ST. LOUIS (AP) — A man who admitted scheming with his ex-wife in setting a string of arson fires to bilk insurers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars was sentenced Monday to nearly six years in federal prison for his role in a 2001 blaze that killed their teenage son.
U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig’s sentence of five years and 10 months for Steven Kemper was in line with what prosecutors sought. She rejected the 56-year-old man’s requests for probation, given lung, knee and other health issues that have him reliant on a motorized wheelchair.
Kemper tearfully insisted, “The last 14 years of my life have been a living hell,” and blamed ex-wife Sandra Bryant for 15-year-old Zachariah Kemper’s death, saying he wanted the fire to take place while no one was home.
Authorities have said the teenager died in the family’s suburban St. Louis home after becoming trapped in the basement he shared with Bryant while her mother, Kemper and his lover lived upstairs. The adults were unharmed.
Kemper’s sister, Linda Fleming, pressed Fleissig for the maximum sentence, alleging in a statement read by her husband that Kemper’s form of mourning after the deadly blaze was “calmly arranging for an insurance payout,” then deceiving investigators.
Fleissig told Kemper she empathized with his loss but could not ignore his penchant for arson fires meant to cash in on insurance.
“This was the third fire. To suggest you are in a position to control what would happen once you set those wheels in motion is naive,” Fleissig said. “You may not have anticipated that your son would pay the ultimate cost.”
Kemper, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to a felony count of aiding and abetting the use of fire to commit mail fraud, was allowed to remain free on bond until the U.S. Bureau of Prisons orders him to report to a designated lockup.
Bryant also pleaded guilty and is to be sentenced next month.
Authorities have said Bryant set fire to a trash can in a utility room next to her son’s bedroom, using hairspray to fuel the flames. Bryant and Kemper knew their son was asleep in the next room, according to the indictment against them.
Bryant initially was charged in state court with an arson-related murder count but walked free after a judge declared a mistrial, barring Missouri prosecutors from going after her again.
During Monday’s hearing, prosecutor Thomas Rea characterized the couple as greedy, cash-strapped schemers who once tried to torch the Alton, Illinois, home of Bryant’s mother after siphoning $30,000 from her bank accounts. Betty Bryant, who also escaped a New Year’s Day 1997 blaze authorities say Kemper set in her St. Louis home as she slept, died in 2007.
Kemper and Bryant divorced in 2002.
Moments after imploring Fleissig for the harshest punishment for her brother, Fleming hugged him as he was wheeled from the courtroom.
“I’m so sick that I won’t make it out of prison,” a sobbing Kemper told her. “I will die there.”
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