Longform

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin