FOI Suit Filed in 1988 Kansas City Explosion Case

One of the men convicted of setting the 1988 fire in Kansas City, Missouri that claimed the lives of six firefighters has filed suit in federal court seeking addition information about the investigation.

Bryan Sheppard, whose life sentence was reduced to 20 years earlier this year, filed suit against the US Department of justice under the Freedom of Information Act. Sheppard was one of five men convicted of setting the fire at a constriction site that led to a devastating explosion that killed six firefighters.

Sheppard, who says he and his co-defendants are innocent, was quoted as saying: “I feel guilty every day that they aren’t here with me they deserve a second chance too because they didn’t commit the crime either.” He had already served 22 years in prison and was released when his sentence was reduced.

In his compliant, Sheppard accuses federal agents of improperly withholding critical information about the investigation. As explained in the complaint:

  • The improperly withheld agency records concern a review by the Defendant’s Criminal Division into reports by the Kansas City Star (“Star”) that federal investigators engaged in misconduct during the investigation of the 1988 arson that killed six Kansas City firefighters.
  • In 1997, five individuals were convicted of arson and sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
  • The Star’s allegations, which were based on voluntary statements by multiple members of the community, raised significant public interest in the government’s handling of this case with respect to whether legal and proper steps were taken to prosecute all of the individuals who were actually responsible for that arson.
  • In April 2016, Plaintiff filed a FOIA request to obtain a copy of the Memorandum and related documents. Defendant provided only a highly redacted copy and a few pages of redacted email correspondence, citing various FOIA exemptions without explanation.
  • The records produced offer little more than the fact that the Star’s allegations had been reviewed and the conclusory statement that no credible support for the allegations had been found.
  • This case is not about whether the Star’s allegations are indeed true or whether the five individuals convicted of the 1988 arson are actually innocent. Instead, it is about whether a federal government agency reviewing the actions of its own investigators and prosecutors, should be allowed to conclude unilaterally, without any public review or accountability, that the agency and its personnel have done nothing wrong.
  • If the Defendant is confident that its investigators and prosecutors have done nothing wrong, as it concluded in its Memorandum, then disclosing the full records related to the review would further the public interest in knowing the truth about the 1988 arson.
  • Moreover, it would further the public interest that prompted the review in the first place, namely, [US Attorney John] Wood’s assurance that “justice is served in every case.”
  • It is therefore precisely the type of injustice FOIA is intended to address.

Here is a copy of the highly redacted report: FOI Report

Here is a copy of the complaint: Sheppard v US DOJ


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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