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.

Then, that May, Romaneck learned that officials had changed the manner of her sisters' deaths to murder. She says she again contacted fire-department officals in vain.

Romaneck says she decided to find herself a lawyer.

Randy Hinsch, an attorney with the firm of Plattner and Verderame, met Lori Romaneck for the first time in May 1995.

"She had been hearing what boneheads the investigators in the 1960s had been," recalls Hinsch, "and she thought she was getting stonewalled by the fire department. She wanted to know if her sisters would still be alive, and if she wouldn't have been burned, if the authorities had done their job right."

Hinsch's firm did some preliminary investigation, and decided to focus on the post-fire aspect of the case.

"Our investigators told us that the job the fire investigators had done was just horrendous," recalls the 39-year-old attorney. "We pieced together our theory of the case from there. We had no idea at the time of everything that we eventually did find."

Hinsch wouldn't learn for months that Phoenix police hadn't gotten the fire department's final report on the January 1967 fire either. On August 20, 1995, Ed Reynolds asked his sergeant to help him secure the report in a memo titled "Request for Copy of Fire Death Report."

Reynolds wrote, "During this time [late 1994], I was continually told that they were making a report and I would soon receive a copy of it."

In February 1995, Wilson had told him it would be ready any day. Since then, Reynolds' memo said, "[Wilson] advised me that for unknown reasons, the command staff at the fire department will not authorize the typing of his report."

Wilson said in a January deposition that Ed Reynolds had misunderstood him.
"I did not tell him that," the fire captain said. ". . . I certainly did not intend to tell him that the command staff at the fire department was not willing to authorize the typing of it. It was logistical backlog. It was time considerations that I was trying to convey--the lack of my time to complete the report, and a lack of secretarial staff to keep up with the typing."

In his memo, Reynolds said he knew that prosecution of Gene Keidel on new charges was unlikely--the construction contractor already had been sentenced to life in prison for killing DiAnne.

But the fire case still was "open," the detective said, and demanded resolution.

"Ray [Wilson] would tell me it would be ready in about a week," laments his supervisor, chief Joe Bushong, "and I'd say, 'Oh, right.' By then, he was already back to normal shift work on top of finishing this. How do you tell someone to finish something that he says he has more things coming in on? Ray Mullens may have had us in some kind of cover-up, but it wasn't like that. If we screwed up 30 years ago, we screwed up."

Neither Reynolds nor Romaneck would learn for a few years of the absurd goings-on at the fire department. Wilson--he of the turtlelike pace--had been composing his report longhand, at nights and on weekends.

Wilson would log 296 hours writing out his voluminous report by hand, including 83 hours of overtime.

Attorney Randy Hinsch asked Alan Brunacini in deposition last December, "It's important enough to justify two full-time investigators for a couple of months, but not enough to justify two full-time typists or whatever it would take to get it done?"

"I guess that's what I'm telling you," the chief replied. "I mean, that's what occurred."

Remarkably, the fire department wouldn't produce the Wilson/Nunez report until March 1996, four months after Lori Romaneck sued the City of Phoenix.

Its findings?
Investigators in 1967 had blown it. Someone intentionally set the fire that had killed and maimed the Keidel girls.

The City of Phoenix hired the private firm of Jones, Skelton and Hochuli to defend it after Lori Romaneck sued in December 1995.

The attorneys attempted to get the case dismissed before it got revved up: Its lawyers in March 1996 said Lori Romaneck had filed the suit too late, and that, at any rate, her allegations were off base.

Wrote the defense attorneys:
"[Romaneck] asserts that the city is liable for its alleged failure to solve a crime because she was forced to live during her youth with her now-suspected (but previously unarrested and unprosecuted) criminal/father.

"The police and fire officials' decision [not to prosecute] was not simply a failure to arrest because, as [Romaneck's] own complaint alleges, her theory of damages depends on the allegation that her father should have been prosecuted and convicted of at least a felony in order to require her removal from her father's custody into the custody of another relative. . . .

"At worst, the fire and police investigators misinterpreted or misevaluated physical evidence at the scene, and exercised their own individual judgment in not pursuing criminal charges based on the circumstantial evidence available to them."

The city's lawyers say they consciously chose not to raise the immunity (from litigation) defense, they claimed later, "in an effort to avoid unnecessary discovery and obtain a speedy termination of the action."

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