The Eternal Flame
In May 1995, Lori Romaneck asked a clerk at the state's Office of Vital Records for copies of two death certificates.
"I wanted to bury my two sisters with my mother, and I needed the right paperwork," she says. "That was it."
But at that moment, Romaneck saw something that literally made her fall to her knees and weep:
The Maricopa County's medical examiner had amended the death certificates in a January 1967 west Phoenix house fire that claimed the lives of Susie and Kelly Keidel--Romaneck's sisters.
Officials in 1967 had called the fire an accident.
But Dr. Philip Keen on December 12, 1994, had changed that to arson. That meant 12-year-old Susie and 8-year-old Kelly had been murdered.
To Romaneck, the change was a godsend.
A month earlier, Romaneck's father, Gene Keidel, had been convicted of murdering her mother in September 1966.
"It made official what I'd known in my heart for a long time," she says. "My father hadn't only murdered my mom and buried her in our backyard. He also murdered my sisters and almost me by burning us up when we were sleeping."
The 37-year-old Romaneck--who was 5 at the time of the fire--survived horrific burns and other injuries. She returned home to her father, to be subjected to unspeakable abuses before breaking free and trying to salvage her sanity.
But Gene Keidel never has been charged with murdering his children--and probably never will be.
Despite their strong suspicions, authorities in the 1960s also did not charge Keidel with killing his wife, DiAnne, just four months before the fatal fire.
Romaneck's torment would not ease for years. Then, in June 1993, she told police that she'd seen her father beat her mother into unconsciousness, and she knew he'd buried her in the family's backyard.
In spring 1995, a jury convicted Keidel of first-degree murder. Keidel--who maintains his innocence--is serving a life sentence at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. He is 61.
The revelation of her long-held secret also allowed Lori Romaneck to lay her mother's remains next to those of her late sisters. It wasn't exactly a happy ending, but it seemed about the best she could hope for.
But Gene Keidel's conviction didn't mark the end of Romaneck's saga.
In December 1995, Lori Romaneck sued the City of Phoenix, claiming its fire and police departments had been negligent in their investigations of her mother's disappearance and of the fire. The agencies' failures had condemned Lori to an unnecessarily savage upbringing, the suit alleged, and the City of Phoenix was liable.
In June, the city admitted its negligence. The settlement also made Romaneck eligible to collect $5.5 million from three of the city's insurance carriers.
But like everything else in this bizarre tale, it's not that simple.
An Unbelievable Case
DiAnne Keidel's September 1966 disappearance had been an unsolved mystery for almost three decades. Police reports from the time indicated detectives had suspected Lyle Gene Keidel of being linked to his wife's vanishing.
But the case had languished, and finally was forgotten.
Then in June 1993, Lori Romaneck walked into Phoenix police headquarters and told an eerie tale from her childhood.
She alleged that, on Friday, September 17, 1967, she and her half-sister, Susie, had watched their mother slide unconscious to the floor during a late-night brawl with their father.
"He [Keidel] stood over my mother's body and he turned and saw us," Romaneck would later testify.
She said she'd seen DiAnne Keidel's lifeless body next to a backyard swimming pool, saw Gene (who apparently didn't see her), then heard him digging around the side of the house.
Hers wasn't a "repressed memory," in which individuals are said to recall traumatic memories that had been buried somewhere in their psyches. Romaneck says she'd never forgotten her mother's murder. Instead, she had lived in fear of her father, even years after she'd moved away from him.
Romaneck's story sounded outlandish.
Police wouldn't bust through a concrete slab in the former Keidel residence in the 4200 block of West Citrus Way until 16 months after Romaneck first told her story in 1993.
Detectives found DiAnne's remains where Romaneck said they'd be. A nylon stocking was tied around the victim's neck.
It wasn't the only tragedy Lori Romaneck had endured:
One day after 31-year-old DiAnne Keidel disappeared in 1966, Gene Keidel--who had been living nearby with his father--moved back to the family home.
Four months after that, just before midnight on January 9, 1967, the home caught fire, with the four Keidel children inside.
The Keidels' son, 9-year-old Greg, escaped through a window unharmed. But 12-year-old Susie and 8-year-old Kelly died. Lori suffered horrific burns over half of her body; her heart stopped twice during resuscitation efforts on her front lawn.
A young firefighter named Ray Mullens found Lori beneath her oldest sibling, Susie, on a bedroom floor. Susie was shielding Lori from the intense heat and toxic smoke, giving her life to save her sister's.
A quarter-century later, Mullens would become romantically linked with her. That was enough of a twist. But, remarkably, Mullens had yet another role to play.
No tale like this would be complete without a conspiracy theory.
Retired fire captain Mullens provides it.
Mullens is convinced his ex-employers have tried to keep truths about the fire from being revealed, both in 1967 and in recent years. In 1995, he says, he urged Phoenix police to seek obstruction of justice charges against the fire department.
Mullens' conspiratorial musings don't bear up under scrutiny. However, some of his points do contain grains of truth.
For example, the fire department wanted little to do with the old fire case after Lori Romaneck came forward, despite a request from police detectives.
It wasn't until after police recovered DiAnne Keidel's remains in September 1994--and after County Attorney Rick Romley spoke publicly about the fire--that fire officials seriously revisited the long-forgotten fire.
Romley said at a press conference that a still-unidentified fire investigator had expressed concern "about why the  arson investigation was dropped so quickly." He also said he'd learned that an accelerant had been used to start the fatal fire, and that the investigator "had been waiting 28 years" for the County Attorney's Office to look into it.
