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‘I’m innocent!’ Desperate pleas in fatal arson that killed 6 KC firefighters in 1988

Updated: Mar. 3, 2022 at 5:00 PM CST
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - There are some undisputed facts about what happened the morning of Nov. 29, 1988.

Firefighters were called to a construction site at 71 Highway and 87th Street and found two separate fires. Six firefighters were killed instantly when the trailers exploded. The cause of the fires was ruled “arson.”

Six firefighters were killed instantly when the trailers exploded.
Six firefighters were killed instantly when the trailers exploded.(KCTV5 News)

Thirty-three years later, questions remain. Five people were convicted in the case nine years after the crime happened. But, some question if those five are really responsible and if everyone who played a role was actually held accountable.

“I’m innocent,” Richard Brown, one of those convicted in the case, told us in a recent telephone interview. “I promise you that. I’m innocent.”

Brown is serving a life sentence at Coleman Federal Prison Complex in Florida.

We spoke by phone to the three convicted who remain in prison. All three swear they are innocent but doubt new information sets them free.

“I don’t think they’re gonna do s--- with it, though,” Brown said of the new information. “It’s gonna be out there for about a month and then three years down the line, it’s unheard of again.”

That new information is the release of a 2011 Department of Justice report. The government document was recently unsealed, allowing the first look at information that had previously been blacked out. The report names two security guards, Deborah Riggs and Donna Costanza, as possibly being involved in the arsons.

Donna Costanza and Deborah Riggs.
Donna Costanza and Deborah Riggs.(KCTV5 News)

The report doesn’t clear the current defendants, but it does suggest others are involved.

Neither of the two women named still live in the Kansas City area. Public records and social media show that Riggs is a grandmother in Texas. Costanza now lives in Brooklyn. Neither have responded to our requests for comment.

We asked Darlene Edwards, the only woman convicted in the case, if she knew the security guards named in the report.

“Not at all,” replied Edwards. “For me, to know who they are, they would have to come up and show me their ID.”

We also spoke to the third defendant still imprisoned in the case, Frank Sheppard. He’s 71 now and not is not at all surprised that the Department of Justice took another look at the case, then kept the information secret for a decade.

“That’s how the government operates,” said Sheppard. “They went down the wrong path. The government just don’t ever want to admit they’re wrong.”

The five defendants were tried and convicted together. One, Skip Sheppard, died in prison. Bryan Sheppard was released from prison five years ago because he was 17 years old at the time of the crime.

The five defendants were tried and convicted together.
The five defendants were tried and convicted together.(KCTV5 News)

During the investigation of the explosion, the five defendants were all offered five-year deals if they turned on each other. They all turned it down.

That always bothered an original detective on the case.

“Nobody rolled,” said Victor Zinn, a retired Kansas City Police Detective. “From all the fights and spats and distrust I’ve seen in these reports, that’s not a tight-knit, loving family. Somebody would have said something by now.”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker previously said she believes a review is warranted, given that no statute of limitations exists for murder.

(KCTV5 News)

But, even if she does the review the case, it’s unlikely it would affect the three in prison. They were convicted on federal charges and the U.S. Attorney has said the report found no evidence to cast doubt on the validity of the convictions, just suggest that others may also have been involved.