KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) — A man who spent 19 years in prison for a deadly arson fire in Kansas City, Missouri, sued the Department of Justice for information he says will prove his innocence — and the innocence of still-imprisoned co-defendants.
Bryan Sheppard was convicted of arson for a 1988 fire that killed six Kansas City firefighters. He was 17 at the time of the fire and sentenced to life in prison in 1997 along with four others, Richard Brown, Darlene Edwards, Frank Sheppard and Skip Sheppard.
Though three of these individuals remain behind bars, Skip Sheppard died in prison and Bryan Sheppard was released in 2015 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a juvenile may not be sentenced to life without parole.
Stephanie Sankar, an attorney with the firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, brought a federal complaint on Dec. 15 for Bryan Sheppard against the Department of Justice. Alleging violations of the Freedom of Information Act, Sheppard claims that numerous federal agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, improperly withheld a slew of documents to cover up misconduct in the investigation.
The lawsuit cites 19 trial witnesses who claimed, years after the trial, that “the federal investigators pressured them to lie. Others claimed their statements to the federal investigators were ignored because they did not align with those of other witnesses who were either coerced or incentivized with money or reduced jail time.”
Investigations by the Kansas City Star in 2008 and by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw in 2015 turned up a number of jarring discrepancies.
McGraw wrote for the online magazine Flatland that the federal government presented “no DNA evidence, no fingerprints, no admissions, no tell-tale tracks in the mud, no eyewitnesses.” McGraw claimed that the federal government has acknowledged that it never fully solved the crime said it shows no interest in finishing the job.
According to the government’s theory, the five defendants went to 87th Street along U.S. 71 around 3 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, intending to steal tools from the construction site to sell for drug money. The fire they set was not intended to kill, but to serve as a diversion. They allegedly set a separate fire in a pickup truck owned by a security guard, which ignited a trailer filled with thousands of pounds of construction explosives. The trailer exploded, killing instantly six firemen, Gerald Halloran, James Kilventon, Robert McKarnin, Michael Oldham, Thomas Fry and Luther Hurd.
A memorial service for the men drew 15,000 people, and the city erected a Firefighters Fountain downtown in their honor, and for other firefighters..
“These explosions were heard up to 50 miles away and caused craters 100 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep,” the complaint states. “More than 1,300 businesses and individuals within a 10-mile radius would claim property damage from these explosions.”
None of the men who were convicted agreed to testify against each other despite offers of plea deals. Three allegedly passed polygraph tests.
But the complaint names 19 witnesses who say they were coerced. The summaries of their statements cover 1½ pages of the 19-page complaint. For instance:
“a. Joe Denyer claimed he testified at trial that he heard defendant Darlene Edwards admit she was near the construction site only because federal investigators offered to help him with legal problems while in jail;
“b. Beckie Edwards claimed she testified at trial that she heard the defendants planning the theft only because federal investigators threatened her with drug charges;
“c. Carie Neighbors claimed she testified at trial that she overheard defendants Bryan Sheppard and Richard Brown admit to the crime at a party, but only because federal investigators threatened to prosecute her for contempt and take away her child …
“e. Jerry Rooks claimed he testified at trial that Richard Brown admitted his involvement to him, but only because federal investigators threatened him with more prison time for violating his probation …
“i. Dave Dawson claimed he lied to investigators in exchange for help with his own criminal charge, but when he recanted they charged him with several robberies he claimed he did not commit …
“j. Mike DeMaggio claimed federal investigators threatened him with additional jail time if he refused to implicate the defendants.
“k. Johnny Driver claimed that federal investigators threatened to charge him with the arson if he refused to implicate Bryan Sheppard.”
The other witnesses tell similar stories, all detailed in the complaint.
After the Kansas City Star published the results of its investigation in 2008, the Department of Justice said it would reinvestigate. It concluded in 2011 that there was no credible evidence to support the newspaper’s allegations, or the imprisoned men’s actual innocence.
Sheppard requested a copy of the Department of Justice report in 2016. Of the 450 pages the Department of Justice found, it released only 3 in full and parts of 35 pages. The other 412 pages were withheld.
“This case is not about whether the Star’s allegations are indeed true or whether the five individuals convicted of the 1988 arson are actually innocent,” Sheppard’s complaint says. “But rather if the federal government agency reviewing the actions of its own investigators and prosecutors, should be allowed to decide unilaterally, without any public review or accountability, that the agency and its personnel have done nothing wrong.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment. Sheppard’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sheppard wants to see the records, and an explanation for any records that the government says are exempt, plus attorney’s fees and costs of suit.