responsible for his father's death are still out there.

 

James Kilventon: Still I don't know what actually went on, or who was up there. Almost three years later I still don't have closure. I'd like to know.

 

Speaker 1: Tracy Kilventon decides to reach out to Brian, so she writes him a card and sends it to the federal prison where he's packing his bags.

 

Tracy Kilventon: Some of the families were incredibly angry, and I just wanted him to know that not everyone was angry, that someone actually agreed with the judge.

 

Ashley: Go that way.

 

Cindy Short: No, didn't work. That theory [crosstalk 00:47:20].

 

Speaker 1: On the day of Brian's release, I head to a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. I am with his attorney Cindy and his daughter Ashley. We're riding in Ashley's minivan. Instead of releasing Brian at the prison gates where news crews are waiting, guards put him in a big white van and drive him to a Kmart store about a mile away.

 

Ashley: She said go that way.

 

Speaker 1: We get there just as the van is pulling away.

 

Ashley: Brian is going that way.

 

Cindy Short: Is that him? Did they drop him off in the parking lot?

 

Ashley: Are you fucking kidding me? Oh my God! I cannot believe they just left him there. Oh my gosh. Oh, this is so messed up.

 

Speaker 1: Standing alone in the Kmart parking lot is Brian. He's dressed in a thermal undershirt, slacks, and tennis shoes, and he's holding a garbage bag with all of his stuff.

 

Brian: It's awful windy out here. Very excited, nervous, anxiety is killing me. Been stressing all day. Ain't had no sleep. Can't wait to get over there and spend some time with my family. I didn't know if it was going to come or not.

 

Ashley: I was starting to wonder today with all the waiting that we've been doing.

 

Speaker 1: Brian and Ashley embrace. There's a tornado brewing. The sharp wind whips their faces.

 

Cindy Short: The door?

 

Ashley: The door got jammed over there.

 

Speaker 1: We hop into Ashley's minivan.

 

Brian: I'm trying to figure out why you're driving.

 

Ashley: Because I can't.

 

Brian: Oh my God.

 

Ashley: Can you hand me my phone [inaudible 00:48:45] when you get a chance?

 

Speaker 1: Brian says the guards were excited.

 

Brian: They almost wanted to hug me. They were all shaking my hands and congratulating me and stuff. I got a card from one of the family member's wives.

 

Ashley: What? One of the fire fighters?

 

Brian: James Kilventon Jr, his wife sent me a card.

 

Ashley: Oh my god.

 

Speaker 1: Brian shows us the note that Tracy Kilventon sent to him just as he was leaving prison.

 

Cindy Short: Can you read it?

 

Brian: I tried. I read it a couple times. I can't read it again. I was going to make Cindy read it and make her cry.

 

Speaker 1: Brian hands the card to Cindy.

 

Cindy Short: "Brian, there are so many things I want to tell you that written letters can't convey. I ask my husband the other day if he thought about his dad every single day. He said, 'No, not every day.' We all have to let go. That's part of life. We all have to move on. Not all of the families feel the same way as you see on the news. My husband has moved past the hurt and anger. I thought you should know. There's much more I'd like to say that can't be written. Maybe some day we can talk. I hope you adjust well when you get out, and make the most of every day," Tracy Kilventon, wife of James Kilventon, son of Captain James Kilventon.

 

Wow.

 

Brian: What do you think about that?

 

Ashley: Wow. That's something, yeah.

 

Brian: I just got that on my way out of the joint.

 

Ashley: That's amazing.

 

Cindy Short: That is something.

 

Brian: I can't believe I'm out of jail.

 

Ashley: I can't believe it. You're in my car! You're in my van!

 

Speaker 11: I have somebody that wants to talk to you.

 

Speaker 1: We head off to a hotel where the Shepherd family is gathering. Brian borrows Ashley's cell phone so he can FaceTime with his two grandkids.

 

Ashley: Look who's coming home with me.

 

Speaker 1: FaceTiming with anyone, much less his grandkids, Brian says that's a first.

 

Brian: You're on your way up here to see me. I'm out of jail.

 

Speaker 12: Grandpa!

 

Ashley: Look at that smile.

 

Al Letson: It's been about nine months since Brian Shepherd was released from federal prison. He's living in Kansas City, working construction jobs, and spending lots of time with his family. Recently, Brian joined forces with Tracy and James Kilventon. The Kilventon's are supporting Brian in a lawsuit he filed just last week against the Justice Department. They want to force the department to release more details from its 2011 review of the fire fighter's case, including the names of new suspects cited in the review, suspects who were never charged.

 

Deb George edited our show. Michael Montgomery was the lead producer. Special thanks to our partner, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, and reporter Mike McGraw. We also had help from the Kansas City Star. Reveal's Jenna Welch directed the play based on Brian Shepherd's case. There's more about it at revealnews.org/kc. Mwende Hinojosa is our production manager. Our engineer and sound designer is Jim Briggs, who wrote the music for this week's show. He had help from Katherine Raymondo and Cat [inaudible 00:51:54] while Byard Duncan played the drums. Christa Sharfenberg is our acting CEO. Amy Powell is our editor in chief. Suzanne Reeber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, "Lighting." Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:36]