It was one of the most shocking murder scenes in the history of Kansas City, a town that’s had more than its fair share. In the early hours of November 29, 1988, six city firefighters were killed in the explosion of a storage unit stuffed with twenty-five thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate used to blast through the limestone cliffs on what’s now U.S. Highway 71. The explosion made the city shake, figuratively and literally, sending shockwaves felt five miles away and thirty-five years later.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, a brother and sister working as security guards on a cold and windless night called 911 to report a fire. They claimed to have returned from QuikTrip to find one of the guard’s pickup trucks ablaze. On the call, guard Robert Riggs, who was working the job with his sister Debbie Riggs, said he could also see smoke rising from the construction site they were supposed to be guarding. The Kansas City Fire Department reported to the scene and extinguished the truck fire, then headed down the hill to the other fire. Unfortunately, that fire had reached the trailer full of construction-grade explosives. The firefighters who rushed down to extinguish the blaze were killed. Forty minutes later, after the perimeter was clear, an even larger blast rocked the city.
The cause of the fires was unclear. For years, law enforcement thought it had something to do with labor tensions at the construction site. Later, prosecutors claimed that the fire was set to divert security guards so that people from the neighborhood could pull off a heist of tools from the construction site. The obvious flaw in this theory was that both security guards had left the site—at the same time—and thus were not around to be distracted. The security guard whose truck was destroyed, Debbie, admitted under oath to involvement in a separate automotive insurance fraud scheme.
In the aftermath of the blast, the city went searching for answers. A federal agent with a strong reputation was assigned and publicly declared that he hoped it would become the last big case he solved before his retirement. In 1997, nearly a decade after the tragedy, five people of the nearby Marlborough neighborhood in south KCMO were convicted of arson and the murder of the six firefighters. The charges were rooted in testimony from fifty-nine people who all claimed to have heard the five defendants bragging about the crime. Many of those people were jailhouse snitches with long criminal records who received rewards for their testimony.
All five defendants were offered plea deals with just five years of jail time. All passed on the offer and went to trial, where they were found guilty of the crimes without any eyewitnesses tying them to the crime, let alone DNA or other physical evidence.
Now, thirty-five years later, questions linger about the questionable methods used to bring justice and the prosecution’s odd theory of the case. Last year, activists working on the case finally won release of an unredacted report from the Department of Justice that cast further doubt on the original verdict. Still, three of the five people convicted remain in jail—one has been released and another died in prison in 2009.
One of the people convicted for setting the fire that led to the deadly blast was Bryan Sheppard, who was just seventeen at the time of the crime. On a chilly Tuesday afternoon in mid-January of this year, Bryan is running errands. Years with a regimented routine in prison and working on small construction projects since his release have kept Bryan lean. He still wears his hair cropped short and has a tightness in his jaw when he talks, the words barely escaping his lips with a smooth Missouri twang. Bryan learned how to do electric and tile work and plumbing, saying he’s happy to keep busy helping a friend with remodeling projects.
“Before I even got out, I told myself that I’m going to do whatever I can to build whatever future it is that I need to build,” Bryan says. Most people in his family don’t live past seventy years old, so, as he looks at it, he’s got less than twenty years left.
Bryan was just twenty-five when he was charged and convicted after a six-week trial that gripped the city. He went into prison during the era of dial-up internet and pagers, emerging two decades later into a modern world of iPhones and Bluetooth headphones. Bryan was released from prison six years ago this month. He still lives in the Northland with Cynthia Short, the attorney that helped secure his release. “It’s weird going from a prison cell to a big-ass mansion,” he says.
Bryan doesn’t have many friends. He doesn’t want to “go back to that lifestyle,” so he avoids dealing with anyone from his past, rarely returning to his old neighborhood in south KC. He doesn’t want to see the people who testified against him to help put him in prison for a crime he has always maintained he had nothing to do with.
“It was hopelessness for twenty-two years, all the way up until I got out the door,” he says. “For the first several years—even today—I’m like, ‘When’s the hammer going to drop? When are they going to come snatch me up and put me back in jail for something else?’”
