Public art project challenges convictions in 1988 explosion that killed 6 Kansas City firefighters
New digital billboards that look like "wanted" posters have been popping up around Kansas City. They're the work of a Kansas City writer exploring public memories of the 1988 South Kansas City explosion that killed six firefighters.
Kansas City poet and essayist Andrew Michael Johnson was 6 years old when a massive explosion in South Kansas City shook him out of bed, just a mile away from the blast site, in the Marlborough neighborhood.
The 1988 explosion killed six firefighters, and has haunted Johnson ever since.
The investigation into the blast eventually resulted in the conviction of five people from the same neighborhood. But, 35 years later, Johnson believes they are innocent.
So, the former Charlotte Street resident and National Endowment for the Arts fellow is working on a new art project called “Closure Is Not Justice.”
“The hope is that we collect stories out of this, and collect public memory," Johnson says. "But the impact is to be a little startling."
Startling because Johnson has created a series of "wanted" billboards featuring a tips hotline number to gather memories from the night of the explosion.
"This is a wanted poster, but it's for a crime that happened 30 years ago,” he says.
'We ended up convicting ... five innocent people'
What's not in doubt: In the early morning hours of November 29, 1988, at a highway construction site along U.S. Highway 71 near 87th Street, someone set a fire that quickly spread to a trailer containing 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The burning trailer blew up, killing Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin, and Michael Oldham, six Kansas City, Missouri, firefighters who responded.
At first, Johnson says, he trusted the system to bring the right people to justice. But for almost a decade, the case remained unsolved.
To encourage people to come forward with information about the crime, investigators offered $50,000 in reward money. The case was broadcast out to newspapers, TV stations and posters in jails across Kansas and Missouri.
The campaign turned neighbor against neighbor in Marlborough. The result was that 60 different people claimed the defendants bragged about setting the fires that led to the blast.
No physical evidence linked any of the five defendants to the crime, but Bryan Sheppard, Earl Sheppard, Darlene Edwards, Richard Brown, and Frank Sheppard were all sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
"Collectively through news stories, through television stories, based on hearsay, and based on some of the stories that were generated through (police informant) testimony, we ended up convicting, in my mind, five innocent people," Johnson says. "And the case still remains unsolved."
Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the arson, was released in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles unless their individual circumstances are taken into account. Earl Sheppard, his uncle, died in prison in 2009.
Government documents released last year affirm the guilt of five people who were convicted. They also found that two other individuals may have been involved. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives considers the case closed.
Doubt shrouds the investigation
Johnson's billboard project echoes the media campaign investigators launched in 1995.
"As I grew up, I saw the trial and the convictions and then when I was in college, I became very interested in this pretty formative, traumatic memory of mine from childhood," Johnson remembers.
In the years following the convictions, investigative journalists like Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Kansas City Star who died in 2018, reported in a series of investigative stories that many witnesses had been coerced into testifying.
"This project with the billboards and the signs is using a wanted poster and a neighborhood watch poster, but twisting them just a little bit to hopefully get the Kansas City community thinking," Johnsons says.
The recordings Johnson collects from the hotline will be presented as part of a public exhibition in September at the gallery Vulpes Bastille in the Crossroads Arts District.