Missouri, The Midwest

Sandbagged: How a Hapless Ex-Con Got Blamed for the 1993 Flood in West Quincy, MO

Bayview bridge 1993 flood in West Quincy
Sandbagging

They worked feverishly around the clock and built the levee higher.

For three months in the spring and summer of 1993 rain pounded the Mississippi River basin relentlessly. From Minnesota to Missouri, rivers were out of their banks. Engorged tributaries carried flood waters into the Mississippi. The great river rose steadily. By July 13th the river was fifteen feet above flood stage, the most dramatic rise in 200 years.

In the town of West Quincy, Missouri the townspeople were working diligently to hold the water back. With the help of the National Guard, and at the direction of the Army Corp of Engineers, the levee that protects the town and surrounding fields had been raised 6 feet from its original height to meet an anticipated flood crest of thirty feet. But it was not enough. By July 13th a new round of storms threatened to raise the river even higher.

Carrying sandbags atop the levee

National guard troops carrying sandbags atop the levee.

The Army Corp shifted into high gear and called on even more volunteers to help. Fighting back panic, the townspeople worked feverishly alongside the National Guard to meet the challenge. The levee was raised to 32.5 feet. At its crest the river was measured at 32.19 feet, less than one-third of an inch from the top of the levee. But they had done it. The river had reached its peak, the levee had held, and the exhausted volunteers breathed a sigh of relief.

Then a loud popping sound was heard. A line of cottonwood trees began to swing and sway.  Someone shouted “The levee broke!”, and everyone ran for their lives.

 

Bad Apple

Houses of Quincy

The 19th century town of Quincy, Illinois was called “a gem of a city”. Victorian mansions line the oak canopied streets.

Jimmy Scott was a bad apple, one of those people that just can’t stay out of trouble. As a boy of twelve he was already into vandalism and petty theft, and that was before he made a name for himself by burning the down the local elementary school. For that crime he was sentenced to six months in the Adams County Youth Home followed by a stint at the McFarland Mental Health Center. At the age of thirteen he was released. He returned home to the town of Quincy, Illinois where he was raised, directly across the river from West Quincy, Missouri.

Quincy is a small town of 35,000 people established in 1825. It was built to serve the river. During its heyday in the 1850’s and 60’s river traffic brought it prosperity, as evidenced by the Victorian mansions that line its oak canopied streets. It was regarded as a “gem of a town”.

But in the late 20th century Quincy fell on hard times. As traffic on the river dwindled, it turned to agriculture and industry. A few decades later, gigantic agribusiness concerns elbowed aside small family farms and factories laid workers off so that by 1993 the town’s economy was in decline, a far cry from “the gem of a town” it had once been.

Two seedy bars in Quincy, Illinois

By 1993 Quincy was a far cry from “the gem of a town” it had once been.

Jimmy Scott grew up on the other side of the tracks. His  parents worked hard. They put in long hours to maintain a working class life for their three boys. As a result, they weren’t home a lot, so Jimmy and his brothers came and went as they pleased. After getting out of juvenile detention, Jimmy attended high school sporadically and began frequenting the home of his older half-brother Dan Leake, a notorious party animal.

Dan introduced Jimmy to beer and cigarettes and got him involved in a hard partying lifestyle. By the time Jimmy was eighteen, he was enough of a binge drinker that he was regularly blacking out, something that provided a convenient excuse for his criminal behavior. He burned down two buildings and broke into a parked car. Quincy police detective Dan Baker tracked him down and put him back in jail. But Dan Baker wasn’t through with Jimmy, and neither were the good people of Quincy and its sister city across the river.

 

Breach

Levee breach

The river punched a hole in the levee the size of a hangar door and water gushed through.

On July 16th, 1993 the levee on the west side of the river a half mile north of the Bayview Bridge in West Quincy collapsed in spite of the community’s best efforts to save it. The river punched a hole in the levee the size of a hangar door, and water gushed through. Three large iron barges that were moored to trees along the bank rocked violently as the current sucked their bows toward the breach. In the next instant, the chains snapped and the barges were sucked through the hole. They went bobbing and spinning through the countryside, snapping trees in half as they rode the spreading tide into the farm fields beyond.

