Judge rejects defense calls for leniency for two Gulf Coast arson conspirators

Published: May. 30, 2023 at 5:46 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer already had laid down a marker in a Walmart arson case Tuesday, imposing a sentence for the self-described mastermind that was twice as long as what prosecutors sought.

The judge continued that theme with two lesser members of the conspiracy, rejecting defense calls for leniency.

Moorer sentenced Alexander Olson to 15 years in prison and his brother, Quinton Olson, to three years. He ordered all of the defendants to pay Walmart almost $7.3 million to compensate for the damage the fires caused.

The judge said the defendants placed people at risk at four different stores in 2021 – one at the Interstate 65 Beltline store, one at the Tillman’s Corner location and one each in Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi.

“The judge referenced testimony last week by the former manager of the Tillman’s Corner store that hundreds of customers and employees were in the store on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2021 when the fire broke out.

“Arson is a very serious thing. … I am shocked that there was no loss of life in this case,” he said.

The judge made clear that he considers Jeffery Sikes the most culpable of the eight people who pleaded guilty in the case. Sikes admitted to organizing the plot after he fled sentencing in a federal fraud case in Nebraska in 2018 and rented a Lillian house under an alias.

He directed the creation and distribution of a document called “Declaration of War and Demands for the People.” It outlined grievances against Walmart related to pay, benefits and working conditions and threatened continued arsons if the demands were not met.

The judge sentenced Sikes to 18 years in prison Tuesday morning.

Alexander and Quinton Olson were living at the Lillian house with Sikes and his family and attended meetings where the plotters discussed their plans. In addition, Alexander Olson admitted that he went into two of the stores when co-defendant Mikayla Scheele set fires. Prosecutors argued that disqualified Olson for a sentencing break since he supervised Scheele.

But Olson’s attorney, Arthur Madden, argued that prosecutors proved nothing more than his client was with Scheele. He noted that prosecutors during a hearing last week never asked her whether his client directed her to do anything. He argued for the five-year mandatory-minimum sentence.

But the judge pointed to another detail from Scheele’s testimony – an aborted bank robbery attempt that Sikes had set up. She testified that Alexander Olson strapped her to a suicide bomb vest. Although Scheele did not go through with it – and although it is unclear whether the vest was real – Moorer said Olson put people in danger.

Madden asked the judge to take into consideration “the unique power that Sikes had” had over his client and others. He depicted Sikes as a charismatic figure who exerted tremendous influence over young, impressionable members of the household. Alexander Olson, Madden said, was “easy prey to a man who could fool CPAs and military veterans.”

That is a reference to a device called “The LOVE Element Filtration System,” which Sikes claimed could eliminate and recycle pollution. He succeeded in persuading successful businessmen in Pensacola to invest.

Quinton Olson’s lawyer, Barre Dumas, made a similar argument.

“He was doing all this under compulsion and duress,” he said outside the courthouse. “I mean, this guy Sikes – he was a piece of work. He had threatened these young men with their lives and the lives of their family. He had them completely convinced that he was some kind of black ops operator. He played the role and manipulated them as much or more than the folks he duped over in Pensacola.”

Dumas told the judge that there is no evidence that his client was anything more than a minimal participant. He said his client did not set any of the fires and, in fact, was not even present for them. He said Olson picked up some of the co-defendants after they had to abandoned their vehicle during a failed shoplifting attempt.

“People far more sophisticated that this man were duped by Mr. Sikes,” he said in court.

Moorer agreed that Quinton Olson was less culpable than the others. But he noted that the defendant attended the plotting meetings and helped distribute the manifesto. He said probation, which Dumas sought, was not appropriate.

After imposing sentence, the judge ordered Olson immediately taken into custody, finding him a “danger to society.”

But the judge told Olson it was not too late to make something of his life.

“This is going to set you back, but it’s not going to crush you if you don’t let it,” he said.

Five other defendants have yet to be sentenced.