Fire Proof

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

"I probably wouldn't be in here if it wasn't for Steve's sister-in-law [Mary Ann Kemper]," Sandy continues bitterly. "That's all I'm going to say on that subject."

The court, meanwhile, prevents Sandy and her husband from speaking to one another, and she refuses to say if she blames Steve for her detainment. The 47-year-old Steve Kemper filed for divorce just two weeks after police arrested his wife, and he moved out of their house five months later, taking Sandy's mother with him. "I hope he is still taking care of her," Sandy says.

Attempts to contact Steve Kemper at his most recent address listed with the court proved unsuccessful. His sister, Linda Flemming, says he refuses to comment for this story.

"He was a gentle, gentle soul": Born Zachariah Andrew Kemper, he was known to family and friends as Zachary.
"He was a gentle, gentle soul": Born Zachariah Andrew Kemper, he was known to family and friends as Zachary.

With little to do besides study the Bible, Sandy says her imprisonment forced her to reflect on what she terms an "abusive" marriage and her failure to end it.

"Steve was very controlling. But I overlooked that. If you love somebody, you overlook certain things." She pauses. "Then you get to place like this, and you have nobody. And that's when you realize it."

In 1984 Steve Kemper, then a hairdresser, met Sandy one evening at a north-county bowling alley. In between their turns on the lane, they talked about her search for a good stylist. It wasn't long before Steve was coiffing Sandy and the couple was dating. Sandy says she was "love-struck."

Coming from a blue-collar Moline Acres family and still living with her mother at the time, Sandy was always a homebody, a loner, and Steve's companionship came as an unexpected pleasure.

"He took me out to eat one night and says he needs to tell me something," Sandy recalls. "He says he's gay, and he wanted to try to change. He says his mom and dad really wanted him to change. I said OK, but did he want to change? He said he did. He says, 'I want to get married. I want you to marry me.'

"I just thought, you know, I thought it was a phase that people went through," she explains. "I thought, well, maybe no one's cared enough about him to try to help him. And maybe I was the one who could."

The Kempers wed on October 10, 1984, in a simple church ceremony. They uttered traditional wedding vows but chose to leave out the clause in which husband and wife agree to "obey" each other.

"The man is the head of the house," Sandy asserts. "Steve wasn't supposed to obey me."

There was no money for a honeymoon, so Steve and Sandy settled down in a St. Charles County apartment and continued working. As far as Sandy knew, none of her friends or family -- including her mother -- were aware that she married a gay man. That was her secret.

The couple bore Zachariah Andrew Kemper on January 31, 1986, much to Steve's delight, Sandy says. She had no reason to suspect he would start cheating on her.

"He was good for about, oh, I'd say six years, and then he decided he wanted to start going out. At the time I thought he was just going out with the guys from work. But he started doing the gay bars and stuff."

Sandy remembers Steve telling her: "'I'm not out of love with you, but I want to be with a man.'

"I have to give the man credit: He did tell me," she continues. "And it hurt for awhile that he was seeing people. Sure, it hurt. But I had a son to take care of, and he promised Zachary, he said, 'I will never leave your mother.' We were a family."

The financial realities of life were tougher to cope with. When Sandy and Steve failed to pay bills, various credit-collection agencies, department stores and landlords filed small-claims cases against the couple as they moved around the St. Louis region throughout the 1980s and '90s. Several property owners evicted them, and court papers show that they left several attorneys in the lurch for fees.

Sandy never earned more than $9.80 an hour at the nursing home, and Steve's employment history was always a checkered one.

"I worked my butt off," she exclaims. "I was used to working sixteen-hour days."

Back then, Sandy didn't begrudge Steve for his chronic unemployment or his trysts, nor did she argue when her husband began inviting his boyfriends to live with them -- all of which triggered a series of disturbing events, according to court documents.

Police arrested Steve on domestic battery charges three times since 1998 for beating up two of his live-in lovers. Two of the incidents took place at the Kemper home. Each time, Sandy bailed her husband out of jail. "Stupid me," she says now.

On the occasion of the third arrest, Steve told police he was suicidal, and the court sent him to a medical center for counseling.

Without a hint of sarcasm, though, Sandy admits to liking many of her husband's boyfriends. "All his gay friends would say, 'If I could find a woman like that, I'd marry her in a heartbeat.'"

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