Court Digest

Man behind 2021 Walmart fires along Gulf Coast gets 18 years

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama federal judge has sentenced the man who admits being the leader of a scheme to set fires to Walmart stores along the Gulf Coast to 18 years in prison — double the recommended sentence.

As part of a plea deal, prosecutors had recommended a nine-year sentence for Jeffery Sikes, which was the high end of the sentencing guideline range. But U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer said Tuesday he believed those guidelines did not capture the full extent of the defendant’s criminal conduct, WALA-TV reported.

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

In addition, Moorer ordered Sikes and his co-conspirators to pay nearly $7.3 million to Walmart in compensation for the damage incurred in the fires at stores in Alabama and Mississippi. After his prison term is completed, Sikes will be on probation for three years.

Others involved in the fires will be sentenced later.

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.

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

Furthermore, the judge 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.

Sikes is described as a federal fugitive who disappeared from Kearney, Nebraska, before a 2018 sentencing hearing for wire fraud. He was using the alias Kenneth Allen while living in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The indictment said Sean Bottorff, who is Sikes’ brother-in-law, also disappeared from Kearney at the same time, along with his wife and an unrelated adult female who pleaded last year to a conspiracy charge.

Defense attorney Tom Walsh said outside the courthouse that despite the higher sentence, there are still issues that can be raised on appeal.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” he said of the judge’s decision.

At some point, Sikes 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.

Family of man who drowned last year  files wrongful death lawsuit

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The family of a man who drowned in Tempe Town Lake a year ago filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city Wednesday, noting that its police department doesn’t have a policy requiring officers to go into the water to save someone.

The civil suit said 34-year-old Sean Bickings pleaded for help while in the water after he jumped into the lake during an encounter with law enforcement on May 28., 2022.

Body camera footage released later showed three Tempe police officers watching from the shore less than 50 yards away from Bickings.

According to a transcript of the footage, one of the officers told Bickings: “I’m not jumping in after you.”

It took about six hours for public safety officials to recover Bickings’ body.

The suit accuses Tempe of negligently not training employees to better respond to water rescues at the man-made lake and of not having proper security and safety measures to prevent or respond to drownings.

“The City of Tempe and Tempe law enforcement promised new safety measurements following Sean’s tragic death and a year later we have yet to see these actions implemented,” said Benjamin Taylor, a lawyer for Bickings’ family. “We hope this lawsuit will encourage the City of Tempe to take the necessary steps to ensure no one else carelessly loses their life by drowning in Tempe Town Lake.”

The lawsuit doesn’t list a specific amount of money the family is asking for, but states that Bickings’ mother be “fully and fairly compensated.”

Tempe spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said “the city does not discuss active litigation.”

However, Tempe is expected to vote soon on $1.8 million funding for a Park Ranger program. If approved, the rangers would be responsible for proactive patrols in city parks including the town lake which opened to the public in November 1999.


Amazon to pay $31M in privacy violation penalties 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amazon agreed Wednesday to pay a $25 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations it violated a child privacy law and deceived parents by keeping for years kids’ voice and location data recorded by its popular Alexa voice assistant.

Separately, the company agreed to pay $5.8 million in customer refunds for alleged privacy violations involving its doorbell camera Ring.

The Alexa-related action orders Amazon to overhaul its data deletion practices and impose stricter, more transparent privacy measures. It also obliges the tech giant to delete certain data collected by its internet-connected digital assistant, which people use for everything from checking the weather to playing games and queueing up music.

“Amazon’s history of misleading parents, keeping children’s recordings indefinitely, and flouting parents’ deletion requests violated COPPA (the Child Online Privacy Protection Act) and sacrificed privacy for profits,” Samuel Levine, the FCT consumer protection chief, said in a statement. The 1998 law is designed to shield children from online harms.

FTC Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya said in a statement that “when parents asked Amazon to delete their kids’ Alexa voice data, the company did not delete all of it.”

The agency ordered the company to delete inactive child accounts as well as certain voice and geolocation data.

Amazon kept the kids’ data to refine its voice recognition algorithm, the artificial intelligence behind Alexa, which powers Echo and other smart speakers, Bedoya said. The FTC complaint sends a message to all tech companies who are “sprinting to do the same” amid fierce competition in developing AI datasets, he added.

“Nothing is more visceral to a parent than the sound of their child’s voice,” tweeted Bedoya, the father of two small children.

Amazon said last month that it has sold more than a half-billion Alexa-enabled devices globally and that use of the service increased 35% last year.

In the Ring case, the FTC says Amazon’s home security camera subsidiary let employees and contractors access consumers’ private videos and providing lax security practices that enabled hackers to take control of some accounts.

Amazon bought California-based Ring in 2018, and many of the violations alleged by the FTC predate the acquisition. Under the FTC’s order, Ring is required to pay $5.8 million that would be used for consumer refunds.

Amazon said it disagreed with the FTC’s claims on both Alexa and Ring and denied violating the law. But it said the settlements “put these matters behind us.”

“Our devices and services are built to protect customers’ privacy, and to provide customers with control over their experience,” the Seattle-based company said.

In addition to the fine in the Alexa case, the proposed order prohibits Amazon from using deleted geolocation and voice information to create or improve any data product. The order also requires Amazon to create a privacy program for its use of geolocation information.

The proposed orders must be approved by federal judges.

FTC commissioners had unanimously voted to file the charges against Amazon in both cases.


Mother sent to prison for failing to get medical help for 2-year-old daughter who died

PLYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — A Massachusetts woman has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and reckless endangerment in connection with the 2019 death of her 2-year-old daughter, prosecutors said.

Shaniqua Leonard was sentenced Wednesday to up to four years in prison. Prosecutors had sought up to 10 years behind bars for the Whitman woman.

Leonard was not charged with causing the child’s injuries, but prosecutors said the mother failed to seek medical attention for her obviously distressed daughter in a timely manner.

Her attorney previously said there was no evidence his client caused the girl’s injuries and said Leonard did not seek medical help sooner because she had six other children to care for.

After Wednesday’s hearing, attorney Michael Tumposky said that his client had sought help from the state Department of Children and Families.

“She’s someone who asked for help around the the care of her child many, many times from DCF and she didn’t receive the assistance that she needed,” he told WFXT-TV.

But Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz said that was shifting blame.

“At the end of the day this was about the conduct of Shaniqua Leonard, and her conduct led to the death of that poor little girl,” he said outside of court.

Emergency personnel responding to the family’s home on Dec. 28, 2019, found 2-year-old Lyric Farrell unresponsive, according to the Plymouth district attorney’s office. She was flown to Boston Children’s Hospital in critical condition, and died a few days later.

An autopsy determined that Lyric died from complications of a head injury.

Leonard told investigators that the girl had injured herself, hitting her head on the ground. But neurologists and other medical experts said the injuries were too severe for that to be the case, prosecutors said. One doctor said the injuries were consistent with a violent car crash.

In addition to her prison term, Leonard was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to get a mental health evaluation and take parenting and anger management classes.