Admitted Walmart arson plotter sentenced to 15 years for Gulf Coast fires

Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 8:37 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A federal judge on Thursday sentenced the last of an arson ring that plotted to set fires to Walmart stores along the Gulf Coast in 2021.

U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer sentenced Sean Bottorff to 15 years in prison, just shy of the 18-year prison term that the judge imposed on ringleader Jeffery Sikes. He ordered Bottorff to be supervised by the U.S. Probation Office for three years after his release and to pay almost $7.3 million to compensate Walmart for the damage caused by the fires.

Bottorff’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender LaWanda O’Bannon, asked the judge for leniency. She argued that her client was in the throes of Sikes and pointed to testimony that Sikes managed to persuade sophisticated businessmen to invest large sums of money – in one case, nearly $1 million – in a machine that he pitched as a revolutionary device that could transform trash into energy.

“They all believed in Sikes’ machine because of the convincing background and false connections he lied about,” she wrote in a court filing. “They were all duped by Sikes charismatic authoritative persona, as was Bottorff and the other defendants.”

O’Bannon also submitted a report by Janja Lalich, an expert on cults, who wrote that “humans are strongly included to act on the basis of authority.”

In a handwritten letter, Bottorff apologized to the judge, the prosecutors, Walmart – even news media organizations that received copies of a co-called manifesto the Bottorff wrote at Sikes’ direction.

“Your honor, I feel stupid and deceived by someone I thought was a friend,” he wrote.

Bottorff recalled watching a FOX10 News report on one of the fires.

“For the first time I got a small visual of utter confusion,” he wrote. “It was gun wrenching and sent me to my bunk distraught, overwhelmed and in tears. It was just a small glimpse into the acts which I had been led to partake in.”

According to court records, Sikes persuaded Bottorff and the other defendants to move from Nebraska – where Sikes was facing a federal fraud trial – and relocate to Alabama under assumed names. They lived in a house in Lillian, where they formulated their arson plan. The manifesto, “Declaration of War and Demands for the People,” called for better pay and working conditions for Walmart employees, among other demands.

“Sean and Jenna wholeheartedly believed they were on a mission to make the world a better place by helping to mass produce a machine that would turn waste into energy, clean air, and water,” O’Bannon wrote. “Up until this point in his life, Sean had neither juvenile history, criminal history, nor traffic violations.”

The fires in May and June 2021 caused enormous damage to four stores – two in Mobile and two in Mississippi.

O’Bannon wrote that her client yearned for a close relationship with his father, and when that did not happen, gravitated toward the charismatic Sikes.

“Sean believed he had found the strong male bonding figure he missed with his father,” she wrote. “The indoctrination began early and Sikes could do no wrong in his eyes.”