Among the inmates is James Scott, a 30-year-old small-time repeat offender from Quincy, Ill., who has been serving a life sentence here since July 14, 1998, after his second trial ended with a guilty verdict. He is led by a heavily armed guard into a small office with a concrete floor and cinderblock walls. This is his first media interview since 1994, when he was first convicted. He didn't take the stand at either of his two trials and therefore has never publicly spoken about what landed him here.
His felonious crime was "causing a catastrophe." He became the first person in Missouri to be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced in the law's 20-year history. More specifically, he was convicted -- at both trials -- of intentionally causing the West Quincy levee break during the Flood of '93, resulting in damage to 14,000 acres of Missouri farmland and residential areas. He was given a life sentence, and although he is eligible to be heard by the parole board in July 2011, it is almost certain he will spend his life here.
He sits down in tattered prison clothes -- dark-gray threads smeared with dirt, probably the result of working at the prison panel factory -- and his new-looking black high-tops, clearly the only article of clothing he makes sure to keep clean. His hair is sandy blond and parted down the middle, giving him a tougher look than he had at his trials, when his hair was short on top and grown past the collar in the back. He sports a neatly trimmed goatee with hints of red in it and keeps his cheeks closely shaved. He speaks with a simple Midwestern drawl but is clearly not used to talking much. For the last six years, he has repeatedly asked himself two questions: How did he end up here, and will he ever see another sunset?
Scott speaks regretfully of how much sunsets used to mean to him. He talks of sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River in Quincy, looking west over the glistening water and watching the colors melt into the gentle ripples. He talks about better days when he and his now ex-wife, Susan, would go dancing at the local roadhouse and then head on down to the river to talk. Despite his checkered past, and despite the occasional snickers Scott heard behind his back -- the pointing fingers and the whispers about how he was the guy who burned down Webster Elementary School when he was 12 -- Scott wants nothing more than to return to the banks of that familiar river and to see his family once again. He also knows he can't.
He has agreed to talk now because, legally speaking, he is at the end of his rope. Lately he has been spending his time reading law books and filing appeals, but things don't look too good.
The life sentence came partly because Scott was judged to be a repeat offender. Webster Elementary wasn't the only thing Scott set on fire. There were other crimes and misdemeanors -- a lot of property damage but no injuries or deaths. Scott, an old-school fire-starter, is now ironically owing his life because of too much water.
Scott says, though, that he is sorry for his past crimes and has recognized his part because of his new devotion to God; he found Jesus in prison and notes that owning up to one's sins is a step toward redemption. "I'm sorry for the hurt and pain that people went through, but it's done," he says. "Let things lie. You can't change it. I can't change it. God knows I wish I could, but I can't."
However, though he is sorry for the fires, he will not apologize for the flood.
"As for what Judge (Robert) Clayton said, how I show no remorse, you know, I'm not sorry. I'm sorry for what the people during the Flood of 1993 lost, but sorry for something I didn't do? No."
July 16, 1993. Chaos. For weeks, residents living on and around the floodplain had sandbagged the West Quincy levee, originally designed to hold back 30 feet of water. Bulldozers were brought in to build the levee up, making it possible for it to sustain up to 32 feet of water. On Tuesday, July 13, the water level was at 31.9 feet.
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.
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.
Baker says the reporter wasn't asking probing questions; on the contrary, she was sympathizing with Scott's position, at one point putting her hand on his shoulder. Baker says Scott was having difficulty answering the reporter's questions.
"He can't name names; he can't tell you times; he can't describe the simplest routine that anybody that actually worked on that levee would have been able to do," Baker says. "So when I looked at that, I never said, "Aha, I can get Jim Scott again,' but my antennae were raised as I listen to him. He can't answer these simple questions, and if you watch it, he's looking around there at first, and the things he had to say and the way he said them, and the fact that he's over there to begin with, you scratch your head."
Moreover, says Baker, Scott looked far too clean to have worked on a levee all day.
Soon enough, Baker and the Quincy Police Department had joined a task force along with county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI. On Oct. 1, 1993, Baker and his younger brother Bruce, a detective at the time, went looking for Scott and found him at Burger King, where he had just punched out for the night from his janitorial job. They arrested him there for a recent burglary in Quincy. Baker says the tone during questioning was conversational; on three occasions, he and Scott shared a cigarette break outside.
"There were several things that Mr. Scott was suspected of, and we talked about all of them," Baker says. He adds that Scott thought he was being charged for the levee and not the burglary. "Jimmy Scott said, and I'll delete the expletive, "You guys want to talk to me about that levee.' When he brought it up, he didn't bring it up in such a way that seemed that he was eager to talk about it.... It was a compound word that started with mother, and he was grumbling."
The two talked about the burglary and four other crimes in which police considered Scott a suspect, the levee coming up last. Baker says Scott admitted to two of the crimes but denied the other two. As for the levee, though Scott did not admit that he sabotaged it, he told Baker that he saw a trouble spot and pulled four sandbags from one area and threw them on another. According to Baker, Scott also said that he didn't mean to make it worse. He was simply trying to help.
But after Scott was charged, some new evidence arose. A man named Joe Flachs, himself a troubled youth at the time who was under house arrest, told police a very interesting story. Flachs would later testify in Scott's first trial, in 1994, that Scott told him about a plan to break the levee in order to strand his wife in Missouri; Scott reportedly wanted to party in Illinois without her.
It was, in media parlance, a "sexy" story. A story about a man who caused a flood because he wanted to strand his wife on the other side. The Associated Press moved the story on its news wire, the New York Times wrote a piece, and CBS and ABC led their nightly newscasts with the story. CNN News and Court TV descended on sleepy Quincy. Court TV, in fact, broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of Scott's second trial (he was granted a retrial in July 1998 because prosecutors failed to notify the defense about two new witnesses whose testimony implicated Scott). They revisited the case again in January 1999 because producer Vivian Ducat was fascinated by it. "I thought it was a story that seemed to come out of a novel," Ducat says.
Yet in all the hoopla, nobody mentioned Scott's version. "My car was in the shop getting a new starter, and as soon as it was ready, on July 17, I went and picked Suzie up," Scott says. "I brought her home less than 24 hours after the levee failed. She was home with me in Illinois."
The wife-stranding motive was used by John Jackson, the prosecutor at Scott's first trial in 1994. According to Scott's attorney at the second trial, Marion County public defender Raymond Legg, that motive was never brought up by Tom Redington, the prosecutor at Scott's second trial.
"What (Scott) had said and what witnesses remember him saying, I think, is open to dispute," Legg says. "I was hoping the prosecution would bring up the statement about stranding his wife. I was prepared to refute that. The state chose, though, not to introduce those statements, probably because they knew I'd be able to turn it against them.
"I wanted to focus on a lack of evidence and their reliance upon a motive when motive is not an element of the offence," Legg says. "When people focus a case on something that is not an element of the offence, it's because they don't have anything else."
Apparently the prosecution had something because Scott was, once again, convicted of causing a catastrophe. The prosecutors in the two cases, Jackson and Redington, say they are certain about Scott's guilt and think that the punishment is appropriate, given Scott's previous run-ins with the law.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.