Mastermind of Gulf Coast Walmart fires gets 18 years, double the prosecution recommendation

Defendant to judge: ‘I was the mastermind. I was the leader. I take full responsibility’
Published: May. 30, 2023 at 10:56 AM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced the admitted mastermind of a scheme to set fires to area Walmart stores to 18 years in prison – double the prison term recommended under advisory guidelines.

As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors had recommended a nine-year sentence for Jeffery Sikes, which was the high end of the guideline range. But U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer said he believed those guidelines were “woefully inadequate” to capture the full extend of the defendant’s criminal conduct.

“This guideline, as applied, in my opinion, is woefully inadequate for the crime,” the judge said.

In addition to the prison time, Moorer ordered Sikes and his co-conspirators to pay nearly $7.3 million to Walmart in compensation for the damage incurred in the fires. Sikes will be supervised by the U.S. Probation Office for three years after he finishes his prison sentence.

Two junior members of the conspiracy, brothers Alexander and Quinton Olson, will be sentenced later on Tuesday, and five others will be punished at later dates.

Sikes pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to maliciously destroy by fire. He admitted to directing the creation of a document called the “Declaration of War and Demands for the People.” Several local media organizations received the manifesto, which outlined grievances against Walmart related to pay, benefits and working conditions and threatened continued arsons if the demands were not met.

Under the terms of the plea bargain, the defense and prosecution agreed to a prison term of nine years – the upper end of the range under advisory guidelines. That plea agreement restrictions the defendant’s ability to appeal, but defense attorney Tom Walsh said outside the courthouse that there are still issues that can be raised.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” he said. “However, I mean, we’ve seen it before. But there may be some issues on appeal that we can take up with the 11th Circuit.”

According to court records, the bizarre conspiracy began after Sikes fled Nebraska in January 2018 to avoid sentencing in a federal fraud case there. Court records indicate that he changed his name to Kenneth Allen, and under that name, rented a house in Lillian in November 2018 with his wife and children. His brother-in-law and family joined them, along with a woman named Mikayla Scheele, who pleaded guilty in March last year to a conspiracy charge.

Court records indicate that after the Walmarts in Mobile and Mississippi caught fire in 2021, Sikes began hawking a supposedly revolutionary recycling machine that convert garbage and pollution into water, pure oxygen and crude oil. Sikes promised to use profits from the device to benefit veterans, workers and the homeless, court records show.

Given a chance to speak before sentencing, Sikes expressed contrition. He referenced two days of testimony last week that largely focused on his culpability.

“A lot of it was true,” he said. “I’ve made some bad decisions. … I’ve done some things that were very bad and arrogant.”

Sikes told the judge that he deserves whatever punishment he gets. But he urged Moorer to spare his co-defendants.

“These guys had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Quite honestly, they fought me on it. … I was the mastermind. I was the leader. I take full responsibility.”

Moorer said he was glad to hear Sikes say the things that he did.

“But I don’t really give you credit for that, inasmuch, as what you just said is just the truth,” he said.

The judge recited a long list of factors leading to his conclusion that this case was outside the “heartland” of the guidelines. He noted that there was not just one fire but four – and that one of them was on the Friday of a Memorial Day weekend.

Moorer said the defendant’s text messages demonstrate a “callous disregard for what you did at the time you did it.”

The judge also said the guidelines do not adequately capture the defendant’s political motivation, his participation in shoplifting schemes to raise money or his attempt to “intimidate the media” into publishing his manifesto.

The judge pointed to an incident in which Sikes directed Scheele to wear a bomb vest as part of a plot to rob a bank – a robbery that she, ultimately, did not go through with.

Moorer, himself a military veteran, expressed disgust with Sikes’ false representations that he had served the Armed Forces.

“You took advantage of that,” he said. “There are consequences for that.”

Much of what the judge drew on came from two days of testimony last week during an extended hearing to evaluate a request by two of the co-defendants to be treated with lenience. Walsh said he thought it was not right to use that testimony to increase his client’s penalty.

“I objected numerous times to my client being a part of those hearings, although I was overruled,” he told reporters. “And we just thank God that nobody was hurt … in these fires.”

Walsh also disputed the contention by some of the other lawyers that his client controlled the others and led them into criminal acts they would not, otherwise, have committed.

“Some of that’s a sham,” he said. “I mean the government’s main witness, Mikayla Scheele, acted as if she was somewhat innocent. And she had been in and out of the criminal justice system since her teens.”

Sikes’ legal problems are not over. At some point, he will be returned to Nebraska to face sentencing for the fraud conviction that prompted him to flee in 2018. Walsh said his client most likely will have to serve that sentence after the one handed down in Mobile on Tuesday.

Updated at 12:17 p.m. with significantly more information.