Feds Take Turn at Prosecuting Deadly Arson Case

Sandra Bryant’s life the past decade has been one of great escapes, the first coming with her fleeing the family’s burning house unscathed as her teenage son died inside. Authorities later accused her of killing the boy by intentionally setting the blaze for the insurance money, but the mother walked free after a judge declared a mistrial, barring state prosecutors from going after her again.

“She certainly thought this was behind her,” said her attorney, Susan Roach.

Federal prosecutors think not. Six years after her murder trial ended abruptly, Bryant now faces federal charges – this time with ex-husband Steven Kemper – that they defrauded hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurers with a string of house fires culminating in the 2001 one that killed Zachariah Kemper, 15.

The Oct. 27 indictment casts the couple as greedy, cash-strapped schemers who once even tried to torch the Illinois home of Bryant’s mother after secretly siphoning $30,000 from her bank accounts. Betty Bryant later denied the couple any more financial help while threatening to cut them out of her will.

Sandra Bryant continues to profess her innocence through Roach, who says she’s “really appalled that (prosecutors) are running this up the flagpole again.”

The region’s top federal prosecutor isn’t making any apologies, justifying that the indictment covers a far broader period – and alleged misdeeds – than the charges on which Bryant had been tried by St. Louis County prosecutors who at first said they’d seek the death penalty against her, only to scrap that plan.

“I wouldn’t call it a second bite at the apple. In terms of the first bite, it was never really a bite,” said Richard Callahan, eastern Missouri’s U.S. attorney. “Certainly, there’s no vindictiveness” with the latest charges.

Kemper, who was never accused in his son’s death, declined to discuss the indictment, telling The Associated Press he has been granted a public defender and told not to talk.

Authorities have scrutinized Sandra Bryant since shortly after the November 2001 fire that killed her son, whose body was found in the unfinished basement he shared with his mother while her mother, Kemper and his gay lover lived upstairs. All of the adults escaped unharmed.

At Bryant’s murder and arson trial, police said Bryant confessed to setting the blaze to collect on the insurance. But those statements came after she was first given a polygraph test in which she denied any involvement in the fire and was told by a detective she was lying.

A St. Louis County judge initially allowed the jury to hear evidence about the polygraph test after prosecutors played her taped confessions but ordered a mistrial the next day, citing past court decisions that don’t allow polygraph tests to be used as evidence.

“When I first saw the video evidence of the examination, I was shocked at the conduct of the polygraph examiner,” the judge said then. “He was using a polygraph as a guise to interrogate Mrs. Kemper.”

The Missouri Supreme Court later ruled in mid-2006 that the judge was right to allow the evidence but wrong to order a new trial, adding that because Roach had objected to declaring a mistrial a new trial on murder and arson charges would violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy.

That ruling freed Bryant after four years of being in custody, though unrelenting investigators kept an eye on her. Callahan, the U.S. attorney, says his “major push” on the case came late last year when “significant developments” he declined to detail publicly surfaced.

The ensuing federal indictment paints a troubling picture of Bryant and Kemper dating to December 1996, when Bryant’s mother – after learning the two had drained $30,000 from her finances – pledged to cut them out of her will.

A short time later, on New Year’s Day 1997, Kemper burned down his mother-in-law’s St. Louis home as she slept, though she escaped with smoke inhalation, the indictment claims. At the couple’s behest, Betty Bryant submitted an insurance claim and got $75,000 she used to buy a place in Alton, Ill.

Bryant later injured herself, underwent in-patient rehab and put the Illinois home up for sale so she could move in with her daughter, Kemper, their son and Kemper’s gay lover at that time. But after two months on the market, the house got few looks. So on July 20, 1999, the indictment alleges, Sandra Kemper simply set it on fire.

State Farm shelled out more than $40,000 and spent $10,000 cleaning and refurbishing the fire-damaged property, and the family in July 2000 bought the Florissant home. But the cash-strapped couple found the bills mounting and struggled to pay them on time, if at all. As family discord mounted, according to the indictment, Sandra Bryant and Kemper plotted to torch their home for the insurance money.

On Nov. 15, 2001, the indictment alleges, Bryant was to set fire to the home’s basement utility room with Kemper’s knowledge, but that plan was “unexpectedly interrupted.” Kemper later returned to find the place undamaged and confronted his wife “about her inability to carry out the scheme.”

Early the next morning, the indictment submits, Sandra Bryant ignited a trash can in the utility room next to her son’s bedroom, using hairspray to fuel the flames. She and the other adults scrambled out to safety. Firefighters found the boy’s body near his bed, his arms covering his head and face. A fire extinguisher was on the floor, just a few feet away.

An autopsy showed that the teen sustained burns on his upper body, head and extremities. Soot in his airway showed he was alive when the fire broke out, and he succumbed to carbon monoxide.

Just hours after that fire they termed accidental, the couple filed a homeowners’ claim with Allstate, which eventually paid out more than $200,000. Two other insurers doled out more than $74,500 on life-insurance policies covering the dead teenager. One of those policies was a $50,000 one taken out by Betty Bryant.

The couple used the payments to buy and furnish another St. Louis home, only to divorce in September 2002. Betty Bryant died five years later, leaving her daughter’s family consisting of only a father that Roach says Sandra Bryant hasn’t talked to in a quarter century, his whereabouts unknown.