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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 08:51 am

Scapegoat

James Scott will never forget the Great Flood of ’93. He has no choice.

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James Scott: “There’s the truth, but people don’t want that in this case.”
PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
The blame game began as soon as New Orleans’ levees succumbed to Hurricane Katrina. First in the crosshairs: federal officials, who embarrassed themselves with their pitiful response to the unfolding tragedy. Soon after, city and state officials turned their ire on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which they accused of failing to maintain the system of levees that were supposed to protect the Crescent City. Hurricane Katrina was a major natural disaster with little precedent, but that hasn’t tempered political rhetoric and the desire to hold people accountable: The levees failed, so someone must be held responsible. It’s a mindset that echoes the reaction to a similar disaster that unfolded 800 miles upriver from New Orleans, 12 years earlier. This time, though, it’s unlikely that anybody will go to prison. In the summer of 1993, heavy rains raised the Mississippi River to historic levels, creating a vicious current that blew out levees from Iowa to Missouri and southern Illinois and causing an estimated $12 billion in damage and inundating more than 500 counties in the Midwest. Since then, roads and bridges have been repaired or replaced; whole towns have been rebuilt or relocated; new levees have been constructed and old ones have been strengthened. Life along the river has returned to normal. But there is one man who has not been able to get past the calamity, one man who has not been able to get on with his life. Meet James Scott, inmate No. 1001364 of the Missouri Department of Corrections in Jefferson City. Back in 1993, when people were looking for someone to blame for the collapse of Mississippi River levees, Scott was served up on a silver platter. He was accused of singlehandedly causing a major levee to fail. Jimmy Scott, as he was known in his hometown of Quincy, Ill., is serving a life sentence. He became the first — and only — person in Missouri history to be arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced for “intentionally causing a catastrophe.” Scott is serving the kind of sentence handed down to murderers, but some people believe that he got exactly what he deserves. Many others, especially those familiar with river and the events that unfolded in ’93, are convinced that Scott was convicted unjustly. Jimmy Scott, they say, was an easy scapegoat for people needing somebody to blame.
Picture it: rural western Illinois. Dateline: Tuesday, July 13, 1993. The atmosphere: fear. For weeks, residents living on and around the floodplain had sandbagged the West Quincy, Mo., levee, originally designed to withstand a crest of 30 feet. Bulldozers were brought in to shore up the levee, making it possible to sustain 31 feet of water — 32, tops. On July 13, the water level was 31.9 feet. Scott had been sandbagging the levee for the preceding two days. He was initially persuaded to help with the effort by a friend’s mother. At one point, Scott and his wife, Suzie, went to sandbag together, but the efforts had shut down for the evening. “We got there and they told us that they was through for the night, so we went to the Castle [a local after-dark hangout] and just rode around and talked,” he recounts in a prison interview. This was July 15. Afterward, Scott says, he went to home of his half-brother and partied like a rock star. Scott is an alcoholic, and most days concluded with a drunken free-for-all at a friend or family member’s house. On July 16, Scott 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. The truck stop and the levee-relief effort in Illinois were right across the Bayview Bridge from each other, and the couple made plans to meet later that afternoon for lunch. They also had plans that night to hang out together, either at a party or down by the river. Scott says that he worked on the levee throughout the morning with other volunteers. In the midst of the tedious work of driving his spade into wet sand and unloading its contents in a burlap sack, Scott learned from a Corps worker that some guys were needed 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. When the motor on the boat wouldn’t start, Scott and a couple of other volunteers were given waders, and they walked north along the levee, toward the Bayview Bridge. Scott says that he and a stranger named Rudy were patrolling the levee when they ran into a man named Duke Kelly, of the Illinois National Guard. Scott told Kelly that he had noticed water seeping from beneath the plastic tarp, just upriver. Kelly walked a short distance with the two men on the north side of the levee, then told Scott that his concern lay with his unit, on the south side of the Bayview Bridge. Kelly said if he decided that the leak was a major problem, he’d contact someone. Rudy, although never located, shows up with Scott in a photograph taken by a passerby. That evening of July 16, the levee broke. Scott says that he was at his car, getting ready to leave the site, when he ran into two men who gave him the bad news. Scott started walking the levee and telling people what he’d heard. A Quincy newscaster, Michelle McCormack of station WGEM (Channel 10), grabbed Scott and asked him to comment on the levee’s condition and his efforts to help save the community by sandbagging. Though nervous about being in the spotlight, Scott talked about his volunteer work on the levee and his discovery of trouble spots. After this first encounter with the news, Scott went with the Coast Guard to load boats into the floodwaters. WGEM news grabbed him again, this time for a live feed for the 10 p.m. broadcast. Jimmy Scott should have stayed away from the evening news.
