The Eternal Flame Part 2

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.

At times, this story touches on the surreal.
In the criminal case, for example, prosecutors told jurors that Lori Romaneck had kept her secret because she'd justifiably feared her father's violent reprisals. In Romaneck's civil suit, however, the City of Phoenix's attorneys argued she hadn't been nearly as harmed after the fire as she'd alleged.

Another dichotomy emerged after fire-department investigators concluded in 1994 that the 1967 fatal house blaze--which had been deemed accidental--had been an arson. But after Romaneck sued the city in December 1995, it hired an out-of-town expert--at the cost of about $50,000--to refute its fire department's own ace investigators.

Unexpected realities have revealed themselves in this case after an examination by New Times of more than 4,000 pages of documents, and in more than 20 interviews.

One important truth, unfortunately, will probably never emerge: whether Gene Keidel torched his home with his four children in bed--killing two of them and maiming Lori Romaneck.

Nine days after Lori Romaneck walked into the police department, detective Ed Reynolds' supervisor asked him to check out her story.

Reynolds in 1993 recently had been assigned to the agency's "cold case" squad. It had been created to reinvestigate hundreds of unsolved murders that had been dormant for up to four decades.

At the time, it was a most unglamorous assignment.
"In 1993," Reynolds said in a January deposition, "when I tell somebody I'm investigating a homicide that occurred 23 years ago, people didn't take it seriously. When I asked someone to look for records that are 20 years old, they'd laugh about it."

Reynolds and cold-case work fit well. He's a workhorse, and he doesn't quit when he hits dead ends. Sometimes, however, he tends to try to draw unlikely investigative links between subjects. Years ago, his peers slapped the nickname "Jigsaw" on him for that tendency.

Before first meeting with Romaneck on June 23, 1993, he studied hundreds of pages of paperwork generated in the DiAnne Keidel case and subsequent fatal house fire.

When they met, Romaneck provided new specifics and leads.
"I'm a cop," Reynolds recalled in a January deposition. "I'm skeptical. As I got to know her, I believed her. When I dug up the body, I knew she was right."

That wouldn't happen for 16 months.
In late July 1993, Romaneck met with many of the surviving firefighters who had risked their lives during the January 1967 inferno. Romaneck was striking in a pretty white dress, her thick, dark hair covering some of the facial scars left by the fire.

She told the men she'd resolved to meet them after watching her horse, Katie, foal. During the birth, Romaneck said, she'd flashed on the 1967 fire that had cost her sisters their lives.

"That night [of the fire]," Romaneck wrote in a July 26, 1993, thank-you note, "I learned of unconditional love, of men that laid it on the line for life, who believed in something and took that belief to the limit. . . . Nothing takes the horrifying memories of that night in 1967 away. But please think of me now as a happy, successful adult enjoying life."

(City of Phoenix attorneys tried to use that statement against Romaneck during her civil case, suggesting it showed her father hadn't hurt her as badly as she'd alleged.)

One attendee at the reunion was Ray Mullens, then still a Phoenix fire captain. As a young firefighter in 1967, he had come upon the barely alive Romaneck in the smoke-drenched home. She was lying beneath her 12-year-old sister Susie, who already was dead or dying.

Mullens is now retired, but his career was distinguished by many heroic deeds. It was marred, however, by many squabbles with superiors.

"He generally felt that [fire chief Alan] Brunacini was a crook," Ed Reynolds said of Mullens, and explained that there had been stories about a supposed attempt made on Mullens' life, ". . . a shot fired near his home. It had lodged in the cabinet of his storage shed. He felt Brunacini was behind that."

Romaneck and Mullens kept in touch after the reunion. She told him---apparently without specifics--about renewed official interest in her mother's disappearance. She also questioned him about the 1967 fire. He said he'd do what he could for her.

Ed Reynolds was working both the missing-persons and the fire cases by late summer 1993. That September, he asked the fire department to revisit the January 1967 fire.

Reynolds couldn't have made his request at a worse time. The fire department then was reeling from cutbacks that had cost the arson unit a third of its staff.

"We were up to our butt in alligators [and] here comes a guy with a 27-year-old arson," says deputy chief Joe Bushong, who headed the unit at the time. "What he wanted us to say was it was an arson case, wanted us to go back and investigate this. I just kind of said, 'You have to be shitting me.'

