Prosecutors: Accused Gulf Coast Walmart arson plotters earned money through fraud, shoplifting
In 256-page manuscript, co-defendant compared alleged mastermind to Robin Hood
MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Five people charged with plotting to set fires to Walmart stores along the Gulf Coast engaged in “sophisticated shoplifting schemes” and financial fraud to pay their living expenses in Lillian, according to new allegations in federal court.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office made the allegations in a filing announcing prosecutors’ intent to introduce evidence of crimes not specifically charged in the indictment. Prosecutors argue the alleged illegal activity is closely related to the Walmart conspiracy and, therefore, admissible under federal law.
Separately, two of the defendants – Michael Bottorff and his mother, Jenna Bottorff – have asked a judge to dismiss the charges against then.
The case is scheduled to be tried in Mobile’s federal court in January. The indictment alleges that Jeffery Sikes was the mastermind of the plot and was on the run from federal authorities in Nebraska, where he was to be sentenced in a wire fraud case in 2017.
Prosecutors have indicated that they intend to introduce evidence at the trial that Sikes was a fugitive from justice and living under an assumed name in Lillian.
“This fact is inextricably intertwined with the conspiracy and explains why the group of co-defendants from Kearney, Nebraska ended up in the Southern District of Alabama living under false identities at the time of the charged offenses,” they wrote.
Tom Walsh, an attorney who represents Sikes, said he has not yet closely reviewed the new allegations. A judge gave the lawyers until Oct. 24 to respond.
Prosecutors contend that four co-defendants living in the house also used aliases. That includes his wife, Erica Sikes; his sister-in-law, Jenna Bottorff; her husband, Sean Bottorff; and a woman named Mikayla Scheele, who already has pleaded guilty.
Authorities contend that co-defendants Michael Bottorff and Alexander Olson moved into the house several years later.
Prosecutors contend that before leaving Nebraska, Jeffery Sikes, Erica Sikes, Sean Bottorff and Jenna Bottorff co-wrote a 256-page manuscript called “The Love Movement,” which sets out a detailed plan for a new world order that would end poverty and war.
‘Similarities to Robin Hood’
Sean Bottorff wrote an opening to the document in which he glowingly praised Jeffery Sikes.
“I see Jeff having similarities to Robin Hood,” he wrote, noting that the literary character stole from the rich to give to the poor and manipulated to level the playing field between the peasants and the royal family.
“Jeff is a lot like this where he is willing to push boundaries, no matter who he is against, if he sees the outcome is for the betterment of the people,” Bottorff wrote. “I have often said this is living in the gray area.”
According to court records, Michael Bottorff worked at a restaurant with Quinton Olson, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge last month. And Scheele occasionally worked outside the home, according to the prosecution filing.
“However, the money brought in by these three co-conspirators was insufficient to sustain the group of eight adults and four minor children,” prosecutors wrote.
The bulk of the money that the household earned, according to the allegations, was illegally obtained. One major source was a scheme to obtain investor money for the creation of a device they called “The LOVE Element Filtration System,” which they pitched as capable of breaking down all the world’s pollution and garbage into elements that could be recycled. Material that could not be recycled supposedly could be turned into water, pure oxygen and crude oil through an elaborate process.
Sean Bottorff describes the device as the “solution to the world’s problems” in an investment video available on YouTube.
“So what you’re telling me here if you have one device that’s gonna clean the air, that’s going to recycle elements, that’s going to create crude oil, create water and alleviate the trash problem around the world. Am I saying this right?” he says at one point.
“Wow, so dare I say it’s our solution to pollution?” he continued.
The defendants also earned money from fraudulent real estate “deals” and multi-person shoplifting trips that resulted in food and other items needed for the fires, according to the allegations.
James Smith, who represents Erica Sikes, said prosecutors have presented little evidence tying her to the fires. He says prosecutors shouldn’t be allowed to present unrelated evidence.
“It’s all irrelevant,” he told FOX10 News. “It’s certainly interesting and, I guess, a sideshow to what actually happened at Walmart and who committed those acts against Walmart.”
Fires caused $11 million damage
Other defense lawyers either could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.
Prosecutors contend that Jeffery Sikes directed Sean Bottorff to write a seven-page manifesto entitled “Declaration of War and Demands for the People” and to send the document to media organizations. The document contained a list of demands related to higher pay and better benefits and working conditions for Walmart employees.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants are responsible for four Walmart fires in May and June of last year – two in Mobile and two in Mississippi – that cost the world’s largest retailer $11 million in damage.
Those fires only stopped, prosecutors allege, because Michael Bottorff’s van was abandoned and seized by law enforcement authorities after a botched shoplifting attempt at a Walmart in Navarre, Florida. That was the vehicle that the arsonists used to get to the Walmart locations, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In their motions to dismiss, lawyers for Jenna Bottorff and Michael Bottorff argue that prosecutors have not presented evidence or allegations to support the charges against them. At most, according to their filings, they took actions that do not amount to a crime – in Jenna’s case, attending meetings and taking notes; in Michael’s case letting his co-defendants use his van.
“Completely absent from the Indictment is any act taken by Jenna Bottorff in furtherance of the object of the offenses allegedly committed by her co-defendants,” attorney Michael Hickman wrote.
Michael Bottorff’s lawyer, Fred Helmsing, argued that prosecutors have not alleged anything to show the defendant participated in plans to set fires.
“The government clearly means to imply that this meeting and associated communications were for the purpose of planning the fires and then promoting public awareness about the reason for the fires,” he wrote. “Even if that inference is permissible from the allegations in the Second Superseding Indictment, it does not support criminal liability.”
The defendants do not appear to have any connection to southwest Alabama, and it remains unclear how they ended up in Lillian.
“My sense is they might have been headed to Florida but got as far as Lilian and thought it’d be a good community to settle down there,” he said.
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