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?

Legg, on the other hand, remains convinced of Scott's innocence. "I don't think he did it, I really don't," he says. "I really believe that if someone had gone out there and sabotaged that levee, they would have died in doing so. I told that to the jury, and I told that to the jury because I believe it, and I believe it to this day -- although when push comes to shove, I don't know what happened on that levee; I don't think anybody really does."

Fear and Loathing in Quincy

James Scott recalls a fairly ordinary life growing up. He was an average kid making average grades who liked to play soccer and watch football, a real sports nut. But when he was 13, he and brother Jeff burned down Webster Elementary School. In a town of 50,000 people, he says, it was impossible for him to live down that stigma.

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."

At 17, it was a garage. He did a five-year stretch in prison for that one.

He credits a lot of anger back then to the fires. He says he wasn't out to get anyone, nor did he intend to harm anyone. He says the actual act of making a fire and watching it spark and catch was the driving force behind his madness.

"Things I've done in general, you know, the stupid fires, the stealing, this and that -- I don't know, I never got everything I asked for when I was a kid, but Mom and Dad was always trying to be there," he says. "Dad blames himself for not being there all the time. I've told him, "Don't blame yourself. Kids are going to do what they want to. You can't change that.'"

And sometimes, you can't change what others think of you, either.

"If you ask me, they should have had the trial here locally," says Jack Freiburg, an insurance agent in Quincy. "Know what we would have done? We'd have hung him from the Bayview Bridge and let the birds get at him. The birds should get a crack at Jimmy Scott, too."

Bob Hofmeister, a farmer who testified against Scott, thinks Scott is a sick man who can do no right. Asked what sealed his decision as to Scott's guilt, Hofmeister says just knowing Scott over the years was enough knowledge.

"We knew he was the man; it was only a matter of proving it," he says. "I knew in my mind he'd have to brag about it in a bar, and so we convicted him on circumstantial evidence. He's a menace to society and too dangerous to be free."

While some think Scott's punishment is too harsh, Hofmeister figures it's not enough. "This individual is too dangerous to be in society," he says. And what would he suggest? "Maybe hang him from a tree and everybody go home for lunch," he says.

Fortunately for Scott, Judge Robert Clayton stayed within the law. And he lectured Scott at the sentencing. "I think you have a problem with unbridled aggressive behavior," he told Scott. "I'm not sure where that anger comes from, but I cannot and will not run the risk that you may or may not be able to curtail your aggressive impulse and anger. You are a threat to society." Six years later, Clayton says Scott "absolutely" deserves to be where he is.

Clayton was new on the bench at the time, and this case was a baptism by fire for him. He was in a precarious position; not only was this one of his first sentencings, it was the first sentencing in Missouri history for this law. What to do? Because Scott had been a troubled youth, Clayton threw the book at him.

"You are in touch with reality, but you are out of touch with empathy," Clayton told Scott. "So maybe the water will put the fire in you out."

Scott says he had done his time for his past crimes and that those crimes should therefore have had no bearing on this case. "There hasn't been no fires since. No thoughts of fires, either. When I see them now in certain places, my heart goes out to the people involved who lost," he says.

When the Levee Breaks

Dr. R. David Hammer has been a soil and atmospheric-sciences expert, working with river systems for more than 20 years and teaching for the last 14 years at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Hammer knows levees, having grown up near one. He testified for the defense in the second trial, proclaiming Scott's innocence on the grounds of science. Hammer says now he is even firmer on his stance -- that this case has left a bad taste in his mouth. He testified that six parameters increase the likelihood of levee failure under flood conditions. The levee at West Quincy met all six.

"They did several things that were just absolutely outrageous," he says. "The first one was, they didn't anticipate in advance that the crest that was coming out of the Raccoon River in Iowa was going to affect them."

The Raccoon River, which flows into the Mississippi, was moving faster than anticipated. Prolonged rainfall in southwestern Iowa in July filled up the surrounding lakes and reservoirs, causing all the rainwater to flow into the Raccoon. As that crest started to move down the Mississippi, it broke levees everywhere it went.

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