"My take on it at that time was he wanted us to change the cause of the fire . . . so he could get permission from a supervisor to dig up the swimming pool in search for the body, and he didn't like his chances of being allowed to do that."

Bushong asked fire captain Donald Koepp (who had been working at the department's fitness center) to speak informally with a few people about the fire.

Koepp spoke by phone to one of the 1967 firefighters--"He [told me] there was an awful lot of interior fire for a kitchen fire that supposedly started from food on the stove, or something of that nature." He also interviewed Ray Mullens and Lori Romaneck, and reported his results verbally to Bushong.

That ended his involvement.
Romaneck says she started phoning Bushong late in the summer of 1993 to check on the "investigation's" status.

"After that September," she recalls, "I couldn't get anyone from the fire department to return my calls for months. I was just this old pain in the butt to them. I was getting very down."

Lori Romaneck's ennui built as 1993 ended. Six months had passed since she'd approached police, and her mother's remains still were under the concrete on West Citrus Way.

"I'd go back there with Ed Reynolds when no one was home," she says, "and say, 'Look, this is where Mom hit the arcadia door during the fight with my father. Here's where she's buried. Please dig her up for me.'"

By now, Ed Reynolds says he was convinced that Lori Romaneck was for real. But nine more months would pass until Reynolds' bosses gave him the go-ahead to dig for DiAnne Keidel's body.

If Ray Mullens' recollections are accurate, Reynolds may have been lucky he got permission to dig at all.

"Ed said in April '94 that his people had told him not to spend another minute or dollar on them--exact language," Mullens says. "They won't admit that because now they're geniuses for solving all these old cases. Then was different."

With the DiAnne Keidel case at a standstill in mid-1994, the fatal fire took on increased significance to Ed Reynolds.

Reynolds, Mullens and Romaneck were pretty much going it alone, and each was feeling the burden of their singular pursuits:

Romaneck simply wanted some justice for her late loved ones.
Mullens wanted to help Romaneck, and he longed for the fire department to be held accountable for any and all alleged wrongdoing.

Reynolds needed an arrest and, he hoped, a conviction, to put his cold-case squad on the map.

The fire department still had no intention of accommodating his investigative needs. So, in April 1994, the detective turned to Mullens for help. On April 25, 1994, according to an affidavit filed by Reynolds in Romaneck's civil suit:

"I interviewed Captain Ray Mullens of the Phoenix Fire Department and received considerable information indicating that the January 9, 1967, fire was arson. During this interview with Captain Mullens, I became convinced that the 1967 fire had been intentionally set based primarily on Mullens' description of the intensity of the burn patterns throughout the flooring of the residence as well as the feet and leg burns on the victims.

Mullens had given Reynolds a song and dance, he practically admitted in a deposition earlier this year:

"Everything I had told Detective Reynolds was conjectural in [that] . . . I didn't do an in-depth investigation. . . . I worked from scanty information to try to help him determine what the truth might be, so that I could tell him what I thought. He was unable to find out anything from the fire department. . . . I have a vivid imagination, but I couldn't imagine mitigating circumstances that would be found in that fire that would cause it not to be arson. And if it were arson, then the children were murdered."

Both Reynolds and Mullens were gunning for Gene Keidel. But Mullens says the detective's report about the interview was grossly inaccurate.

For instance, Reynolds wrote that Mullens had told him he "had Lori in her arms, protecting her from the fire and flame." (Mullens: "There were no flames to protect her from, and at the time she was in my hands, the room was relatively clear of smoke and cool. . . .")

Another Reynolds notation: "Ray Mullens discussed this fire with several well-known and renowned experts who primarily agree with him that the fire was not consistent with a normal kitchen fire, but is more consistent with an accelerated fire." ("Did you tell Ed Reynolds that?" a lawyer would ask Mullens. "Absolutely not," the captain replied.)

Reynolds showed Mullens photos of the dead Keidel girls taken in January 1968 at the county morgue. His report says the pictures revealed to Mullens "that the fire was closer to [Susie's] legs than head, which is consistent with a floor-up fire. If the fire was from the kitchen only, the flames would have been above them and their heads and hair would be burnt. Ray also noted that the most extensive burns were below the children's knees."

A "floor-up" fire with "low burn patterns" may mean someone committed arson with an accelerant. But reasonable minds in the fire industry differ on its significance.