Even then, the fire department didn't release its new report until March 1996, 18 months after it was completed. It concluded, "the Phoenix Fire Department is preparing to reclassify the probable cause of this fire [from accidental] to incendiary. . . ."
Three of four investigators who have reexamined the Keidel fire since 1994--the two from the fire department, and experts hired by the litigants--say the house was torched.
The exception was Patrick Kennedy, a Florida-based expert hired by the City of Phoenix. Not surprisingly, Kennedy refuted the fire department's own findings, which had given a big boost to Lori Romaneck's chances of winning her lawsuit. Kennedy billed the city more than $50,000 for his efforts.
If it was arson, then it also was murder and attempted murder. The best investigative lead was Gene Keidel--especially from the perspective of opportunity (in 1967, long before officials knew for sure that DiAnne was buried in the backyard).
Where was Keidel when his children were burning?
He said he'd gone to a laundromat a few minutes earlier. He'd followed the fire engines to Citrus Way, he said, shocked to find his own home ablaze and three of his children unconscious on the lawn.
Police knew before the smoke cleared on Citrus Way that DiAnne Keidel had been missing for four months--and that Gene Keidel was the prime suspect in what looked like foul play.
That alone should have been reason enough for authorities to go slowly in determining the fire's cause. They didn't.
Phoenix arson detective Bill Moore concluded in less than a day that the fire was "accidental." His report said an aluminum pot on a stove had overheated and exploded, spattering metal onto nearby curtains and igniting.
That spelled the end of the fire investigation.
But even Patrick Kennedy, the city-hired expert, says Moore was wrong.
"I don't believe the pan had anything to do with the fire," Kennedy said in a May 4 deposition. "[But] there is absolutely no evidence that this is an incendiary fire, no evidence of any kind. . . . I know a lot about this fire, but I don't know what happened. No one does. A fire started in the kitchen. . . . The problem with this case is that everybody agrees that Gene Keidel is a rotten guy, a despicable man. Being despicable doesn't make you an arsonist."
Filed in December 1995, Romaneck's lawsuit did seem a reach.
"If the city had not been negligent in this matter in 1967," Romaneck's attorneys wrote, "it would have had overwhelming evidence that Gene Keidel set fire to his house and killed two of his daughters while attempting to kill all of his children. . . .
"The [police] suspected Gene Keidel of murdering his wife a few months before the fire. The city, but for their negligence, would have not only suspected Keidel of arson, murder and attempted murder regarding his children, it would have been able to prove it and convict him, or otherwise protect Lori."
Attorneys Randy Hinsch and Richard Plattner claimed that, if authorities had done their jobs adequately, Romaneck would have been spared years of torture after her mother's murder and after the fire.
"[Lori] will prove that the [city] believed as of the day of the fire that Keidel had murdered his wife and buried her in the backyard," the attorneys said in court papers.
"The firefighters who battled the blaze at the Keidel home thought it was an arson fire. The police officers at the scene believed that Keidel's conduct was suspicious, and that [they knew] he was the principal suspect in his wife's disappearance within an hour or so of arriving at the scene."
The City of Phoenix claimed it was immune from such a suit, and that Romaneck had filed it too late anyway. In any event, the city's lawyers argued, the case failed on its merits.
"At worst," they contended, "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 family life endured by plaintiff during her youth is a tragedy no human being could examine without feeling strong feelings of sorrow and sympathy. That sympathy, however, does not relieve [Lori] of establishing that the city of Phoenix--rather than her father--is legally at fault for that abuse."
Several events improved Lori's odds of winning her lawsuit, including a police detective's December 1994 meeting with the county medical examiner.
After the meeting, Dr. Philip Keen changed the how of the girls' deaths from "accidental" to "house fire due to arson." (That was the paperwork Lori Romaneck found months later.)
But detective Ed Reynolds said earlier this year he's not confident a jury would have convicted Gene Keidel at an arson/murder trial.
"I was willing to give it a shot," he said in a deposition, "but I didn't think there was really enough to get him convicted because there wasn't that smoking gun on the fire like there was on DiAnne's death. . . ."
Reynolds is probably right.
But Lori Romaneck's lawsuit against the City of Phoenix was a civil, not a criminal, matter. Lori's burden was to prove a "preponderance of the evidence"--far less than the rigorous "reasonable doubt" standard prosecutors must meet in criminal cases.
A jury trial had been scheduled to start June 15. But the Romaneck case settled out of court, after a fashion, in early June, when the Phoenix City Council approved a $5.5 million settlement in Lori's favor.
The city also admitted it had been negligent in its investigations of DiAnne Keidel's disappearance and the subsequent house fire.
Romaneck has collected $500,000 from the first of three insurance carriers to whom the city paid premiums. (Her attorneys take 40 percent.)
The city also agreed not to fight Lori Romaneck's quest to collect the remaining $5 million from the other two insurance carriers. It's her attorneys' job to collect from the insurers, not the city's.
"This was not a settlement of the case," says Phil Haggerty, a city attorney. "It was a settlement of insurance. Admitting negligence is how the city avoids paying money. We never would have paid that kind of money ourselves in this case. Never, ever."
On June 29, the second insurance carrier in the chain--Transport Insurance Company--sued Lori Romaneck and the City of Phoenix, saying the settlement was illegal. The lawsuit says Transport has no intention of paying its $2 million share.
Lori Romaneck says she knows that resolution of the latest lawsuit, like most things in her life, won't come easily.
She's a rarity--a litigant who sounds believable when she says her quest isn't about money. (The owner of a small but profitable cleaning service, Romaneck says in passing that she's given part of her share of the $500,000 to a foundation for burned children.)
