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Murder And Arson Trial Continues Over Blaze That Killed Two Kansas City Firefighters

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3 file photo
The scene the morning after the building on Independence Avenue collapsed.

On the second day of a murder and arson trial in Kansas City, prosecutors sparred with defense attorneys over how the blaze that led to the deaths of  two firefighters began.

Thu Hong Nguyen, 43, is accused of torching the Independence Avenue nail salon that she owned in October 2015. Prosecutors say she ignited chemicals in the salon’s back storage room, starting a fire that ripped through two floors of the apartments above. Firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh died when, while fighting the blaze, a brick wall collapsed on top of them. 

Prosecutors hope to prove that Nguyen deliberately set the fire to collect insurance money. They plan to introduce evidence on Wednesday from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) showing an alleged pattern of fires and subsequent insurance payouts to Nguyen in other locales.

An ATF official spent over 1,000 hours collecting financial data on Nguyen between 2007 and 2015 and found $228,358 worth of insurance payouts to her from other business fires, according to court documents.

Nguyen's lawyers, however, contend the nail salon storage room was not where the fire began. They say the building had a history of electrical problems, its original wiring from 1947 still in place. Defense attorney Molly Hastings also referred to evidence that the nail salon was the last place to lose power as the flames spread through the building, which she said could show the fire started elsewhere. 

Two members of a team hired by prosecutors to investigate the fire testified on Tuesday about what they found.

Adam St. John, a fire protection engineer, said data collected in laboratory simulations of the fire were “absolutely consistent” with the findings that the fire began in the back storage room. He said the timeline, data from thermal energy cameras and smoke patterns all pointed to the nail salon as the fire's point of origin.

In her opening statement, Hastings called those findings “incredibly flawed.” 

Michael Keller, an engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy, collected data on possible electrical failures in the building. He said data from Kansas City Power & Light energy meters and melted wires found above the storage room supported a finding that the fire began in the back room.

Family and friends of the victims filled the courtroom the first two days of the trial, and another courtroom in the Jackson County Courthouse that was set aside for additional seating showed the proceedings on a large television monitor. 

Nearly two dozen more prosecution witnesses are expected to take the stand as the trial continues. Prosecutors say it could stretch into next week.

Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.

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