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?

"I think they found their witch," he says. "Mr. Scott is a local. Mr. Scott has had problems his whole life. He is not an upstanding citizen, as most people like to view it, and Mr. Scott was there. Is Mr. Scott capable of doing that sort of thing? Very definitely. Has he created these little disasters before? Yes, he has. Is he a nice person? Definitely not. My personal problem with the whole thing is that our system is supposed to presume innocence until guilt is proven. In my opinion, that never was done."

The Corps employee says levees do not just suddenly blow out. Failures are normally caused by overtopping; the water carries away sand and cuts the levee down. "Did they have proof that he caused this overtopping? Not in my mind," he says. "The problem I have with it is not the fact that they may have imprisoned an innocent man, because, to tell you the truth, people might be better off with Jimmy Scott in jail anyway. At the same time, it's not a very far jump from convicting Mr. Scott based on the fact that somebody dislikes him or he may have done something in the past from maybe convicting you, for instance, for something you may have done. They don't really have proof, but they're going to go through with it.

"Suffice to say, within the first 15 minutes that his broadcast aired, he was considered guilty. They knew it, and there was no way they were going to walk away without it. They wanted somebody's head."

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."

Documents from the Corps of Engineers show that six other levee systems upriver from West Quincy were overtopped in the week preceding this one's failure. Interestingly, the Corps classified the Fabius River Drainage District (a.k.a. West Quincy) as having been overtopped and not sabotaged as of August 1993, two months before Scott was arrested and charged.

According to the Corps document, "On July 1 (1993), drainage districts and towns started raising their main stem sand levees by using bulldozers and pushing sand from the landside slopes.... In addition, during this period underseepage and through seepage became major problems. Many boils were located, and the ones that were moving material were ringed with sandbags. Of particular concern was the through seepage in the area where the sand levees were pushed up and the flood waters were over the elevation of the clay cores of the main stem levee." The Corps recognized problems with the Quincy area before the flood; they singled out the bulldozed area.

The Aftermath

James Scott is staring out a prison-office window. Although the window is opaque with dirt, and notwithstanding the fact that it offers a bleak view of a prison wall and a chain-link fence, Scott's stare is unyielding. Dusk is falling, and Scott is trying to catch a glimpse of the sunset. These windows are facing southwest, so he can just make out the colors meshing on the horizon, a lighting scheme of oranges and yellows not found inside prison cells. James smiles while answering a barrage of questions. He's trying to tune out the fluorescent lights that flicker and drone above.

"There's the truth, but people don't want that in this case," Scott says. "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.

"I wake up in a, it's probably 7-by-11-foot room with bars. Every day. Same routine, every day. I work six days a week with no freedom. I have freedom when I go to my cell, because that's my time by myself. That's my time with God. But I'm ready to go home. I don't know where I would go, because my home and my family are in Quincy. But I can't go back there. This case has hurt me that way."

But Scott remains confident -- perhaps delusional -- that even though his case won't smell a parole hearing for another 11 years, he'll be released.

"One day, people are going to say to themselves, "Come on, we've got Jimmy locked up for this? What's the real story?'" But he's on his ninth life. Scott filed an appeal in November, his last chance at freedom before the authorities throw away the proverbial key.

The guard notifies Scott that he must go back. It's time for the first of two evening counts. James is led up a long prison staircase, and as the guard nudges him along, he turns his head, raises his voice and yells, "Find Joe Flachs and talk to him."

When the RFT tracked down Flachs, he refused to comment unless he was paid.

There is no dramatic exit for Scott, no walking off into the sunset. He retreats to a 7-by-11-foot cell, and that's that. Just another night of the rest of his life to ponder why that levee broke and whether his actions were the cause of 14,000 acres of damage.

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