"Whatever the lawyers and the insurance companies and the courts decide, that's their business," she says. "I'm doing this for my murdered mother and my two murdered sisters."
A Mother Vanishes
Gene Keidel and DiAnne Kidder Grant met in their native state of Illinois in the mid-1950s. Barely out of her teens at the time, DiAnne already had a toddler, Susie, by her first husband, from whom she was divorced.
Later that year, DiAnne married Gene in Peoria, Illinois. She'd met him when she was working at her mother's hamburger joint and raising little Susie as a single mom. The couple would have three children together.
Gene Keidel found work as a machinist after the family migrated to Arizona in 1960, before becoming a self-employed house contractor. DiAnne Keidel worked several jobs in the Valley, and was employed as an office worker in Phoenix when she disappeared in September 1966.
On the surface, the Keidels were a nice young couple with a bright, middle-class future. But by the mid-1960s, their private life was spiraling out of control.
Several letters to a judge after Gene Keidel's 1995 murder conviction painted a picture of a kindly, honest man whom life had dealt many hard knocks. Actually, it was Gene who had done much of the knocking around during his marriage to DiAnne. He was a mean drunk, and he had no problem attacking his wife verbally and physically during increasing fits of rage in the mid-1960s.
DiAnne's co-workers thought of her as a quiet person, happy with her children, but stressed by her volatile marriage.
But both Keidels had short fuses, especially with each other, and often engaged in mutual combat. A few months before she disappeared, DiAnne bit Gene so badly during a fight that he had to seek treatment at a hospital. Other times, she'd have to cake on her makeup to hide her facial bruises.
The couple later separated, reunited, then split again about three months before DiAnne disappeared.
In July 1966, DiAnne filed a petition for divorce at Maricopa County Superior Court. "[Gene Keidel] has been guilty of certain excesses, of cruel treatment and outrages toward [DiAnne]," it claimed in part, "which make it impossible for [DiAnne] to continue the marital relationship without impairing her health and well-being."
Gene moved in with his father, a mile from the Citrus Way home. By then, DiAnne had engaged in sexual relationships with other men, and Gene Keidel knew about it. (He, too, played the field.)
Keidel talked to pals as if DiAnne's new life didn't faze him, but his actions reflected otherwise. DiAnne told a co-worker shortly before she disappeared that Gene had been spying on her from an alley behind her house, and that his stalking scared her.
One of DiAnne's paramours was a man who once had worked with Gene at a Phoenix factory. A week before DiAnne disappeared, Gene Keidel snapped photographs of the man and DiAnne outside the home on Citrus Way. The man gave chase as Keidel fled into the night.
That man was one of the last people to see DiAnne Keidel alive. He told police he'd met her at a bar on West Dunlap before midnight. DiAnne was drunk, he said, and he'd walked outside with her for about an hour trying to sober her up.
At about 1 a.m., the man continued, she left by herself in Gene Keidel's car. He said he phoned her home twice before 2 a.m. to see if she'd gotten there safely. No one answered.
Keidel told police he'd gone to dinner at Taco Bell that night with his wife and kids. The two dropped the children off at home at about 9 p.m., then went out drinking, leaving a west Phoenix bar at about 11:15 p.m.
DiAnne had driven Gene to his apartment, and briefly came inside with him. Keidel's father later told police he'd spoken there to his daughter-in-law.
From a September 1966 police report: "He [Gene] undressed and went to bed, and DiAnne pulled the covers up over him, and then she left."
Gene said he'd gotten up after DiAnne left, walked to a pay phone and called the Citrus Way residence. He said he'd spoken with Susie, which she later confirmed to detectives.
Susie told him DiAnne wasn't home. Keidel then walked the mile to his former residence, arriving there soon after midnight. He fell asleep on a couch shortly after 3 a.m., he told detectives in his first account.
Gene said he never saw DiAnne again. When he awakened--at about 5:30 a.m. in his first account--he saw his car parked in the driveway.
But there was no sign of DiAnne. Logically, that meant she had come home between 3 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and had slipped out again as Keidel slept. She had left without identification, clothes or a car.
In the days after DiAnne's disappearance, Keidel told detectives about his wife's boyfriends, supplying names, dates and places. He told them about a crop duster in his early 40s with whom DiAnne was spending time. In yet another twist, that man died of a heart attack two days after DiAnne vanished.
(Some of the 1960s police reports reflect the time in which they were written. "When asked if [Keidel] wanted his wife returned or just located," a detective wrote, "he advised he mainly just wanted her located." The detective didn't note that DiAnne had filed for a divorce from Gene.)
Years later, the City of Phoenix claimed Lori Romaneck's revelations about her mother's backyard grave marked "the first time anyone outside the Keidel family had evidence of Mr. Keidel's responsibility for his wife's disappearance/death."
Detectives Emma Groom and Wally Sem had looked hard at Gene Keidel from the start. What better motive for foul play, they speculated, than a jealous husband going through a bitter divorce with an allegedly promiscuous wife?
Sem went so far before the fire as to ask superiors for permission to dig up Keidel's backyard. He did so after learning that Gene Keidel had had concrete poured near his swimming pool, in a rush job three days after DiAnne's disappearance. This request was turned down.
"Did you believe in '66 that [Keidel] had murdered DiAnne?" Lori Romaneck's attorney asked Sem last December.
"Yeah," the retired detective replied.
One of DiAnne's co-workers, Celia Molina, called Phoenix police after the punctual woman didn't show for work on the morning of Monday, September 20. That day, Molina spoke to a detective, telling him, according to a report, "DiAnne is getting a divorce and has expressed fear that her husband may harm her."