(From a recent National Fire Protection Association manual: "Low burn patterns were always considered a sure sign that flammable liquid was used. Now the only thing a low burn pattern means is that an intense fire was burning in that area. Could it be a liquid accelerant? Yes. However, it could be a host of other things that have nothing to do with flammable liquids.")

By mid-1994, Lori Romaneck had grown closer to Mullens--the firefighter who had rescued her so many years earlier.

"I was terrified that my father would find out I'd told and he'd kill me," Romaneck says. "I was alone and I needed to feel safe. I desperately wanted someone to be on my side. Ray was big and strong and safe. The guy had found me in a house when I was a little girl, picked me up when I was dead, and carried me to safety, for Pete's sakes. He fit the bill at that moment."

Mullens says he and Romaneck "seriously discussed marriage" after the relationship blossomed. Romaneck, however, says that "when the smoke cleared [in early 1995], I realized that I need a mate and a husband, not a father figure. I'm talking the emotional thing here, not the age thing."

Late in the summer of 1994, Romaneck says, she took steps to buy the Citrus Way home from its latest owner. "It was way past time to retrieve Mother," she says. "I told Mullens I'd take him up on his offer."

That offer, which Mullens confirms, was to smash through the concrete himself, recover DiAnne Keidel's remains, then tell the world. Romaneck says she told Detective Reynolds of her intentions:

"Ed was shocked. 'Oh, really? You're gonna do what?' I told him to tell his sergeant that I was going public after I did it. And then, duck!"

Reynolds, she says, responded in a jiffy.
"He said, very kindly, 'Can you please wait just a little bit longer?'" Romaneck recalls. "I said I would. They went for it real soon after that, and they found Mother."

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's press conference after Gene Keidel's September 1994 arrest on murder charges went beyond platitudes.

Romley said an unidentified fire official (his identity remains a mystery) had commented that the investigation into the fatal 1967 house fire had ended within a day, despite evidence that an accelerant fueled the blaze.

"The [fire] investigation wasn't thorough," Romley said. "The public has a right to demand a complete and thorough job."

That made the evening news, as the public wondered if the man accused of murdering his first wife also had burned up his own children.

The fire department couldn't ignore the old case anymore. Within days, it assigned veteran arson investigator Ray Wilson to reexamine the house fire. Wilson got permission to work the 1967 case with another experienced investigator, Captain Art Nunez.

Deputy chief Joe Bushong says candidly that Wilson's appointment was both a blessing and a curse:

"Ray is very deliberate in everything, and that's why I picked him for this. But you have to understand--Ray's reports are typically three or four times longer than anyone else's, and take that much longer to finish." (Bushong was less diplomatic about Wilson in his deposition: "He is good in some areas, but more trouble than he's worth in others. . . . He tends to be, in some cases, too thorough.")

The investigators' assignment was daunting: to determine if the official cause of the 1967 fire--"accidental"--held up, and if not, why not. They had to complete this task without the benefit of physical evidence, which had been discarded decades earlier.

Instead, Wilson and Nunez were forced to rely on black-and-white photographs taken after the fire, interviews of surviving firefighters and onlookers, and old police and fire reports.

Lori Romaneck says she was encouraged that the fire department seemed at last to be treating her sisters' deaths seriously. On October 4, 1994, Romaneck buried her mother at Greenwood Memory Lawn Mortuary, on West Van Buren Street.

That day, officials moved the caskets holding her sisters' remains from unmarked graves next to their mother in a different part of the cemetery.

Three days later, Wilson and Nunez interviewed retired fire captain Bob Bivin. Bivin said he long suspected that the fire had ignited in more than one place, including possibly the family room where Romaneck said she'd been burned.

He told them he'd disagreed with arson detective Bill Moore's rapid-fire conclusion in 1968 that the fire was an accident, and he disagreed with it now. (Bivin's memory was imperfect: He swore he'd seen the Keidel children inside the home after the fire, which he hadn't.)

Bivin recalled that, shortly after the fire, he and Moore had speculated that DiAnne Keidel was buried in the backyard: "He [Moore] says we can't get any approval at all. . . . Our [fire] department wouldn't touch it, and the police department did not get the swimming pool dug up. . . . We had a very deep suspicion, both of us, that her body was under there."

The investigators never asked Bivin--who died last November--if he'd written a report to confirm his recollections. Phoenix fire chief Alan Brunacini says Bivin should have filed something.

