Justice Department asked to investigate '88 Kansas City blast

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A U.S. attorney in Kansas City has asked the Justice Department to review a 1998 investigation into a fatal blast that killed six firefighters.

John F. Wood on Tuesday said "new assertions" would be reviewed after The Kansas City Star reported on Sunday that federal investigators used intimidation and other means to pressure several witnesses to lie.

"We have every confidence in their work, which was reviewed on appeal and in subsequent collateral litigation," Wood said. "But our paramount goal is to ensure that justice is served in every case."

Wood said his office would fully cooperate with an independent investigator.

The Kansas City Star reported that numerous witnesses in the grand jury proceedings and trial, which 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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