On September 29, 1966, Detective Groom spoke with Susie Keidel at Barcelona Elementary School. Susie told the detective she'd gone to bed after her father came by late on September 17, "and did not hear anything or see her mother again."
Susie was hiding the truth, according to Lori Romaneck. The oldest Keidel child also had observed their parents' fighting, and saw her mother slump to the floor. Later that night, Romaneck says, Susie fetched her as her father dug her mother's grave.
In the weeks after the disappearance, Romaneck recalls, "Susie would shuffle me off whenever the subject of mom came up, just to make sure my father wouldn't hear me. She'd take me to a world of fantasy, a world of toys. I'm sure she was living in incredible fear, and trying to keep us little ones above water."
In mid-October, Groom again spoke with Susie Keidel.
"Susan would not accept the possibility that her father could have harmed her," Groom's report says. "She knows of no incident that her mother was abused by her father. . . . Susan said she had questioned her mother about what was wrong lately, and her mother's only answer was 'Everything.'"
Groom also spoke with Greg Keidel, who described a rosy family life. As for Kelly and Lori, Groom noted that Gene Keidel hadn't made them available for questioning.
That, Lori Romaneck says, is a shame, because she's certain she would have said something about the backyard grave.
"I had this desert tortoise for a pet named Touche," she says, "and mom told me he was going to take a nap under my sandbox in the backyard. You know, hibernation. I knew he'd be hungry when he woke up. So I went around after my dad killed my mother telling neighbors, 'Can you wake up my mother? She's asleep, and we need to feed her dinner.' I'd have spilled my guts if someone asked me when I saw her last.
"Remember, I wasn't into the total fear yet--I thought mom was just sleeping. But then he poured a concrete slab over her. My dilemma as a 5-year-old was, 'How am I going to feed her?'"
(Romaneck says she didn't comprehend that her mother wasn't sleeping until about a year later. It happened after a memorial service for a beloved neighbor. Mike Braeutigan had been killed in action in Vietnam, and Romaneck believed he was sleeping--like her mother. But an elderly woman explained to her that Mike wasn't going to awake: "Now I understood. My mom is buried in the backyard, and she's dead, not sleeping. And dad killed her. The fear went very deep.")
Rumors about DiAnne being buried in her backyard did get around, police reports indicate, but they remained just that.
The missing-persons investigation stalled.
Gene Keidel moved back to the house on Citrus Way one day after DiAnne turned up missing. Gene's primary love interest at the moment was Kitty Andrews, a young divorcee with a son.
His life quickly took on a new routine. He'd work at the plant during the day, then would go home and feed his kids. Often, Andrews and her 6-year-old son would come over after she finished her jobs as a beautician and part-time go-go dancer.
The two usually would drink themselves silly before bedding down at his place or hers, she later told investigators. Andrews considered Keidel a catch, a real Romeo, and hoped she might marry him someday.
Keidel had told her DiAnne had jumped or had been pushed out of her late crop-duster boyfriend's plane. He seemed sure enough of his wife's demise that he allowed Andrews to wear her clothes.
She thought of Keidel as charming--at least until a few hours before the fire started. That's when she saw his dark side for the first time. (Investigators wouldn't learn that critical piece of information until 1994.)
In her way, Andrews was as troubled and vulnerable as DiAnne had been. Earlier in 1966, she'd been divorced, been raped, and lost a toddler to liver disease. The misfortunes, Andrews told investigators in 1994, led her "from being a good little Christian girl to being a barfly. . . . I started drinking a lot."
It was a short step from there into Gene Keidel's arms.
It was a brisk 42 degrees just before midnight on January 9, 1967, with a slight wind blowing from the east at 9 mph.
Joseph D'Amelio, the Keidels' neighbor on West Citrus Way, was on his way to bed. But he smelled smoke, and he and his wife, Josie, looked outside.
The couple saw flames coming from the Keidel kitchen windows and out the east kitchen door. They ran next door as their daughter called the fire department.
It was 11:48 p.m.
The D'Amelios saw 9-year-old Greg jump through his bedroom window at the 2,500-square-foot residence. Within seconds, it seemed, other neighbors and passers-by rushed toward the inferno.
Each heard the screams of the Keidel children trapped inside. Some risked their own lives, as did the firefighters who responded.
Neighbor George Jones saw Greg escape through the window in his pajamas. He broke out a glass with a brick and tried to get in, but was thwarted by the fire. He yelled at the girls to find Greg's window, but all he heard was their piercing screams.
Wrote Ted Bentley, a now-deceased battalion chief, in a report hours after the fire was extinguished: "The house was nearly totally involved, the roof was cedar-shake and was on fire all over. Back half of house was completely involved, bottom to top!!"
Bentley's exclamation points were telling. Each of the firefighters who went into the Keidel home later recalled the surprising intensity of the blaze--which would have meaning for investigators nearly three decades later.
Years later, the two children who survived the fire provided vastly different accounts to police and attorneys.
Greg recalled being awakened by his sisters running into his bedroom screaming. He said he had led his three sisters down the hall. To get to the front door, the four would have had to pass through the family, then living, rooms.
But it was too hot and smoky, and the siblings were forced to retreat about halfway through the family room. In Greg's account, the four ran back down the hall and separated. He ran into his own room, pushed his window open and jumped out.
"Did you have to go through flames?" one of Romaneck's attorneys asked Greg Keidel last December.
"No . . ."
"If I told you that your sisters had walked through flames, where would they have found the flames to have to walk through?"