Like the four others convicted, Bryan had a rap sheet. He thinks that a stop in prison was always going to be part of his journey—but not for nearly half his life.
“I got shot when I was fourteen, so I was living a lifestyle that most kids don’t live,” he says. “I was running the streets, going to house parties. I was out running around doing things that I’m not supposed to. I was headed to prison no matter what, but I wouldn’t have went in there for life without parole. I would have went in there and been like, ‘Fuck this, I don’t like this.’”
Bryan talks about his efforts to clean up his life before he was convicted in 1997: going to drug rehabilitation classes, attending church, even asking a woman to marry him and move out of the city to be closer to his young daughter in an effort to “start a new life” together.
“I would have changed my life around,” Bryan says. “I already planned on it. It just took a minute for me to get some sense kicked into my butt. Instead, I got charged on this federal case and sent down the river for the rest of my life.”
Bryan spent twenty years in jail, but he’s still considered lucky among the other defendants. Also convicted were his uncles, Frank Sheppard and Earl “Skip” Sheppard; Darlene Edwards, Frank’s girlfriend; and Richard Brown. All came from the Marlborough neighborhood. Skip died in prison in 2009. The other three are still in prison despite serious questions about their alleged crimes.
Last year, the Department of Justice released two additional names of people who may have been involved in the arson. Those two people were not connected to the previous five people charged, they have not been questioned, and the case has not been re-reviewed since the release of the names. The report said that these two names were people of interest in addition to the five already convicted—not instead of—despite there being no connection between the original five convicted and the two new names.
The tragedy of November 1988 shook Kansas City. Everyone seemingly wanted to bring closure to the families of the fallen heroes, Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon, Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham. After almost a decade of mismanaged investigations, special agent David True of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosions was put on the case. True was eager to make this the last big case he solved before retirement. In order to drum up tips, the case was blasted out to newspapers, TV stations and jails across Missouri and Kansas.
The ploy worked. After coercion and promises of rewards for anyone with any information on the case, tips came flooding in, with investigators now inundated with possible leads. They began to zero in on Bryan Sheppard and the others because they all had pasts as petty criminals and lived in the nearby neighborhood. In the end, sixty people claimed that the defendants bragged about the blast.
All five of the accused were convicted with testimony from people who claimed they bragged about the crime. The details of each get muddy, but Bryan’s story is a lot like the others.
In early fall of 1989, Bryan was in Clay County jail for a probation violation—he had been charged with stealing a bike and smoking marijuana while on probation. While in county jail, he got into an argument with an inmate, and the jail transferred him to a unit in Liberty. There, Bryan said he was “acting a fool,” even getting a prison tattoo using a staple.
He didn’t know was being charged for anything except the probation violation until a fellow inmate ran up to Bryan and told him that he was on the news, having been charged with six counts of second-degree murder.
The key witness against Bryan, Johnny Driver, said that while in jail he had heard Bryan admit to the crime. Driver later refuted the statement the police made him sign and revealed that Detective True said he would have Driver indicted for the crime instead if he did not implicate Bryan. Bryan’s attorney, John O’Connor, ultimately proved that Bryan wasn’t in the same cell as Driver at the time of the confession. Bryan passed a polygraph test, the witnesses were proven to be lying, and the state dropped the case.
For eight years after the charges at the state level were dismissed, Bryan was free. “The witnesses that they had all fell apart,” lawyer John O’Connor says. “All of the cooperators were snitch-type witnesses.”
Still, Bryan’s name had been connected to the crime—a bad situation to be in when the crime is something no one is going to forget about.
In the almost-decade after, Kansas City police continued to question everyone from the nearby impoverished neighborhood of Marlborough.“People there live paycheck to paycheck,” Bryan Sheppard says. “If they don’t even have jobs, they live on welfare or food stamps, they’re selling drugs or stealing. That’s the type of neighborhood—gunfire all the time, police in the neighborhood at all times, and everybody knows everybody.”
