© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Defendant in 1988 Kansas City firefighter explosion wins $344,000 after suing for government records

Investigators search through a highway construction site, Nov. 29, 1988, in Kansas City, where explosions shattered windows over a 10-mile area and killed six firefighters. (AP Photo/Sam Harrel)
Investigators search through a highway construction site, Nov. 29, 1988, in Kansas City, where explosions shattered windows over a 10-mile area and killed six firefighters. (AP Photo/Sam Harrel)

Bryan Sheppard spent nearly 22 years in prison before he was released in 2017.

A federal judge has awarded more than $344,000 in legal fees to a man who sued the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) after spending nearly 22 years in prison for the 1988 arson fire that killed six Kansas City firefighters.

Bryan Sheppard, who was released from prison nearly five years ago, filed the lawsuit in late 2017, seeking documents from the Justice Department that he said would prove his innocence and that of the other four defendants convicted in the case.

In 1997, a federal jury found Sheppard and the other defendants guilty of setting fire to a trailer in the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988, at a highway construction site near U.S. 71 and 87th Street. The trailer, which contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, blew up, triggering massive explosions that killed the six firefighters who had responded to the fire.

Subsequent investigative stories by a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for The Kansas City Star, the late Mike McGraw, suggested that several government witnesses had lied at the trial, government representatives had used coercive tactics to fabricate evidence and individuals other than the defendants had committed the arson .

As a result of McGraw’s stories, the U.S. Attorney in Kansas City asked the Justice Department in 2008 to conduct an independent review of the case.

In 2011, the Justice Department released a two-page summary of its findings concluding there was no “credible evidence” to support the claims of witness coercion. But the summary also said investigators had uncovered “newly developed pieces of information” suggesting other people may have been involved in the arson. No other persons, however, were charged in the case.

In releasing the summary, the Justice Department refused to release an unredacted version of the 20-page report on which the summary was based.

Sheppard’s FOIA case sought that report and other documents from the government’s internal investigation, including many of the same documents sought by McGraw, who had previously submitted a nearly identical FOIA request.

The Justice Department dragged its feet, withholding hundreds of documents over four years of litigation and failing to comply with numerous court orders that found its search efforts were deficient and that it improperly withheld responsive records.

Last September, Laughrey found largely in Sheppard's favor and ordered the government to produce a host of documents. Because he was the prevailing party, Sheppard was entitled to attorneys’ fees.

Although Laughrey knocked down his request from $444,000 to $344,000, she rejected most of the government’s challenges to the award. For the most part, she found that the fee request was reasonable, given the complexity of the case and the government’s “languid response to court-ordered searches and additional productions of documents,” as she put it.

Sheppard was represented by Stephanie Sankar, an attorney with Kansas City-based Shook Hardy & Bacon. Sankar did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FOIA case.

Questions surface

Sheppard and the other defendants were sentenced to life in prison without parole for the arson. Sheppard, however, 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. Sheppard was 17 years old at the time of the explosion.

Sheppard’s uncle, Skip Sheppard, was also convicted and died in prison. The other three defendants remain in prison. One of them, Darlene Edwards, lost her bidfor compassionate release in 2020 when a judge denied her request. Edwards, who has now been in prison for 24 years, claimed she was obese, diabetic and required assistance walking.

Before the defendants were indicted, the government’s investigation of the explosion had lain dormant for years. A jailhouse informant implicated Sheppard, who lived near the construction site, but the informant was later found to have fabricated his testimony and other witnesses refused to testify. But a task force led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms revived the investigation in 1994, resulting in the indictments of Sheppard and the other four defendants.

The government’s theory of the case was that they had set out to steal tools to sell for drug money and set fire to the trailer not intending to kill anyone but to cover up their crime.

In a retrospective look at the case in 2016, McGraw, who died in 2018, wrote that several witnesses had said repeatedly over the years that a security guard at the construction site had admitted a role in setting the fire as part of an attempted insurance fraud.

McGraw also noted that of the more than 50 government witnesses who testified that they heard the defendants boast about their involvement in the fire, 24 had been convicted of a total of 76 felonies for crimes that included assault, drug sales, prison escapes, embezzlement, counterfeiting, fraud, forgery, sexual assault, explosives violations and manslaughter.

Corrected: January 27, 2022 at 3:24 PM CST
An earlier version of this story mistakely said that Skip Sheppard was Bryan Sheppard's father. He was his uncle.
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.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.