ST. LOUIS • After more than 13 years of investigation and legal twists, Sandra Kay Bryant admitted Thursday in federal court here that she participated in setting a fire that killed her teenage son in their north St. Louis County home.
Bryant, 59, pleaded guilty of aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud, but court documents did not mention the death of Zachariah Andrew Kemper, 15, who became trapped in the burning home.
Her lawyers declined to comment outside court when when asked why that detail was left out.
Bryant admitted that financial difficulties drove her and her then-husband, Steven Kemper, to plan the fire to cash in on insurance. She and Kemper set the fire early on the morning of Nov. 16, 2001, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rea said in court.
There was no allegation that the couple intended to harm their son.
As part of his guilty plea to the same charge in 2013, Kemper, then 54, also admitted setting fire to his mother-in-law's house on Jan. 1, 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.
On July 20, 1999, Sandra Bryant set fire to her mother's new home in Alton when it failed to sell in a few months on the market, Kemper's plea documents say. Betty Bryant was in a rehabilitation center at the time and had agreed to the sale.
Neither of those fires was mentioned in Bryant's plea documents.
Kemper's plea says that Sandra Bryant planned to set the 2001 fire in their home in a trash can in a basement utility room. It was supposed to look like an accident triggered by careless smoking and cleaning habits.
Under Kemper's plea agreement, he faces up to 10 years in prison. His sentencing was delayed pending completion of the case against Bryant.
Kemper pleaded guilty both out of fear that he was near death and out of a desire to get the “truth out,” he told a judge at the time. He had suffered a heart attack and stroke in 2008.
Prosecutors and Bryant's lawyers will recommend an eight-year prison term when she is sentenced June 11, less time already served in jail. U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig is not bound by the sentencing recommendation. But if she agrees, the net result would be 46 months in prison, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said.
Bryant had been scheduled for trial March 9 but had failed in an effort to keep her confession out of the trial, Callahan said.
Bryant, then under the married name Sandra Kemper, originally faced murder and arson charges in St. Louis County Circuit Court. But her trial in 2002 ended with a mistrial after Judge David Lee Vincent III allowed jurors to see a video showing Bryant’s polygraph examination.
Although lie detector results aren't usually admitted at trial, Bryant’s attorneys wanted jurors to see her repeatedly deny any role in the fire.
Vincent later changed his mind, triggering the mistrial. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that because Bryant's lawyer objected to the mistrial, Bryant could not be re-tried.
It took until 2011 for federal officials to file charges.
Callahan said that by the time the state courts ruled, the statute of limitations had passed for nearly all applicable federal charges, except the one filed against them. He said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and experienced prosecutors, worked hard to disprove Kemper's testimony during the state court trial that he was an innocent victim.
The case file grew to into two stacks of paper six feet high, Callahan said.
He said Kemper's plea agreement had more detail because it was made with the expectation he would have to testify against his former wife. Bryant's agreement simply laid out the elements of the offense.
Callahan said it was a classic example of federal officials working with local prosecutors "not to get in their way, but simply have their back.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect location of the fatal fire.