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After Nearly 22 Years In Prison, Defendant In Firefighter Case Will Be Freed

Dan Margolies
KCUR 89.3
Bryan Sheppard's daughter, Ashley Kenney (on left with sunglasses), and her mother speak to reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City shortly after Sheppard was resentenced.

Bryan Sheppard, who was convicted for the explosion that killed six firefighters in 1988 and was given a life sentence without parole, was resentenced Friday afternoon to 20 years, meaning he will soon be a free man.

As U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. pronounced the sentence in the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City, family and friends of Sheppard’s began weeping audibly. Sheppard lowered his head.

Sheppard was 17 years old at the time of the explosion. He was resentenced because 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. In 2016, the court determined that the decision must be applied retroactively.

Sheppard has served nearly 22 years in prison, the youngest of five defendants who were convicted in the case. Sheppard and the other defendants have insisted they did not commit the crime.

The explosion occurred at a highway construction site near U.S. 71 and 87th Street in the early morning hours of the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. A pickup truck was set on fire, detonating explosives nearby. Six firefighters who had arrived on the scene were killed in the resulting blast, which was felt throughout metropolitan Kansas City. A second blast occurred about 40 minutes after the first.

The courtroom at the resentencing hearing was packed with both Sheppard’s family and friends and family and friends of the deceased firefighters.

After Gaitan adjourned the hearing, Sheppard embraced his attorney, Cynthia Short, and gave a thumbs-up to his mother, who was seated in a wheelchair.

Outside the courtroom, dozens of Sheppard’s supporters embraced.

When Short emerged from the courtroom about 10 minutes later, they erupted in prolonged cheers.

Credit Dan Margolies / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Bryan Sheppard's mother, Virginia Sheppard, spoke briefly to reporters after her son was resentenced.

“I’m in shock,” his mother, Virginia Sheppard, said.

Glynis Hower, Sheppard’s oldest sister, said she was “overwhelmed.”

“I knew in my heart he was coming home,” she said.   

Because of paperwork requirements, it may be a few weeks or even months before Sheppard is released.

Outside the courthouse, surrounded by a media scrum, Sheppard’s daughter, Ashley Kenney, expressed her sympathy for the families of the firefighters.  

“While looking across the aisle today, I could see that my father’s release would not only bring happiness and joy to our family, but it would also bring further suffering to the families of the fallen firefighters,” she said.

Sheppard's mother said she was grateful her son was free. 

"He was innocent all along," she said. "And now he can be the dad that he should have been a long time ago, and my son." 

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Kansas City, which prosecuted Sheppard and urged Gaitan to resentence him to life in prison, said the office would have no comment. 

Sheppard, now 45, turns 46 this Sunday.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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