KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City Deputy Fire Chief James Dean was a rookie firefighter that November night 30 years ago.
“I remember waking up to the explosion, and the location that we were located at shook,” Dean said.
Kansas City’s pumper trucks 30 and 41 had arrived at a 71 Highway construction site minutes earlier and found two separate fires in the early hours of November 29, 1988.
“We started hearing some of the radio traffic and didn’t sound good,” Dean recalled.
“Pumper 30 or Pumper 41, please answer,” a dispatcher said.
What the six responding firefighters didn’t know was the burning trailers contained tens of thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, volatile explosives being used in the highway construction.
“If we had known that, if they had known that, we wouldn’t have had six men lost,” Kansas City dispatcher Phillip Wall told FOX4 in a 1988 interview.
“He (Dean’s captain) finally said responding to the scene wouldn’t do any good because there’s nothing we could do to help anyone,” Dean said.
Six crosses along 71 highway near 87th Street now bear the names of Capt. Gerald Halloran, Capt. James Kilventon, and firefighters Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
Six firefighters lost, but the lives of five others who lived in the Marlborough neighborhood nearby would also be forever changed.
“They’ve suffered just like we have, right alongside each other. No matter what we say or they say, we are both continuing to suffer,” Bryan Sheppard said.
After weeks of combing through the rubble and charred remains of fire engines, investigators uncovered little evidence of who sparked those fires. The case went cold, and more than six years later, the search for answers went to television sets nationwide.
“Today, the case remains Kansas City’s most notorious unsolved crime,” Robert Stack bellowed in a 1995 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
“Hundreds of calls came in to the hotline after this Unsolved Mysteries story ran,” former Kansas City New Times Editor Pat O’Connor said.
O’Connor has always been critical of the way investigators sought witnesses, including $50,000 reward posters in prisons and possible deals for information.
“None of these 56 informants (who testified at trial) claimed to have seen any of these five defendants the night the firefighters were killed,” O’Connor said.
Five people were convicted: Sheppard’s two uncles, his best friend, his girlfriend and Sheppard himself.
Sheppard is the only one now free, released last year after 22 years in prison because of a Supreme Court ruling barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles. He was 17 at the time of the explosion.
“They do not have the right people in prison. The real people are still out here running around living their lives like it never happened,” Sheppard said.
He’s now fighting for a heavily redacted 2011 Department of Justice Review of the case to be made public. All he and his lawyers know is it concluded two others were likely involved in the crime.
O’Connor published a book this fall with his theories on who those two people could be. He points to a pair of security guards on duty at the construction site who said they were off the the property looking for possible intruders.
“She wanted to get rid of that pickup truck and get the insurance on it, and he wanted to not get his hours cut. So they set these two simple fires in pickup trucks, but they got out of hand,” O’Connor said.
FOX4 reached out to several firefighters’ family members, but all declined to speak with us on camera.
“They don’t want to keep reliving this, which I perfectly understand. But the problem is they’ve got the wrong people,” O’Connor said.
At Sheppard’s re-sentencing hearing last year, Robert McKarnin’s daughter said “someone has to answer for a crime.”
“If the firefighters, the ones that believe I should spend the rest of my life in prison, that don’t like the idea of me being out here, they should stand up and fight for that report, too. It was their families that died,” Sheppard said.
Some of the families support Sheppard’s efforts. The Kansas City Fire Department has no official opinion on the long-closed investigation and continuing lawsuits. But each and every Nov. 29th, the department is there to support the families of the fallen. Each firefighter left behind a wife and children.
“We just never want to forget their memory. We just never want to forget their sacrifice. We never forget their service. We never want to forget them and who they were,” Dean said.