We just got one more piece of the 1988 KC firefighter explosion puzzle. Thanks, Mick

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Mike McGraw thought about the 1988 deaths of six Kansas City firefighters almost every day. Michelle T. Johnson (left) and director Jennifer Welch staged the play “Justice in the Embers” in 2016 about his work on the case. SUSAN PFANNMULLER Special to the Star

Kansas City Star Feb 1st, 2022 By Derek Donovan

Mike McGraw, “Mick” to his friends, never believed he got the full story about the explosion that killed six firefighters at a south Kansas City construction site early one morning in 1988. But with the release of a long-hidden report from the Department of Justice, we might finally be closer to the truth.

When Mick first started looking into the case in 2006 as an investigative reporter for The Star, I was director of research for the newsroom. Mick loved public documents, and it was part of my job to help him find and organize them. We filed federal Freedom of Information Act, Missouri Sunshine Law and Kansas Open Records Act requests for paperwork and emails pertaining to almost every story he latched onto. He was relentless in tracking down documents, and was passionate when he explained why: Records generated by the government belong to the people, not the bureaucrats who all too often guard them like personal property. It’s your right to see them.

Mick gathered as much information as he could get his hands on about the arson that caused the deadly blast — court transcripts, police reports, attorneys’ files. Along with extensive original reporting, he put together a June 29, 2008, front-page investigation questioning prosecutors’ case that led to the 1997 convictions of five residents of the south Kansas City Marlborough neighborhood for the firefighters’ deaths. Among the story’s revelations: Witnesses claimed Debbie Riggs or her roommate Donna Costanza, who both worked as security guards at the construction site, had implicated themselves in the crime.

Just two days later, Mick’s work got results. U.S. Attorney John F. Wood announced that the report had led him to ask the Justice Department to review the case “in a thorough and unbiased manner.”

DOJ investigators finished their work in 2011, but released only a short summary — with key names redacted. While the recap said the department stood by the integrity of all five 1997 convictions and sought to refute Mick’s reporting, it also suggested new information not originally available to prosecutors had uncovered possible new suspects in setting the fire.

Bryan Sheppard, one of the five who went to prison, filed a Freedom of Information suit in 2017 seeking the full Justice report. He won and now has a copy. While it’s also heavily redacted, two names stand out: “Newly developed information suggests that Deborah Riggs and (Donna) Costanza may have been involved in the arsons in addition to — and not to the exclusion of — the defendants.”

So now, almost 14 years later, McGraw’s reporting has been vindicated. Sheppard, who was a juvenile at the time of the crime, was released from prison in 2017. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to pay him $344,122 in attorneys’ fees. He has always maintained his total innocence, as have his co-defendants. Richard Brown, Darlene Edwards and Frank Sheppard remain in prison. Earl “Skip” Sheppard died in 2009 behind bars.

In 2016, the Living Room Theatre staged playwright Michelle T. Johnson’s “Justice in the Embers,” about McGraw’s reporting on the case. I attended a performance one night that featured an after-show Q&A with the production team and family members of those convicted in 1997. Afterward, I had a one-on-one with Mick, who asked me what I thought. I had enjoyed the play, but it hadn’t convinced me about whether justice was served — one way or the other.

McGraw died of cancer in January 2018 at age 69. After his retirement from The Star in 2014, he had gone on to report for KCPT, KCUR and other news outlets. He wrote in a 2016 look back at his long involvement with the story of the explosion’s aftermath, “I think about the case almost every day.” And that was no doubt true until the end.

I just wish Mick were here today to see two especially salient details in his reporting corroborated by the very Department of Justice that sought to discredit other parts of it.

Since the DOJ continues to stand by the original convictions, I see no reason to expect any exonerations. But if it’s true, as Sheppard told me this week, that “guilty people have been out here walking free their entire lives,” then there’s more work to do.

If we honor the memory of the six firefighter victims — Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham — we need to remember that justice left incomplete is justice denied. The men who died deserve this: The law should pursue the truth as doggedly as Mike McGraw did.

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