Man convicted for killing 6 firefighters says he’s innocent - KCTV5

Man convicted for killing 6 firefighters says he’s innocent

Posted: Updated:
Bryan Sheppard, 44, is sitting in a Leavenworth prison cell. There is a small beacon of hope he might get out one day.  (KCTV5) Bryan Sheppard, 44, is sitting in a Leavenworth prison cell. There is a small beacon of hope he might get out one day. (KCTV5)
Sheppard is the main character of the new play, Justice in the Embers. (KCTV5) Sheppard is the main character of the new play, Justice in the Embers. (KCTV5)
In November 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to put out a fire at a construction site. As firefighters rushed to put out the flames, an explosion killed six of them instantly. (KCTV5) In November 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to put out a fire at a construction site. As firefighters rushed to put out the flames, an explosion killed six of them instantly. (KCTV5)
The blast was so powerful it could be heard 50 miles away. It left a crater 40 feet wide and six feet deep. It broke a community’s heart.(KCTV5) The blast was so powerful it could be heard 50 miles away. It left a crater 40 feet wide and six feet deep. It broke a community’s heart.(KCTV5)
When investigators ruled the fire was intentionally set, it sent a wave of anger and outrage throughout the city. It also put immense pressure on investigators to make arrests and the prosecution to get convictions.(KCTV5) When investigators ruled the fire was intentionally set, it sent a wave of anger and outrage throughout the city. It also put immense pressure on investigators to make arrests and the prosecution to get convictions.(KCTV5)
FAIRWAY, KS (KCTV) -

It’s been nearly 30 years since an explosion killed six Kansas City firefighters. Five people were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. One of them called KCTV5, hoping to clear his name.

Bryan Sheppard, 44, is sitting in a Leavenworth prison cell. There is a small beacon of hope he might get out one day. Attorneys are currently arguing over sentencing guidelines, since Sheppard was a teenager at the time of the crime. While he’s thankful for any chance to walk free, Sheppard wants the world to know he’s innocent.

“I want the truth too,” he told KCTV5 reporter Angie Ricono over the phone. “I pray to God every day the truth comes out about this case.”

He’s hoping a theatrical production could change perception about his case.

Sheppard is the main character of the new play, Justice in the Embers. KCPT, The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Living Room Theater are presenting the play, which was largely inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Mike McGraw’s articles about the trial.

“It’s about unanswered questions,” said McGraw. “I believe there are unanswered questions in the city’s most serious crime.”

In November 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to put out a fire at a construction site. As firefighters rushed to put out the flames, an explosion killed six of them instantly. The blast was so powerful it could be heard 50 miles away. It left a crater 40 feet wide and six feet deep. It broke a community’s heart.

Among the dead were 54-year-old James Kilventov, Jr., 32-year-old Michael Oldam, 42-year-old Robert McKarnin, 57-year-old Gerald Halloran, 31-year-old Luther Hurd and 41-year-old Thomas Fry.

When investigators ruled the fire was intentionally set, it sent a wave of anger and outrage throughout the city. It also put immense pressure on investigators to make arrests and the prosecution to get convictions.

Bryan Sheppard was arrested not long after the explosion, but police let him got because there was wasn’t enough evidence to hold him.

As the years went by, the investigation stalled. Wanted posters went up in jail cells offering a reward. The explosion was even the focus of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Police investigated a number of theories, including union sabotage.

“When you’ve got family members calling down there wanting justice for their fallen firefighter family members, that’s pressure,” said Sheppard. “So they just went with what they could do to close this case.”

In June 1996, investigators narrowed in on five people. Richard Brown, Darlene Edwards, Frank Sheppard, Earl Sheppard and Bryan Sheppard were all arrested and charged.  All lived in the nearby Marlborough neighborhood and some are Bryan Sheppard’s relatives. All were people known to police and all five were convicted the following year.

The prosecution largely built their case on informants. Some were able to cut deals to get their own sentences reduced, others got a piece of the reward money.

“They were using government informants to convict people,” said Sheppard. “Most of those government informants are liars!”

Sheppard said he even took a lie detector test, which he passed.

“I pray to God every day the truth comes out about this case,” he said.

McGraw followed up with those witnesses and says many changed their stories after the trial. Some told McGraw investigators pressured them into pointing the finger at the five who were arrested. McGraw’s reports would eventually spawn a Department of Justice Investigation.

“When you look at the government’s theory, it’s hard to accept. Five people go up on a hill to steal tools to sell for drug money. They fail, so they set a fire? A diversionary fire which would draw the security guards to where they are instead of diverting them?” McGraw asked skeptically.

The final report never cleared Sheppard or the other four convicted. It did name two new potential suspects. Those name are blacked out, as is much of the report. It’s something that eats at McGraw every time he thinks about it.

“The truth is hard to get at,” McGraw said as he shrugged.

Sheppard isn’t getting a new trial, but a judge will take a new look at his sentence. He was 17 when prosecutors say he committed the crime, but was tried and sentenced as an adult. A United States Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 25, prohibits sentencing juveniles to life without parole. No date has been set for a judge to take a second look at his sentence.

The play that centers on Sheppard opened Thursday night and runs through the Feb. 20. The play’s director urges it is a fair portrayal of what happened.

“This is not a biased story,” director Jennifer Welch said. “We have everyone’s point of view represented here. It’s not sensationalized.”

When the lights come up at the end of the show, there is an open dialogue about the case with the audience, where questions can be asked. Some of the families of the firefighters who died in the explosion told KCTV5 they plan to attend the play, which will make for an interesting discussion. You can find more information on the play here.

None of the families wanted to comment on KCTV5's interview with Sheppard or about the play. They said the play and all the legal speculation is painful and they want their loved ones to rest in peace.

Meanwhile, Sheppard stays in his prison cell and waits.

“Kind of hard to sit there and watch some of the things I’ve seen. I wouldn’t wish this place on anybody,” he said.

KCTV5 asked Sheppard, if he does get released, if he’ll stay in Kansas City. He quickly answered, no.

He said there’s too many ghosts in this city and believes there are too many people that lied about him. 

Copyright 2016 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.

Powered by Frankly
KCTV 5 News

Online Public File:
KCTV  KSMO

Powered by WorldNow CNN
All content © 2017, KCTV; Kansas City, MO. (A Meredith Corporation Station) . All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.