As time wore on, Marlborough was under constant police surveillance. Some residents were taken into the police station several times over the years for interrogation and questioning. Bryan cites unethical tactics such as bribery, threats and coercion used by the police on desperate people.
“The cops were harassing us, pulling us over, taking us downtown and asking us questions because we’re well known in that neighborhood,” Bryan says. “They just kept questioning and questioning [us] when we got nothing to do with that.”
Detective True and others on the force dangled a $50,000 reward to anyone in Marlborough who had any information, leading many to come forward with unfounded claims for a chance at life-changing amounts of money. The story, with pleas for information along with the reward money, was broadcast on Unsolved Mysteries in early February 1995, leading to a flood of unverified tips pouring in and a renewed interest in the case.
The Sheppards’ names had been in the press and gossip around town, and police were coming by houses asking for any information neighbors might have, promising rewards for those who would comply.
Documentary filmmaker Joe O’Connor, unrelated to the lawyer, says that detectives published a statement in The Kansas City Star, and “[There was] like a script for what people should say when investigators approached them. ‘Here’s the cast of characters that you need to include in this statement that you’re going to make.’ Later, over fifty jailhouse informants just kind of came out of the woodwork to say, ‘Oh yeah, they totally admitted it to me while we were in my prison cell together.’”
Ronnie Edwards, a high school student at the time, promised detectives recordings of conversations and receipts for walkie-talkies used at the crime scene—the first physical evidence to connect the five to the site. Neither promised piece of evidence materialized.
When that fell through, Joe says that agent True pressured Ronnie to set up his stepmother, Darlene Edwards, for selling drugs in a school zone in order to secure some extra cash for Ronnie’s expected new baby.
In a panicked and desperate effort to protect her stepson, Darlene made a false statement to police, stating that Richard Brown and Bryan Sheppard came to her house in the middle of the night asking for a ride to QuikTrip to get gasoline. “Darlene’s like, ‘This is my get out of jail card here, and by the time I’m out, they’ll go to the QuikTrip, they’ll investigate it, they’ll find out that my story wasn’t true, and I’ll be out of jail,’” Joe says.
However, that wasn’t the case. They used this story from Darlene, who was under duress and scared for her son, as reason to launch a second federal investigation. Darlene, along with the four others, would also be indicted for the second-degree murder of the firefighters and is still in prison.
With mounting pressure and Detective True’s impending retirement, the case was rushed to federal court without any eyewitness accounts, fingerprints or physical evidence.
“We were sentenced to life without parole on all hearsay—no physical evidence, no eye witnesses,” Bryan says. “Using scare tactics, bribery: ‘We’ll take these charges off if you testify against Richard, Frank, Skip, Darlene. Or we’ll let your kid out of jail, or we’ll give you some of this reward money.’”
“They had a whole new group of witnesses,” lawyer John O’Connor says of the federal investigation. “They didn’t even use any of the witnesses from the previous case. Where were those witnesses for the first case? All of the sudden, they show up for the second case, and they’re all getting bargains and deals for their testimony.”
All five defendants had alibis and asked for polygraph tests. The three who were tested all passed the lie detector tests. However, in the end all five people were found guilty and given life in prison. The courts determined that the group set fire to the trailer to act as a diversion for security guards that may have been nearby and to cover up their crime of stealing tools from the site for cash. Somehow, though, during their supposed diversion, they also went to QuikTrip near the construction site and set an unattended pickup truck on fire, which coincidentally was owned by one of the security guards at the site.
“One of the things I realized interviewing everybody is they have no idea how the crime was carried out,” says Joe, the filmmaker. “The police also don’t really have concrete ideas about how the crime was carried out.”
So what did happen in the early morning hours on November 29, 1988? Joe O’Connor has his own ideas—ones that don’t rely on confusing and motive-less crimes.
The only people who were known to be at the construction site where the blasts occurred were the security guards, siblings Robert and Debbie Riggs.
