DAMMED TO ETERNITY

James Scott was sentenced to life in prison for causing a destructive levee break during the Flood of '93. But was he simply an easy scapegoat for a town raging at its devastation?

As Scott tells the tale, he was sandbagging the levee on July 16. For the four previous days, he says, he had been down at the levee along with scores of other volunteers. He was initially persuaded to sandbag by his friend's mother, Janet Maglioshetti. "She told us to go and help out, and that's what we did," Scott says.

At one point, he and ex-wife Suzie went to sandbag it together, but the efforts had shut down for the night." We got there and they told us that they was through for the night, so we went to the Castle (Villa Kathrine Castle on Front Street, a local after-dark hangout) and just rode around and talked," he says. This was July 15. Afterward, Scott says, he went to half-brother Dan Leake's house and partied like a rock star. "We were drinkers," he says with a hint of regret in his voice. "There were a lot of parties around that time. A lot of drinking."

The next day, the day the levee broke, James and Suzie woke up at daybreak. She went on her way to work at 18 Wheeler, a truck stop in Taylor, Mo., and Scott went to help out with the sandbagging. "I told her before we left that I wanted to see her for lunch. I was going to eat lunch with her," Scott recalls.

James Scott
Jennifer Silverberg
James Scott
James Scott: "There's the truth, but people don’t want that in this case. They haven't got the whole story. My side of the story hasn't changed, and it's not going to change. Theirs has. I wish the people could believe in me."
James Scott: "There's the truth, but people don’t want that in this case. They haven't got the whole story. My side of the story hasn't changed, and it's not going to change. Theirs has. I wish the people could believe in me."

The couple had plans that night to hang out together, either at a party or down by the river. Scott says he worked on the levee throughout the morning with other volunteers. The Army Corps of Engineers gave the volunteers a crash course on levee maintenance, telling them how to spot boils and other trouble spots. A Corps worker, says Scott, told him they needed some guys to ride in boats along the river side of the levee and duct-tape holes in the plastic tarp that had been thrown over the sandbags. But they couldn't get the motor running on this particular boat, Scott says, so he and a couple of other volunteers were given waders; they walked north along the levee, toward the Quincy Memorial Bridge.

Scott says he and a man named either Rudy or Bob -- he can't recall -- were patrolling the levee, and they ran into a man named Duke Kelly from the National Guard. Scott told Kelly he had noticed water seeping from underneath the plastic tarp.

"'Course (the prosecutors) said I made up Duke Kelly and this guy Rudy or Bob," Scott says.

But both men did surface, sort of. Kelly now works for Pepsi-Cola in St. Louis and testified in Scott's trial that Scott told him about a problem he and Rudy/Bob had seen. Kelly said he walked with the two men a short distance on the north side of the levee, and he told Scott his concern was with his men on the south side of the Bayview Bridge. Kelly said if he decided this was a major problem, he'd contact someone.

Rudy/Bob, although never physically located, exists in a picture a passerby took, says Scott. The picture is in Scott's possession. He says the fact that the man could not be found was used by the prosecution to inflame the jury and the picture put him on the spot.

That evening, the levee broke. Scott says he was getting ready to leave the site, but when he got to his car, he ran into two men who gave him the bad news. Scott started walking the levee and telling people the what he'd heard. As he was talking to a state employee, he says a local newscaster, Michelle McCormack of WGEM-TV in Quincy, grabbed him and asked him to comment on the levee's condition and his efforts to help save the community by sandbagging. A nervous Scott boasted about his heroics and about his recent discovery of trouble spots.

After this first encounter with the news, Scott says, he went with the Coast Guard to load boats in the floodwater. At some point during that time, he says, he lost his car keys. He was coming off the levee, and WGEM news grabbed him again, this time to do a live feed for the 10 p.m. broadcast.

Unbeknownst to Scott at the time, it would be this broadcast that eventually sealed his fate and put him in prison for life.

Long Arm of the Law

Sgt. Neal Baker was at home in Quincy, watching flood coverage on the 10 o'clock news, when he saw a familiar face.

Baker, a police officer in Quincy since 1980, had known James Scott for years. He had arrested Scott for arson, when he burned down a garage, and sent him to prison in 1988. And Baker was around when Scott and his brother, Jeff, burned down their elementary school in '82. To Baker, Scott was the kind of guy a cop keeps an eye on: a local bad boy.

"When I see Jim Scott standing on a levee, with it as hot as it was, professing, out of his love for mankind, to have worked on a levee, it just went against everything I knew about him," Baker says.

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