"Not on the way to the front door. Perhaps later, after I was outside, maybe the fire spread back here. Maybe they tried it again after I was already out. It was just a state of confusion, a state of panic, a state of terror. . . . I could hear 'em screaming in amongst the fire and stuff, and I knew they were there. . . . I'm not sure if they tried to get out. But I didn't yell, I didn't go back and get 'em. I went to the window and I was out the window."
Lori's memory was dramatically different from her brother's. She was clad only in panties when Susie awakened her.
"We run down this short hall and we stop to get Greg. . . . I was crawling. The smoke was real thick, and I'm trying to get under the smoke. . . . It got unbearably thick, to where it beat you down."
She said that she, not Greg, led the children down the hall. But after they turned right, a few feet into the family room, Lori says, "that fire lashed up on me. I didn't see it coming. I know my sister and she wouldn't have pushed me into the fire. . . . It just spread and everything became on fire it seemed. . . . I knew then I was burned. . . ."
(The City of Phoenix's expert in the civil case would say Lori had been burned during "flashover"--when a fire spreads rapidly throughout a space--from the kitchen. Romaneck's expert said Lori had been burned by a fire started in the family room by an unknown accelerant--possibly charcoal lighter fluid--to prevent the children from escaping.)
The siblings retreated to Greg's room, Lori continued. She could hear the neighbors screaming at them from the outside.
"I'm standing there and I say, 'Just a minute. I'll be right back. I'm gonna get Winnie the Pooh. And when I exited and ran [to Susie's room], it's all so quick . . . I was starting to get confused, somewhat disoriented. It seems like the fire was chasing me. I fell on the floor, it's the cement floor. . . . I remember distinctly the feeling of Susan on top of me. It seems at first as though she tried to pull me out and she couldn't. It was too intense by that time. . . . She laid on top of me and she told me how much she loved me. And I can hear off in the distance sirens coming, and she told me that the firemen are gonna come, it'll be okay, hang on. That's the last thing I remember."
One of Engine 26's firefighters was Ray Mullens. Like his peers, Mullens was brave and relentless in his efforts to save lives as the fire raged around him.
In 1967, few firefighters had access to the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that is standard issue these days. But Mullens' truck did have a few SCBAs, and he put one on, which gave him more time to maneuver inside the burning house.
"All above me was burning like a candle," he says. "It was roaring and screaming and burning in a wide-open burn."
Mullens first found the family pet, a black terrier, dead on the floor in Greg's bedroom. He also came upon a doll and dropped it out a window, so other firefighters wouldn't mistake it for a child.
Then he heard someone yell, "I found one! I found one!" Someone had found 8-year-old Kelly Keidel, lying on her bed unconscious.
Mullens edged his way up the hallway, using a flashlight to try to see through the thick black smoke. He stepped into Susie's room--across the hall from Kelly's--dropped to one knee and reached around for signs of life.
Within seconds, he touched a child's upper arm:
"I crouched down over her and could see a girl lying with her head to the south, so she was lying across me with her head to my left and her back on the floor."
As Mullens lifted the girl, he says, she emitted the "slightest little cry." He then saw a smaller girl lying beneath her.
In the seconds that followed, another firefighter took the older child--it was 12-year-old Susie--from Mullens and handed her out a window. Mullens scooped the smaller child, Lori, off the floor. A firefighter dove out a window, and Mullens handed Lori to him.
Mullens and the other firefighters heard crying all around them, and searched for more children. They were hearing the wails of neighbors just outside.
Outside, the scene etched itself into the psyches of all witnesses. The three sisters lay side by side on their front lawn, beneath a pruned mulberry. Many of the neighbors were wailing uncontrollably. Spent firefighters tried to gather themselves physically and emotionally.
"I can remember somebody laying down," neighbor George Jones recalled in a 1994 interview with fire investigators, "I think it was the youngest girl [Lori], and pieces of skin coming off. And, man, I just couldn't take it no more. I don't know how Lori survived it."
Susie and Kelly Keidel were dead on arrival at Phoenix Baptist Hospital. By rights, Lori should have died, too.
Instead, she says, "I was unconscious, but I know they laid me under a mulberry tree with its branches cut off and no leaves. At some points, I was standing next to them and could see what they were doing to me. When you're horribly burned, being next to your body can be a lot better than being in it. Being dead doesn't hurt, the getting there does. I wanted to stay dead. My sisters and my mom were over there and I was here, where it really hurt. . . ."
The near-death experience ended, Lori says, when her loved ones told her she had to survive, that they'd all be together again someday.
Neighbors were stunned when they saw Gene Keidel calmly watching the rescue attempts on his daughters with other gawkers. Someone finally pointed him out to police.
"This subject appeared intoxicated, and his breath smelled strongly of intoxicating beverages," Phoenix detective Michael Kavanaugh wrote in a report the next day. "His eyes were bloodshot, his speech slurred, and he stood fairly steady on his feet. . . . Mr. Keidel said the four children were home alone, asleep, and the house was locked.
"He also said he was away from home doing two loads of laundry at the laundromat [35th Avenue and Bethany Home]. . . . He said that he was there three to four minutes when he had heard the first fire truck, and hadn't been gone more than five minutes.
". . . Mr. Keidel was told that he had been drinking, and he responded by saying, 'I stopped at the 7-11 Market and purchased one can of beer and drank it at the laundromat.' He also said that he left home at twenty to 12 to go to the laundromat."
If that were true, the house had burst into flames less than eight minutes after Keidel made his laundry run. (Later, Keidel would say he saw the time of 11:40 p.m. on an outdoor bank clock near the laundromat, which added a few minutes to the equation.)