Sgt. Neal Baker was at home in Quincy, watching flood coverage on the 10 p.m. news, when he saw a familiar face. Baker, a police officer in Quincy since 1980, had known Scott for years. He had arrested Scott for arson when he burned down a garage in 1988, an offense that landed him in prison. Baker was also around when Scott and his brother, Jeff, burned down their elementary school in 1982. To Baker, Scott was the kind of guy a cop keeps an eye on: a local bad boy. The sergeant sat in his recliner and watched as Scott stood on the levee and spoke of his heroic efforts. Right away, Baker shifted into detective mode: This wasn’t the Jimmy Scott he knew. Baker thought that the reporter wasn’t asking probing questions; on the contrary, she was sympathizing with Scott, at one point putting her hand on his shoulder. To the seasoned police officer’s eye, it appeared that Scott was having difficulty answering the reporter’s softball questions. Scott couldn’t recall names, couldn’t recall times, couldn’t describe the simplest routines that Baker figured anyone who actually worked on the levee could do. “My antennae were raised as I listened to him,” Baker says. “He can’t answer these simple questions, and the fact that he’s over there to begin with made me scratch my head.” Baker also thought that Scott looked far too clean to have been working on a levee all day. Soon enough, Baker had the full cooperation of the Quincy Police Department. Scott had gone from being a good Samaritan helping his community to being a suspect in the breaking of the West Quincy levee. Because this was a matter that concerned the Corps of Engineers, Quincy police helped form a task force along with county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI. On Oct. 1, 1993, Baker and his younger brother, Detective Bruce Baker, went looking for Scott and found him at the local Burger King, where he had just punched out for the night from his job. The Baker brothers arrested Scott as a suspect in a recent local burglary. The arrest was bogus: The cops already knew that Scott had been at work on the night of the burglary. Neal Baker took Scott down to the station and good-copped the suspect. On three occasions, he and Scott left the interrogation room and went outside for a cigarette. The two talked about the burglary and four other crimes in which police considered Scott a suspect. Scott denied everything — he hadn’t committed a crime, he said, in five years. Then Baker asked about the destruction of the levee. Scott was dumbfounded, then told the detective the same story he’d told Kelly — 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. “My town was in trouble,” Scott says he told police. “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.” Scott was released from jail early the next morning. He went back to his daily routine: working at Burger King by day, drinking like Keith Richards by night. Meanwhile, the Quincy Police Department was feverishly working with state and federal authorities to get an indictment. The law Scott was charged with violating — “intentionally causing a catastrophe” — had been on the books since 1979, though no one ever had been convicted of the crime. Police struggled to build a solid case around Scott’s brief appearance on the news and his interrogation — and the fact that he had a record as an arsonist. What they had would never hold up in court: It all was circumstantial. Someone or something else was needed to move the case forward — and that’s when Neal Baker found Joe Flachs. Flachs, a man who, like Scott, had a troubled youth and was, at the time, under house arrest, would tell police and, later, a jury that Scott had had a plan to wreck the levee. According to Flachs’ testimony, Scott said that he wanted to strand his wife in Missouri so that he could party in Illinois without her. Scott admits talking to Flachs but said that the two men were just shooting the breeze at a party and that nothing was said about sabotaging the levee. Scott says that he has no idea where Flachs’ story came from, other than a suspicion that Flachs was offered some kind of deal in exchange for testifying. Flachs would not return phone calls. Flachs’ testimony provided a motive and, for the media, a sexy story: Here was a man who caused a flood because he wanted to strand his wife. The Associated Press moved the story on its news wire, the New York Times ran a piece, and CBS and ABC led their nightly newscasts with the story. CNN News and Court TV descended on sleepy Quincy in 1994 for the trial. And when Scott won a retrial in July 1998 (he was granted a retrial because prosecutors failed to notify the defense about two witnesses), Court TV offered gavel-to-gavel coverage. None of the coverage gave Scott’s version of events. “My car was in the shop getting a new starter, and, as soon as it was ready, on July 17 [the day after the levee broke], I went and picked Suzie up,” Scott says. “I drove way south and used a bridge that was still working. I brought her home less than 24 hours after the levee failed. She was home with me in Illinois.” Scott says that he never went partying that night.
Two soil-science experts — Dr. R. David Hammer, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Dr. Charles Morris, from the University of Missouri-Rolla — were called as defense witnesses in both trials. They didn’t know Scott; they didn’t know each other before 1994; they both remain convinced of Scott’s innocence. Hammer, a soil and atmospheric-sciences expert who has worked with river systems for more than 25 years, says that six scenarios can cause a levee to fail. The West Quincy levee met all six, he says, and its collapse was imminent on July 16, 1993. “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. “[That’s] B.S. There had been something like 11 or 12 levee failures, almost one a day, upriver from them.” Similarly, Morris, a civil engineer, testified that the West Quincy levee was failing. The Corps, Morris says, did an excellent job despite the heavy rains, but the last-ditch attempt to bulldoze the levee was a tacit admission that the levee was about to break. The bulldozing, he says, weakened its structural integrity. “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. But the experts, who focused on science and statistics, were no match for Flachs, who was an effective, if dubious, witness. Scott’s court-appointed defense attorney, Raymond Legg, had a hard time keeping the jury focused on the weakness of the prosecution’s case. Morris says he believes that the jury decided that the levee had failed, “so someone had to do something to it.”
That someone was Jimmy Scott.
Deemed a dangerous repeated offender because of his prior arson convictions, Scott was sentenced to life in prison by Marion County Circuit Judge Robert Clayton II. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2023, when he’s 53. If he’s still insisting that he’s innocent, he may not qualify. He’s also out of appeal options, save for a possible Hail Mary pass to the U.S. Supreme Court — a long shot, at best. He has no lawyer. There is no Innocence Project, no college class of investigative journalists, working on his case. He saves his money from his meager paychecks in the prison panel factory and uses the cash to pay off an inmate who is the purported jailhouse legal mind. “There’s the truth, but people don’t want that in this case,” he says. “I messed up in the past, and God knows I wish I could turn back time. I’m sorry for the hurt and pain I caused people with the stupid fires, and I’m sorry for what the people lost during the flood, but I won’t apologize for something I didn’t do. I just wish someone would believe in me.” All Jimmy Scott has left, it seems, is time.
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