Bridge collapse imposter complains about sentence

Friday, August 29, 2003

FORT SMITH, Ark. -- A Missouri felon sentenced to almost six years in prison after pleading guilty to impersonating an Army officer at the Interstate 40 bridge collapse in Oklahoma says the penalty was too harsh.

William James Clark, 37, said U.S. District Judge James H. Payne gave him the sentence more because he made "government officials look like fools" than because his crime was severe.

Clark, of Tallapoosa, Mo., told the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith Wednesday that he deserved to be punished -- just not as harshly. He previously told the Tulsa World he should only get time served.

Concurrent sentences

Payne sentenced Clark Tuesday to three years for falsely impersonating a U.S. Army officer and 70 months for possession of a firearm after a felony conviction. The sentences were ordered to run concurrently.

Clark pleaded guilty in May.

He arrived at the bridge in Webbers Falls, Okla., on May 26, 2002, just minutes after a barge struck it, knocking about 500 feet of roadway and several vehicles into the Arkansas River. Fourteen people died.

He told rescuers he was an Army captain just returned from Afghanistan and took charge of the recovery operation about a mile north of the accident. Wearing combat fatigues, he gave media interviews.

"The defendant was at a command post away from the rescue scene," U.S. Attorney Sheldon Sperling said. "Hardworking and honorable people were productively and sacrificially working a horrendous project at ground zero."

Clark, who previously served three years in prison in Missouri for stealing, took possession of a briefcase belonging to Army Capt. Andrew Clements, who died en route from Alexandria, Va. to California.

Clark, speaking by telephone from the Muskogee County Jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility, told the Times Record that he regretted telling Clements' wife that her husband was dead.

To the Tulsa World Aug. 4, Clark denied telling Clements' wife of her husband's fate.

Clark fled after a confrontation with Webbers Falls Mayor Jewel Horne and state Medical Examiner's office officials. He allegedly also left without paying for hotel rooms and stole a pickup truck in Arkansas.

He was arrested about two weeks later while waiting to board a ferry in Tobermory, Ontario, on Lake Huron. He pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in Canada, was sentenced to time served and was turned over to American authorities.

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