Debbie claims she brought her brother Robert a meatloaf sandwich to the site he was patrolling on the evening of the explosion and that he didn’t have another officer on duty and asked Debbie to stay. Debbie told a detective in her initial statement that she had “been helping him” for a week or two.
According to Debbie, she saw “prowlers” at the construction site late that night and left her pickup truck parked unattended, got in Robert’s car and together they followed the suspects, eventually stopping at a QuikTrip.
Here is where the story gets more interesting.
The Riggs siblings say that since it was about two o’clock in the morning, it was dark and no one was around. Actually, however, there were several witnesses driving by who stated on record that they saw Debbie sitting in Robert’s station wagon alone with the light on.
“Nobody independently saw Robert Riggs in his own vehicle before the explosion,” Joe says. “They saw Debbie in the car, but they didn’t see Robert. So Robert is like a phantom at this point. We can’t confirm where he was.”
In Debbie’s initial video statement, she stated Robert was on the east side of the site and she was sitting in her truck when she saw two large men wearing hoodies cross the road.
The detective asked her if she would be able to recognize these men again, to which Debbie answered with a rambling response: “No, I didn’t see their face at all. It appeared that because of darkness, but heads was the same size as their body and it was cold out last night, I mean you would have a heavy coat. But they all kind of appeared to be the same size.”
Debbie says she radioed Robert, who picked her up to go look for the “prowlers.”
In her initial interview, she claims from her vantage point she had a “real good view of all the roads” and that there were fewer cars out than usual.
Detective Victor Zinn, the man who had interviewed her, went out to the site later and recreated what Debbie had testified she saw. He says that someone wouldn’t be able to see anybody across the road unless they were backlit by cars behind them, deeming it “highly unlikely” that Debbie could’ve seen the figures as she described.
Debbie furthermore claimed that she learned of a small fire happening at the site from an unidentified woman while at the QuikTrip and called Robert on a walkie-talkie.
Several days after the explosion, the Riggs siblings told investigators that Donna Costanza, another security guard and roommate and ex-girlfriend of Debbie, had car trouble at the site that night. According to Joe O’Connor, Donna had a near-brand-new Volkswagen, but it broke down and needed to be towed away from the site. That is the last time the Riggses say they saw Donna that night.
However, there has been no corroboration for the story that a tow truck came to the site or that Donna’s car broke down. No one has records of her whereabouts after she supposedly left the site that night and Donna was never formally interviewed by the police after the events.
Police reports state that an anonymous caller said that Donna was called off of her usual night shift the day before the crime. And Debbie, who usually brought her two dogs with her while working security, left her boxer at home the night of the explosion and carried the other smaller lap dog along with her when she left her red 1977 Toyota pickup unattended.
In 2009, an old police report surfaced for the first time. A motorist named Gloria Nolen says she saw the pickup engulfed in flames while two security guard-type cars circled nearby with spotlights. So, instead of the guards leaving the site before the fires were started, Gloria says she saw the guards still on the site while the pickup truck was already on fire. That means that in this eyewitness report, there is another, third vehicle, perhaps Donna’s, mentioned that doesn’t come back up in any of the Riggs’ statements.
“So, instead of the mystery of this case being that the security guards left the site unattended and then all these fires just started happening immediately within minutes, here’s this witness that says, ‘No, they were actually still on the site,’” Joe says.
Even more shockingly, it appears that the KCPD buried Gloria’s report in a supplemental folder in 1990. The case number in the copy of Gloria’s statement is number 1064. However, another case 1064 got created after, the latter titled “Tips Call re: Bryan Sheppard,” meaning that if someone were to look up case number 1064, Gloria’s report would be buried and instead the tips against Bryan would be presented.
Gloria’s testimony—had it not been buried—could have been used at trial to contradict the guards’ claims about where they were around the time of the initial pickup truck fire.
