'Get to the damn truth': Families still question 1988 explosion that killed 6 Mo. firefighters
Their relatives have different ideas about what actually happened, but they hope further review by law enforcement will lead to answers
Matti Gellman and Bill Lukitsch
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For the past 33 years, Jan Offill has never felt that all the facts were revealed in the massive arson-fueled explosion that killed her brother and five other Kansas City firefighters on the morning of Nov. 29, 1988.
Every now and then Offill, of Smithville, switches on the news to find another new piece of information has trickled out, as it has over the decades, through local reports. It brings her back to the day she watched the disaster unfold on live television in the hours after 25,000 pounds of construction-grade explosives went off, sending shock waves across the city.
She was taken back to that day earlier this month after several news organizations, including The Star, reported the latest developments in the case:
The Department of Justice had at one point considered there was credible evidence showing two security guards, one of whom testified on behalf of prosecutors, may have been involved in setting the fires. And now Jackson County prosecutors believe a review of the new evidence is warranted because there is no statute of limitations for murder.
Neither of the security guards has been criminally charged. Both have long maintained they played no role in the tragedy. Neither has been reachable by The Star despite multiple attempts to reach them.
"We're all just in disbelief. Because these men can't rest in peace," Offill, sister of fallen firefighter Michael Oldham, told The Star.
Over the past three weeks, The Star sought to track down family members of the six firefighters. Members from four families were interviewed, one declined to comment and the sixth could not be reached.
All had different theories about what actually happened that day. Two believe the five people convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the arson might actually be innocent. Another is unsure. Offill thinks they're guilty but that others were involved.
Differences aside, all agree there are still lingering questions. And they hope further review by law enforcement might provide the answers they have long sought.
"I've always questioned the security people," said James Kilventon, 52, son of fallen firefighter James Kilventon Jr.
"I hope they get to the damn truth at one point in time instead of dragging all five other families through this every five to 10 years."
Before dawn on the morning of Nov. 29, 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to a highway construction site for Bruce R. Watkins Drive on the city's southeast side.
They arrived to find that two fires had been set: one in a pickup truck owned by security guard Debbie Riggs and another at a 40-foot trailer that — unbeknownst to the firefighters — housed tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The fire in the pickup truck was quickly extinguished, some distance away from the trailer. But shortly after 4 a.m., as firefighters were trying to extinguish the trailer fire, the first blast went off — instantly killing Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham. It was followed by a second blast 40 minutes later that resulted from another set of explosives catching fire.
Offill, Oldham's sister, had just woken her 13-month old son from bed. Flipping on the television, she puttered around her kitchen, preparing to make breakfast, but stopped cold upon hearing a news anchor announce that six firefighters had gone missing.
"Well, I didn't figure it was my brother," Offill said. "I just talked to him the night before."
Terrified, she proceeded to call her parents, then her aunt and uncle and finally her sister-in-law, Karen Oldham — but received no answer. Shortly after, the supervisor at Oldham's job picked up the phone and explained that Oldham had left for the day, after hearing that her husband had been killed in an explosion that morning.
"And I thought oh crap. Yeah, that's when everything changed."
The explosion set off a massive law enforcement response. Arson was quickly determined to be the cause, and representatives from Kansas City police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, began seeking out those responsible.
Kansas City police suspected at the time that the fires had perhaps been set by people from the Marlborough neighborhood. The ATF, meanwhile, investigated whether disgruntled labor union workers were to blame — a theory that went nowhere. For months there were few answers as the city continued to grapple with the disaster.
Then in 1989, Bryan Sheppard, a troubled teenager from the neighborhood, was indicted by a grand jury in Jackson County on charges of arson and first-degree murder. Jackson County prosecutors had a case that rested on the testimony of jailhouse informants. But the charges were dropped three months later after Sheppard's defense attorney successfully showed that the state's witnesses were lying.
Afterward the case effectively went cold for roughly six years until 1995, when it was featured on the television show "Unsolved Mysteries."
The program's airing generated hundreds of tips and advertised a $50,000 reward for information. Some advertisements were also posted in area jail cells promising lenience for those facing criminal charges. At the time, a joint task force with local and federal authorities had been created seeking to bring the investigation to a close.
The next year, Sheppard was again indicted in the fatal arson — along with his friend Richard Brown, his uncles Frank and Skip Sheppard, and Frank's girlfriend Darlene Edwards.
In the federal case, prosecutors contended that the five had gone to the construction site early that morning in search of tools and other valuables they could steal. The fire in the trailer was presented as a way to cover up the crime, while the one set in the pickup truck was conceived as a diversion aimed at distracting security guards who were supposed to be keeping an eye on the site.
Every defendant in the case was offered a five-year plea deal. Each rejected the offer, choosing instead to take the matter to trial. All were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1997.
Reporter raises questions
Nearly ten years after the five Kansas City residents were convicted in the fatal arson, The Star began publishing a series of stories that critically examined the case.
