Fire Proof

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

To outsiders who divined the true nature of the living situation, the Kemper household seemed immoral.

"I thought they were brother and sister at first," recalls neighbor Ron Kenney, shaking his head. "Then I found out Sandy was Steve's wife, and that he's over there living with another man, and wow! She accepts you living with a boyfriend and your son in the same house? What type of example are you setting?"

In late 1999, just after the family bought their house in Florissant, things began to unravel, according to Sandy's version of the events.

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.

Sandy's mother moved in with them and, feeling the pressure of more mouths to feed, Sandy began pressing Steve about his joblessness.

For years she thought he refused to work because of a bad heart. But after Steve started and quickly quit several part-time jobs, "a light went on [in my head]," she says. Sandy concluded that Steve didn't want to pay the more than $23,000 in back child support owed to a daughter from a previous marriage.

"Every time he'd get a job, they'd start garnishing his wages, and he'd quit," Sandy complains.

"Then I started to have to turn my paycheck over to Steve, ask for money for gas and cigarettes, ask if I could go out for dinner with the girls after work," she continues. In effect, Steve gave Sandy an allowance from her own earnings.

The tension between the couple accelerated, and on Thanksgiving of 2000, Steve and Sandy argued when he failed to show up on time for the holiday meal. The squabble culminated in Steve threatening to inform Sandy's mother of his homosexuality.

Sandy broke the news herself.

"I don't love him any less," Betty Bryant replied, according to Sandy. "You're the one that's got to live with him."

Not long afterward, Steve's new boyfriend, Jay Long -- also unemployed -- moved in. "Jay was as sweet as can be," says Sandy.

"Zachary and Jay got along really great. They used to do more together than Zachary and Steve did.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't the person that could get Steve out of the situation he really wanted to get out of at the time," Sandy concludes. "I'm hurt because of what he did to me, emotionally, mentally."

"We're all sinners," she adds. "My biggest sin was marrying Steve."

Sandy Kemper's trial couldn't come a day sooner. "I'll be nervous, but I'll be glad we'll be getting somewhere," she says. "I don't know how long it's going to take, but I hope it finishes in a hurry. I'm tired of being in here."

Judge David Lee Vincent III of the St. Louis County Circuit Court delayed the trial once last year after attorney Susan Roach learned the state withheld some evidence, then a second time after Roach fell ill.

In January of this year, the court postponed the proceedings a third time after Detective Kenneth Schunzel, a polygraph examiner for the county police department and a key witness, suffered a stroke. It turns out attorneys will not be able to question Schunzel at all: He died in July.

Assistant prosecuting attorney John Duepner Jr. is expected to argue that Sandy became so desperate for cash in 2001 that starting a fire to collect insurance proceeds seemed like the only way to pay the bills. Court papers suggest the prosecutor will try to prove that Sandy lagged in mortgage and car payments, and that just before the fire, she expected a bank to deny her a much-needed loan.

The judge, however, ruled that the prosecutor cannot use evidence of the previous fires at the Kempers' and Bryant's homes, as they were never declared arson.

Roach says Sandy's home and car were debt-free and that detectives mistreated her the day they questioned her. The fire was accidental, Roach insists.

"Sandra Kemper loved her son," Roach maintains. "There was no bad blood between them, and it makes no sense that she'd be motivated by some type of financial gain to set a fire in an area where he was. If you're going to set a fire for financial gain, you set a fire in a space where nobody is. The state knows that."

Roach, in court papers, points to a smoldering cigarette as one possible cause of the fire. Sandy, Steve and Jay smoked heavily, and photographs taken after the fire show a house littered with wastebaskets filled with ashes. Additionally, A.C.S. Investigative Services Inc., an inspection agency for Allstate, determined that a smoldering cigarette discarded in the trash container could not be eliminated as a possible cause for the blaze.

Although working pro bono, Roach has enlisted a renowned cast of criminal experts to take the stand on her client's behalf.

The lineup includes David Raskin, a retired University of Utah psychology professor who is perhaps the nation's foremost expert on lie-detector tests. A frequent expert witness for the defense, Raskin has testified on behalf of numerous high-profile defendants, including Ted Bundy and Patty Hearst.

Roach also hopes to sway Kemper's jury with testimony from Richard Ofshe, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Ofshe is a national authority on false confessions and the inappropriate police interrogation techniques that induce such confessions.

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