Fire and Justice

A Second National Podcast on the Kansas City Firefighter's Case

In 1988, two powerful explosions shook Kansas City, Missouri, killing six firefighters. Nine years later, five people were convicted of arson and sent to prison for life – but were they innocent? Reveal investigates problems in the case and whether federal agents pressured witnesses to lie. We also follow the life of one of the defendants and his bid for freedom. (Contributed | Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal)

This podcast is from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which co-produces the “Reveal” radio show and podcast with PRX. “Reveal” features CIR’s reporting, as well as stories from public radio stations and a wide range of media partners, both nonprofit and commercial. For “Fire and Justice,” CIR relied on decades of reporting from Flatland’s Special Projects Reporter Mike McGraw, who first covered the story for The Kansas City Star.

In 1988, six firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri, were killed in a blast at a highway construction site. Nine years later, five people were convicted of setting the fires that led to their deaths.

Now, almost 30 years later, Reveal investigates problems in the case. There was no physical evidence linking the five to the crime, and their convictions were based on witness testimony – a lot of it conflicting.

We start with a look at the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988. The Kansas City Fire Department was responding to a 911 call about a fire at a construction site. Soon after firefighters arrived, a massive blast occurred. Forty minutes later, a second blast rang out. Fifty-thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil caused the blasts.

Federal agents and local police immediately suspected arson and began an investigation that would last for eight years.

From the beginning, the investigation was troubled. The first attempt to convict someone fell apart shortly after indictment. Investigators were relying on jailhouse informants and a tips hotline to collect evidence. This information resulted in the indictment and conviction of five people: Bryan Sheppard, Darlene Edwards, Frank Sheppard, Earl “Skip” Sheppard and Richard Brown. They were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

But now, the youngest has a shot at getting out of prison. Bryan Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosions, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to give a juvenile a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. We follow his bid for freedom.

Reveal is a weekly radio program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. For more, check out our website and subscribe to our podcast.


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