"It would surprise me if he didn't do a report," Brunacini said in deposition last December. "In fact, honestly, I wouldn't believe that. I think that there might be a difference between him not doing a report and us not being able to find a report."

The missing Bivin report--if there ever was such a report--raises one of the more nagging questions in the case.

Chief Brunacini said in his deposition, "In 1967, our [fire] people did cause and origin [of a fire] . . . then turned it over to the police department."

In other words, Bivin--the fire department's arson investigator at the Keidel fire--normally would have instructed detective Bill Moore on the cause of the Keidel fire, if apparent.

But no paperwork from 1967, nor the recollections of any other official who went to Citrus Way, indicates that Bivin had misgivings in 1967 about the "accidental" tag that Moore put on the fire.

"The fire investigator [Bivin] would tell you his conclusion, right?" an attorney asked Moore in a 1997 deposition.

"His conclusion, that's correct," the retired detective replied.
If Bivin was being straight in 1994, then why had Moore on January 10, 1967--the day after the fire started--officially called it "accidental"? And why, if Bivin and Moore (and other officials) had been so suspicious of Gene Keidel in 1966-67, did the potential cases against him just go away?

Romaneck's attorneys would allege that Moore came to his "accidental" conclusion without doing essential tasks:

An analysis of the level and intensity of the fire damage, the location of the victims' burn injuries, interviewing the firefighters and surviving children, and considering the unexplained floor-level burning in the kitchen dining area.

Whether that constituted an acceptable "standard of care" in 1967 was something for lawyers and expert witnesses to mull in Lori Romaneck's civil case.

On November 4, 1994, Wilson and Nunez sent a letter to the County Attorney's Office that revealed preliminary findings:

"The Phoenix Fire Department is preparing to reclassify the probable cause of this fire to incendiary. . . . The exact means by which this fire was ignited remains under investigation. However, fire damage which can be observed in existing photos is consistent with floor-level burning of a liquid accelerant fuel in both the kitchen and the adjacent family/dining room to the west. . . ."

The investigators continued, "Recent analysis of the burn locations on the bodies of the three girls revealed the injuries were likely caused by floor-level flames and that they were burned as they exited the south end of the bedroom hallway into the family room/dining room, which was engulfed in flames west of the kitchen.

"Lori Romaneck is burned only on anterior surfaces of her face, neck, left chest, both thighs and tops of both feet. She recalls suffering from these burns while attempting to crawl to the front door. Such a position exposed the front of her body to the floor and her bare back to the ceiling. However, she has no burn scars on her back, as would be expected to be caused by normal ceiling-level fire extension and heat radiating downward.

". . . Fire damage which can be observed in existing photos is consistent with floor-level burning of a liquid accelerant fuel in both the kitchen and the adjacent family/dining room to the east. The time frame of Gene Keidel stating he had left the house about ten minutes prior to discovery of this fire is not consistent with the typical ignition of an unattended stove fire."

The investigators didn't comment on whether prosecutors should consider new charges against Gene Keidel. By any measure, however, a conviction in Gene Keidel's then-pending trial for the murder of his wife seemed far more likely than in a companion case of arson/murder/attempted murder:

Though Keidel had had motive (two of his children had seen him beating DiAnne) and opportunity (he had time to set the fires, then rush to the Laundromat), "reasonable doubt" is a rigorous standard.

The original case investigators had concluded--right or wrong--that the fire had been an accident. That's a solid chunk of reasonable doubt right there.

And imagine if the same expert, Patrick Kennedy, hired by the City of Phoenix in the Romaneck civil case, had testified as he did at his deposition:

"There is no suspect until there is a crime. Suspect of what? A kitchen fire? . . . There couldn't have been a conviction in 1967 based on the facts. Couldn't have been. Shouldn't have been."

Ed Reynolds kept plugging away at the arson case. On December 12, 1994, he convinced county medical examiner Philip Keen to amend the death certificates of Susie and Kelly Keidel. The new certificates said the girls had been murdered, as a result of a house fire caused by arson.

Lori Romaneck says she wouldn't know that until May 1995. She also didn't know about the investigators' November 1994 letter to the county attorney. Romaneck did learn that the fire department supposedly was putting the finishing touches on its report.

"They told me I'd have to wait until the report was final," she says. "So, that December [1994], I called to see how things were going. I was told it was being typed."

