New Evidence in 1988 Firefighter Tragedy

November 29, 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters. Although five people were convicted of the crime in 1997, a cloud of mystery still surrounds the case. No physical evidence or eyewitness ever tied the defendants to the scene and they all maintained their innocence.  The Kansas City Police Department considers the case unsolved.

The explosion destroyed most of the evidence making it difficult for investigators.  Down a dirt road and across US Highway 71 from where the blast occurred, a security guard’s pickup truck was also set on fire. Police collected numerous items from the truck and send them to the crime lab where they tested positive for evaporated gasoline. They then bagged the items as evidence in hopes they could provide clues at a later time.

Through a Missouri Sunshine Act request beginning in 2014, Kansas City police released thousands of documents and dozens of photographs to the public. In a photo showing the inside of the guard’s truck, a startling observation can be made. Combustible materials, including a yellow sweatshirt, a plastic grocery bag, a women’s vinyl billfold and a paper booklet appear with different burn patterns than the damage to the rest to the truck. According to fire department dispatch records, the truck fire burned for a minimum of seventeen minutes before firefighters extinguished it.

(Click here to see full sized image)

Arson expert Bradley Henson, IAAI-CFI, formerly the Fire Marshal of Olathe, KS, independently analyzed the pickup truck photos and concluded “it would have been impossible for those items to have been present at the time of the fire nor should they have been in the condition found if they had been in the original fire.” Henson saw evidence of two separate fire events.

The items on the seat appear to show someone returned to the pickup truck and placed them inside after firefighters put out the truck fire and before 6am when police secured the scene. All the emergency responders evacuated the area before a second massive explosion occurred forty minutes after the first one. 

It appears as though someone took a small fire source and waved it across the items in an attempt to destroy them with fire. The burn marks on the woman’s billfold look as if someone was holding it in one hand and tried to burn it with the other. Underneath the billfold the seat is burned away. The yellow sweatshirt appears unharmed by fire or heat in most areas, including the inside fuzzy material, and not wet from firefighting efforts. Investigators noted the truck’s steel roof warped from the heat, yet there is a plastic grocery bag and a paper booklet on the seat.

These items were the personal belongings of the female security guard who owned the pickup truck. Police recovered her plastic driver’s license from the billfold along with $6.51. If Mr. Henson’s observations are correct that two separate fire events took place, it would be impossible for the five defendants to get these personal items from the guards, go back to the pickup truck and try to light them on fire, without the guards or anyone else seeing them.

Assistant U.S Attorney Paul S. Becker, who tried the case, has so far refused to conduct a forensic analysis of the evidence collected from the pickup. Chiefs from the Kansas City police and fire departments both forwarded this information to him. If tests confirm a second fire occurred, then we will definitively know who is responsible for Kansas City’s darkest day.

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