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Independence Day Goes Up In Smoke


As a criminal defense attorney in Kansas City, John Humphrey wasn't used to being on the wrong side of the law. 

But that all changed in 2003, when his July 4 fireworks show turned his neighbors from spectators into witnesses, and put him at the center of a federal terrorism investigation.

Growing up in the Red Bridge area, Humphrey had always loved fireworks.  His parents weren't as enthusiastic about things that go boom; they only bought sparklers and snakes. So he realized his best chance for scoring them was scavenging the fields around his home for un-detonated fireworks after the July 4 holiday. 

But when he grew up, he could support his own pyrotechnics habit. After Humphrey and his wife moved to a new neighborhood in South Kansas City, he soon started hosting the neighborhood fireworks display.  At first, he just used consumer fireworks (the kind you buy in a tent off the highway.)  

But soon, his desire for firepower grew. An inside contact gave him access to M-80s, which are illegal, and from there the John Humphrey Firework Show just took off.  He also acquired commercial-grade fireworks, the kind you can see at a Royals show.

On July 4, 2003, neighbors around Humphrey’s block gathered for another annual night of explosions. Very soon after the first round was launched, embers fell back onto the ground, igniting a second round that was not yet ready for detonation (Humphrey now thinks that one of his assistants had loaded a mortar in backwards).

The mortars on the ground started discharging in all directions. Neighbors and family members dove for cover as firework shells whizzed over their heads.

No one was seriously hurt, but Humphrey’s niece was hit in the knee. As a precaution, her mother took her to the emergency room, which triggered a newly-enacted provision of an Anti-Terrorism Bill. Humphrey’s fireworks were obtained illegally, and the injury caused by his fireworks meant he was to become the first person ever investigated for the domestic explosives provision.

His own prosecution was just one of Humphrey’s concerns. The destructive aftermath of the fireworks-show-gone-wrong was extensive. Humphrey had blown a hole in his own house, and the fireworks from his show had set two of his neighbor’s houses on fire. His insurance covered the damage, but Humphrey knew this was probably his last go-round with fireworks.

Humphrey, at the request of his wife, cooperated with federal officials who wanted to know where he had obtained his illegal fireworks. He avoided prosecution, but his supplier went to trial (and was eventually acquitted of the charges by a jury).

Humphrey was left with a lesson to which he lives by to this day: leave the fireworks to the professionals. 

Nothing beats John Humphrey's telling of this story - click the "Listen" button above to hear it.  And click here, for more information about fireworks safety in Kansas City, Missouri.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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