An open records ruling from the attorney general’s office says Kentucky State Police must turn over photos from the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire even if they are in possession of a former employee.
Attorney General Jack Conway‘s office said KSP, which refused to give copies of photos of the deadly 1977 fire in northern Kentucky to a survivor of the blaze, must comply.
David Brock, 52 of Florence, who was an 18-year-old busboy at the supper club the night of the fire, made the request. Brock wants to see the photos because he says he believes they will show the fire was caused by arson.
The photos in the possession of a former KSP trooper are still subject to open records requests, according to Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver.
Bensenhaver, in a ruling Friday, rejected KSP’s claim that some photos from the fire were not subject to an open records request.
The attorney general’s rulings have the force of law and can be appealed in Franklin Circuit Court.
KSP spokesman Lt. David Jude said KSP is reviewing the ruling and could consider an appeal.
“The decision from the Attorney General’s Office will be discussed with the Commissioner and a decision of whether to appeal or abide by the ruling will be determined,” Jude wrote in an email to The State Journal.
A total of 165 died, and 200 were injured in the fire, which was attributed to several factors including crowding, faulty wiring and numerous safety code violations.
Brock said he thinks photos held by a former KSP trooper will show mobsters set the fire.
“A gentleman came in from out west a month prior and wanted to buy the place,” Brock told The State Journal today. “The owners refused. The man mentioned the fact maybe they could be partners but they said no. Then he said ‘maybe you won’t have it no more.’ They wanted a piece of what they had.”
The buyer represented organized crime interests, and after being rejected, the mobsters hired a technician to sabotage the air conditioning system, Brock said.
“There was definitely a timing device in the air cleaner,” he said. “The photos show it.”
A state panel in 2009 said any claims of arson are speculation and conjecture.
Brock has reviewed black and white photos from the KSP archives, but said they were of poor quality. He has been seeking color photos since 2007 and learned that former KSP forensic specialist Ronnie Freels had several hundred in his possession.
In January Brock filed an Open Records request with KSP seeking an opportunity to review the photos in Freels’ possession, but KSP denied the request. Freels had been given the photos after he retired in 2001, which is “common practice,” according to KSP’s response.
Freels did not reply to requests for comment.
Brock’s attorney, Jon Fleischaker, filed an appeal asking the Attorney General’s office to overrule the denial. A document is a public record by its nature and not its location, he said.
Bensenhaver agreed and said the photos were still public records because they were intended to serve as a “backup copy” if original documents were damaged or destroyed.
“A record need not reside in the agency for it to qualify as a public record,” Bensenhaver wrote.
She ordered KSP to secure the records from Freels and allow Brock to review them.
In addition, she said the policy of storing public records offsite with a retired employee could subvert the intent of public records laws. Bensenhaver said she referred the issue to the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives for further inquiry.
Fleischaker said he hopes the ruling could bring more openness to the KSP.
“Hope springs eternal, but if it does I would be very surprised and very surprised if it lasts very long,” he said.