Another odd turn was about to happen. Month after month passed and, Romaneck says, fire officials kept telling her the report was almost ready.

In April 1995--the same month Gene Keidel was convicted of first-degree murder--Romaneck spoke with Rick Romley's secretary.

"I called . . . to inquire whether his office had received a final report," she said in a sworn affidavit, "or knew what was going on in regard to the investigation. . . . [The secretary] told me that Alan Brunacini, the fire chief, would not turn the file over to Mr. Romley's office yet."

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."

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.

Late this spring, Romaneck's attorneys had put two case settlement offers on the table with the City of Phoenix:

One was a $1.5 million cash payment. Under that arrangement, National Union would kick in its $500,000 (plus pay the fees submitted by Jones, Skelton and Hochuli--more than $140,000, according to the city's risk-management office).

The other $1 million would have to come from Transport, the next carrier in line.

In the other, the city would pay Romaneck $500,000 through its primary insurance carrier--which already had indicated it backed the deal--and stipulate to a $5.5 million judgment--but not collectible only from the city's insurance companies.

Under the latter arrangement, it would be up to Romaneck's attorneys to collect the money from the excess carriers--no small task, as Lori Romaneck has learned. Arizona courts allow such deals if they're not deemed unreasonable, collusive or done in bad faith.

By the end of May, it seemed in the best interests of Romaneck and the City of Phoenix to settle before trial. That's because a court hearing scheduled for the first week of June was a potential land mine for both sides.

For the first time, the city's attorneys were going to argue that the Romaneck case was barred because Arizona law allows most government employees "qualified immunity" from such lawsuits.

"Unless a public employee acting within the scope of his employment intended to cause injury or was grossly negligent, neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for . . . the failure to make an arrest or the failure to retain an arrested person in custody."

"Wanton negligence is highly potent . . ." according to an Arizona case on the issue. "It is flagrant and evinces a lawless and destructive spirit."

The city's attorneys argued in court papers that what happened in 1966-67 was anything but wanton: "Reasonable police/fire officials could disagree on whether sufficient evidence existed in 1967 to charge Keidel with the arson of his home and the homicide of his two children."

Romaneck's attorneys first responded that the immunity statute was unconstitutional. That was a long shot, in that lower-court judges usually are loath to create new case law based solely on constitutional issues.

Their more persuasive argument was substantive, framed by their definition of gross negligence:

"[Detective] Moore terminated the [fire] investigation in 24 hours because they had not yet positively disproved the arsonist's proffered explanation of how the fire could have started innocently--even though that explanation violates fundamental scientific knowledge, and even though [fire captain] Bivin has stated that he told Moore to pursue prosecution!"

They added, ". . . The city already believed Gene Keidel killed his wife and buried her in the backyard. . . . All they had to do was ask Lori. DiAnne Keidel's body would have been recovered and the murder conviction which occurred in 1995 would have occurred in 1967."

If Judge Cates bought the city's argument, the lawsuit would have been history. But if he didn't, and it proceeded to trial, the city's financial exposure--especially in light of the astounding Mallet verdict--may have been mammoth.

What transpired during this spring's settlement negotiations will be sorted out in the latest lawsuit in the Romaneck case--this one filed June 29 by Transport Insurance against Romaneck and the City of Phoenix.

Says Shane Swindle, an attorney for Transport, "This is a very unique case from a legal perspective, and a unique set of facts. Nothing out there really answers the question if the city and the plaintiff [Romaneck] can do the kind of deal they did in this case, and bind the excess carrier [Transport]."

Counters the City of Phoenix's Phil Haggerty: "We told Transport about a possible settlement, and not at the last minute. That's all you have to do. You've got insurance on your automobile, you don't have to investigate the accident, do legal research, then turn to your carrier and say, 'Gee, I think you're liable.' They are complaining that they didn't get proper notice to make a decision about the direction they wanted to go. We say they did."

The last chapter in Lori Romaneck's legal saga has yet to be written, and she seems fine with that.

"I didn't have a clue what I was getting into when I walked into that police station, just that it was a big deal," she says. "It never came into my mind that it would come to all this. I just wanted to take care of my mom."

She continues to spend her days cleaning homes--she owns a small service--feeding her horses, and meeting when she can with other burn and trauma victims.

Romaneck says she sleeps with a handgun and a fire extinguisher by her bed.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address:


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