A new federal lawsuit argues information concerning the 1988 deaths of six Kansas City firefighters should be made public.
It’s filed by former defendant Bryan Shepard. He was freed earlier this year on a legal technicality.
Shepard vowed on his release to help his remaining co-defendants win their freedom too. He claims they are all innocent.
“I feel guilty every day that they aren’t here with me they deserve a second chance too because they didn’t commit the crime either,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard is seeking the full report and all notes, recordings and transcripts related to that Department of Justice report.
The Department of Justice report
The DOJ report was released in 2011. It is heavily redacted. Sections are blacked out and entire pages are missing,
The report was a response to numerous Kansas City Star newspaper articles, many authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McGraw.
McGraw reported that some witnesses were pressured to lie or information was left out if it didn’t suit what federal investigators wanted to hear.
The DOJ spent three years investigating those claims. The report concluded the convictions of five people were legally sound but said investigators found two other people may have been involved in that fatal arson.
Those names are redacted and much of the report is completely blacked out.
The lawsuit gives the court examples of stonewalling by prosecutors who keep failing to turn over information.
Six firefighters were battling a construction fire near 87th Street and Highway 71 when it exploded. The blast was so powerful it knocked homes off foundations and people could hear the blast miles away.
The fatal arson remained a mystery for years. There many theories. Some blamed union sabotage while others pointed fingers at the security guards who recently lost a contract to guard the site.
Eventually, investigators ran out of leads and turned to the public for help. The case was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries” in February 1995. A $50,000 reward was offered for information.
Five defendants identified from the nearby Marlborough neighborhood. Federal prosecutors told a jury the men were thieves who would steal anything that wasn’t nailed down. They sent the fires out of meanness.
The defendants argue there is no physical evidence linking them to the crimes. The defendants offered lie detector tests, passed and all five defendants turned down good plea deals if they would testify against each other.
Family members of the defendants say their loved one where “rats” of the neighborhood known troublemakers but they were not responsible for the fires. Someone needed to pay for the terrible crimes and they fit the bill.
The men were convicted on damaging testimony from witnesses who told a courtroom they overheard or saw things. Many of those people cut deals in exchange for that testimony.
The constant legal wrangling is the source of pain for families who lost loved ones.
Families were in court this March when Sheppard was resentenced and released. Many expressed how the wounds never close because the case is never closed- there are always new developments.
The family of James Kilventon feels differently. His son, also named James, wants a copy of that report and publicly supports Sheppard’s new lawsuit for information.
“I just want to get to the bottom of it. I just want closure. All the other firefighter families think they have closure but I don’t have closure,” said James Kilventon.
Kilventon and his wife view the secrecy as evidence of a cover-up. They publicly told KCTV5 News they seriously question the guilt of the three defendants who remain in prison.
Two other families have privately expressed they are also concerned about the lack of information and have asked to see the redacted report too.
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