Fire Proof

Did cash-strapped Sandy Kemper burn her son alive? The long-awaited trial begins next week.

On November 15, 2001, fifteen-year-old Zachary Kemper raked leaves with his dad and his dad's gay lover at his grandmother's home in O'Fallon. All Zachary could imagine that blustery Thursday afternoon was the feel of a steering wheel in his hands. He'd waited months to get his learner's permit, and his father planned to take him the next day.

The yard work complete, the men returned to the Kempers' ranch-style home in Florissant. As households go, this was an unconventional one: Zachary and his mother, Sandy Kemper, occupied the unfinished basement, while the boy's father, Steve, and his live-in boyfriend, Jay Long, shared the master bedroom. Sandy's mother, Betty Bryant, resided on the main floor.

Fend-for-yourself was the general rule when it came to meals at the Kempers', and nothing changed that November evening. Steve, Jay, Sandy and Betty, whom the family calls "Granny," took their meals in the den. Zachary ate alone in the kitchen.

Jennifer Silverberg

The blaze began in this unfinished basement, used as a bedroom for Zachary and his mother.
The blaze began in this unfinished basement, used as a bedroom for Zachary and his mother.

Just after 8 p.m., Steve and Jay left for the night, and Zachary, Sandy and Granny hunkered down in front of the television. At midnight, their Michael Jackson biography special over, Zachary hugged his mother goodnight and said he loved her. Sandy watched her shirtless son, wearing his signature shark's tooth necklace and gold-cross earring, retire to the cellar. She followed soon after.

Over at Bubby & Sissy's bar in Alton, Illinois, Steve Kemper and Jay Long tossed back shots of Hot Damn, slurped vodka cocktails and sang karaoke. They tiptoed into the house in the wee hours of Friday morning. Jay fixed himself a burrito, and the couple watched a few minutes of television before shuffling down the hallway to bed.

Five minutes later, Jay opened his eyes and saw smoke filling the master bathroom.

"What is that?" he asked Steve.

As Steve Kemper rolled over to respond, the bathroom floor exploded into flames.

Jay bounded out of bed and rushed to whisk Granny and her Maltese, Dusty, out of the house. Steve raced to activate the alarm system and searched for a fire extinguisher. All the while, he screamed for Sandy and Zachary to flee as he struggled to steer himself through the house.

Suddenly, Steve spotted his wife at the top of the basement stairs, clutching a fire extinguisher. But where was Zachary?

The couple didn't speak, and seconds later, Sandy ran outside as Steve lunged toward the basement. He got only three-quarters of the way down the stifling hot stairwell.

In a last-ditch attempt to save his son, Steve sprinted outside with thoughts of breaking open a basement window. As he rounded the corner of the house, orange balls of fire shot through the panes above Zachary's bed. A shower of glass rained over the lawn.

Dozens of firefighters from several fire-protection districts arrived within minutes, but it took 30 minutes to squelch the blaze. More than an hour later, two rescue workers emerged from the house carrying a black bag. Inside it: the charred body of Zachary Kemper.

By 4 a.m. most of the Champana Drive residents who witnessed the sad drama of that cold November night returned to bed. Neighbors Ron and Sabrina Kenney offered the family blankets, clothing and temporary shelter. At around 4:30 a.m., several of Steve's siblings arrived.

"Steve and his friend were walking around on the sidewalk with a blanket around them," recalls Linda Flemming, Steve's eldest sister. "Sandy was on the phone in the kitchen. Betty was in the wheelchair sitting with us, very distraught. My sister Kathy was very upset, and my sister-in-law Mary Ann was angry, very angry. No one said much."

Ron Kenney remembers feeling sorry and troubled.

"Sandy and Steve said they couldn't get Zachary out of there. But me, as a parent, I know I would've tried as hard as I could, even if I had to die! Why wouldn't you do all you can to save that life?"

Kenney says the Kemper clan kept their distance when firefighters appeared with Zachary's body.

Sandy and Steve viewed Zachary at Baue Funeral Home in St. Charles hours later. He resembled a half-baked biscuit, one side of his facial profile intact, the other side completely seared.

"He still had soot on his face," remembers Sandy Kemper.

The mortician salvaged Zachary's necklace and earring, but he couldn't dress the teenager, for the body was curled up in a fetal position, taut and unyielding.

"They just folded his clothes up and put them in the casket with him," Sandy says brusquely. Zachary's cowboy boots and a St. Louis Rams jersey also accompanied him to the grave.

Sandy, then a medical technician in a nursing home, stayed home from work the remainder of the year, trying, she says, to piece her life back together. The fire left the shell of the Kempers' home standing, but damage to the interior rendered the house uninhabitable. The next month, Sandy and Steve used a $208,000 claim from Allstate, their homeowner's insurer, to purchase a much larger and more expensive home less than a mile away. Jay Long moved in with them, and every Saturday the trio visited St. Charles Memorial Gardens, where Zachary is buried.

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