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.

It didn't work.
In June 1996, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Cates rejected the city's effort to get the case dismissed.

And so the lawsuit moved along, with Romaneck's attorneys free to depose key players in the sprawling landscape.

Among other things, they'd learn that missing-persons detectives had wanted to dig up the Keidels' backyard because they suspected that Gene Keidel had buried DiAnne there. And they had come to this supposition before the January 1967 fire.

They also started to build a case that both fire and police personnel had failed miserably to complete basic investigative tasks after DiAnne Keidel disappeared and, especially, after the subsequent fire.

Each side, of course, hired "experts" to bolster their respective causes. Most important were the arson experts--Tucson-based David Smith for Romaneck, and Florida-based Patrick Kennedy for the City of Phoenix.

Smith pointed to at least three spots in the Keidel home where someone--he was convinced it was Gene Keidel--had started the fatal fire. He said the city's investigators had erred flagrantly from the moment they'd arrived at the fire in 1967.

Kennedy's dilemma was trickier: City employees Ray Wilson and Art Nunez had taken the position in 1994 that the fire had been arson.

Now, the city had hired someone to say it wasn't.
Kennedy provided fodder to Romaneck's position when he said Detective Moore's theory of the accidentally exploding aluminum pot was wrong--"He made an honest mistake. . . ."

But Kennedy was adamant that the fire had started accidentally: "The only area of origin of the fire is the kitchen. . . . No one can appropriately call this an arson now or then. There is no evidence that it was an arson."

In a May deposition, Romaneck attorney Richard Plattner asked Kennedy if the location of the Keidel girls' burns suggested a suspicious fire. No, the expert replied.

"There is no doubt that they [the girls] never crawled through any fire," Kennedy said. "These burns are not consistent with the kind of burns I might expect of people walking through flaming liquids or even crawling through flaming liquids. . . ."

Another expert for the city, Rodger Golston, seemed to help Romaneck's cause as much as hurt it.

"What I would have liked to have seen," the former county prosecutor said in a March deposition, "is some other specific information regarding motive, perhaps, that would lead [police] to dig a little deeper."

The irony seemed unintentional.
Golston opined that the September 1966 marital brawl was "mutual combat," and may have meant a lesser charge against Gene Keidel than first-degree murder. Randy Hinsch asked Golston if he knew Keidel had strangled DiAnne "with a scarf around her neck."

"I didn't know that," the expert said.
The city's case also ran into problems in 1997-98 when its attorneys claimed they couldn't find potentially key pieces of evidence.

For example, personnel records of Phoenix arson detective Bill Moore were gone, but, mysteriously, only for the years that overlapped his 1967 investigation into the fatal fire.

Hinsch also got police records through Arizona's Public Records Law that the city's attorneys said did not exist.

Finally, negatives of photographs taken after the fire disappeared--"They were located several months ago when large prints of the photographs were made," attorney Jay Rosenthal (of Jones, Skelton and Hochuli) wrote to Romaneck's attorneys in May. "I cannot explain why they cannot locate them."

In March, a Maricopa County jury awarded the Edward Mallet family the staggering sum of $45 million in a highly publicized police-brutality case. (The amount later was reduced to $5.3 million through settlement.)

The day after that verdict, Randy Hinsch faxed a mostly tongue-in-cheek demand letter to attorney Jay Rosenthal, the city's lead attorney in the Romaneck case. Lori Romaneck, the fax said, would be happy to settle her claim for $44 million.

Rosenthal--who also was co-counsel for the city in the Mallet case--didn't reply. He also wasn't available for comment for this story.

As the Romaneck case edged toward a June 15 trial date, the litigants each conducted "focus groups"--practice juries designed to give a flavor of what may happen at trial.

Three panels hired by the Plattner and Verderame firm returned verdicts ranging from zero to $19 million, says attorney Richard Plattner.

The City of Phoenix's focus groups also varied dramatically, says Phil Haggerty, a supervising attorney in the city's risk-management section:

"We had jurors that said zippo. At the same time, this was a very persuasive lady and, by present-day standards, the investigation wasn't good. What the standards were at that time was another question. We had three possibilities. Try the case, walk. Try the case, pay money--probably big money here, because, once you're liable, you're probably liable for a lot of money. And the third option was, walk, get your attorney's fees back. That's the route we took."

The route, however, was circuitous.
These days, the City of Phoenix is self-insured. But in the 1960s and 1970s--which covers Romaneck's lawsuit--the city bought liability coverage from private companies.

The primary carrier in the Romaneck case was National Union Insurance Company, with a $500,000 policy limit. Two other firms, Transport Insurance and Lloyd's of London, were excess insurance carriers during the relevant time periods.

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