Detective Kavanaugh recalls the moment: "I worked the wagon for a long time . . . and this guy had more than the one beer he claimed. But he could still talk to you about what was going on. He was very low-key . . . like nonchalant about the whole thing."
His suspicions were aroused. This was years before police had computers in their cars, so he asked another officer to see if Keidel's name came up in files at the police station. Before he and his partner left the scene, they learned of DiAnne Keidel's recent disappearance.
Phoenix arson investigator Bob Bivin also showed up. Bivin--who died last November--said in 1994 that he, too, had spoken with Gene Keidel at the scene.
Keidel, Bivin recalled, "took me over to the kitchen range, and on one of these burners on the range was an aluminum pan that had the bottom burned out like it had sustained fire for a long time. Then he explained to me that he bought groceries that day and this whole counter area was full of paper goods. . . . It was his scenario that this was a stove fire possibly caused by one of his children. . . ."
At the hospital a few hours later, the detectives again spoke with Keidel and his girlfriend, Kitty Andrews:
"Assigned officers noted that the father of these children was not visibly shaken after learning of the death of two children, and remained in this state until officers felt that it was necessary for him to view the bodies for identification. Only then he showed visible signs, breaking down and crying. This lasted about five minutes, and he returned to his previous attitude."
Andrews said she'd cooked dinner at the Keidels, then went shopping with Gene at Christown Mall, returning about 9 p.m. The pair had returned to Citrus Way for about a half-hour at about 9 p.m., then Keidel had taken her home. He'd come in for a short visit--her mother was there--then left shortly after 10 p.m.
"Mr. Keidel interrupted and said he went straight home and cleaned the house," says the officers' January 10, 1967, report. He then left for the laundromat at 11:40 p.m.
As it turns out, Keidel and Andrews had lied about the night's events.
In a 1994 interview with fire and police investigators, Andrews said she'd gone to the Keidel residence early that day and washed some clothes, but that the dryer didn't work.
She said Keidel became infuriated at her for doing the laundry and leaving it wet. Contrary to her earlier statements, she now said she and Keidel hadn't gone shopping at Christown. Instead, she said, she had awakened her son and gone home sometime that evening.
"All I could remember was fear that night of the fire, and that he'd become explosively angry. And I had never seen that in him before."
Andrews said the Keidel children were in bed when she left, and that she'd driven herself home. (Police never interviewed Andrews' mother, who could have confirmed Keidel's account.)
Police detective Ed Reynolds asked Andrews, "It doesn't stick out in your mind that you sat there and listened to him lie to detectives about a fire that killed two children?"
"I think I would have been stunned," she replied. "My mind would have raced about if he's lying. . . . I know that I'm working on a lot of blocks in my mind."
"What did he have over you to make you keep your mouth shut?"
"Nothing . . . Sitting next to someone with something like this happening, and them telling something that absolutely wasn't true, what do you do?"
Investigators also didn't know it at the time, but Keidel didn't stick around the hospital as his only surviving daughter clung to life. Instead, Andrews told the investigators, she and Keidel had gone to her home, where they'd had sex within four hours of the fire's onset.
Gene Keidel would give several varying accounts about his suspicions of how the fire had started:
* According to Lori--"I was told by my father that, inadvertently, a pan had been left on the stove. He said it was his pan for his coffee water. That's what he told me for years. Later, when I got older, he said that Susan got up and was cooking on the stove and started the whole house on fire. . . . Of course, it rang bells. He was a liar. I knew he was lying. Susan was asleep. . . . Susan is not going to start a fire on the stove, and then go back to bed and go to sleep while the stove is burning the house up."
* According to Andrews, Keidel had told her--"Something about [Susie] had gotten up and made some popcorn . . . that she fixed popcorn in a regular pan with oil in it. It didn't make sense."
* According to Greg--"[Keidel] told me that he thought the frying pan with potatoes and grease in it was left on the stove, and the stove wasn't turned completely off. Somehow, it heated up and the grease splattered on the cupboards around the range, and it caught the cupboards on fire and the house went from there."
* According to neighbor George Jones, Keidel told him "the oldest daughter had put a pan of water on the burner of the stove, and was probably going to boil some eggs. And she went back to bed and went to sleep. . . ."
* Keidel told detective Kavanaugh a few hours after the fire that he may have inadvertently turned on the burner as he wiped the stove clean. He then took clothes from a nearby washing machine and sorted them there, never noticing the increasing heat.
Manuel "Benny" Benitez was the first fire department investigator on the scene that night. His supervisor--Bob Bivin--also came along, and took over. Back at the station, Benitez noted it appeared that a fire of "undetermined" origin had started in the kitchen.
In those days, the police department assigned a detective to work with fire investigators in cases of possible arson. In this instance, detective Bill Moore reported to fire captain Bob Bivin the morning after the fire.
If Bivin wrote a report of his findings--and he should have--it's never turned up. It wasn't until October 7, 1994--when two fire department arson investigators spoke with the retired captain--that they learned he'd been convinced for more than a quarter-century that someone had torched the place.
Bivin said he'd told Bill Moore, "I thought it was a suspicious fire. The fire patterns were not consistent to a singular source."
An investigator asked Bivin if he agreed with Moore's conclusion that the fire started only on the stove.
"I don't," Bivin replied.
Within a day after the fire, Detective Moore deemed it "accidental" in a police report. He theorized that an aluminum pot had exploded, igniting the curtains and the varnished surface of a nearby cupboard.
