KANSAS CITY — The inspector general's office is looking into the actions of federal investigators involved in a case that sent five people to prison for life for the 1988 deaths of six Kansas City firefighters.
U.S. Attorney John F. Wood asked for the probe into the Justice Department's actions after The Kansas City Star reported in June that as many as 15 witnesses now say they were pressured to lie during the trial of five people accused of causing the deaths.
Wood was not the U.S. attorney during the 1997 trial, but he said it was handled by experienced professionals and that he had "every confidence in their work, which was reviewed on appeal and in subsequent collateral litigation."
Neither Wood nor the Justice Department would comment on the matter.
The inspector general's office investigates alleged violations of fraud, abuse and integrity laws governing Justice Department employees.
On Nov. 29, 1988, firefighters were called to a blaze at a southeast Kansas City highway construction site. They arrived to find a burning, 40-foot trailer that held 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The trailer exploded, killing firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
The case remained unsolved until a federal and local task force was formed in 1995. The government built its case upon hundreds of interviews and testimony from jailhouse informants.
A jury in 1997 convicted brothers Frank and Skip Sheppard; their nephew, Bryan Sheppard; Richard Brown, who was a friend of Bryan Sheppard; and Darlene Edwards, who was Frank Sheppard's girlfriend.
The five were believed to have burned an explosives trailer and a security guard's pickup at the site to cover up a botched burglary. They were convicted despite there being little physical evidence and no eyewitnesses placing them at the scene.
The Star reported that numerous witnesses in the grand jury proceedings and trial now say they lied under oath after being threatened by the lead investigator in the case. Other potential witnesses say they either were pressured to lie and refused, or evidence they provided that could have potentially cleared some of the defendants was ignored.
Witnesses told The Star that Dave True, now a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, was responsible for much of the excessive pressure. True denies that he coerced or intimidated witnesses and says he has no question the right people were sent to prison.
A former newspaper publisher who has worked to free the five defendants called the inspector general's inquiry an "extremely important breakthrough."
The Midwestern Innocence Project, based in Kansas City, also decided to look into the case because of The Star's stories. Students from the MU School of Journalism will assist in the investigation.