As a journalist and a writer, it's a great story. As an American and as a citizen, it's a total miscarriage of justice.
In recent weeks, the eyes of the nation have been on Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico as the flooding brought about by three separate hurricanes has caused untold devastation. In all likelihood, Texas' Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria will go down as two of the worst U.S. natural disasters of the 21st century. For Midwestern residents over the age of 30, these harrowing scenes surely bring to mind another significant weather event from the previous century—the “Great Flood” of 1993.
The Great Flood was one of the costliest floods to ever occur in United States history. In the summer of that year, copious rainfall raised the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to historic levels, flooding over 30,000 square miles and racking up more than $15 billion in damages. For days, national news covered the tragedy nonstop as reports came pouring in of rising river tides, thousands of people displaced, and untold crop and property damage.
Yet for the people who owned businesses or worked in West Quincy, Missouri—a small commercial area nestled in northeastern Marion County with no permanent residents—the flood in their part of the state wasn’t the result of natural means. It wasn’t the fault of heavy snowfall from the previous winter and the ensuing spring snowmelt, or the above-average rainfall in May and June.
No, for this small swath of Missourians, the flood that buried 14,000 acres of farmland under ten feet of water and ruined hundreds of buildings was the work of one man: James “Jimmy” Scott. To this date, Scott remains the only person ever tried and convicted under an obscure 1979 Missouri law for “Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe,” a Class A felony. To this day, Scott maintains his innocence.
Urbo spoke to Adam Pitluk, the author of Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood, who covered the Scott case for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007. He believes in Scott’s innocence, too.
“As a journalist and as a writer, it’s a great story,” Pitluk tells Urbo. “As an American and as a citizen, it’s a total miscarriage of justice.”
The Morning of Friday, July 16
In the days leading up to the night of Friday, July 16, 1993, Scott, then 23, was one of hundreds of volunteers racing to help the National Guard fortify the levee that protected West Quincy, Missouri, from the rapidly rising Mississippi River.
Scott was a lifelong resident of Quincy, Illinois, located just two miles east, across the river. He was an ex-con out on parole and held down a part-time janitorial job at a local Burger King. His wife, Suzie, worked at a Missouri truck stop in Taylor, 5 miles east of West Quincy. Scott preferred spending his nights partying in a haze, but that week, he and Suzie worked together on levee relief efforts.
On the morning of July 16, Suzie went to work and Scott went to volunteer. He was given waders to walk along the levee between Bayview Bridge and the downriver Quincy Memorial Bridge, using duct tape to repair holes in the tarps thrown over the sandbags. Scott claims he was paired with a stranger (possibly named Rudy) and the two of them patrolled the levee, walking north.
At one point, Scott noticed a troubled spot where water was seeping through the tarp. He removed four sandbags from one part of the levee and moved them to the weakened area. A little while later, Scott and his partner ran into Duke Kelly of the Illinois National Guard. Scott told Kelly about the troubled spot, but Kelly said his larger concern was where his men were stationed on the south side of the bridge. However, if this spot became more dire, Kelly said, he would contact someone.
He left, and Scott and his partner continued their progress.
The Levee Fails
For most of the evening, it seemed as if the levee would hold and that river waters were receding. A patrol at 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. reported no problems. But at 8:20 p.m., the river suddenly broke through.
An inch-wide fissure tore open, allowing so much water to gush into the adjacent farmland that several barges were sucked through and moved over what had once been dry land. One of them struck the Ayerco gas station, causing an explosion and an oil slick that lit the surface of the water on fire. Since no one lived in West Quincy, no one was harmed, but it was clear that cleanup efforts would take a lot of time and money. The only bridges that cross the river from Missouri to Illinois in that area were shut down for days.
Scott was getting into his car to leave for the day when two men told him the news. Scott started walking the levee, telling others what he’d heard. Along the way, a news reporter for Quincy station WGEM asked Scott to comment on his sandbagging efforts and the levee’s condition. Scott told them about his discovery of troubled spots, and then went to help the National Guard load boats. Later that night, WGEM asked Scott to again appear on the 10 o’clock live broadcast and he agreed.
That’s when everything changed for him.
Sergeant Neal Baker, of the Quincy Police Department, was at home watching flood coverage and was surprised to see Scott onscreen. Baker knew Scott had a history of property damage. He was the officer who arrested Scott and put him behind bars in 1988 for burning down a garage. That wasn’t Scott’s first run-in with the law, either. In 1982, at only 12 years old, Scott burned down his elementary school with his brother.
In Baker’s eyes, Scott was a troublemaker, and nothing Scott was saying on the nightly news added up. He didn’t appear dirty, like someone who had been working on a levee all day would. He wasn't wearing a required life jacket. He couldn’t answer simple questions about names or timelines. He didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about at all. Everything about the situation seemed suspicious.
So Baker and his brother, a detective, paid Scott a visit at his job. Since Scott was a suspect in a recent burglary and four other crimes in the Quincy area, they arrested him and brought him in for questioning.