The eyewitness report from Gloria shows that because the security cars were at the site during the fire, the Riggs siblings most likely knew the pickup had been torched before they left the site in search of the “prowler,” not after they returned, as they had claimed. The defense attorneys were never given this information, and no one seems to know why.
Security guard Debbie Riggs admitted under oath to involvement in a separate insurance fraud scheme, acknowledging that she had previously gotten away with insurance fraud after asking a friend to steal her car in order to collect the insurance money from it.
There were also tips stating that when a group of friends were hanging out at Debbie’s house one night, Debbie told her friends to watch the news for a big fire.
Joe claims that one person interviewed by police said that Debbie was “the kind of person that would slam a car door on her own hand just to get workman’s comp.”
In 1995, a detective questioned Debbie, telling her that informants claimed Donna had burned Debbie’s vehicle for her. Debbie denied any knowledge. “She stated that Donna Costanza did not have the guts to set a vehicle on fire,” investigators wrote in the report.
Debbie and Robert state that they were away from the site they were supposed to be monitoring, instead searching for the prowlers at QuikTrip. The parked pickup truck was suddenly engulfed in flames, and firefighters from Pumper 41, the nearest fire department, were called to put out the truck fire.
In her statement, Debbie says that there were only four to five minutes that her pickup truck was left unattended while at the QuikTrip. Robert called into emergency services for the truck fire to be put out and warned the firefighters on the phone about the second trailer fire.
However, from their vantage point, the siblings wouldn’t have been able to see what exactly was on fire on the hill. The site has a ridge that blocks the view of the plateau where the trailers were located. “So for him to say that there’s a trailer on fire filled with explosives tells you information that only the arsonist would have at that point,” Joe says.
Robert initially stated that there was a “small pickup truck” burning but went on to say “There’s a fire on both sides of the highway.” The dispatcher then asked, “What’s burning?” Robert responded, “Uh, there may be some—there’s some explosives up on a hill that I also see now is burning.”
While KCFD was putting out the truck fire, they called in another unit, Pumper 30, and told them they would need backup because a second fire had broken out on the hill in the nearby construction site.
“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, there could be a fire in the area,’ they’re specifically saying the explosives are on fire, this trailer is on fire,” Joe says. “It was an attempt to warn the firefighters to stay away from it and they repeatedly tried to warn the firefighters, at least three times.”
Debbie can be heard in the background of the phone call, repeating “the explosives are on fire,” but it seems physically impossible for her to know that from just looking at the smoke coming from the distance in the dark of night. The site itself was filled with mounds of debris, other equipment and piles of dead trees, all which were flammable.
Questions have arisen since the tragedy about why there were two separate fires and why the convicted five would’ve wanted to burn the pickup truck.
Debbie’s pickup truck was left unlocked. Inside were her keys, purse with identification and gun. Instead of stealing the car or taking any of the items, the alleged thieves set fire to the truck.
Although QuikTrip would seem to have been outfitted with security cameras, the QuikTrip surveillance tapes have never been collected or reviewed for possible evidence.
In 2006, woodcutter Ed Massey, who had been cutting trees on the site the night of the explosions, told Mike McGraw, then a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist for The Kansas City Star, that he saw two people at the construction site the night of the fires and that neither were any of the five defendants. There was no one to corroborate his story, but he passed two lie detection tests.
Massey also told the ATF bureau and The Star that Debbie had once asked him to set her truck on fire so she could collect the insurance money.
There were two people who financially benefited from the explosion at the construction site. One was Debbie Riggs, who was heavily in debt and got over two thousand dollars in the insurance claim for her Toyota pickup truck which, from accounts, was about to break down.
The other was Robert, who’s security company, Ameriguard, was losing its contract with the construction company, says documentarian Joe O’Connor. Robert was losing hours and almost half of his contract when the construction company deemed it unnecessary to have security guards cover more than the west side of the site where the machinery was. After the explosion, there was of course a need for more security around the site.
