COLUMBIA — Adam Pitluk was a 21-year-old reporter for the Columbia Missourian when he wrote an article about the trial and conviction of James Scott, a man sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for intentionally causing a catastrophe.
Pitluk’s story, which appeared in 1998 after Scott’s second trial, has now become a book — “Damned to Eternity” — which hit bookstores around the world January 1.
Scott was accused of sabotaging the West Quincy, Ill., levee, one of hundreds to fail along the Mississippi and adjoining rivers during the Midwest floods of 1993. During Scott’s second trial, his story received national attention. The New York Times, CBS and ABC were among some of the outlets that took an interest in the case; Court-TV broadcast portions of the 1998 trial.
“Everyone covered it,” said Pitluk, who is now the editorial director of American Airline Publishing.
Pitluk said he was drawn to the story from the moment he met Scott, who has always maintained his innocence.
“For me it was to champion a cause,” Pitluk said, “the idealistic fight for the underdog.”
Pitluk researched Scott’s life and the case for nine years. In his account, Scott was a hard drinker who had been troubled since childhood.
From theft to petty vandalism and arson, Scott was no stranger to trouble and his reputation in Quincy reflected that.
Pitluk describes how Scott rolled up his sleeves and joined the volunteer effort to contain the floodwaters in Adams County, hoping to redeem himself in the community’s eyes.
On July 16, 1993, as he was patrolling the levee, Scott noticed a leak and informed a member of the Missouri National Guard. Shortly after, the West Quincy levee broke, flooding about 14,000 acres of land.
Scott’s troubles, according to Pitluck, began when a television reporter asked him to comment on the levee break.
Robert E. Nall, the former sheriff of Adams County, was fixing supper at his home when he saw Scott being interviewed about the levee break. At the time, Nall said, “most people were in panic mode.”
Nall, who retired in 1999, said that while Scott’s actions may not have been intentional, “he caused it to happen. ... There were just too many circumstances there that didn’t add up.”
Norman Haerr, the former president of the Sadius River Drainage District, said Scott may have moved some sandbags to create a leak so he could report it, but the situation got out of hand. “He wanted to be the hero that saved the levee,” Haerr said.
Scott was convicted under a statute that had been in the books in Missouri since 1979, but never used before. The law states that knowingly causing a catastrophe is a class A felony, punishable by death, life imprisonment or for a term of 20 years or more.
He was sentenced to life in prison, though if he had been convicted of the same crime just across the river in Illinois, he would have served no more than seven years, Pitluk said.
Pitluk was a young reporter at the Missourian when Scott was re-tried in 1998. The prosecution had failed to notify the defense of two new witnesses whose testimonies implicated Scott.
At the trial, one witness said that Scott had spoken of destroying the levee to allegedly strand his wife on the Missouri side of the river where she worked. Two soil-science experts, however, testified for the defense that the levee was doomed to collapse. Nonetheless, Scott was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison by Marion County Circut Judge Robert Clayton II.
Scott is currently at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. He will be eligible for his first parole hearing in 2023, by which time he will be 53.
His mother, Sharon Scott, talks with him once a month.
“I don’t care what anybody says, that river was going to go,” she said. “Nature took its course; the levee broke.”
In researching and writing “Damned to Eternity,” Pitluk said he drew from his experience at MU and at Columbia University, where he received his master’s degree.
Getting the facts of Scott’s life and the events that unfolded in 1993 right required tireless research. Even so, he said, there are still too many unanswered questions about James Scott’s conviction.
“I’m not a judge or a jury,” Pitluk said. “I want people to revisit this case.”