Convicted levee breaker, serving life, maintains his innocence

Monday, June 2, 2003

WEST QUINCY, Mo. -- James Scott spends his days minding his own business, keeping a low profile among the convicted rapists, murderers and drug pushers.

"You've got a rule in prison -- you see nothing, you hear nothing," Scott, 33, said. He spoke in low, measured tones during an interview inside the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he is serving a life sentence as the only person ever tried and convicted for an obscure state law: causing a catastrophe.

At the height of the Great Flood of 1993, according to police, Scott went atop the muddy earthen levee protecting West Quincy, dug a hole and moved sandbags. The Mighty Mississippi roared over and through the levee, flooding thousands of acres of rich farmland, destroying homes and businesses and shutting down the only bridge open in the 200 miles between southern Iowa and St. Louis.

Scott claimed he didn't do it.

"A life sentence for property damage? You've got convicted murderers that get less time than I got," he said.

"I'm sorry for what people lost during the flood. I'm sorry for the heartache and pain it caused. But sorry for what I did? I didn't do anything."

Scott grew up across the river in Quincy, Ill., a picturesque town of 40,000.

Somewhere, Scott developed a taste for fire. He was 12 in 1982 when he set fire to Webster Elementary School in Quincy, destroying it. Soon after graduating from Quincy High School in 1988, he went to prison for arson.

After serving three years of a seven-year sentence, Scott was released. Now 21 and eager to start a new life, he moved to nearby Fowler, Ill.

By mid-July 1993, flooding had already toppled around 1,000 levees. Scott said he joined the hundreds of volunteers who spent hours each day on the levee, scouting for trouble spots and helping to fix them.

By July 16, the level had dropped half a foot. The levee might survive.

"Everybody here felt that it would hold," said Norman Haerr, chairman of the levee district.

Suddenly and spectacularly, it didn't. Shortly after 8 p.m. July 16, the levee burst. Barges that had been tethered along the shore pulled trees out by the roots. One of those barges slammed into a service station gasoline tank, sending orange fireballs into the evening sky. That same fire burned Gus Trader's businesses to the ground.

Raised eyebrows

In the chaos after the break, James Scott walked past a local TV reporter, who grabbed his arm to ask what he knew. Scott went on TV that night.

The appearance of a convicted arsonist quickly raised eyebrows.

"I saw that broadcast," said Quincy Police Sgt. Neal Baker. "My reaction was if he was over there, he was up to no good. I was immediately suspicious."

Scott recalled telling police that he had moved some sandbags from one trouble spot to another he deemed more serious. He said he worried out loud that maybe, in doing that, he had caused the break. He said he didn't mean it as a confession.

Baker gave a different account.

"He confessed," Baker said. "Very clearly, more than once."

David Hammer, a soil science professor at the University of Missouri who testified at Scott's trial, doubted that Scott broke the levee. He said the West Quincy levee was doomed to failure.

"To assume somebody could stand on an earthen levee and dig a hole in it with a shovel and get out before the dramatically widening breach could engulf him is a real stretch," Hammer said.

A series of factors made the levee susceptible, Hammer said. It had been holding back floodwaters for 90 days, leaving it soggy and filled with leaks. Making matters worse, as the river continued to rise, volunteers were forced to push up dirt to raise the levee higher, weakening the base.

Still, the levee should have held, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"That levee was actually being protected very well," spokesman Ron Fournier said.

Scott was convicted in 1993. When it was overturned on a technicality, he was convicted again in 1998.

He has a federal appeal pending, and a request for clemency with Gov. Bob Holden.

"I'm not angry no more," Scott said. "I'm more frustrated now. Every time I get a door to start to open, the door is shut."

Scott said he's working hard behind the prison's yellow limestone walls to make himself a better person. He's found religion, he said. He volunteers to serve on suicide watch. And three times a week, he spends the night staying up with the dozen or so inmates in the prison hospice -- playing cards or just sitting and talking.

"One day, I'm going to walk out of this prison," Scott said. "Like a jailer once told me, the judge gave you life in prison. God didn't."

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