Robert was seemingly cleared of involvement based on passing a polygraph test. But there’s a good reason to question the results. For five years starting in 1975, Robert worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Dallas, Texas, before moving back to Kansas City. Starting in 1980, he studied criminology at UMKC and founded Ameriguard. He became a certified forensic polygraph examiner, and Ameriguard pivoted to offering professional polygraph services. The company is still in business as a polygraph examiner today, with an office on State Line Road.
In the days after the explosion, Detective Zinn asked Robert to undergo a polygraph test. Robert did so, but didn’t disclose that he had eight years of professional experience with polygraph examinations. Investigators said that Robert’s accounts of what happened were “very loose” and that their interviews with Robert were “a very strained affair” and he “would seldom answer questions firsthand,” instead quoting news reports.
There are other questions, too. A crime scene photograph shows a shoe imprint in the mud around the truck linked to Robert, which he said came from when he warned the firefighters of the explosion. After questions were raised about the inconsistent patterns of the shoe prints in the mud, Robert later told police that he returned to Debbie’s truck to get a gun, which was a “collector’s item,” after the truck fire was put out. At trial, he admitted that the gun wasn’t a collector’s item. So why would Robert have gone back to the car between explosions given the risks inherent in being around a trailer full of explosives?
As a former sheriff’s deputy, Robert would have had training on how to preserve a crime scene. But instead of doing that, he admitted to investigators after the explosion that he actively removed a firearm from the crime scene. The investigating officers told Robert to bring back the firearm he claims to have taken. Robert never did so.
In the aftermath of the fire and explosion, investigators were eager to find any physical evidence between the two sites. An arson investigator determined the fire originated in the back axle of one of the trailers at the site. Because of the intense fire damage that occurred on the tires, it was determined that a huge amount of accelerant and fuel was needed to set one of the tires on fire initially, but once it started, the equipment would keep burning.
The trailers were filled with a combination of explosives—ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Dynamite ignited the ammonium nitrate that was used to clear the rock quarry land by construction workers at the site.
The first KCFD unit told dispatchers to warn Pumper 30 of the potential for explosives at the site. Usually, if a trailer is transporting explosive materials, it needs a diamond placard on it to warn of potential danger. However, since this was parked, the designation wasn’t required. When the firefighters came, they had no idea what kind of chemical they were fighting.
As ammonium nitrate gets continuously hotter, it will eventually explode. That’s why so many accidents involving ammonium nitrate happen in a contained space, such as the ammonium nitrate contained at the port of Beirut, which was the cause of a devastating explosion in 2020. The firefighters initially thought magnesium was burning and had already initially exploded. They thought the fire had been raging and was essentially petering out. In actuality, it was just getting hotter and hotter inside the contained space.
Unfortunately, the second trailer was parked too close to the first one, which led to the second explosion that happened forty minutes later. Luckily, the battalion chief ordered the firefighters away after the first deadly explosion, which saved lives.
The explosions at the construction site left huge craters, almost one hundred feet in diameter and eight feet deep. Because of the magnitude of the explosions and the raging fire, no evidence was recovered from the site.
However, more evidence than seemingly possible was recovered from Debbie’s pickup truck. According to the firefighter’s dispatch tape, the truck was engulfed in a raging fire that lasted over seventeen minutes, burning the seats and caving in the steel roof of the pickup. Despite the extensive damage to the truck from the fire, Debbie’s purse was still inside, and her belongings were virtually untouched. When the items were tested, they had evaporated gasoline on them.
In original investigative reports, Detective William Lutman recovered a “partially burned yellowish cloth” (which in a separate document is referred to as a yellow shirt) that smelled of gasoline from the area below the seat near the center console of the truck, where the purse was believed to be originally, as well as a “white cotton-like substance” that also smelled of gasoline. The original investigative report on November 30th, 1988, stated, “Detective Doug Clark believed that a flammable liquid was ignited by an unknown source at the driver’s side of the cab.”
