The Eternal Flame Part 2

Three decades ago, an unsolved murder case and arson fire scarred Lori Romaneck for life. Since 1993, she's been fighting a bureaucratic backdraft to set the record straight.

Lori Romaneck says she felt sure of something when she stepped into the Phoenix Police Department on June 9, 1993.

"I thought they'd make sure I wasn't totally nuts," she recalls, "then they'd go dig up Mother. Simple."

The Phoenix woman, then 32, had kept an enormous secret for more than a quarter-century, since she was 5 years old. Now Romaneck told a missing-persons detective her bizarre story, then handed him a typewritten letter she'd composed a few days earlier.

"I need to convey to the authorities what I witnessed as a child," it said in part. "First, I must greatly impress the fear I have of my father's violent retaliation. . . . I was often told when I was a child by my father, 'I brought you into this world, I can take you out!'"

Romaneck told how, in September 1966, she and her 12-year-old sister Susie had seen their father, Gene Keidel, beat their mother, DiAnne, into unconsciousness at their west Phoenix home. Later that night, Romaneck continued, she'd seen her mother's body in the backyard, and heard her dad digging nearby.

DiAnne Keidel's disappearance had remained unsolved. The courts had declared her dead in 1975, long after the case files had started to yellow.

"I don't know if it's been too long since I witnessed this, or if anything will be done," Romaneck's letter concluded.

Big sister Susie couldn't corroborate the story, she told the detective. Four months after DiAnne disappeared, Susie died in a January 1967 fire at the West Citrus Way home.

The fire also killed Romaneck's 8-year-old sister Kelly, and had left Romaneck near death with terrible burns over more than 50 percent of her body. (A fourth Keidel sibling, 9-year-old Greg, escaped unharmed.)

Romaneck says she was thinking mostly about providing her mother a proper burial when she walked into the cop shop.

"I thought it wasn't going to be too complicated," she recalls, able to smile wryly. "Pretty naive, huh?"

It would take 16 months--until September 1994--before Phoenix police broke through concrete in the Keidels' former backyard and found DiAnne's remains.

During the frustratingly long interim, Romaneck says, she told Phoenix police detective Ed Reynolds that she was thinking about buying the house, then digging up her mother with the help of some Phoenix firefighters.

(Reynolds' supervisors would not allow him to comment on any aspect of this case.)

The police excavation ensued within days.
Police found DiAnne's remains exactly where Romaneck said her father had been digging that September night in 1966. A stocking still was wrapped around her neck.

Romaneck's encounter with the missing-persons detective marked the onset of her odyssey through Maricopa County's legal system--most of which is being revealed here publicly for the first time.

It's been an uphill, often lonely struggle, but the results have been gratifying:

* A jury in the spring of 1995 convicted Keidel of first-degree murder. After the verdict, the jurors said they had believed Lori Romaneck's account. The 61-year-old Keidel--who maintains his innocence--is serving a life sentence at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

* Romaneck was able to bury her mother's remains next to those of her two sisters.

* The Phoenix City Council in June approved a potential $5.5 million settlement with Romaneck, in which it admitted the city's negligence "in the investigation and reporting of the 1967 fire at West Citrus Way, and in failing to take action to protect [Romaneck], which negligence contributed to causing [Romaneck's] injuries as alleged in the lawsuit."

The admission meant the city agreed with Lori Romaneck that, if the police and fire departments had investigated properly, Gene Keidel would have been imprisoned long ago.

Then, the logic goes, Romaneck wouldn't have been subjected to years of torture by her father and others in his sphere.

But the admission of wrongdoing included a caveat: The City of Phoenix itself doesn't have to pay the $5.5 million. Instead, it agreed not to oppose Romaneck's attempt to collect that sum from three insurance carriers. The primary carrier has paid its share--$500,000. (Romaneck's lawyers got 40 percent of that.)

But the second carrier in the chronological chain, Transport Insurance--which faces a $2 million exposure in this case--claimed in a lawsuit filed June 29 that it doesn't owe Romaneck anything.

So, yet another legal battle looms in a saga, as Lori Romaneck says, "with more twists and turns, more ups and downs than anyone could imagine."

The stars in this cast of characters:
* Lori Romaneck, a courageous woman who told her story after surviving unimaginable traumas.

* Ray Mullens, an ex-Phoenix firefighter who rescued 5-year-old Lori from the fire in 1967, then became her lover a quarter-century later. He claims he worked for a corrupt department that conspired to hide dark truths about the Keidel blaze.

* Ed Reynolds, the Phoenix detective who was hungry in the early 1990s to make a name for himself and his "cold case" squad.

* Ray Wilson, a Phoenix Fire Department arson investigator known for his obsessive attention to detail.

* Randy Hinsch, Romaneck's lead civil attorney, who built a strong case of official negligence that led the City of Phoenix to settle days before trial.

* Gene Keidel, now serving a life prison sentence, who would have gotten away with killing his wife if Lori Romaneck hadn't spoken up.

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