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Criminal: Orchestrating Catastrophe

A drawing of floodwaters
Julienne Alexander
This week's Criminal podcast tells the story of how Jimmy Scott was charged with orchestrating a catastrophe.

Destructive flooding is sometimes seen as an "act of God," but one Illinois man is serving time in prison for causing the Mississippi River to inundate a town in Missouri. We hear his story in this week's Criminal Podcast. Phoebe Judge hosts the show.

Jimmy Scott grew up in Quincy, Ill. When he and his brothers were pre-teens, they burned down an elementary school. That started Scott's reputation as a trouble maker, though he says he never committed any violent crimes.

"Small arsons here and there," Scott said. "I think dumpster fires, maybe a car fire. You know, petty theft, just petty. If something happened in my neighborhood, the cops were the first to call our house. They was the first ones to show up and say,'Where was you at, what was you doing'?"

In 1993, there were heavy storms across the Midwest. Scott said he worked helping shoring up the town's levees along the Mississippi River. River levels were dangerously high. Scott said he noticed a weak spot and moved a few sandbags to support it.

"You heard the levy break," he recalled. "Being on the Bayview Bridge, I seen trees cracking and it was loud. We heard the rushing water from half-a-mile away, a quarter-mile away."

Authorities thought it was suspicious that Scott was at the levee when it failed. Investigators talked to some of his friends, who told them Scott had said he wished the town below the levee, West Quincy, Mo., would flood. Scott's wife worked in West Quincy, and he said he wouldn't mind if she were stuck there for a while, so he could party in peace. Besides, he said, a flood would be good for catching catfish. Scott was tried and convicted of a Missouri law, which makes it a crime to "Intentionally Cause a Catastrophe".

"The judge said at my sentencing...'It's funny that it started with fire and ended with water," Scott mused.

He still denies causing the flood. Even after the first trial was thrown out, he was convicted a second time.
He's still serving time. He's up for parole in 2023.

"There are probably things that I've done in my life, leading up to the flood, that I never got caught for that I should be in prison for, but the West Quincy levee, no," he said.

You can hear more about Jimmy Scott and the Catastrophe on the Mississippi on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded in the studios of WUNC.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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