Man convicted for breaking levee 25 years ago still serving prison time

ST. LOUIS - Twenty-five years ago today (July 16), historic floods and a levee break led to a gas station explosion and fire you could see for miles.

However, this was not reported as a natural disaster. Instead, police said it was a man-made calamity. No one died, but police arrested a 24-year-old, who’s still in prison to this day.

James Scott said he’s the only person ever convicted in Missouri on the charge of “causing a catastrophe.” He was sent to the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he may spend the rest of his life.

“I’m sorry for what people lost, what people went through during the Flood of 1993, what they’ve had to endure,” he said. “But when it comes to me apologizing to something I haven’t done, I won’t do it.”

Scott is serving life in prison for a flooding disaster on July 16, 1993. You could see a resulting fire for miles at a gas station in West Quincy, Missouri, just north of Hannibal.

Scott said he was simply at “the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Scott admitted he moved sandbags before the levee break but said he did it to help.

“My intention was not to break that levee," he said. "Do I believe that my actions caused the levee to fail? No, I do not."

Scott said he only moved four or five sandbags and that the levee remained intact.

“Really nothing (happened), but this wasn’t until maybe an hour after I moved them, the levee broke,” he said.

Witnesses said Scott bragged he was going to do it. They reported Scott said he would “...get his wife stuck over there so he could have a party...” and that, “There would be real good fishing over in the fields after it broke.”

“I’m not going to say I did not make those comments, because I don’t know. Is it possible? Yes, it is,” he said. “It was a pretty wild time. A lot of booze.”

Was it possible Scott wasn’t in his right mind and that he accidentally destroyed that levee?”

“No,” he said. “No.”

While Scott is the only man convicted of causing a catastrophe, another man was charged with the crime after the West Alton levee broke on July 7, 1993. Timothy Steinmann hit the levee with his boat, but he pleaded out to property damage,” claiming it was an accident. A judge sentenced Steinmann to five years in prison.

Scott got a life sentence partly because he was a repeat offender, having gotten out of prison for arson in 1991.

“The judge at my sentencing made reference to that. He said something to the effect that, uh, it’s ironic that it started with fire and ended with water. Trying to assume I still had problems with fires and this and that and that’s not the case.”

Retired Sgt. Neal Baker of the Quincy Police Department arrested James Scott for the levee break.

“I don’t believe he changed. I believe he still had an alcohol problem and I believe he still liked to cause damage,” Baker said. “James Scott was a troubled young man and I did arrest him in the late 80s for several arsons. (The levee break) was a very, very serious crime. There were a lot of people put in harm’s way that day.”

Scott still maintains his innocence.

“I can’t prove I didn’t do it, but they can’t prove I did it, because I didn’t,” he said.

Scott’s first parole hearing is not for another five years, in 2023.