A Missouri man who authorities said schemed with his ex-wife to defraud hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurers with house fires pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in a 2001 blaze that killed the couple’s 15-year-old son.
Steven Kemper, 54, faces 10 years to life in prison when sentenced Oct. 3 on the felony count of aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud. His former wife, Sandra Bryant, has pleaded not guilty to that count and a related charge of using fire to commit mail fraud, and she awaits trial that has not been scheduled.
Neither Kemper nor Bryant face murder charges related to the 2001 fire that damaged the family’s home in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant, killing Zachariah Kemper after he became trapped in the basement he shared with his mother while her mother, Kemper and his lover lived upstairs. All of the adults escaped unharmed.
A day before that blaze, the indictment alleged, 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, according to the indictment, Bryant ignited a trash can in the utility room next to her son’s bedroom, using hairspray to fuel the flames. Firefighters found the boy’s body near his bed, his arms covering his head and face. A fire extinguisher was on the floor, a few feet away.
The teen sustained burns on his upper body, head and extremities, according to an autopsy that found soot in his airway, showing he was alive when the fire broke out.
That blaze originally produced an arson-related murder count against Bryant in a state court, though she walked free after a judge declared a mistrial, barring Missouri prosecutors from going after her again.
The 2011 federal indictment to which Kemper now has pleaded guilty and Bryant awaits trial casts the couple as greedy, cash-strapped schemers who once tried to torch the Alton, Ill., home of Bryant’s mother after secretly siphoning $30,000 from her bank accounts.
Betty Bryant, who the indictment said also managed to escape a New Year’s Day 1997 blaze authorities say Kemper had set in her St. Louis home as she slept, later denied the couple any more financial help while threatening to cut them out of her will. She died in 2007.
Authorities have scrutinized Sandra Bryant since shortly after the deadly 2001 fire. At Bryant’s murder and arson trial, police said she 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 involvement 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.
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 Bryant’s attorney 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.
Kemper and Bryant divorced in 2002.
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