Firefighter’s son questions convictions, joins forces with defendant in 1988 arson case

Aug 09, 2017 KCTV5 By Angie Ricono, Investigative Reporter

James Kilventon is publicly questioning the convictions of five people held responsible in the fatal arson which killed a total of six firefighters back in 1988. (KCTV5)

The son of a Kansas City firefighter killed in an explosion is breaking his silence.

James Kilventon is publicly questioning the convictions of five people held responsible in the fatal arson which killed a total of six firefighters back in 1988.

 “I just want to get to the bottom of it. I mean I want closure. All the other families might think they have closure. I don't have closure,” Kilventon said.

Kilventon’s father, Capt. James Kilventon, and five others were called to a massive construction fire near U.S. Highway 71 and 87th Street. A trailer packed with explosives detonated and killed all the men.

Kilventon remembers his father and says his father would support his public questioning of the case and his push for more information.

“I think he'd support me. I think he'd have my back. He'd want to get to the bottom of it too. I think he'd want to know the truth,” he said.

Searching for the truth

Kilventon's search for the truth has ironically brought him together with convicted defendant Bryan Sheppard who was recently released from prison due to new sentencing guidelines.

It was a legal reality that angered many firefighter families but not the Kilventons.

“I think they got the wrong people myself. I think they got charged with a crime they didn't commit and now they are paying for it in jail. I'm glad Bryan got out but he spent 21 years in jail. That's quite a while,” Kilventon said.

Kilventon says he has always been troubled by the case, and he is swayed by what supporters of Sheppard and other defendants point out:

  • The convicted people have always maintained their innocence.
  • They all turned down plea deals if they turned on each other.
  • Three defendants offered lie detector tests passed. The other two were not offered them, and one died in prison.
  • All original defense lawyers are still haunted by these convictions believing innocent people were sent to prison.

Kilventon says he remembers the incredible pressure to close this case.

The city had six dead firefighters, and the case remained cold for years. He says the government’s theory of what happened at the site never really made sense to him that petty thieves tried to steal tools. They were unsuccessful, so they set two separate fires at the construction site.

Kilventon believes the other people who were originally investigated are actually responsible.

Suing for more information

Kilventon and Sheppard will soon file a lawsuit together to get an unredacted copy of a Department of Justice report that took a second look at the trial and conviction of the defendants.

The report investigated media claims that witnesses changed their stories or even lied at trial.

It was prompted by Kansas City Star reporter Mike McGraw’s numerous reports on the case. He remains a firm advocate of the defendants.

The report did not clear the people who remain in prison, but it suggests others may have played a role. That information is blacked out and so are large sections of the report. The government has cited “privacy concerns” in releasing the document.

“I thought that's a government coverup! They are hiding something from us and that it wasn't right. These are our family members that were killed. We all deserve to know what's in the report,” said daughter in-law Tracy Kilventon.

“If they know they got the right people ... If they are so sure they got the right people. why are they so scared to release that then? If there's nothing to be afraid of?” Kilventon said.

The Kilventons recently sat down with KCTV5’s investigative unit and Sheppard to discuss the legal fight ahead.

Sheppard says he’s in contact with two other firefighter families, but they don’t want their names public at this point. He’s hoping they will also join his lawsuit.

“It's not about me. It's about the report. It’s about why they are hiding the information? Whether the other families believe I should spend life in prison. It's not about me it's about the information they are hiding!” said Sheppard.

Richard Brown

Richard Brown is one of the three defendants who remains in jail. He says the new push for more information gives him fresh hope.

He recently spoke with KCTV5 from his Florida prison where he proclaimed his innocence. Brown says the night of the explosions, he was home passed after a night of heavy drinking.

“It was like something in the movies. They hollered over, what they hell was that? Sh*t, we don't know!” said Brown

Brown says his grandfather woke him up and he checked the basement thinking the water heater exploded. He points out he has passed a lie detector test and a neighbor even testified under oath she saw him on the porch following that second explosion.

He claims prosecutors told him and his family they never believed he was involved but they arrested him because they thought he had information. That’s because Brown is Sheppard’s best friend. He says he was swept up to put pressure on the case.

He remains in jail along with Frank Sheppard and Darlene Edwards.

“I don't care how tough you are or how strong you try to be. You've got vulnerable times just like anybody else. I've shed tears. I've lost my wife. I've lost my brother. I've lost a lot,” said Brown.

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