The breach flooded 14,000 acres of farmland

The breach flooded 14,000 acres of farmland, destroying crops.

The breach flooded 14,000 acres of farmland and destroyed millions of dollars in buildings and property. It was a catastrophe for the community of West Quincy, and not just because all of their hard fought efforts had failed, but also because most of them did not have federal flood insurance. Homeowner’s insurance might have stepped in to cover the losses, except homeowner’s policies don’t cover Acts of God. The only way homeowners’ policies will cover a flood like the one that devastated West Quincy, MO is if it occurs as an act of vandalism.

As it happened, police detective Dan Baker saw Jimmy Scott in the vicinity of the breach on that fateful day. As detective Baker well knew, Jimmy Scott was capable of anything. Maybe the flood wasn’t an Act of God. Maybe Jimmy Scott had caused it.

 

The Party Animal

House party

By the time Jimmy was eighteen, he was enough of a party animal that he was regularly blacking out.

Five years earlier, the City of Quincy brought charges against Jimmy Scott based on the detective work of Dan Baker in the matters of two fires and breaking into a parked car. Jimmy was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

While in prison, Jimmy attended Alcoholics Anonymous, studied for college and demonstrated good behavior, for which he was rewarded with early parole. Two years and eleven months later, Jimmy Scott was back on the streets of Quincy. He immediately went back to drinking.

Burger King in Quincy

Jimmy got a minimum wage job at the Burger King to pay for his partying, but he was hardly a model employee.

Jimmy got a minimum wage job at the Burger King to pay for his partying, but he was hardly a model employee. In spite of the fact that he had gotten married and become a father, he often slept late and missed work. He was a party animal. That was his showcase. That’s where he held the floor and boasted about his exploits to anyone who would listen. His half-brother Dan didn’t help. On the contrary, he enabled Jimmy by providing him a rapt audience of shiftless delinquents and young felons in the making. One of those delinquents was a 16-year-old troublemaker named Joe Flachs.

 

Good Fishing in West Quincy

Sandbagging on the levee

The locals worked hard to save the town. National guardsmen and locals sandbagging on the levee.

In July of 1993 when the call went out for volunteers to help shore up the levee, Jimmy raised his hand. It was not out of the goodness of his heart. Local businesses like Burger King were offering to pay employees full shift wages if they chose to volunteer instead of punching in. Jimmy saw a way to shirk his job and still get paid.

At the levee he was put to work filling sand bags but wandered off and got buttonholed by a Guardsman who needed someone to inspect the top of the levee for signs of leakage. Jimmy patrolled the top of the levee for a while, then left the site and went to his half-brother Dan’s house to party. While there, he bragged to some kids that he had been given the vital job of levee inspector. One of the kids asked him if he was scared walking on top of the levee, since it might break. Jimmy scoffed and said, “If the levee breaks, we’ll have good fishing in West Quincy.”

As afternoon turned to evening, Dan’s party turned into a bash, and Jimmy was in the thick of it. At one point, Jimmy turned to Joe Flachs and suggested they might hit on some of the women at the party. Flachs was confused. Jimmy was married, wasn’t he.? Jimmy laughed and said he hoped the levee would break and strand his wife on the other side of the river. “Too bad you can’t choose who’s where when the time comes.”

 

A Different Kind of Luck

Jimmy Scott being interviewed on WGEM-TV

Jimmy Scott being interviewed on WGEM-TV. Detective Dan Baker wasn’t buying it.

Three days later, on July 16th, Jimmy was again at the levee, volunteering. He told the Guardsman on duty that he had received a crash course in levee inspection and could locate trouble spots if needed. The Guardsman instructed him to patrol the portion of the levee north of the Bayview Bridge, which Jimmy did.

Sometime later, those working near the bridge heard the awful popping sound of the levee breaking and ran for their lives. Some barely made it to higher ground before the river thundered in behind them. It was lucky nobody died.

1993 flood in West Quincy

Good fishing in West Quincy.

As Jimmy Scott descended the levee he was the recipient of a different kind of luck. A reporter for WGEM-TV approached him for a live interview. Never one to decline an opportunity to boast, Jimmy spoke to the reporter about how he had been inspecting the top of the levee and located a trouble spot. Pulling sandbags from one area of the levee to another, he had shored up the spot. Then Jimmy became emotional. He spoke of the hard work that had been expended by the townspeople only to see it washed away in a matter of minutes.

