Fire Proof

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

"Except in the rarest of circumstances, and usually with people who are very severely handicapped, false confessions don't come about without police doing things they're not permitted to do," explains Ofshe.

His testimony has helped acquit or exonerate numerous alleged criminals nationwide, including the five youths recently absolved of raping and attacking Trisha Meili, the woman known as New York's "Central Park jogger."

"All of the evidence that I've reviewed and the experts that I've consulted with verify my initial gut reaction," Roach concludes. "That is, Sandra Kemper has been a victim of the system."

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.

Linda Flemming let her nephew's church clothes hang in his small closet at her home for two years after his death. Last year she finally gave the clothes to charity, and now all she keeps are some pictures of Zachary and his hunting patch, salvaged from his denim jacket after the fire.

"I wanted [Sandy] to have the death penalty," Flemming says.

"I was angry at all of them for not getting Zachary out of there," she goes on, her voice deepening with rage. "I hated them. Hate.

"I thought that Steve and Sandy should've died getting Zachary out."

From the time he was an infant, Zachary spent countless weekends and summer breaks in Flemming's care on the ten-acre expanse she shares with her husband in Carrollton, Illinois. She claims she was Zachary's surrogate mother -- closer to him than Sandy.

"I can hear his little voice over the phone: 'Hellooo, Aunt Linda, can I come and stay?' He called my daughter his sister."

To many, Zachary seemed a normal kid, fond of video games, skateboarding and biking. He was known in the neighborhood as more of a leader than a follower, the type of teen who would help elderly neighbors shovel snow and take in the mail.

After the fire, "you missed him coming down the hall," recalls Terry Farrar, Zachary's ninth-grade geography teacher at Hazelwood East High School. "He'd always be like, 'Hey, Mr. Farrar!' from 50 feet away.

"He just seemed so happy-go-lucky."

Whatever problems may have plagued his parents, seconds neighbor Ron Kenney, Zachary seemed to take in stride. "You know how you see some kids, and they look like they're going through things? Well, Zach looked happy. Zach looked fine."

But Linda Flemming argues that her nephew was adroit at hiding discontent.

"He lived two lives," she says.

The life with Steve and Sandy consisted of hand-me-down clothes, chores galore and few, if any, luxuries, like candy or family vacations. "He wasn't allowed to be a child much. He wasn't given a lot of attention."

Posters of Britney Spears and St. Louis Rams memorabilia decked Zachary's bedroom walls in Florissant, but in his room at the Flemmings' house he hung posters of country singers Reba McEntire and Pam Tillis.

"Wacky Zacky," as the Flemmings called him, spent Saturdays in Carrollton hunting squirrels and rabbits with his uncle. "I look outside at our acreage and think about him wanting to be here," says a sobbing Linda Flemming. "Sometimes the trees look lonely to me, missing him. I know that sounds silly, but sometimes I look out, and the trees just look -- sad."

Zachary rarely attended church with his parents, but he hardly missed a Sunday when he stayed with the Flemmings. Devout Pentecostal Christians, they used to spend all day at church, praying, eating and socializing, says Linda Flemming. They spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Ghost and called fellow parishioners "brother" and "sister."

By the time Zachary turned fourteen, he asked to receive the Holy Ghost, too. He ambled down to the altar and asked to be saved. He cried out in "another language, a heavenly language." Flemming captured it on camera.

The event sparked some animosity toward the Flemmings in the Kemper household, according to Flemming. "Steve blew up at me. It was blamed on Sandy's mom."

That wasn't the only beef between the two families.

Egos flared when Flemming begged Steve -- not once, but several times -- to let Zachary live with her in Illinois. During one phone call, when the boy was out at the Flemmings' home, Steve asked Flemming to hand the phone to Zachary "and reamed him out," she claims. "I don't know what all was said, but he got in a lot of trouble."

Flemming maintains that Zachary, at the time of his death, was hoping to soon escape his parents. "He talked about emancipating himself when he turned sixteen and coming to live with us," she says. "Someone at school had told him he could. That's what he was looking forward to."

Sandy says Zachary never talked of moving in with his aunt and uncle but knows Flemming has long been angry with her.

"She says that we didn't try to go down there and get Zachary. I say she doesn't know what happened," Sandy says.

Anyone believing she murdered her son "is just going by what they read in the newspaper and see on television," she adds. "They don't know how I associated with my son."

Media accounts of Sandy's alleged crime did shock many in her circle of acquaintances.

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