In the interrogation room, Scott denied everything, saying he hadn’t committed a crime in five years. When the officers started asking about the levee, Scott told them the same thing he told Duke Kelly and the news reporter: He had moved some sandbags in an effort to help the levee hold.
With nothing formal to charge him with, the Bakers let Scott go. To them, it sounded like sabotage, but without eyewitnesses or physical evidence to prove it, they needed a motive.
Baker started building a case against Scott, and in the process, he come across a man named Joe Flachs. Flachs was an acquaintance of Scott’s, another troubled youth under house arrest when police questioned him. Flachs told officers that Scott confided in him at a party that Scott wanted to wreck the levee on purpose. According to Flachs, Scott said he wanted to strand Suzie at work in Missouri so he could party and have an affair in Illinois without her.
Sgt. Baker now had the motive he needed.
The media had the kind of soap operatic story they crave: 'man purposely floods entire swath of farmland to cheat on his wife.'
Flach’s testimony, along with Scott’s previous charges, were enough to garner his trial national attention. The location of the hearings had to be moved 95 miles away from Quincy to avoid the prying eyes of the public. During the three-day trial, evidence against Scott mounted as his past worked against him.
Several witnesses testified that Scott had bragged about being good at arson and that he enjoyed watching property damage take place.
The stranger that Scott was allegedly with that day—Rudy or possibly Bob—could not be located, although he does appear in a picture Scott had in his possession.
After a three-day trial, a jury took four hours to come to the unanimous conclusion that Scott, a dangerous repeat offender, had intentionally caused the levee to fail. He was sentenced to a maximum of life in prison. Scott appealed, and since his court-appointed defense attorney didn’t have sufficient notice of the prosecution’s witnesses, was granted a retrial in 1997. This time, it took the jury only three hours to uphold the verdict.
Scott is now serving a life sentence at the Missouri Department of Corrections in Jefferson City. He isn’t eligible for parole until 2023, when he will be 53 years old. In 2012, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, but has been in remission since November of that year.
“This levee was broken by science.”
Pitluk maintains that it was science, and not James Scott, that broke the levee. “The prosecution did a much better job making the circumstantial evidence seem solid—because that’s all it was,” Pitluk says. “But the thing you have to look at is the science. This levee was broken by science.”
If James Scott had sabotaged the levee, he would have died in the process.
Pitluk’s certainty rests on the testimony of two soil-science experts, Dr. R. David Hammer, of the University of Missouri–Columbia, and Dr. Charles Morris from the University of Missouri-Rolla, both of whom were called as defense witnesses in both trials.
Of the men, Pitluk says, “[Hammer and Morris] knew nothing about the case, nothing about Scott, they hadn’t met each other, they didn’t even like each other. They were just given maps. All they were told to do was show on the map where the break would occur, and they both picked the exact same spot.”
That spot was precisely where the levee failed. Further, Pitluk says, “If James Scott had sabotaged the levee, he would have died in the process. The sandbags, the tarps...everything completely blew out.”
For his part, Scott swears that on July 17, contrary to Flach’s testimony, he picked Suzie up from work, driving 10 hours out of his way to bring her back home to Illinois. But Scott himself never took the witness stand at either trial because of his past convictions.
Pitluk, who interviewed Scott extensively for his book and toured the West Quincy levee himself, says it isn’t Scott’s word that people should believe. “I believe in his innocence because of the science, the witness of the experts, and what I saw with my own two eyes.”
So, if the levee failed on its own and not as a result of human efforts, why was Scott sent to prison twice? Pitluk says there are two reasons.
“The whole region was destroyed and people were just raging,” he says. “If you go back and look at the Court TV footage, everyone—the lawyers, the judge, even Scott’s attorney—just looks miserable at being there. At the time of the second trial, Hannibal [Missouri] was flooded.”
The other reason is the fact that the flood of 1993 was dubbed “The 500-year Flood,” a once-in-a-lifetime event. People in the region had grown too confident that a flood would never happen. “If you live in a federally designated floodplain, you’re required to have flood insurance,” says Pitluk. “The only way you can be made whole again is with insurance. And no one had it. But if the levee was sabotaged, that’s now an act of vandalism and not an act of God. So the $1 billion dollars paid out of insurance can be collected.”
That doesn't mean you should just throw people in jail who don't deserve it.
The one person who might hold the key to Scott’s innocence, the woman he supposedly sabotaged the levy to strand, disappears completely from the narrative after July 16. “I talked to Suzie once, and it was basically for her to tell me she wasn’t going to talk about it,” Pitluk says. “It was too hard, and she was raising their kid, who was seven at the time. So I respected that.”
When asked why she didn’t testify for the defense, Pitluk says, “This is all conjecture, but I would imagine that to testify would open herself up to all kinds of other things—these are not the most outstanding citizens. That, and because it wouldn’t necessarily have made a difference.”
So is Scott a saboteur and adulterer, or a scapegoat taking the brunt of an entire region’s wrath? Pitluk is certain he’s the second.
“I’m not saying society isn’t better off without James Scott in prison,” he says. “He’s a criminal and a convict. But that doesn’t mean you should just throw people in jail who don’t deserve it.”