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Judge Denies Early Release To Defendant Convicted In Explosion That Killed Six Kansas City Firefight

Investigators search through a highway construction site, Nov. 29, 1988 in Kansas City, Missouri where two early morning explosions shattered windows over a 10-mile area and killed six firefighters.
Investigators search through a highway construction site, Nov. 29, 1988 in Kansas City, Missouri where two early morning explosions shattered windows over a 10-mile area and killed six firefighters.

One of five co-defendants sentenced to life in prison without parole for the deaths of six Kansas City firefighters 32 years ago has lost her bid for compassionate release from prison.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. on Friday denied the request of Darlene Edwards, who argued that her age, underlying health conditions and risk of contracting COVID-19 were reasons to reduce her sentence to time served.

Edwards, now 66, has been in prison for 23 years. She says she is obese, diabetic and requires assistance walking.

Although Gaitan agreed that Edwards has serious health conditions and does not pose a danger to the community, he said the severity of her crime weighed against her early release.

“Edwards’ crime had a profound affect (sic) on this community and forever altered the lives of the firefighters’ families,” Gaitan wrote in a 10-page order. “So, while Edwards has shown that her deteriorating health and the COVID-19 pandemic are extraordinary and compelling circumstances … they do not justify granting Edwards’ motion for compassionate release.”

Under the compassionate release statute, a court may reduce the term of imprisonment if it finds that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warrant a reduction.

Edwards and her co-defendants were convicted in 1997 in connection with an explosion at a highway construction site near U.S. 71 and 87th Street during the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988.

The five were accused of setting fire to a tractor-trailer containing 25,000 pounds of low-grade construction explosives. Their alleged plan was to create a diversion from an attempt to steal tools, which they hoped to sell for drug money. The trailer blew up and the resulting blast could be felt throughout the entire metropolitan area.

The Kansas City Fire Department sent two firetrucks to the scene. The first extinguished a burning pickup truck before joining the second pumper, where the storage trailer was on fire. When the trailer exploded, it instantly killed all six firefighters at the scene and ignited a second trailer filled with 30,000 additional pounds of explosives.

One of the convicted defendants, Bryan Sheppard, was released from prison in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles unless their individual circumstances are taken into account. Sheppard was only 17 at the time of the explosion.

Over the years, questions have been raised about the defendants’ guilt. A series of investigative reports in The Kansas City Star by the late Mike McGraw found that many of the witnesses had been coerced into testifying against them. The Justice Department in 2011 released a two-page summary of its review of the case concluding there was no “credible evidence” to support such a claim. But it also suggested other people may have been involved in the arson, although no others have been charged.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.