ST. LOUIS — Sandra Bryant confessed setting the fire that killed her son in 2001, police claimed, but her murder prosecution ended in an abrupt mistrial the next year and the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the state's case could not be taken to a jury again.
So Bryant, then under the name Sandra Kemper, walked free. But quietly, over time, federal authorities prepared to take their own crack at the case.
Yesterday, the U.S. Attorney's Office here announced that Bryant, 55, and her former husband, Steven Kemper, 53, were indicted by a grand jury last week.
on federal fraud-related charges that claim they were involved in a series of fires for profit.
Bryant and Kemper escaped the Nov. 16, 2001, fire at their Florissant, Mo., home, at 6682 Champana Lane, along with Kemper's live-in lover, Jay Long, and Bryant's mother, Betty Bryant.
But Zachariah Kemper, 15, the son of Sandra Bryant and Kemper, became trapped in the basement just feet from a fire extinguisher and died.
Bryant's attorney, Susan Roach, said Monday, "We're appalled that after all these years and the evidence as I know it that this is even being revisited."
Kemper has been released on bond and Bryant released on her own recognizance, Roach said.
Initially, authorities thought a cigarette was to blame, but officials said Bryant confessed to St. Louis County police that she set the blaze. Kemper was not charged in the arson.
County prosecutors took Bryant to trial in 2002 on charges of first-degree murder and arson. But Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III declared a mistrial — over the objection of lawyers from both sides — after deciding that he had erred in allowing jurors to see a videotape of the defendant's polygraph examination.
Lie-detector tests are usually forbidden from use in court. But in this case, the defense wanted jurors to see the tape of Bryant repeatedly denying the crime before finally confessing after being told by the examiner that she failed. That examiner, county police Detective Kenneth Schunzel, died before her trial, and another expert testified that he thought her denials had been truthful.
The defense filed motions to block further prosecution. The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately determined that because the defense wanted the trial to continue, a retrial would violate Bryant's right against double jeopardy.
In 2008, Bryant sued the county police for unspecified damages, alleging that Schunzel had lied, exposing her to malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. The civil suit was dismissed in 2009 for "failure to state claim for which relief could be granted," according to the county counselor's office.
Federal authorities began examining the case shortly after the Supreme Court's ruling became final in late 2006, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said Monday. "That's when it hit our radar."
Most such crimes are handled at the state level, Callahan said, adding, "Some require additional resources and we have those resources."
"We could take the investigation a little further than the state and we were able to show the scheme going back to 1997 and charge both," he said. "It was a very unusual evidentiary and factual situation that led to a legal train wreck at the state level. But in fairness, it was a unique and complex evidentiary issue they had, and unfortunately it ended up working in the defendant's benefit for a period of time."
According to the indictment, Bryant and Kemper participated in a scheme to defraud multiple insurance companies with misrepresentations from December 1996 through 2002. The arsons of two dwellings in 1997 and 1999, as well as the arson of the Champana Lane residence were said to be part of that scheme.
The insurance companies made "substantial" payments under homeowners' and life insurance policies, according to the indictment.
It charges Bryant and Kemper with aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud. Bryant is charged separately in a second count with using fire to commit mail fraud. The charges carry potential life terms, and mandatory minimum prison sentences of 10 years.
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