Witnesses say they lied in fatal KC fire case

Monday, June 30, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Federal investigators, anxious to convict those responsible for a 1988 blast that killed six Kansas City firefighters, used intimidation and other means to pressure several witnesses to lie, according to a published report.

The Kansas City Star reported in its Sunday editions that numerous witnesses in the grand jury proceedings and trial that sent five people to prison for life now say they lied under oath after being threatened by the lead investigator in the case.

Other potential witnesses say either they were pressured to lie and refused — sometimes receiving harsh retribution from law enforcement — or evidence they provided that potentially cleared some of the defendants was ignored.

Federal authorities deny any wrongdoing and say those convicted were guilty of the blast.

But a federal judge in Kansas City and a congressman said the report raises enough questions to warrant a formal investigation.

"We need to go to the attorney general and request that the investigation surrounding that explosion be reopened, and that if it is necessary, that we go back to trial," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat.

U.S. District Judge Scott Wright, who didn’t oversee the case but felt prosecutors brought a 1997 auto theft case before him in retribution against a difficult witness, said "this is something the Justice Department really ought to look into."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, the lead prosecutor in the case, said none of his investigators used improper tactics.

"We routinely threaten people with their loss of freedom" if they’re in trouble with the law and refuse to cooperate in criminal investigations, he said.

But he said that if an investigator knowingly pressured a person to lie on the stand, "it would be suborning perjury and that would be a crime."

It’s unlikely anyone would be charged, however, as the statute of limitations for perjury in the case has passed, legal experts said.

On Nov. 29, 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to a blaze at a southeast Kansas City highway construction site. They arrived to find a burning, 40-foot trailer that held 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

The trailer exploded, killing firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.

A jury in 1997 convicted brothers Frank and Skip Sheppard; their nephew, Bryan Sheppard; Richard Brown, who was a friend of the nephew; and Darlene Edwards, who was Frank Sheppard’s girlfriend.

The five were believed to have burned an explosives trailer and a security guard’s pickup at the site to cover up a botched burglary.

All five still deny any involvement and were convicted despite there being little physical evidence and no eyewitnesses placing them at the scene.

Instead, the case, which remained unsolved until a federal/local task force was formed in 1995, was built on interviews with hundreds of other witnesses as well as testimony from jailhouse informants.

Witnesses who spoke with The Star said much of the pressure to lie came from Dave True, now a retired agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was assisting the investigation.

Two witnesses said True offered them reward money for their testimony, knowing they were vulnerable or addicted to drugs. Others said True told them he would do anything to solve the case before his retirement.

True told The Star last year that he hadn’t coerced or intimidated any witnesses. He declined to comment on the latest allegations and ATF spokesman Mike Schmitz said he didn’t believe True would use such tactics.

Many of the hundreds of people interviewed by ATF said they weren’t pressured, with witness Kathie Marburger saying that "anyone who said True coerced them is lying. Dave True was never like that."

Pete Lobdell, a former ATF agent who worked with True on the case, said claims of intimidation are "ridiculous" and noted that witnesses were asked on the stand if they had been coerced and none said they had.

While some of the witnesses now claiming intimidation have criminal records or other problems with their credibility, the prosecution’s witness list isn’t completely innocent, either.

The Star said 24 of the 59 witnesses for the prosecution had a total of 76 felony convictions for assault, drug sales, fraud, sexual assault, manslaughter and other serious crimes. Many shared in the $50,000 reward.

Defense attorneys often complained during the trial about prosecution witnesses being pressured and that some of them said before the trial they feared retribution if they changed their testimony.

"There is nothing much in life that is a certainty, but in my mind it is a certainty that they are not guilty," said defense attorney Will Bunch.

The defendants have exhausted all of their appeals in the case. But the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted in Toronto, Canada, is reviewing the case and could provide expertise in the future.

And the American Bar Association adopted an ethics rule in February requiring prosecutors to investigate further when "new, credible and material evidence" of possible innocence surfaces after a conviction.

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