Report: Security guards possibly involved in 1988 explosion that killed 6 Mo. FFs

While the recently-released report sheds new light on the incident, DOJ officials said it did not exonerate the five people sentenced to prison


Bill Lukitsch and Luke Nozicka
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Records recently released by the Justice Department through court order show investigators found new information more than 10 years ago to suggest that two security guards may have been involved in a 1988 arson-fueled explosion at a construction site that killed six Kansas City firefighters.

In its report, finalized in 2011 but never publicly disclosed in its entirety, Justice Department investigators tasked with reviewing the case concluded that security guards Debbie Riggs and Donna Costanza "may have been involved in the arsons" as part of an attempt at insurance fraud. However, the DOJ found that the new information did not exonerate the five Kansas Citians who had been sentenced to life in prison.

Early on Nov. 29, 1988, the first trailer exploded and killed the six firefighters — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham — as they tried to extinguish the flames, unaware of the highly volatile explosives within.
Early on Nov. 29, 1988, the first trailer exploded and killed the six firefighters — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham — as they tried to extinguish the flames, unaware of the highly volatile explosives within. (AP Photo/Sam Harrel)

The DOJ's identification of Riggs and Costanza as additional suspects comes more than 10 years after the department released a two-and-a-half page summary of its findings at the close of its investigation. In the earlier release, Justice officials redacted their names and those of the witnesses interviewed.

The conclusion by the DOJ bolsters long standing suspicions about Riggs and Costanza that were raised by the defendants at trial. It also complicates the theory presented by investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and federal prosecutors that the five convicted — all small-time criminals from Kansas City's Marlborough neighborhood — were the sole perpetrators and set the Nov. 29, 1988 fires to divert the attention of those security guards and to cover up a burglary gone wrong.

The Justice review was launched in response to a series of stories written by the late Star investigative reporter Mike McGraw, including ones that named Riggs and Costanza. Beginning in 2007, The Star published several stories examining the case — one long mired in mystery, and accusations of official misconduct — after several witnesses, some of whom never testified at trial, reported that they felt pressured by law enforcement to implicate the defendants.

Among the findings in the DOJ's 2011 brief was the contention that, contrary to questions raised by The Star, there was no evidence to show that any of the witnesses in the case were coerced or faced "undue pressure" to provide information.

But the federal agency declined to release a more complete accounting of its findings — until a recent court order determined some of its records were improperly withheld.

In 2017, Bryan Sheppard, who was convicted in the case and has maintained he and his co-defendants are innocent, filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department after he was refused records requested under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to its review. The lawsuit kicked off a four-year court battle.

In September, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to release some of its records requested by Sheppard. The law firm representing him — Shook, Hardy & Bacon — was provided the documents outlined in the court order in December, and just last week was awarded $344,000 in legal fees associated with bringing the case.

The Star was provided a copy of those records after they were released to attorneys.

Speaking to The Star on Monday, Bryan Sheppard said seeking the information has been a long road. He called it "an outrage" that the information, known to the government for years and "sat on," has never resulted in any action against Costanza and Riggs.

"That's just kind of an outrage to the firefighters' families, to tell you the truth," he said.

DOJ findings

Riggs and Costanza were never charged with a crime related to the arson. Both have maintained they had nothing to do with setting the fires.

Attempts by The Star to reach them by phone on Monday were unsuccessful.

The DOJ report naming them as possible suspects relies on accounts offered by witnesses and some information not known to prosecutors at trial. Some of the information has been previously reported by The Star.

Antonia Garcia, a friend of Riggs, signed an affidavit that was included in The Star's reporting that said Riggs had come to Garcia's apartment on the morning of the explosions. Riggs appeared upset and nervous at the time, and allegedly told Garcia she was "involved in something bad" and "they didn't mean for anyone to get killed."

Also interviewed was a woodcutter at the construction site, whose name is redacted from the DOJ report. He said Costanza and Riggs asked him about whether he would be willing to burn Riggs' truck, saying he was offered $500 to do so, but declined.

Another person interviewed by DOJ reviewers was John Neil, who told The Star during its investigation that he overheard Costanza speaking about an insurance job that had gotten out of hand while he was ordering food at a hamburger stand called Stacks.

New information developed by the DOJ team included an interview with Costanza. She told them that Riggs had kept a gas can in the back of her truck because the truck's fuel gauge did not work. She also said Riggs had asked her whether she would be interested in burning the truck for insurance money, but she refused.

Another witness, who was not previously named in The Star, signed an affidavit, provided to DOJ investigators, that said she was visiting Riggs and Costanza for a movie on the Sunday before the disaster. The witness, whose name is redacted by the DOJ, swore that Riggs announced a desire to burn her pickup truck for the insurance money.

The witness told Riggs that was wrong, and she would get caught.

"Riggs stated that she had gotten rid of a vehicle before and could get away with it again," the affidavit said.

Testimony from the criminal trial showed Riggs admitted having a car stolen previously in an insurance scam.

DOJ investigators attempted to interview Riggs during their review, but she declined and retained a lawyer, according to the report.

Riggs and Costanza were named in the series published by The Star roughly 20 years after the tragedy. Riggs once denied involvement to Kansas City Police Department detectives, who informed her she was a suspect in 1995. Costanza previously told The Star she was never involved in setting any fires.