Police detective Dan Baker was watching TV that night and saw Jimmy. He wasn’t buying it. Jimmy was a notorious layabout. He certainly wasn’t the type of guy to get emotional about the hardships of the community. He was putting on an act, Baker was convinced of it. Plus, Jimmy wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and he wasn’t muddy, except for a coating of sand and dirt on his arms. Baker smelled a rat, and he intended to get to the bottom of it.

 

Sandbagged

The 1993 flood

A McDonalds protected by sandbags.

Detective Baker contacted his fellow lawmen on both sides of the Mississippi and voiced his suspicions. Police went door to door, interviewing Jimmy’s associates, especially those who had attended the party on July 13th. What they heard piqued their interest. Jimmy had made a wisecrack about the good fishing that would result if the levee were to break. Even more damning, he had told Joe Flachs he wanted the levee to break so his wife would be stranded on the other side of the river. Using a couple of unrelated crimes as a pretext, detective Baker hauled Jimmy in for questioning.

Detective Baker questioned Jimmy about the other crimes for hours, making him think that’s where his interest lay. But Baker was sandbagging Jimmy. As soon as Jimmy began to relax, detective Baker caught him off guard by asking him what he was doing on the levee on the afternoon of July 16th.  Jimmy told the detective he had been inspecting the levee for signs of leakage. When he saw something that concerned him, he went to find a Guardsman to help. He located a man who started back with him, but the man lost interest when he saw how far it was, so Jimmy went back to the trouble spot alone and did what he could to shore it up by moving some sand bags.

Dan Baker pressed him on the question of moving the sand bags. How many had he moved? Could he have moved more than he remembered? As far as detective Baker was concerned, Jimmy had just confessed to breaking the levee. Jimmy was taken into custody. He would not see the outside of a penitentiary for years.

 

Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe

House afloat

The 1993 flood in West Quincy destroyed millions of dollars in buildings and property.

Before long, word spread through the law enforcement community that Jimmy Scott, a known felon, had sabotaged the levee because he wanted to strand his wife on the other side of the river so he could cheat on her. The epic stupidity of the thing irked law enforcement officials. From their perspective a felonious dirt bag had just confessed to destroying 14,000 acres of farmland and millions of dollars in property for a trivial and selfish purpose. They intended to throw the book at him.

But the worst crime they could charge him with under Illinois law was criminal damage to property. Unfortunately for Jimmy, the charges would be coming from the Missouri side of the river where the flood had done its worst. As it happened, Missouri had an obscure law on the books, “Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe,” a Class A felony punishable by 10 years to life in prison. No one had ever been convicted of it before. Jimmy would be the first.

 

Pariah

Jimmy Scott at his trial

Maybe the flood wasn’t an Act of God. Maybe Jimmy Scott had caused it.

Feelings against Jimmy Scott were running high when he went on trial in November of 1994. Already a pariah among the good people of Quincy for his previous exploits, the accusation, now circulating widely in the press, that Jimmy had broken the levee so he could spend a few days away from his wife incensed the locals, many of whom had lost everything in the flood. Of course, that view of things overlooked the fact that Jimmy had driven five hours the next day to pick up his wife and bring her home, hardly the action of someone seeking a separation.

At trial Joe Flachs was called to testify. He reiterated what he had told investigators, but he didn’t stop there. He began embellishing his story, adding a few more damning tidbits that he had failed to mention earlier. Chagrined at the way his primary witness had gone off script, the prosecutor ended his questioning. Then Jimmy’s defense attorney pounced, bringing to light, among other things, that Joe Flachs had an axe to grind with Jimmy over rumors that Jimmy had slept with Flach’s mother.

As for the wisecrack Jimmy had made regarding the good fishing that might ensue after a levee break, witnesses confirmed that Jimmy had made the comment, but admitted it had been made at a party where such comments were common and made in jest. Things weren’t looking so good for the prosecution.

 

How Jimmy Scott Got Blamed for the Flood in West Quincy

The book "Damned to Eternity"

The book “Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man They Said Caused the Flood” tells the story of Jimmy Scott.

