Testimony in Mobile Walmart arson case touches on false claims, sex parties and alleged coercion

As sentencing looms, attorney for purported leader of conspiracy seeks to discredit prosecution witness
Published: May. 26, 2023 at 5:53 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The lawyer for a man accused of orchestrating a conspiracy to set fires to Walmart stores spent Friday morning grilling the woman who has admitted starting the blazes.

A marathon two-day evidentiary hearing concluded without any of the defendants learning their punishment. Most of them will be sentenced next week.

Jeffery Sikes pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to maliciously set fires. Although he has admitted guilt, his attorney contested characterizations of his client as a manipulative charlatan who practically brainwashed his co-defendants.

“That’s a good defense for the co-defendants to point the finger and say they were just hanging out with the wrong crew, that they’re a babe in the woods,” attorney Tom Walsh said after the hearing. “But, you know, I’m just focused on my client.”

Court records indicate that Sikes, his wife and several others lived together as a “family” in a rented house in Lillian, plotting their campaign to force change at the nation’s largest retailer. They have admitted to distributing a manifesto called “Declaration of War and Demands for the People,” which outlines various grievances against Walmart and makes demands that include higher pay and better working conditions for employees.

The FBI began investigating after a fire severely damaged the Watlmart in Tillman’s Corner on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2021. That came a day after fire damaged the Walmart on the Interstate 65 Beltline Road. Before law enforcement authorities arrested the defendants, they had hit two additional Walmartts – in Gulfport and Biloxi, both on June 4 of that year.

Federal prosecutors are recommending a prison term for Sikes at the high end of advisory guidelines, which is nine years. Prosecutors also are seeking $6.3 million in restitution for Walmart – an amount that Walsh said likely never will be paid.

U.S. District Judge Terry Moore told the defense lawyers that he had not made up his mind about sentencing but put them on notice that based on what he had heard over the past two days, he may hand down punishment outside the advisory guidelines.

Mikayla Scheele, the woman who admitted to setting the fires, testified that Sikes coerced her for years, dating to when she was a vulnerable teenager a decade ago. She said she started using drugs and alcohol and left home at age 16. Eventually, she said, she moved in with Sikes and his wife in Nebraska.

Scheele, 29 described getting paid by Sikes for sex and attending sex parties with him and his wife. She testified that he was abusive and controlling. She said that she set the fires at his behest and felt she could not resist.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I felt like if I did that, I would be killed, or my family would be killed.”

Walsh tried to discredit Scheele. She acknowledged that in addition to the drug use and underage drinking, she also participated in a house-break-in as a teenager the resulted in the theft of a safe. She attributed her behavior to falling in with the wrong crowd.

“You had shoplifted and broken the law long before you met Jeff, right?’ Wash said.

Noting that Scheele also committed the recent offenses against Walmart, he asked: “Did you ever think maybe, just maybe, you’re the wrong crowd?”

Walsh also challenged the notion that Scheele was helpless to resist his client. He asked why she never sought help from her “stripper friends” and she worked as an exotic dancer in Pensacola or why did didn’t seek out a security guard at one of the Walmarts she set on fire.

U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer also heard testimony Friday from John Winsatt, who was the manager of the Tillman’s Corner Walmart in 2021. He testified that he was covering the Beltline store on May 28 that year when he got a call reporting a “code red,” indicating a fire at his store on Rangeline Road.

“I didn’t believe it, actually,” he said.

Winsatt testified that when he arrived, he saw “a lot of chaos and confusion.”

Winsatt said the damage was “catastrophic. It was a total loss.”

He said the store lost its entire inventory, costing $8.5 million and shutting it down for 14 days.

Crystal Ferguson, who handled online sales for the store, testified that the smoke that day was bad.

“I walked toward the smoke, and it was quite thick. … It filed the whole store,” she said.

FBI Special Agent Brian Martin laid out Sikes’ background, which includes his creation of an organization called “The LOVE Movement.” He and other defendants are listed as members of the group’s “Board of Justice.” The agent testified that Sikes bragged – falsely – about creating businesses with billionaires Mark Cuban and Elon Musk. Scheele also testified that Sikes claimed to have been in the FBI.

They are among many statements documented in court records that the FBI characterizes as fanciful. The “LOVE Movement” document makes references to a paramilitary group called the Black Angels. Martin testified that it does not exist. He also testified that that there is no evidence to back claims in the Walmart manifesto that Sikes had teams of military veterans across the country prepared to attack Walmarts.

Sikes will be the first defendant to be sentenced. That will take place Tuesday morning.