Little Jimmy Scott had a bad rep with the Quincy, Illinois, police. He was a known troublemaker who had once set the local elementary school ablaze. You don’t forget a kid like that, especially when you see him growing up to be an alcoholic barely able to hold down an entry level job. Now the world will never forget James Scott, the only person ever convicted under Missouri’s law against Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe.
The details of the case are still unclear, mostly because James was a muddled young man when at age 24 he set out to do something decent. He was helping to shore up the levees along the Mississippi with other local able-bodied men in the Quincy area, poised for one of the Big Muddy’s biggest flood events. The year was 1993, and the waters were rising fast when Jimmy volunteered to check the levees. Based on what he’d been told by a National Guard official, what he saw made him panic. There was water standing in the plastic sheets between the sandbags. According to Scott, he informed an official and then, unaided and with no one in sight, spent some time trying to lay up more sandbags on the leak.
That should be all there was to the story. But Jimmy Scott got cocky. Tired and ready to go home and get a beer or ten, he was interviewed by a local TV anchor. The interview, full of Jimmy’s bragging about his part in fixing the leak, was seen by the local sheriff. This was not the Jimmy Scott he knew. Jimmy Scott was no do-gooder, no brave flood fighter. Then the levee broke, which caused a flood of monstrous proportions – 14,000 acres of prime farmland were inundated. The sheriff got suspicious, convinced that Jimmy’s boasting was a cover for having caused the leak and made it worse. The sheriff began to hound the young man, finally charging him with a crime that can carry a life sentence.
This is the story of how Jimmy was harassed by the law and the thin premise that the legal case against him rested upon. It’s told by Adam Pitluk, a journalistic writer whose recent book, Standing Eight, is another example of his nitty-gritty investigative technique and his fierce defense of the underdog. James Scott is no hero, but he comes off in Pitluk’s eyes as less than a villain. A small guy with pitifully low aspirations, Scott was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had joked to his drinking buddies that he wished the levee would break so he could get drunk on one side of the river without being nagged by his wife on the other side. That was taken as a statement of intent. For some reason, his own half-brother turned him in. Expert testimony that the breakage didn’t happen where Jimmy claimed he was working could not save him. In the end, it seemed that the townsfolk, outraged at the loss of property caused by an act of God that man could not prevent, needed a scapegoat, and Jimmy Scott was handy, confused, and oblivious to the enormity of what he was being accused of. He is in prison, serving out a life sentence.
Read this book to see how easily a criminal “type” can be seen as and turned into a criminal. Perhaps as a result of the book some more questions will be asked about the twisted fate of Jimmy Scott.