The series, the result of a yearlong investigation spearheaded by the late Star reporter Mike McGraw, raised questions about the federal government's evidence to convict them. Prosecutors relied in large part on testimony from jailhouse informants with lengthy criminal records who received rewards for being state's witnesses in the case.
The series also highlighted allegations leveled against a now-retired ATF agent by some witnesses who claimed they felt pressured to lie or had information that could have led to the exoneration of the defendants. And The Star revealed that some jurors were confused by court instructions when the time came to decide the fate of the five, believing erroneously that they must choose to find all of them guilty at once or none at all.
The DOJ responded to the series of stories, published in 2008, by forming a review team tasked with investigating the possibility that the defendants were innocent and the allegations of misconduct by law enforcement. Three years later, a heavily redacted, 2 1/2 page summary of findings was released.
In it, the DOJ concluded that no evidence had been found during the review that exonerated those convicted of the crime. But the DOJ also said that there was credible evidence showing two other people — whose identities were concealed in the public record — may have also been involved.
In response to the public disclosure of the new information through local news reports, Teresa Moore, U.S. attorney in the Western District of Missouri, said the DOJ review confirmed the guilt of the defendants who were convicted. On Jan. 31, 2022, she said, "no credible information or evidence has arisen to warrant any charges against any additional defendants."
Among the findings to support that conclusion 10 years ago were interviews with three people who said they overheard or had direct conversations with Riggs, one of the security guards, and Donna Costanza, the other security guard, about a plan to burn Riggs' pickup truck as part of an insurance scam.
New suspects come to light
For years, the federal government refused to disclose other findings from that report. It was not until Bryan Sheppard, freed in 2017 from prison after the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on life sentences for juvenile defendants, brought a civil lawsuit against the DOJ that more documents were unearthed.
Last year, a federal judge in the Western District of Missouri found that the DOJ had improperly withheld and redacted some records and ordered their release. The judge also ordered that the law firm representing Bryan Sheppard — Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which took the case on a pro bono basis — be awarded roughly $344,000 in legal fees.
Within the many pages of previously undisclosed documents was the revelation that Riggs and Donna Costanza, security guards overseeing the site, were believed to be potentially involved all those years ago.
Bryan Sheppard, who has long maintained his innocence and that of his co-defendants, told The Star during an interview this month that the pursuit of the report has been about shedding light on the case. Though he hopes the findings will exonerate his co-defendants, the primary objective for him is not about proving whether he is guilty or innocent in the public eye.
"It was about going after this information that the government's hiding," he said. "And I was out there, trying to reach out to the firefighters' families to come forward and get on board.
"You know, no matter what they think of me, the government has all this information. They should want that information. And now that that information is out there, we still need them to step forward and demand some justice for their fallen family members."
Christopher Hurd was three years old when his father, Luther Hurd, was killed in the explosion. Now 36-years-old and living in Chicago, Illinois, he said it was tough growing up not understanding what happened.
"At the time, the case was considered closed and you just kind of moved on."
His mother, Jewel Hurd, 62, tried to protect him and his two sisters from the drama surrounding the case. But as the years went by, more information kept popping up, he said.
Hearing news of the additional suspects named in the DOJ report has been a lot for him to take in. But he wants to learn more "to get a better picture of what's happening or what's happened," he said.
James Kilventon, 52, son of the fallen firefighter James Kilventon Jr., told The Star that the report was a lot for him to take in as well.
"It makes me feel like they didn't do their job right the first time," he said.
Kilventon, of Sugar Creek, was in the army and traveled home from Fort Campbell to be with family during the trial. He had only been there for about four days, but was concerned about what he thought was a lack of evidence.
"I wasn't too happy with the prosecutor. I don't think half the families were," he said.
Leo Halloran, brother of firefighter Capt. Gerald Halloran, said he was confused about why the report was revealed a decade ago and the redactions of the security guards' identities from it have only now been unveiled.
"It sounds a little suspicious to me," he said.
If further investigation determines the five originally convicted were indeed innocent, the 86-year-old added: "I think that's a travesty of justice."
Over the years the tragedy has bonded the six families, according to Jan Offill, 60. Each of them have come together for yearly memorials to mourn their fallen family members and lean on one another as information continues to come to light.
She watched the trial of the five unfold in real time all those years ago. She remembers sitting beside the mother and father of defendant Darlene Edwards, who was Frank Sheppard's girlfriend, throughout those seven weeks.
"And they were wonderful people," Offil said. "They went to lunch with us. They were great. And I'm sure they're both probably gone now. But even at the end when the verdict came down, her parents were hugging all of us."
She's never doubted the guilt of those convicted. But she's always suspected there was more to the story and that the security guards might be involved, she said.
And the information she's learned — the possibility of the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office reexamining the case, in particular — has again re-raised the memories of everything that happened on that fateful day.
"I'm gonna be in court no matter what happens," she said.
The Star's Luke Nozicka contributed to this report.
(c)2022 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)