ST. LOUIS • A who plotted an arson for financial gain that instead killed his 15-year-old son was sentenced Monday to five years and 10 months in prison.
The Nov. 16, 2001 fire that killed Zachariah “Zachy” Kemper was the third planned or carried out by Steven H. Kemper and his then-wife, Sandra Kay Bryant, according to court documents and testimony Monday.
Kemper and his lawyer said that the fire was supposed to happen when their home, at 6682 Champana Lane in north St. Louis County, was unoccupied. It was supposed to be blamed on careless smoking and cleaning habits. But Bryant set the fire when the house was occupied by her son, her husband and her mother, they said. Zachy was trapped and died.
Assistant federal defender Nanci McCarthy said that Bryant intended Kemper to be a victim as well.
Zachy's uncle, William “Bill” Fleming, asked U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig to “carefully examine the maximum penalty,” saying that Zachy was kind, generous and funny.
Fleming said that he expected parents dealing with the death of their son to cry and scream, “instead of calmly arranging for an insurance payout.”
He also faulted Kemper for 11 years of deception before he finally pleaded guilty.
At one point, Kemper listened with his head in hands shaking with tremors.
He later agreed with much of what Fleming said, saying that he has been enduring a “living hell” for the last 14 years and that the Flemings “don't know the loss I feel.”
“I'm so sorry everything happened the way it happened,” he said.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Kemper faced 10 years in prison. But lawyers on both sides agreed that he should be get a break for cooperating with the federal investigation and for agreeing to testify against his former wife. Bryant pleaded guilty in March, days before her trial was to start. McCarthy said that Kemper should not do any prison time due to serious medical and mental health issues that include a heart attack and stroke in 2008, emphysema and back and leg problems. Kemper came to court in a motorized wheelchair.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rea asked for between 60 and 75 months, citing the two other fires that Kemper or his wife set, fueled by greed.
As part of his guilty plea to aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud in 2013, Kemper, admitted setting fire to his mother-in-law's house in 1997. He was retaliating against Betty Bryant for ending her financial support and cutting the couple out of her will after she discovered they had defrauded her. Betty Bryant escaped and later reconciled with the couple.
In 1999, Bryant set fire to her mother's home in Alton when it failed to sell, Rea said Monday.
Bryant, 59, of St. Louis County, pleaded guilty to the same charge as Kemper and is scheduled to be sentenced July 8. Both sides have agreed on an eight-year prison term, but Fleissig said Monday that she had not yet agreed to accept that condition of Bryant's plea. If Fleissig rejects the plea, Bryant could go to trial. If she is sentenced to eight years in prison, she'd get credit for the time she's already served and the net result would be 46 months in prison, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said earlier this year.
Bryant, under her married name, originally faced murder and arson charges in St. Louis County Circuit Court until a mistrial caused when jurors were allowed to see a video showing Bryant’s polygraph examination. Bryant's lawyers wanted jurors to see her repeatedly deny any role in the fire and St. Louis County Circuit Judge Judge David Lee Vincent III agreed. He later changed his mind. The Missouri Supreme Court would later rule that Bryant could not be re-tried because her lawyers had objected to the mistrial.
By the time that ruling came, the statute of limitations had passed for nearly all applicable federal charges, Callahan has said.
On Monday, after faulting Kemper for his lack of an apology to relatives, Rea turned to Fleming and his wife, Linda Fleming, and said, “I am sorry I couldn't do more.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect location of the fatal house fire.