Jackson County prosecutors say review of explosion that killed 6 firemen is ‘warranted’

Kansas City Star By Luke Nozicka and Bill Lukitsch Updated February 01, 2022 3:02 PM

A look back at the explosion that killed six firefighters in 1988 This is a file video from 2008 that gives an overview of the events that led to the deaths of six firefighters, and the convictions of five people in the case. The youngest defendant in the case, Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explo By Todd Feeback, Mike McGraw and David Helling

Jackson County prosecutors believe a review of new evidence in the 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters is “warranted” following reports that two additional suspects may have been involved.

In a two-sentence statement Tuesday, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office said it was asked to review recently released evidence in the case for charges against other potential suspects.

“We believe a review is warranted given that no statute of limitations exists for murder,” the office said.

Asked if that meant the office is reviewing the case, Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, said he could not comment further.

The statement was issued after news surfaced about Justice Department records, which were released through court order, that show investigators found new information a decade ago to suggest that two security guards, Debbie Riggs and Donna Costanza, “may have been involved in the arsons” as part of an attempted insurance fraud.

Attempts by The Star to reach Riggs and Costanza by phone Monday were unsuccessful. Both have previously denied any involvement in setting the fires.

“It has been 20 years, and I wasn’t responsible,” Costanza told The Star in 2007. “I’m a Costanza, not a Soprano.”


The families of the six firefighters who died in an arson-related explosion at a construction site in November 1988 deserve to find the truth about who was responsible, Bryan Sheppard has said. Sheppard was released from prison in 2017 after what he says was a wrongful conviction in the deaths.

The DOJ’s identification of Riggs and Costanza as additional suspects comes more than 10 years after the department released a two-and-a-half page summary of its findings at the close of a review of the case in 2011. In the earlier release, Justice officials redacted their names and those of the witnesses interviewed.

The conclusion by the DOJ bolsters long standing suspicions about Riggs and Costanza that were raised at trial by the five defendants who were convicted.

It also complicates the theory presented by investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and federal prosecutors that the five defendants — all small-time criminals from Kansas City’s Marlborough neighborhood — were the sole perpetrators and set the Nov. 29, 1988 fires to divert the attention of those security guards and to cover up a burglary gone wrong.

The DOJ, though, found the new information did not exonerate the five who were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison: Bryan Sheppard, Richard Brown, Frank Sheppard, Skip Sheppard and Darlene Edwards.

Bryan Sheppard, the youngest of the defendants, was released from prison following a sentencing reevaluation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles. Edwards, White and Frank Sheppard remain incarcerated. Skip Sheppard died of cancer in 2009 while in a federal prison in North Carolina.

Speaking to The Star on Tuesday, Bryan Sheppard said he is excited and anxious to hear the news that the Jackson County prosecutor’s office may review the case — a result he had hoped for after the four-year fight with the Justice Department over its records.

“I’m blown away by it. I really am,” said Bryan Sheppard, who spent more than 20 years behind bars.

“I’m excited. I pray that something comes of it. I’ll be right there on the frontlines waiting for them to make the right decision and do something with this.”

The Justice review was launched in response to a series of stories written by the late Star investigative reporter Mike McGraw, including ones that named Riggs and Costanza.

Beginning in 2007, The Star published several stories examining the case — one long mired in mystery, and accusations of official misconduct — after several witnesses, some of whom never testified at trial, reported that they felt pressured by law enforcement to implicate the defendants.

Advocates for the five people convicted, who maintain they are innocent, this week asked prosecutors to review the case. 

In a statement Monday, Teresa Moore, U.S. attorney in the Western District of Missouri, said the DOJ review confirmed the guilt of the defendants who were convicted. In the decade since its findings, she said, “no credible information or evidence has arisen to warrant any charges against any additional defendants.” “These matters were fully considered at the time of the trial, the allegations against the security guards were thoroughly investigated, and it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges,” Moore said. “That assessment remains true.”

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