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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Couple Charged in Fire That Killed Son

ST. LOUIS (CN) - A man and his ex-wife face federal charges that they burned down three of their homes to defraud their insurer - the last fire killed their 15-year-old son.

A federal grand jury accuse Steven Henry Kemper, 53, and Sandra Kay Bryant, 55, of aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud.

Bryant is also charged with using fire to commit mail fraud.

Both could receive up to life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say Kemper and Bryant, while married, ran insurance scams from 1996 to 2002, setting fire to three family homes, in 1997, 1999 and 2001.

In the last fire, their 15-year-old son, Zach, became trapped in the basement, where he died, a few feet away from a fire extinguisher.

Prosecutors say Kemper started the fire with the hair spray in a utility room trash can. The couple, who have since divorced, knew their son was asleep in a basement bedroom when the fire began, the indictment states.

St. Louis County prosecutors charged Bryant with arson and first-degree murder in 2002, but a judge declared a mistrial, despite the objections of both prosecution and defense. The judge said he had mistakenly allowed jurors to hear evidence of a polygraph test.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that because a mistrial was declared, over the defense's objection, state prosecutors could not retry Bryant due to the Constitution's double jeopardy provision. Kemper had not previously been charged with a crime related to the fire or his son's death.

The couple received a $200,000 insurance payment from the 2001 fire, the indictment states.

"We're appalled that after all these years and the evidence as I know it that this is even being revisited," Susan Roach, Bryant's attorney, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Bryant filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County police in 2008, seeking damages for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. That complaint was dismissed in 2009 for failure to state a claim.

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said federal prosecutors started to take a look at the case after the Missouri Supreme Court ruling in 2006. Callahan told the Post-Dispatch that his office's resources allowed prosecutors to take a look at the scams in their entirety, and not just focus on the 2001 fire.

"It was a very unusual evidentiary and factual situation that led to a legal train wreck at the state level," Callahan said. "But in fairness, it was a unique and complex evidentiary issue they had, and unfortunately it ended up working in the defendant's benefit for a period of time."

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