The personal items in the car also have unusual burn patterns, as if someone was trying to burn them in a separate small fire but ran out of time. After evidence photos were shown to former Olathe Fire Chief Brad Henson by Joe O’Connor, Henson concluded that it would be impossible for the items in the truck to remain in that condition, leading to suspicion of foul play. Blackened fingerprints can be seen on photos of the purse, but it was never tested. Interestingly, police files also contain pictures of the interior of Robert’s 1986 beige Datsun Nissan Maxima station wagon, with blackened fingerprints clearly visible on the cream-colored steering wheel.
After the first explosion, police and firefighters called for an evacuation and set up roadblocks around the area. Debbie and Robert left the crime scene before the second explosions went off, bypassing police roadblocks. Debbie told Detective Zinn that their mother picked them up at the blockade at 95th Street. It’s assumed that they went to their parents’ house in Grandview, although it is unknown if they rode separately or together.
In her taped interview after the explosion, Debbie stumbles over her words when Zinn asks her why she left the crime scene so suddenly: “They moved their block[ade] a long ways off, I guess because they figured there would be a second explosion. Or that it was dangerous. I don’t know why they thought there’d be a second, but because it was dangerous, they moved the blockade down here, so we went ahead and drove down here.”
Robert returned to the crime scene, now from the south entrance, and police then realized that the other witness, Debbie, had also left the crime scene. That is then when police took her in and questioned her. The public doesn’t have the report of what Robert said when he checked in with the police at the south entrance.
A decade after Bryan Sheppard and the others were convicted of the fatal arson, The Kansas City Star began publishing a series of articles reexamining the case, led by reporter Mike McGraw.
Over twenty witnesses came forward since the initial investigation and trial, saying that federal investigators pressured them to lie. This included Becky Edwards, daughter of defendant Darlene Edwards, who testified that when she was only eleven years old she overheard the five planning a theft at the construction site. When contacted later, she said she was pressured by Detective True to lie and threatened with drug charges. Former classmate Carie Neighbors says True threatened to prosecute her for contempt and take away her child if she did not recite her testimony from a script. A dozen other stories have followed this pattern, citing intimidation, threats of sentencing or promises of legal help or reduced sentences. Affidavits were also gathered in which several of the witnesses recanted their testimonies.
The Department of Justice responded to requests for transparency, largely due to McGraw’s reporting for The Star, and formed a review team to investigate the claims of intimidation and bribery.
Three years later, in 2011, a heavily redacted two-and-a-half-page summary of the team’s findings was released. Ultimately, they concluded that no new evidence had been found and that the five originally convicted wouldn’t be exonerated. Interestingly enough, the DOJ summary stated that there were two additional people, whose names were also redacted, who may have also been involved in the deadly crime.
Bryan Sheppard was watching TV in prison in 2012 when a fellow inmate approached him, asking if he had seen the news. In a case called Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. In 2014, lawyers from the Innocence Project started looking to connect lawyers with juveniles sentenced to life without parole to be resentenced. Attorney Cynthia Short worked for nearly four years to build Bryan’s case. “At a sentencing hearing, we presented a wealth of information about his history through a number of different mediums—through videotapes, expert testimony,” she says.
Bryan had matured during his long tenure in prison, earning his GED and completing other courses. “I had a certificate for everything,” he says. “That’s what won the judge over, basically, my transformation inside. I didn’t just sit around twiddling my thumbs. I kind of educated myself within drug treatments and anger management programs and schooling, things like that.”
The judge reduced Bryan’s sentence from life in prison without the possibility of parole to twenty years. He had already served twenty-two years. He was released from custody on March 6, 2017, a day after his forty-sixth birthday.
“I don’t look at Christmas, birthdays, all that stuff like the normal person does,” he says. “My whole life was in prison. I was a stupid young kid when I got locked up and I came out as an old man, a grandfather. My daughter was six years old when I went in. She grew up without me.”
After his release, Bryan brought a civil lawsuit against the DOJ and petitioned under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking the disclosure of the investigation records. “Bryan stayed committed to his codefendants,” Cynthia says. “He could have walked away from this and put it behind him, but he’s been dedicated to trying to do what he can to help the others.”