"It has been 20 years, and I wasn't responsible," Costanza told the newspaper in 2007. "I'm a Costanza, not a Soprano."

Also in 2007, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, who prosecuted the five defendants, said officials long ago determined there was no evidence implicating Riggs and Costanza.

As part of the review, the DOJ also interviewed an assistant Jackson County prosecutor, whose name is redacted. The prosecutor said he never doubted that the five defendants were guilty. But there were times, he added, when prosecutors and investigators wondered if "they had everyone involved in the crime."

"There were people who made admissions, but were never indicted," reviewers wrote.

The Justice Department in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions Monday morning about if the department further investigated the new-found evidence.

In a statement Monday, Teresa Moore, U.S. attorney in the Western District of Missouri, said the DOJ review confirmed the guilt of the defendants who were convicted. In the decade since its findings, she said, "no credible information or evidence has arisen to warrant any charges against any additional defendants."

"These matters were fully considered at the time of the trial, the allegations against the security guards were thoroughly investigated, and it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges," Moore said. "That assessment remains true."

The 1988 explosion

It was in the early hours of Nov. 29, 1988, when Kansas City firefighters were called to a highway construction site for Bruce R. Watkins Drive on the city's southeast side.

First a fire in a pickup truck was extinguished. Then firefighters moved to a 40-foot trailer that was ablaze, in which 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil would ignite and send shockwaves felt up to 40 miles away.

About 4 a.m., the first trailer exploded and killed the six firefighters — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham — as they tried to extinguish the flames, unaware of the highly volatile explosives within. A second trailer exploded about 40 minutes later.

Arson was quickly determined as the cause. But investigators were unable to find any physical evidence or eyewitnesses in the immediate aftermath. And it was the beginning of a long-running mystery that some lawyers believe has never been fully put to rest.

Different theories materialized in the early stages of the investigation, including one that the ATF initially fixated on about disgruntled union workers being responsible — a theory never backed by evidence. Meanwhile, Kansas City police conducted a separate investigation based on the idea that the culprits were likely residents from the Marlborough neighborhood.

Bryan Sheppard became a suspect early on. In September 1989, he was indicted by a grand jury in Jackson County with arson and six counts of first-degree murder based largely on information provided by jailhouse informants who alleged Sheppard had talked about setting the fires. But those charges were dropped three months later after county prosecutors determined the case lacked evidence.

The case largely sat dormant afterward. Then in 1995, the case was featured on the television show "Unsolved Mysteries." The program's airing generated hundreds of tips and advertised a $50,000 reward for information leading to a conclusion. At the time, a joint task force with local and federal authorities had recently been created seeking to bring the investigation to a close.

The next year, Sheppard was again indicted in the crime — along with his friend Richard Brown, his uncles Frank and Skip Sheppard, and Frank's girlfriend Darlene Edwards.

No physical evidence tied the defendants to the fires. Much of the government's evidence came from jailhouse informants.

At trial, prosecutors argued the five defendants were at the construction site that day looking for tools, batteries and anything else they could steal and sell for drug money. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In the series spearheaded by McGraw, the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, The Star reported that numerous witnesses had recanted confessions they claimed to have heard, or alleged they were pressured by an ATF agent during the investigation.

DOJ reviewers, though, said one of them, Carie Neighbors, recanted her recantation. Neighbors, who had dated Bryan Sheppard, told ATF that Sheppard admitted to playing a role in the deaths. She then recanted her testimony, but during the DOJ review, she said her initial statements were true. She said she believed the five defendants were guilty.

The newly released report also shows that at least two law enforcement officers believed The Star's reporting that some of the witnesses said they were coerced was "absurd."

The Star has also reported that one of the jurors acknowledged they believed in Edwards' innocence, but said they voted to convict her because they wrongly believed letting her go would set the other defendants free.

Edwards, Brown and Frank Sheppard remain incarcerated. Skip Sheppard died of cancer in 2009 in a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.

'Still ongoing' for Sheppard

Bryan Sheppard, the youngest of the defendants, was released from prison following a sentencing reevaluation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles.

Defense attorney Cynthia Short was appointed to represent Sheppard in 2013 for his resentencing. As she sought information relevant to his defense, Short viewed the information provided in the DOJ report's summary about other suspects as potentially exculpatory for Sheppard and his co-defendants. She unsuccessfully requested an unredacted copy of the report.

"What was really kind of stunning to us is that there would have been other people identified as relevant, valid suspects who were not being investigated by a grand jury or a prosecutor," Short said, adding that the report demonstrates the proper suspects were the guards. "And what we don't have, and what we've never had in this case, is any connection between the security guards and the people that were convicted."

Short believes the Justice Department was put in a difficult position after additional information pointing to Costanza and Riggs came to light. She called the language used by investigators — that the five defendants were guilty, and that the two guards could be — "very suspect."

"If they were to word it any other way, then they would undermine the conviction that they actually got," Short said.

For Bryan Sheppard, the pursuit of the Justice Department reports was part of his effort to try to clear his name and the other four convicted. In the decades since the tragedy, he said, there has never been real closure for the families of the firefighters killed in the line of duty — or the three others still in prison.

"This case is still ongoing," Sheppard said. "I want the public to know that there's information out there to be had that not only proves that we're actually innocent of the crime, but that other people are involved. And the government has done nothing to go after them."

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(c)2022 The Kansas City Star

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