To nudge things along in Jimmy’s favor, his attorney brought to the stand an expert on levee construction. It was the expert’s opinion that the levee was prone to collapse due to internal “piping”, a condition that exists when water flows through pores in the levee wall, saturating the earth and weakening it until external pressures cause the levee to collapse. The expert believed the levee would’ve collapsed anyway, with or without an act of sabotage.

And then there was the fact that levee collapses were by no means unusual that summer. In fact, practically every levee in the region broke that summer. Upstream of Quincy, levees had been breaking at the rate of one per day leading up to July 16th. But only at West Quincy was the break considered so outrageous and unexpected that an accusation of sabotage was warranted.

Taken altogether, the case against Jimmy Scott was weak, particularly in light of the fact that all of the evidence against him was circumstantial and no one had actually seen him break the levee. The fact that he had moved a few sand bags to shore up a problem area could hardly be construed as malicious vandalism. But Jimmy was disliked by many in the community and the incentive to find someone to blame was too tempting.

It didn’t take the jury long to reach a verdict. Guilty. Apparently the idea that someone could perpetrate such a disaster for such a stupid reason eclipsed any consideration of reality. The judge was no less motivated by the contemptible nature of Jimmy’s alleged act. He sentenced him to life imprisonment for the crime of “Intentionally Causing a Catastrophe.” To this day, Jimmy Scott is the only person ever convicted of that crime.

 

Sold Down the River

Jimmy Scott today

Jimmy Scott today. He says he didn’t do it. See the jailhouse interview.

The verdict was so surprising that an appeal was all but guaranteed. Four years later in 1998 Jimmy got a new trial. Once again, the defense lined up its expert witnesses and discredited the testimony of those who accused Jimmy. But this time the prosecution had an ace up its sleeve.

It called Jimmy’s half-brother Dan Leake, the person who had introduced him to partying and enabled his boasting. Dan testified that Jimmy had said he wanted to break the levee to strand his wife on the other side of the river. He tried to hedge by saying he didn’t think Jimmy was serious, but the prosecution wasn’t buying it.

“Did you ever ask him if he broke the levee that night?”

“Yes, I did.”

“How did he respond?”

“He wouldn’t answer me.”

That was enough for the jury. They upheld Jimmy’s conviction. He went back to prison.

After serving nearly thirty years, Jimmy Scott is due for parole in 2023. If he gets out, he will do a few things differently. For one thing, he will not return to Quincy where he is an outcast. For another, he will not go to his half-brother Dan’s house to party. Dan Leake died in 2006.  Dan most likely died with a heavy conscience. He had been sandbagged into implicating Jimmy in the flood of 1993 and making him the only American ever convicted of intentionally causing a catastrophe.

 

Previous Stop on the Odyssey:  Van Meter, IA
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Nashville, TN

 

My American Odyssey Route Map

My American Odyssey Route Map

 

Sources

Changnon, Stanley. The Great Flood of 1993: Causes, Impacts and Responses, Westview, 1996.

The Great Flood of 1993, PBS Nova video. Accessed 1 April 2021. Web.

Pitluck, Adam. Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man They Say Caused the Flood, Da Capo Press, 2007.

Visitor’s Guide to Quincy, Illinois. GreatRiverRoad.com. Accessed 1 April 2021. Web.

 

 

Image credits

Bayview Bridge half submerged, (FEMA) Public Domain

Locals sandbagging, Jocelyn Augustino

National guard troops carrying sandbags on the levee, Public Domain

Victorian mansions, Malcolm Logan

The seedy side of Quincy, Malcolm Logan

Breached levee, lagohsep

Corn crop submerged, PBSLM

House party, qubodup

Quincy Burger King, Malcolm Logan

Locals helping national guardsmen, The U.S. Army

Jimmy Scott interview still, FeaturesWeather.com

Jimmy Scott at trial, AP Photo/ The Hannibal Courier-Post, Philip Reed Carlson

Flooded traffic sign, Public domain

McDonalds Inundated, (FEMA) Public Domain

Farm house afloat, PBSLM

“Damned to Eternity” by Adam Pitluck, Amazon.com

Jimmy Scott today, KHQA, You Tube