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?

"One of the things the prosecutor said that was absolutely dumbfounding, his opening statement, was, "We were fighting the river and we were winning,'" Hammer says. "Bullshit. There had been something like 11 or 12 levee failures, almost one a day, upriver from them."

Then there were the actions of the West Quincy Levee District. Donald Bawmann, the district commissioner and a prosecution witness, had gone on TV three days before the levee broke to guarantee that it wouldn't break. And when it did, says Hammer, the district needed an explanation, a scapegoat.

Hammer says that when the levee was repaired, it was done so with large rock, called riprap. It's incredibly expensive, Hammer says, and repairs were made over about a quarter-mile stretch. "It's an admission -- they know that was a soft spot," he says.

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 Corps of Engineers, says Hammer, neither monitored the levee nor instructed volunteers the way they were supposed to. The decision to bulldoze the rear side of the levee, an act carried out by Hofmeister, was a last-ditch attempt to strengthen it.

"From an engineering perspective, it would almost guarantee that this levee would fail," Hammer says. "It was already wet and soggy -- it had been under water for 90 days. They had no other choice. The river was coming up too fast; they'd waited too long; the top of the levee was too soft to drive on it. They didn't have time or the logistics to sandbag it."

Hammer says the probability of levee failure under those conditions was so high that, whether or not Scott was out there and did what prosecutors say he did, the levee would have failed anyway.

Hammer was not the only expert to testify for the defense about the probability of the levee's failing on its own. Dr. Charles Morris, a civil engineer from the University of Missouri-Rolla, had a similar opinion. He, however, had no view on Scott's guilt or innocence. He didn't even know the final verdict when the RFT called him recently.

Morris testified in both trials that the West Quincy levee could have broken without being sabotaged. "The reason I testified is I thought the jury should know that no one had to do anything to cause the levee to fail," he says. "I don't know if Mr. Scott did anything or not. I had the feeling, and I still do, that the jury felt it failed, so someone had to do something to it.

"I think it was in a process of imminent failure. I wasn't making a decision of guilt or innocence."

Prosecutors tried to discredit both Hammer and Morris by saying they were academics and that what was more important was to listen to what the people responsible for the levee had to say, including Corps officials and levee-district officials. Nobody, however, pointed out that if they were to say the levee failed because of natural causes, they would be implicating themselves as having built a bad levee, Morris says.

On the other hand, says Morris, it's surprising that the levee lasted as long as it did. "I would compliment them and pat them on the back and say, "Man, you guys did a great job even though it failed.'"

Norman Haerr, chairman of the West Quincy Levee Drainage District, asserted that the levee was rock-solid. His testimony consisted of detailing the patrols and the amount of seepage going over the levee. The bulldozed area held the high water when the river was at 31.97 feet. When the water came rushing through, the level was 31.67 feet -- about 4 inches lower.

"We felt that we could have held it out without (Scott) being there," Haerr says. "It's sort of like a basketball game. You're behind by one point and you're going up for the easy layup, and the ref stops the game with about 10 seconds left. You can't prove that you're going to win, but we felt we could have."

Haerr says he felt there was maybe a 5 percent chance that the levee would break, but not in that particular spot. He maintains that there were three trouble spots they were worried about but that this was not one of them.

According to a 1998 Court TV report, the state's expert on levees, Bawmann, a civil engineer from the Corps, said that if the levee had failed as a result of natural causes, a big area of the levee would have collapsed. This was not the case.

Bawmann now says that the Corps still maintains that sabotage was the only way the levee could have broken. "Our products are solid," he says. "We like to build them with quality, and our performance, ever since we've been in this kind of construction, has been outstanding, so we know how they're supposed to perform. There's nothing unusual here."

However, Bawmann also testified that it would have been possible for a trickle of water to have destroyed the levee within a matter of five minutes. Under cross-examination, he admitted he could not absolutely rule out Mother Nature as the cause of the break.

The plot thickens. One Corps employee familiar with both the levee and Scott has a different opinion altogether. He prefers to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing his job. A self-proclaimed river rat, he's convinced the trial was a witch hunt -- people at the office were openly talking about pinning this on Scott.

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