Fire Proof

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

Little did the Kempers know that St. Louis County detectives concluded the fire was no accident.

In the arson investigation, police found a glob of plastic, presumably a trash can, containing sunflower seeds, lint and cigarette butts several feet from Zachary's bed. St. Louis County investigator John Raines believed someone set the fire in the wastebasket.

Police also learned from Steve's sister-in-law, Mary Ann Kemper, that Sandy and Steve had a fire in a previous home and that Betty Bryant suffered fires in two former houses she owned. Detectives discovered that the Kemper couple and Sandy's mother received insurance payouts after two of the three blazes.

Steve Kemper filed for divorce two weeks after police arrested his wife.
Steve Kemper filed for divorce two weeks after police arrested his wife.
The Kempers' ranch-style home in Florissant: a most unconventional household.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Kempers' ranch-style home in Florissant: a most unconventional household.

On the afternoon of March 21, 2002, detectives appeared on the Kempers' doorstep to haul Sandy, Steve and Jay in separate cars down to the department's Clayton headquarters for questioning. Later that day, they released Steve and Jay. Sandy remained.

After six hours of interrogation, Sandy offered an audio-taped statement that convinced police of her responsibility for Zachary's death. She admitted to feeling "desperate" about being behind on her bills and said she thought for several days about setting a small fire in the basement to do "a little damage" to the rafters, according to a redacted version of her statement contained in court documents.

On May 16, 2002, six months after the fire, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office charged Sandy with five felonies: first-degree arson, three counts of first-degree assault and first-degree murder.

Prosecutors said Sandy Kemper conspired to burn alive every member of her household that November evening. Her motive: collecting on life-insurance policies on Steve and Zachary worth $74,000, and the $208,000 Allstate homeowner's insurance policy. The prosecution offered no other motive.

The following year, prosecutors revealed plans to seek the death penalty for 49-year-old Sandy Kemper, making her the first woman in St. Louis County to face execution since Missouri reinstated capital punishment in 1977.

In September 2004, prosecutors withdrew their death-penalty notice for reasons they have yet to divulge. Neither John Duepner Jr., the lead prosecutor on the case, nor St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch returned calls seeking comment for this story.

When Sandy Kemper's trial finally begins next week, the St. Louis County Courthouse will stage two rarities: Court TV plans to cover the proceedings, and two of the nation's top criminal experts will defend Kemper against charges that her St. Louis attorney, Susan Roach, says have gone "from the ridiculous to the sublime." A jury is certain to hear elements of a seamy family drama that may make them wonder: Could something more than money have motivated the alleged murder?

Sandy Kemper appears behind the glass of the cramped fourth-floor visiting room at the St. Louis County Jail. She parks herself purposefully in the chair, unfurls a perky smile and asks, "Is it hot outside today? I get that feeling."

After more than three years indoors, awaiting a trial mired by varied scheduling delays, Inmate No. 71515 has not inhaled a single breath of fresh air. Until getting on the work detail in the downstairs laundry two months ago, she had not even left the jailhouse floor that she occupies.

"Somebody with a much more serious charge like hers basically would never get a job like that," notes Herb Bernsen, assistant director of the jail. "An exception was made in her case, because she's been here so long, and she hasn't been any problem."

"I'm like part of the furniture," Sandy deadpans.

Sandy is not given to humor, although for someone who hasn't welcomed a single visitor besides her attorneys in three years, and whose only possessions are three Bibles, she sometimes appears more cheerful than one might expect.

Sanguinity surfaces in conversations about her jailhouse job and her inmate friends, especially Donna, a woman now imprisoned at the state's women's facility in Vandalia. Shorter and older than Sandy, Donna "was 'Little Mom.' I was 'Big Mom.'" Donna was once a nurse and "had an asshole husband," says Sandy, adding, "We had a lot in common."

For the most part, Sandy seems a detached observer of her circumstances. She responds to questions with brevity and recounts her life story with a certain coarseness. It is only after several conversations about her son that she exhibits the first sign of maternal tenderness.

"I have no pictures to look at, so I say a prayer every November 16," Sandy says, wiping her eyes and sinking down in her chair. "I ask Zachary to watch over me."

Sandy remembers the fire only "if somebody brings it up. Otherwise, I can push the memory away."

On the advice of her lawyer, Sandy declines to describe details of her alleged crime or the statement she made to detectives the following March. All the while, she insists she's innocent of her son's murder. "I was closer to him than Steve was," she mutters.

"But in this place you're guilty until proven innocent. That's my opinion. Some of the correction officers -- how do I put it? They treat you like shit in here. But they could be in the same boat one day and be stuck in here, too. There are innocent people that have ended up going home.

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