Fire Proof

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.'"

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.

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.

"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."

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.

Terry Farrar remembers how concerned Sandy seemed about her son's academic record.

"I remember getting a phone call from his mom one time," Farrar recalls. "She'd found out that he was doing well and wanted to say that things were good and to get basic updates. She called a couple times. I remember thinking to myself, 'Well, that's really good, they're interested in what's going on.'"

Yolanda Weaver, a friend of Sandy's and fellow employee at Delmar Gardens North, says Sandy's criminal charges also startled her.

"She'd always be saying nice things about her son, about how he was a good kid and how well he was doing in school and stuff like that."

Cathy Bono, administrator at Delmar Gardens North and Sandy's boss, refuses to describe her ex-employee or comment on her charges.

But Bono doesn't hesitate to sing Zachary's praises. He was Delmar Gardens' star junior volunteer for at least a year before he died, she says.

"Some kids, they come in and you pretty much have to baby-sit them. Never Zachary. Never Zachary. He was wonderful: a gentle, gentle soul.

"I think he would have come out of life decent."

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