Bryan acknowledges that his name will probably never be fully cleared, but now that he’s free, he wants to do everything he can to help the others, who he believes were also falsely convicted.
“He wanted to litigate that issue even though it wouldn’t help him, really, but it would possibly open up an avenue for his co-defendants to have a way to challenge their convictions,” Cynthia says. “It was important to keep the litigation in Kansas City because of the culture in the courthouse. The people that had lived through this litigation—as court clerks, as stenographers, as law clerks—all had had a very strong reaction to the weakness of the evidence that was presented.”
A federal judge found that the DOJ had improperly withheld and redacted records and ordered their release in late 2021. Bryan was also awarded $344,122 in attorneys’ fees to be paid by the DOJ.
Among other information found, the two previously redacted names noted as potential suspects in addition to the original five were revealed: Debbie Riggs and Donna Costanza.
An investigation by the DOJ determined that Debbie and Donna were persons of interest in addition to the five already convicted, which makes no sense to Bryan.
“No matter what they say, they can’t involve us five because we don’t know them people,” Bryan says of Donna and Debbie. “I’ve never met those people. I wasn’t down there hanging out with them, I didn’t work for them, didn’t party with them.”
The government provided no evidence of a connection between the two groups.
Bryan is the only one of the convicted five to be released, only because he was a minor at the time of the arson. He feels for his estranged relatives still in prison.
“They deserve to get out and spend the rest of their life out here just like I am,” he says. “That’s what I’m fighting for. It’s not just about clearing my name, which no matter what I don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. My main focus is to get them out under whatever—loophole, case, law—it may take to get them out. They deserve to spend the rest of their life out here. Am I the lucky one just because I was seventeen and eight months?”
Richard Brown was only a few months older than Bryan but was eighteen at the time of the arson. He remains in prison. Frank Sheppard and Darlene Edwards also remain in prison. Edwards made an appeal for a compassionate release in 2020, arguing that she was among the most endangered by Covid-19. Darlene and her lawyers asked for her sentence to be reduced to time served, but it was rejected. Skip Sheppard died in prison in 2009 at forty-nine years old.
“We lost our lives inside these prisons, and these women [Debbie and Donna] are going to sit out here and live the rest of their life like no big deal, and get to go about their lives with no consequences?” Bryan says. “[It] doesn’t make sense why Robert Riggs is not standing right there with [them].”
Debbie is now a grandmother, living in Missouri City, Texas. A Facebook message requesting an interview received no response.
Robert still owns Ameriguard, a polygraph service company on State Line Road. A voicemail left on his company line was not returned and he did not respond to a Facebook message requesting an interview.
According to Facebook, Donna lives in Brooklyn, New York, studied at “Tony Robbins Master University,” and went to the “School of common sense.” Unlike the others, her profile—in all three of her Facebook accounts—is open to the public, where her hairstyles change over time, once a black bob, later a platinum buzz. She has a black cat and often poses suggestively shirtless in photos.
Donna touts herself as an artist, and inspirational quotes appear handwritten on walls in the background of endless selfies, like “Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted,” “Make your life a story worth telling,” and, “What goes around, comes around… karma,” in blood-red paint.
When asked to do an interview for this piece, Donna responded: “You need to back off. I wasn’t there. Stop telling lies about me. Respect my life and go away.”
Bryan Sheppard, Cynthia Short and others interviewed all agree that if any progress is to be made, it will come from the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office instead of the feds.
Bryan says he would be fine with the county giving Debbie and Donna immunity if they told investigators the truth about what they knew in order to free the remaining three in prison and get the public and the firefighters’ families the closure they’ve been waiting on for decades.
“I want the public to know that this case is not right,” Bryan says. “It’s never been right since the beginning. The government knows this, the people of Kansas City know this, the firefighters’ families know this. Give us this review so we can move on and this thing will be closed once and for all, because all we have left is this. The people of Kansas City need this review. This will give us some kind of closure.”