The trial of the “Walmart statement” won’t begin until at least November, and court proceedings have raised the prospect of becoming more complex with the indictment of additional alleged participants.
In another recent development, two of the five defendants were approved to be released before trial.
The case involves five men arrested on February 24 in southern Baldwin County: Jeffrey Sykes, 40; Sean Buttorff, 37; Michael Buttorff, 21 years old; Quinton Olson, 21 years old; and Alexander Olsson, 23 years old. The five are accused of plotting to destroy by fire. Sykes and Alexander Olson also face charges of intentional destruction by fire. All claim their innocence.
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The arson attacks took place this past spring and summer at convenience stores in Mobile, Gulfport and Biloxi. The perpetrators entered the stores and used merchandise such as lighter fluid to set the goods on fire. The perpetrators also distributed a document to the media entitled “Declaration of war and demands on the people.” Prosecutors called it a “Walmart statement” and say it threatens more attacks if Walmart doesn’t change certain business practices. Prosecutors say they found evidence that Wells Fargo and Amazon may also have been under consideration as targets.
At Friday’s hearing, District Judge Terry F. Maurer, along with Justice of the Peace Sonya F. Bivens, a preliminary timeline of future actions. Assistant US Attorney Christopher Bodnar and Casey Hesterhagen said the evidence is complex and they expect the trial to take two weeks. Meanwhile, the defendants are represented by five court-appointed attorneys, one of whom has at least one capital crime trial on his calendar.
The result was that Moorer set the trial to begin with jury selection on November 28. However, two issues have been raised that could disrupt this timeline. Attorney Arthur J. Madden III, representing Alexander Olson, noted that the conspiracy charges include arson in Alabama and Mississippi and that the two arson charges relate to fires in Alabama.
This raises the possibility that prosecutors will file additional charges in the southern region of Mississippi, Madden said. If that’s the case, he said, he hopes prosecutors will cooperate to “get this in one package” rather than parallel prosecutions in two areas. Hesterhagen said that because Mississippi had not issued any indictments, it was hard to speculate.
LaWanda Jean O’Bannon, an attorney representing Sean Bottorff, has raised another issue, the possible indictment of additional people in the Southern District of Alabama.
One of the strange things about the case so far is that the indictment of the five men implicated the women in some of the attacks but did not name or charge any conspirators. Hesterhagen said prosecutors believe they know the identity of one or more of the participants. “At this point, I can’t tell you what the grand jury will or won’t do,” she said.
Hesterhagen said she wouldn’t be surprised if the grand jury’s actions resulted in an alternative indictment. She said she didn’t necessarily think that would change Maurer’s trial schedule.
For his part, Moorer referred to an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory and struggle to keep up with an accelerating conveyor belt on the production line. “A lot of being a judge keeps the candy line going,” he said of the scheduling challenge.
At the time of Friday afternoon’s hearing, the issue of pretrial release had not been fully resolved. Since then, orders from Bevin have specified that Sean Buttorff and Alexander Olson will remain in custody pending trial, while Michael Buturff and Quinton Olson are eligible for release.
Sykes pleaded guilty to wire fraud in Nebraska and then skipped a 2018 hearing. As a federal fugitive who was living under an assumed name, there was no question of his release prior to trial. Moorer expressed his strong preference for the Alabama trial to continue before the authorities in Nebraska proceed with the unfinished business.
At an Ash Wednesday hearing, prosecutors said the other four should be held pending trial, given the nature of the crime and other factors.
“The arson is no joke,” Hesterhagen said, stressing that customers and staff were in stores at the time of the fires, although no one was hurt. “These are violent crimes that could have had an immeasurable impact.”
In response to questions from prosecutors, an FBI agent testified that the fire at Tillman’s Corner Walmart caused $11 million in damage and agreed that the store was “declared a complete loss.” (Media reports indicate it reopened about two weeks after the fire.)
Lawyers for the four argued that the prosecution did not show that any of their clients were inside any of the four Walmarts at the time the fires were started and could not prove that any of them were nearby. (Prosecutors cited various cellphone data, as well as a surveillance video purportedly showing that a small blue Toyota Sienna registered to Michael Buttorff was in the four stores.)
Relatives of the four men appeared in court on Wednesday. They told Bivens that they were willing to provide housing for the four pending trials and said they complied with any conditions imposed on them. The relatives had traveled from Washington and Nebraska.
Bivens issued a split decision, ruling that Alexander Olson and Sean Buttorff should remain in custody while Quinton Olson and Michael Butorff may be released in kinship custody.
Bivens said an FBI agent testified that video evidence showed Alexander Olson and Sykes started a fire, and that Olson was in another store when an unidentified woman started that fire. Olson also allegedly purchased the cell phone that was used to create a Gmail account for The Veterans Order, and to distribute the statement.
“Evidence before the court strongly suggests that Olson’s role in this alleged plot is not trivial, that he is a danger to society and an escape risk, and that there are no conditions that would reasonably ensure the safety of society and Olson’s appearance in court,” Bevin wrote.
The others were not charged with starting any of the fires, but Bivens still found that prosecutors had “provided clear and convincing evidence” that Sean Buttorff was a danger to society and a flight risk. Like Sykes, he was living under an assumed name in Alabama.
Bivens found that Quinton Olson, Alexander Olson’s brother, was a 21-year-old wage earner with no criminal record, and he was not shown at the scene of any of the fires by video or mobile phone evidence. He was due to be released into the custody of his mother, who resides in Spokane, Wash.
Similarly, Bivens found that Michael Buttorff, the stepson of Sean Buttorff, was 21 years old with no previous convictions employed. Although there was a minivan taped to the scene in all of the Walmart attacks, no cell phone or video evidence indicated that Michael Buttorff himself was.
Bivens, however, was not convinced that Buttorf’s great-grandmother, who appeared at the hearing, was a proper custodian, since she had not seen him since he graduated from high school and had not known much about his life since. Bivens ruled that he was eligible for release, but this could only happen when a suitable third-party trustee could be identified.