‘Mastermind’ behind 2021 Walmart fires along Gulf Coast sentenced to 18 years

Published: May. 31, 2023 at 10:47 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA/Gray News) - A federal judge sentenced the admitted mastermind of a scheme to set fires to Gulf Coast-area Walmart stores to 18 years in prison.

The punishment delivered to Jeffery Sikes on Tuesday is twice the length of the prison term recommended under advisory guidelines.

As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors recommended a nine-year sentence for Sikes, which was the higher end of the guideline range, but U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer said he believed those guidelines were “woefully inadequate” to capture the full extent of the 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-defendants to pay nearly $7.3 million to Walmart in compensation for the damage from the fires.

Sikes will be on supervised probation for three years after he finishes his prison sentence.

Several other suspects in the conspiracy will be sentenced at a later time.

Sikes pleaded guilty in October 2022 to conspiracy to maliciously destroy by fire. He admitted to directing the creation of a manifesto called the “Declaration of War and Demands for the People.”

Several Alabama media organizations received the document, which outlined grievances against Walmart related to pay, benefits and working conditions. It also threatened continued arsons if the demands were not met.

The plea agreement restricts the defendant’s ability to appeal, but the defense attorney for Sikes said there are still issues that can be raised.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” defense attorney Tom Walsh 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 conspiracy began after Sikes fled Nebraska in January 2018 to avoid sentencing in a federal fraud case.

The records indicate he changed his name to Kenneth Allen, and he rented a house in November 2018 under that alias 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 2022 to a conspiracy charge.

Court records indicate that after the Walmart locations in Mobile, Alabama, and Mississippi caught fire in 2021, Sikes began hawking a supposed recycling machine that converts 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,” Sikes said. “Quite honestly, they fought me on it. I was the mastermind. I was the leader. I take full responsibility.”

The judge 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,” Moorer said.

The judge recited a long list of factors that led 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 Sikes text messages demonstrate a “callous disregard” for what he did at the time he 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, which was a robbery that she ultimately did not go through with.

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

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

Much of what the judge drew on came from two days of testimony last week during a hearing to evaluate a request by two of the co-defendants to be treated with leniency. Sikes’ attorney 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,” Walsh 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 Sikes 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 Alabama on Tuesday.