"The information I had was there was a pot, aluminum pot, placed on the burner with water in it for coffee the next morning," he recalled in a 1997 deposition. "The evidence indicated that that pot boiled dry, the aluminum pot melted, reached a point of melting, and aluminum explodes, as I remember . . . it spatters."
In April 1997, Lori Romaneck's attorneys asked Moore if Bivin had blessed that conclusion.
"We all agreed on what happened," Moore said. "We all agreed that we didn't have the physical evidence and the evidence to do what we wanted to do."
What they wanted to do was to arrest Gene Keidel. That wouldn't happen for another 27 years. But that arrest would be for the murder of his wife, not for the murder of his kids.
The Day After
The crime of arson is very difficult to prove: Evidence of the crime literally may go up in flames; and, short of a confession, an eyewitness or a clear motive, investigators often are hard-pressed to nail the bad guy.
Phoenix Fire Department statistics for 1997 bear that out. Of 754 fires investigated last year, a little more than a third were determined to be arson. Of those, police made 40 arrests. (It isn't certain how many convictions have ensued.)
Naturally, the science of arson investigation has evolved since 1967. But what renowned fire expert John Kennedy--not JFK--wrote in 1962 holds true today:
". . . Fire investigators must be doubly careful not to be deceived by the fire death that may have been deliberately and purposely staged to make it appear accidental. . . . [One] method is by setting fire to the building with the knowledge that the victim is sleeping inside and is not able to escape."
John Kennedy, by the way, is the father of Patrick Kennedy, the City of Phoenix's hired gun in the Romaneck litigation. His book lists the dos and don'ts of arson investigation.
Using Fire and Arson Investigation as a guide, a study of the Keidel fire reveals that investigators should have:
* Interviewed the firefighters who had battled the blaze and rescued the girls. They didn't.
* Reviewed reports completed by the firefighters and studied photos taken at the fire by technicians. They didn't.
* Interviewed the surviving children when possible. They didn't.
* Taken photos of the undisturbed potential crime scene. They didn't.
* Examined the burn patterns on the survivors and the deceased girls. They didn't.
* Taken appropriate floor samples (not ashes, as they did) at and near the suspected points of origin, and from areas not suspected of being a location of arson. They didn't.
* Formally interrogated the main suspect, Gene Keidel. They didn't.
* Taken several days to complete the investigation and assign a cause. They didn't.
The failure to do any of these things, Romaneck's attorneys argued in the civil case, constituted gross negligence.
Moore said last year that his orders from his supervisor before he had gone to Citrus Way on the morning of January 11, 1967, were direct: "I was to go out and collect the evidence, and if the evidence warranted, they wanted him [Gene Keidel] in jail by 5, by the time I went home."
But this was not a situation in which a rush to judgment was appropriate. For starters, there was the issue of the DiAnne Keidel missing-persons case.
Phoenix wasn't such a big city in 1967, and the disappearance of a mother of four was curious enough. That a fatal fire had occurred at the missing woman's address four months later--and that her estranged husband's activities in both events was suspect--should have made police detectives froth.
But there's no indication that arson detective Moore ever spoke with missing-persons detectives Sem or Groom about the status of the DiAnne Keidel case. Instead, Moore and Bivin looked inside the burned home for a short time, then looked at some of the charred belongings firefighters had toted outside.
Gene Keidel again tagged along as investigators went about their business. At one point, Keidel pointed out that his stove's rear burner was in the "on" position. That, Moore said later, led him to conclude that the fire accidentally had started there.
In 1994, however, Bivin--with far more experience in arson investigation than Moore--said he'd never believed the fire was accidental. He said the extent of the damage to the kitchen struck him (and others) as exceptional.
Just as telling, Bivin recalled, were unusual burn patterns in a corner of the family room--near the location where Lori later said she'd been burned and forced with her siblings to retreat:
"Everything was burned in that [family room] area more than it should have been. . . . Usually in these kitchen fires, there's so many openings above the kitchen that it usually goes up and then hits the windows, and you do not get the smoke demarcation line so low in the back rooms."
Bivin said that led him to suspect a second origin of the fire, which meant it was arson. But there's no evidence that Bivin--the expert--ever suggested to Moore that a classification of "suspicious" or "undetermined" would be appropriate.
The designation of "suspicious" could have turned the Keidel home into a crime scene. Now, perhaps, missing-persons detectives could have gotten permission to dig in the backyard for DiAnne Keidel's body.
On the other hand, think of the fallout if authorities had excavated without finding DiAnne's remains in 1967. (It took Phoenix police 16 months to secure a search warrant, even after Lori Romaneck directed them in 1993 to her mother's grave.)
Police in both eras erred on the side of caution.
The Case Vanishes
Detective Bill Moore insists his "accidental" determination shouldn't have automatically spelled the end of the fire investigation. But it did.
There's no evidence that fire or police officials continued to investigate the blaze after a Justice of the Peace (and coroner) ruled January 13--three days after the fire--that the girls' deaths resulted from "carbon monoxide poisoning caused by accidental fire in the home."
That day, Susie and Kelly Keidel were buried in unmarked graves at a cemetery on West Van Buren Street.
At the hospital, little Lori was struggling to survive. She almost died twice in the first few days, and doctors weren't sure of her chances.
Hospital records show Keidel spent little time at his daughter's bedside during the critical first days. The records also document what Lori was saying to herself and to nurses at the time.
On January 20, the day before Lori's sixth birthday, a nurse's handwritten note says, "Patient says, 'Kelly and I slept together last night.' Also states, 'Daddy, I hear you. Hear my daddy.' No visitors present at time. Patient continues to speak to people not present in room."
