Man convicted in explosion that killed Kansas City firefighters could go free, but he won’t admit guilt

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It’s been more than 28 years since six firefighters were killed in one of the worst explosions ever to rock Kansas City. Wednesday, for the first time, one of the people convicted of their murders could walk out of a courtroom a free man.

A 2012 Supreme Court ruling says juveniles can’t be given life sentences without the possibility of parole without taking certain factors into account. Bryan Sheppard's family maintains he’s innocent, but that’s why they worry he’ll remain in prison.

Six crosses mark the spot of one of the darkest days in Kansas City history. Six firefighters were killed in an explosion near 71 Highway and the 87th Street exit.

“It’s a horrible thing, we all lost a loved one, and we felt like we couldn’t change it anymore than they could," Sheppard's former girlfriend and mother of his child Debbie Matthews said.

That’s why she says for the better part of 28 years she hadn’t spoken publicly about where she and Sheppard were when the fire broke out and construction trailers full of ammonium nitrate exploded as the firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze.

“He slept through it as well, he was sleeping on the couch,” Matthews said.

Matthews says she was next to him, pregnant with his daughter who would be born five months after the deadly fire.

“This was a terrible thing that changed a lot of lives including mine. It might have given the firefighter's families closure for a little while knowing that someone was behind bars paying for it, but here we are saying the wrong people are behind bars, the person who committed this crime and took your family members away is still out there,” Sheppard's 27-year-old daughter Ashley Keeney said.

Former Kansas City Star reporter Mike McGraw has investigated the fire for decades. His work at one point prompted the Department of Justice to take another look at Sheppard and four others convictions.

“A lot of the witnesses who testified for the prosecution had pending legal cases, their legal problems went away,” said McGraw, now with KCPT's Hale Center for Journalism.

McGraw says several witnesses recanted their testimony, others changed or had conflicting stories during the 1997 trial.

A widow of one of the firefighters, Debbie McKarnin, was interviewed recently on Reveal by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. They provided FOX 4 with audio from what she planned to tell the federal judge Wednesday who will decide on a possible new sentence for Sheppard.

“This gentleman needs to spend the rest of us his life in jail, he took six lives.”

McGraw says he has no idea whether Bryan Sheppard is innocent or guilty. For the purposes of Wednesday’s re-sentencing hearing, the truth might not really matter. It’s all about whether Sheppard has been rehabilitated and was too young to understand the crime, a crime he’s expected to continue to deny having committed.

“He won’t do it, and I’m proud of him,” his daughter said.

“Twenty-eight years later he’s got the opportunity to walk out and he won’t,” Matthews said.