A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced the former Rockbridge Regional Jail superintendent to more than four years in prison for taking bribes in exchange for special treatment for one inmate, and for failing to provide adequate care for two others who were in custody.
Judge Norman Moon had previously convicted John Marshall Higgins on charges that he denied medical treatment to inmates who had been beaten and tortured in his custody, and that he gave preferential treatment to a Washington and Lee University student serving time for vehicular manslaughter and maiming.
Moon, ruling via remote audio/video from U.S. District Court in Lynchburg, sentenced Higgins to 51 months on five felony charges, and 12 months on one misdemeanor in the case, with the sentences to run concurrently.
Higgins’ convictions, which Moon detailed in an opinion issued in January, followed a six-day bench trial in 2020. Moon found him guilty on three counts of deprivation of civil rights for denying medical care to an inmate and failing to protect two inmates from physical abuse, one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and two counts of mail fraud for accepting things of value in exchange for engaging in official acts.
On Tuesday, the judge heard testimony supporting Higgins from witnesses including Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge; Buena Vista Sheriff Randy Hamilton; and Fred Spence, retired security supervisor for the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Virginia. Each said the convictions didn’t change their feelings about Higgins, whom they had known for years.
Campbell said he didn’t believe Higgins would have allowed physical abuse to go on in the jail, despite the conviction.
“I don’t doubt the witnesses who testified in favor of Mr. Higgins today,” Moon said. “That’s their experience. The court didn’t know Mr. Higgins. The court heard evidence in the case. … If you were the right sort of person, an attractive young man from a prominent, wealthy family, you appealed to Mr. Higgins. That’s what he’s on trial for, and that’s what he’s being sentenced for.
“I’m sure they don’t believe that he would let that guy be beat up like he was. But that was the evidence before the court.”
Two men housed at the Rockbridge facility while awaiting trial were repeatedly abused in multiple ways that included severe beatings, the court found.
In one instance, Robert Eugene Clark was severely beaten and tortured for several days by others in custody, but once Higgins was aware of his injuries, Clark did not receive medical treatment for three more days. Clark’s cellmate, Matthew Kessinger, drew attention to his own abuse by threatening to commit suicide.
Among a multitude of injuries that Clark suffered were two black eyes, other facial bruises, a busted lip, and bruising both old and new to the arms and torso, including what appeared “to be one gigantic bruise” to the upper arms and back of the legs, Moon wrote in his opinion.
“This went on for months,” Moon said Tuesday. “The situation with Hansel went on for three years.”
Nicholas Perry Hansel, the former Washington and Lee student, was convicted in a drunken-driving crash that killed a 21-year-old passenger and left two others with serious injuries. Hansel pleaded guilty in January 2015 to aggravated involuntary manslaughter, two counts of DUI maiming and drunken driving.
In a plea agreement, Hansel received a three-year prison sentence. But Moon found that on Higgins’ orders, Hansel remained in the Rockbridge Regional Jail throughout his term, with Higgins bringing him yogurt and ice cream, and upgrading the jail’s cable package for Hansel.
Moon wrote in the January opinion that after some of Hansel’s family members donated at least $3,000 to a scholarship fund that Higgins set up, Hansel received special treatment at the jail. The judge ruled that Hansel’s relatives, beyond a reasonable doubt, made those donations in order for him to receive significant privileges. Hansel received immediate standing as a jail trusty, unsupervised visits, access to phones and computers, and trips to a nearby farm.
During his term, Hansel spoke at several area schools about the dangers of driving drunk.
“This is not just aberrant behavior,” Moon said in passing sentence. “It’s a man doing one thing for people he wants to think highly of him, and something else to someone he thinks lowly of. But his duty was to ... treat all prisoners fairly and not benefit from favors.”
Federal prosecutors put on testimony from Virginia Dickson, who was injured in the December 2013 crash that occurred as a fraternity party was ending. The parents of Kelsey Durkin, who was killed in the crash, testified as well.
Dickson, who lives in New York, was still a student at the university when she learned that Hansel remained at the jail in Lexington. She told the court that her injuries, which led to two major spinal surgeries, have left her in daily pain.
At first, she was confused and annoyed that he had not been sent to a penitentiary.
“I have since become much more angry in retrospect about what had happened ... because I learned that not only was he able to see his friends, but he essentially was sleeping at the jail and not much else,” Dickson said. “He seemed to be afforded luxuries that almost no one else was.”
She added: “To learn that he was not able to be held accountable by the state was really infuriating. It seems that he has had almost no discernible consequence.”
Durkin’s father, Jay Durkin, of New Canaan, Connecticut, said his understanding had been that Hansel “was going to go to the big house. ... It was hard time. It was not luxury time.”
He said he was disgusted when he learned what had actually happened.
“This kid killed my daughter, and he’s being treated like a special person at a prison? Give me a break,” Durkin said.
He and his wife, Laura Durkin, testified that they received an anonymous call from the jail from someone who said Hansel was receiving special treatment. They didn’t notify anyone about it at the time, for fear that the tipster would be discovered and hurt in jail.
Higgins was indicted in August 2018 under a federal statute that makes it illegal for someone to deprive another of their civil rights while acting under “color of law,” or in his duties as a public official in the justice system. Higgins, who had worked at the jail for more than 30 years, retired as its superintendent in 2017, after the investigation began. He represented the Buffalo District on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors from 2011 until 2019.
Moon, in the January opinion, acquitted Higgins of 16 other criminal counts related to accusations against him.
The jail’s former head nurse, Gary Andrew Hassler, was convicted in the same court in 2020 of filing a false medical report related to Clark’s treatment and received a jail sentence of 12 months and a day.
The sentencing guidelines called for Higgins to serve between 51 and 63 months in prison, Moon noted at the beginning of the hearing. His attorney, Grady Donaldson, argued for supervised probation only for his client, who recently had two stents inserted into his heart and is on multiple medications. His wife is due for knee replacement soon, and their daughter will graduate from high school in June.
Imprisonment will cost Higgins’ family his Social Security payments and COBRA medical benefits for his wife, Donaldson said.
“In every case where somebody is charged, the family is the secondary victim of their crime,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Lee argued.
Moon, noting that Higgins’ $4,000 monthly state pension will continue, ruled that Higgins may wait to report for his sentence until after his wife’s surgery and their daughter’s graduation.
As to Higgins’ medical issues, Moon said that he will be taken care of in prison.