On January 29: "Patient sleeping, but appears quite restless. Patient crying out for her mother."
Gene Keidel collected his insurance money from the fire, then rebuilt his home mostly by himself. He presented himself to friends and neighbors as a sympathetic figure.
First, his wife's disappearance had saddled him with the responsibility for raising four young children. Then, he lost two daughters and almost a third.
Many in the neighborhood didn't buy it. ". . . I felt sure that he had killed [DiAnne] . . . just the way she come up missing," George Jones told investigators in 1994. "And to leave four kids [in the house] like that doesn't make sense."
Stories about Lori's slow recovery from burns dotted the papers in Arizona and in Gene Keidel's native Illinois.
"New Burn Treatment Saves Life of Lori Ann Keidel," one headline read.
"On April 4 , 85 days after the fire," the story said, "little Lori left Maryvale Hospital with her father, Gene Keidel, and her 9-year-old brother, Greg, who came to take her home. . . .
"Today, Lori is back in kindergarten. . . . Doctors say Lori will have very little scarring. She wears a wig to cover her scalp, where she once had long hair. Doctors had to shave her head, but the hair is growing back. The future looks bright."
The Phoenix Gazette ran a photo of Lori's triumphant release. It's a haunting shot, in light of what's now known about Gene Keidel. Lori is wearing a pretty dress and a matronly wig. She looks very small next to her nattily attired father, who is holding her hand and smiling down at her.
The caption under the photo read, "Lori Goes Home."
She did, to a dozen years of well-documented physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and others.
When Lori was about 8, Keidel's second wife, Chloe, said in a November 1997 deposition, he attacked Lori after she came home late: "I ended up having to stop him because he got very, very excited about beating her, just pent-up anger."
Lori's brother once saw Gene take a wooden oar to his scarred sister. "It was a whipping," Greg Keidel recalled. "No, it was a beating."
Greg himself later participated in abuses of the little girl. He and several friends abused Lori sexually, starting when she was about 11. (Greg Keidel admitted this in a December 1997 deposition.) A good friend of Keidel's impregnated Lori when she was 15, and she had an abortion. ("I'd rather burn up 10 times than do that again," she says of the abortion.)
Lori did trust a few people--her mother's family in Illinois, for example. But her fear of her father overwhelmed her common sense.
"He'd tell me I was a tramp like my mother and going to grow up to be a whore like my mother," she says. "I had complete fear of my father that went to the marrow of my soul. He's a nasty man, an evil man. I think he wanted to destroy me or destroy me emotionally, so I'd be incapable of telling the truth at a later date."
Lori says she took solace knowing her mother's body was nearby, entombed under the concrete.
"I'd sit out in my backyard with my mom," she says. "Having her there was a comfort. If I heard my father coming, I'd just jump in the pool."
(Several times after her father sold the Citrus Way home in 1980, Lori says she'd stop and ask tenants--it became a rental--if she could spend a few minutes in the backyard: "I'd tell them I wanted to relive my childhood years for a moment. I'd sit back there, and I'd promise mom that I'd come forward when I was brave enough. I knew the secret, and I was the only living person who did.")
In April 1969, police detective Charles Rockyvich revisited the missing-persons case of DiAnne Keidel. He spoke to the nurse at the Barcelona School, which Lori and Greg attended. The nurse told them the children never mentioned their mother.
"She said it seems to her that the children feel nothing concerning the loss of their mother," Rockyvich's report said. "They have discounted it as not even occurring."
On April 10, 1969, Rockyvich spoke with Gene Keidel at the Citrus Way address. Keidel said he hadn't heard from DiAnne since her disappearance. They spoke of a false lead as to her whereabouts--someone thought they'd seen DiAnne on the television program Let's Make a Deal.
Keidel told the cop he was getting remarried the next day. He said they'd be back from their honeymoon in a few weeks if the detective had more questions.
Rockyvich also interviewed Keidel's ex-girlfriend, Kitty Andrews. She agreed to speak only if her new husband wouldn't learn of it.
"This was agreed to," his police report says, "but [Andrews] was obviously so uncomfortable during the interview that she was not pressed for answers and the interview was short. [She] would not elaborate, but her parting words were that she considered DiAnne's disappearance strange, and that there was something odd about the fire at the Keidel home."
It's impossible to fathom the anguishes that Lori Romaneck endured as she entered adulthood. These days, she's a good-humored, compassionate, competent woman who seems to revel in the unlikely fact that she's still alive and pretty well.
Hers is a good life, dominated by work, her faith in God, her friends, her animals and her love of the outdoors.
It's been a hard road.
Lori got married at the age of 22, but the union long was troubled. She maintained sporadic, uneasy contact with her father during her 20s, but she still had told no one about her mother's murder and burial place.
In mid-1981, Lori walked into the Phoenix police department, she says, determined to do just that. But a police report says she just asked if there was any news about her mother. There wasn't.
"I went in with the intention of telling the truth," she recalls, "but the detectives took me into a small room and their questions disturbed me--it was almost like an interrogation. So I just walked away."
Lori underwent therapy during the 1980s, mostly in an effort to salvage her failing marriage. Medical records show that, during some sessions, she revealed her father's violent streak, and how he and her brother had abused her.
That's as far as Lori could go at the time.
In June 1993, however, Lori Romaneck again contacted the Phoenix police department.
". . . I knew I'd rather be dead than keep the big secret anymore. So I made an appointment. 'Phoenix police? Hey, I need to speak to someone about a homicide. A very old homicide. Can I please come by?'"
Next week: The inside story of a police and fire investigation almost three decades after the fact, and the litigation that ensued.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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