James Scott (criminal)

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James Robert Scott
Born (1969-11-20) November 20, 1969 (age 44)
Quincy, Illinois
Criminal charge
Causing a catastrophe
Criminal penalty
20 years to life
Criminal status
imprisoned in Jefferson City
Spouse(s) Suzie Scott (divorced)
Conviction(s) November 4, 1994 (overturned February 25, 1997; reinstated April 30, 1998)

James Robert Scott (born November 20, 1969) was convicted of causing a massive flood of the Mississippi River at West Quincy, Missouri as part of the Great Flood of 1993. He is currently serving a sentence of 20 years to life in a Missouri prison.

Early life[edit]

Scott grew up in Quincy, Illinois. By the time he had reached his 20s, he had already racked up an extensive criminal record and served time in six prisons.[1] While most of these arrests were for petty burglary,[2] they also included two arsons. In 1982, he burned down his elementary school, Webster Elementary School in Quincy. In 1988, he burned down a garage and set several other fires, netting him a sentence of seven years in prison.[1][3][4]

By 1993, Scott was out of prison on parole for the 1988 fire.[5] He worked at a Burger King in Quincy and spent most of his nights drinking heavily.[3] He lived in the nearby town of Fowler with his wife Suzie.

The flood[edit]

The Scotts, along with several other residents living in and around Quincy and Hannibal, spent much of mid-July reinforcing the West Quincy levee.[3] By July 16 the river had stopped rising and had actually dropped 1.5 feet (46 cm) below the levee. That night, however, the levee unexpectedly failed when the river burst through its main stem. The resulting flood inundated 14,000 acres (57 km2) on the Missouri side of the river.[5] In one of the more spectacular incidents, a barge was sucked into the levee and slammed into a gas station, causing a fire.[6]

The flood washed out all of the bridges in the area—the only links across the river for 200 miles (320 km). While no one was killed, many people on the Missouri side of the river had to drive 80 miles (130 km) to either St. Louis or Burlington, Iowa, fly or take a ferry to get across the river for several weeks after the waters receded. One major bridge, the Bayview Bridge, was out of service for 71 days.[7] Several businesses in West Quincy were also destroyed.

A reporter for WGEM-TV, the NBC affiliate in Quincy, collared Scott as he was walking the levee.[3] Scott said that he'd seen a weak spot on the levee and tried to put more sandbags along it. He then said he went for a drink, only to come back and discover the levee had let go.[5] He then helped the Coast Guard load boats into the floodwaters.[3]

Suspicions mount[edit]

Scott's account of the flood sounded suspicious to Neal Baker, a sergeant with the Quincy Police Department. Baker was familiar with Scott; he had arrested Scott for the 1982 and 1988 arsons while he was still a patrolman. For one thing, Baker noticed that Scott looked far too clean to have been working on a levee all day. He also had trouble recalling simple details that anyone who worked on the levee should have known.[3] Baker also noticed that Scott wasn't wearing a life jacket.[1]

Missouri authorities were also suspicious. The levee had failed at one of its strongest points, and that area had been inspected two hours earlier. They got even more suspicious when they found out about Scott's extensive criminal record, including the arsons. Adams County, Illinois sheriff's deputies questioned him a week after the flood, and he was unable to keep his story straight.[5]

On October 1, Quincy police arrested Scott on an unrelated burglary charge. During questioning, he admitted to pulling four sandbags from one portion of the levee and moving them to the trouble spot he'd claimed to have seen. He told police, "My town was in trouble. The folks in Quincy and in West Quincy were about to lose everything. That’s why I went down to that levee. I had no plans to hurt anything. They needed help, so I helped."[3] While he denied any intent to cause any harm, he said, "I didn't mean to cause a problem but I did... I'm up shit creek." He was released after an hour and a half.[5] However, he was convicted of the burglary in January 1994 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.[2]

Trial[edit]

Meanwhile, authorities on both sides of the river teamed up with federal authorities to investigate the case. Their investigation eventually led to Joe Flachs, an old friend of Scott's. Flachs told authorities that Scott had told him he had broken the levee so he could strand his wife, Suzie, on the Missouri side of the river. Suzie worked as a waitress at a truck stop in Taylor, Missouri.[3] As the story went, Scott wanted to be free to party, fish, and have an affair.[5] Investigators subsequently found other witnesses who said Scott boasted about breaking the levee at a party after the flood.[1] Based on this evidence, Scott was taken to Missouri for trial in November 1994.

Scott was tried under a 1979 Missouri law that made it a crime to intentionally cause a catastrophe.[3] The law, which is Section 569.070 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, defines a catastrophe as "death or serious physical injury to ten or more people or substantial damage to five or more buildings or inhabitable structures or substantial damage to a vital public facility which seriously impairs its usefulness or operation."[8] Due to heavy publicity, the trial took place in Kirksville, 68 miles (109 km) west of West Quincy.

Prosecutors and investigators believed that Scott either removed or cut the plastic sheets covering the levee, then burrowed through the sand until the water rushed in.[5] The defense rested largely on two soil-science experts who testified that there was strong evidence the levee failed due to natural causes. One of them, David Hammer of the University of Missouri, said that there had been "something like 11 or 12 levee failures" upriver from West Quincy. The other, Charles Morris of the University of Missouri-Rolla, said that a last-minute decision to bring in bulldozers to shore up the levee actually weakened its structural integrity.[3] However, they were no match for the numerous witnesses who claimed to hear Scott bragging about breaking the levee, as well as the inconsistencies in his story.

After a three-day trial, a jury took just over four hours to convict Scott of causing a catastrophe.[9] A month later, he was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison, to run consecutively with his 10-year burglary sentence in Illinois.[10] There was a good deal of relief in the area, though mixed with some revulsion for what Scott had done.[4]

Scott appealed, and on February 25, 1997 the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out the conviction due to prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors hadn't told the defense about two witnesses who reportedly heard Scott say he'd deliberately broken the levee. He was retried in 1998. This time, he was convicted after only three hours of deliberation on April 30. The original sentence was reinstated on July 6.[5]

Scott is currently serving his sentence in the Jefferson City Correctional Center.[11] He will not be eligible for parole until 2023. He maintains that he is innocent.[3][12]

Adam Pitluk, a former reporter for Time, wrote a book, Damned to Eternity (ISBN 0306815273), which argues Scott is innocent.

References[edit]